“Cisco TelePresence. Bringing people and countries a little closer together. That’s the human network effect.” A company mantra is good when it can be memorized outside the company, and even better when it is also embraced by its employees. This is clearly the case of 22-year old Marie Gassée, who joined Cisco in August 2008 as a Project Specialist in Small Business Solutions Marketing, two months after she graduated in Business Economics (with a minor in Global Studies) from UCLA. In April of this year, she spent seven days in Sierra Leone: “When you join a large company right after your undergrad years, you feel somewhat lost at first, but pretty quickly you realize that you can be part of its internal human network. One day, I saw an email from one of the Cisco groups mentioning that World Possible (http://www.worldpossible.org) was looking for volunteers to go to Sierra Leone. Word Possible is not officially associated with Cisco, but was created by four Cisco employees, Neil Radia, Megha Jain, Norberto Mujica and Pranav Rastogi. Their mission is to improve education and development in poor countries, and in order to deliver on their goal, they have built alliances with various companies. Cisco is one of them. I had heard of their successful mission in Ethiopia. So I signed up for this one”
Why Africa? I have always wanted to go Africa, on the one hand. I have always wanted to participate in a non-profit mission, on the other. So I saw this email, and my decision was made almost instantly.
How do you prepare for such a mission? There are several aspects.
First, I updated my knowledge about Sierra Leone. It’s one thing to know about the Sierra Leone’s civil war in the 1990’s; it’s another to get some understanding of where the country is at in 2009. So, I read as much as I could to get a feel of the country I was going to visit. Needless to say that no matter how much you prepare beforehand, you find out that you know nothing the minute you arrive. So I would say that you have to research as much as you can, while making sure to be ready to discover ten times more when you actually are in the country.
Second, you want to build support for the idea. I presented the project to my boss. He liked the idea. The truth of the matter is that Cisco truly cares about humanitarian non-profit initiatives. I involved my boyfriend, Jeremy Schwartz, who is a financial analyst at Wells Fargo in Los Angeles as he is also interested in travel and humanitarian work. Then we had to find people to donate six computers. We got our respective parents to give us miles from their mileage programs to pay for the trip.
Third, we had to be ready for our mission. We had to deliver these computers to an orphanage and train the children on how to use them. We also had a Rachel server loaded with information ranging from Wikipedia to MIT OpenCourseWare, which is a free publication of MIT undergraduate and graduate courses taught at MIT. Word Possible gave us all the guidelines to set up and deploy that Rachel Server. We had to do this because we were going to an area with no Internet. We also checked that all the computers, both Macs and PCs were working well, and were loaded with all the relevant free programs. When you are to spend seven days with kids in an orphanage, you can’t improvise and find out at the last minute that something is missing. Careful planning is key to success.
Did everything work as planned? Not quite. The trip leader who was supposed to assist us fell very ill and had to fly back to the US and the additional people who were supposed to join us could not come. We realized that there would only be the two of us to do the job. We felt somewhat awkward when we arrived, but we were able to take the boat from the airport to the location where the head of the orphanage was waiting for us. Also, my personal luggage was lost. I assumed it was stolen, yet I just recently got it back (almost a month after my trip). So from the start, I knew that I would have to wear the same clothes for the whole stay. None of these incidents, though, affected me. In a sense, the mission I had what the only thing that really mattered to me, and no mishap could get in the way. And everything went well and this was a fantastic experience.
Navigate inside and through this zoomorama (you can zoom-in/out the pictures as well as see them in full screen).
So what did you do? We arrived at the DOVE orphanage (http://www.internationaldove.com), founded by an extraordinary Canadian woman, Judy Nelson. She has lived in Sierra Leone for 20 years. At first, she was a missionary, and about 10 years ago she created DOVE to take care of children who had lost their parents during the war. Most of them are from the Freetown area, but a few are from Kabala, the largest town in the Northern part of Sierra Leone. Now these children are actually teens and young adults. The youngest is a 10-year old girl and the oldest are 19 or 20. There are fifteen girls and five boys. Judy has one person to help, but she manages most everything herself. She takes care of the children’s education, their health and well-being, and their security. As if they were her own children. She sends the girls who want to be nurses to the nursing school and two of the boys will hopefully join the British Army. Basically, she helps them build their future. She needed us for a reason: she is trying to obtain the donation of a Cyber classroom, but the requirement is computer literacy. So our mission was to train the orphanage as efficiently as possible. Although not all of them were equally interested in computers per se – and sad to say, but the boys seemed more interested than the girls, they all worked seriously and they all realized that learning how to use a computer was a skill that would make a difference in their lives. The youngest were the fastest to get it, especially the 10-year old girl. The first day was harder for her, but by the second day she had understood how a computer works and she wanted to know more. One of the boys, Samuel, who is 19, had already had a few classes in town but had not been able to continue because this was way too expensive. For him, these seven days were invaluable. We taught him everything we could, first because he wanted to know everything, and second, because it was key to the success of our mission to train a trainer there. Incidentally, we took him to town and went with him to an Internet Cafe. We showed him things like Google, Wikipidia, Facebook, and although they only had low-speed Internet, he was literally dazzled. We had never realized that we could bring so much joy to somebody who is just a few years younger than we are. It was incredible. So rewarding. His dream is to go to the University in the United States one day. I don’t know if he will ever be able to afford this, but I know he is the intellect to do that.
What is your takeaway from this trip? Sierra Leone is about 7,000 miles away from San Francisco. It’s very far, because it is a very poor country. At first when we arrived, we wondered if it was relevant to bring computers and if food and medicine would not be more appropriate. The reality is that they have some subsistence agriculture that enables them to get by. It’s not great, far from it, but people do not seem to be starving. And yes, as they were using computers, they knew that computer literacy would help them get better jobs. And as they were learning and despite the fact that we live worlds apart, we felt that we were helping overcome a divide, bridge a gap that is possible to bridge. In reality, when you see people so happy to learn, you can’t help reflect on everything you take for granted. For example seeing Samuel’s eagerness to study, and his dream to go a US University one day, makes you wonder how we can possibly drag our feet to attend any class. After seven days only in Sierra Leone, you know very little about the country and you still travel through the villages, looking around, speechless, because you don’t have the words to describe a whole different way of life, and a completely different environment, but you know that people are people, just like you. You can even relate to the teenage girls at the orphanage, who know their luck to be taken care of by such a wonderful woman, and yet can behave like American teenagers at times! In the end, it’s worth to give one week or so of your live to help others. You feel their gratefulness every day. But you are also very grateful to them for helping you to reflect on yourself and expand the meaning of your own life.
About World Possible: http://www.worldpossible.org
About International DOVE: http://www.internationaldove.com
MIT OpenCourseWare: http://ocw.mit.edu/OcwWeb/web/home/home/index.htm