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Computers as a second language

Today, I was thinking about one of my favorite teachers.  Her name is Ms. Savoy, and she was my ESL (English as a Second Language) teacher when I was attending 2nd thru 4th grade in a small town in Western Massachusetts.  Having just immigrated to the United States, I only spoke and understood Chinese.  Ms. Savoy was a native English speaker and did not converse in Chinese.  She patiently taught me the alphabets and then slowly she incorporated vocabulary and grammar into her lessons.  I recall fondly that she was especially creative in how she conveyed vocabulary words – she sometimes acted out the words with a charades show, which often made me laugh, and encouraged me to also act out the words to make the learning stick. Her interest was to teach me English so that I would be self sufficient to further my education and adapt to my new life in America.


Lawrence, KEVEVAPI staff, learning use of computer.


I felt like I was channeling Ms. Savoy this morning when Lawrence, one of the lab technicians at the Kenya labs, sought my help in writing a SOP (Standard Operating Procedure) for specific vaccine production.  I knew that the labs did not have SOPs and that writing SOPs is a new initiative. I assumed that he needed me to describe to him the structure of a typical SOP and assist him in drafting the technical contents.  It turned out that Lawrence already drafted the SOP; he showed me five lined pages covered with the most meticulous handwriting.  He already had the contents down; instead, he was asking me how to use a computer to type up his SOP.  

Lawrence tells me humbly that he is “a small bit afraid of the computer.”  He has had little exposure to computers up to this point.  In fact, most of the lab technicians do not know how to use computers and there is one computer, on-site for only three months, which the twenty technical staff have shared use. 

I could have typed the SOP for him in under two hours, but instead I opted for the sustainable approach of teach and guide instead of typing it for him.


I am coaching Lawrence, KEVEVAPI staff, at using a computer to draft vaccine production standard operating procedure (SOP).


I felt that Lawrence’s SOP was meaningful to him and everything showed to him during creating his SOP into an electronic file will help learning the computer stick with him.  I showed Lawrence how to open a new Word file.  Then I showed him how to move the cursor, add spacing, delete and format text.  He diligently sat at the computer, cautiously pecking at the keyboard with two fingers, and practiced these things I taught him.  Several times he beckoned me shyly to demonstrate again how to do an action.  I told him, “Don’t be afraid of the computer and of learning new things.  Pole, pole (which means ‘slowly, slowly’ in Swahili) and you’ll see it will become easier with practice.”  At the end of the day, Lawrence was proud of his one typed page.  He says to me, “I am feeling not so much afraid of the computer with your help,” and asked permission to return tomorrow to continue the practice lessons.

I have a strong sense that I am living and understanding the expression “Pay it forward.”  Ms. Savoy taught me a new language (English) in America many years ago and today I am, in turn, helping Lawrence in Africa learn a new language (computers) so that he too can become self sufficient to further his technology education and his work in producing quality animal health vaccines.  I am looking forward to the day when Lawrence will be able to connect to me via email and tell me that he used the computer to type up reports, generated graphs of his test data in Excel, and present his work in Powerpoint.

 (Post Script: My NGO partner, GALVmed, acknowledged the Kenya lab staffs’ technology needs.  Through the VACNADA project, GALVmed will be funding for the purchase of six new computers and provide on-site basic computer training.)

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