June 13, 2001

Group to train Eritrean teachers

By T.T. Nhu

The head of a teacher's college in Eritrea, a grizzled veteran of that country's 30-year war with Ethiopia, was in no mood to receive visitors when Fremont resident Joyce Blueford called on him to discuss starting the country's first Internet program in local schools.

Mebtohtie Gilogabir, the director of the Teacher's Institute, looked at Joyce Blueford skeptically and said placing the state-of-the-art computers in the Eritrean classrooms wouldn't do any good unless the teachers knew how to use them, Blueford said, recounting her visit.

Blueford replied it was her job to teach them how.

But Gilogabir's dour demeanor softened when Blueford explained that the project was linked to Silicon Valley tech mogul Craig Johnson, who'd been in the Peace Corps. Gilogabir broke into a smile.

He, like many teachers in the tiny country, had been taught English by Peace Corps volunteers. ``Talking about the Peace Corps broke the ice,'' said Blueford, who last week returned from a two-week trip to Eritrea. ``He was all smiles. Lots of people in power love the Peace Corps and this was our link.''

Blueford was sent to Eritrea by NetAfrica, a non-profit company Johnson founded to develop Internet services so that Eritrea, derailed by years of war, could get back on track and join the rest of the world online.

While the original plan called for an Eritrean to come to the United States to receive training on computers and the Internet, now Blueford and her associates will return to Eritrea to train teachers there.

David Lundeen of Math Science Nucleus will go to Eritrea in August to set up the network and to load software. In September, Blueford will go to the capital city of Asmara to train 31 future trainers who will in turn educate 600 teachers over the next year.

Blueford's recent visit to Eritrea came as the nation -- the second-poorest in the world -- celebrated its independence day, the end of the 30-year war between Eritrea and Ethiopia. When she arrived in Asmara, thousands of people were circle-dancing in the streets.

She had never seen anything like the weeklong festivities.

``There were circles of teenagers, sub-circles of little kids, all dancing endlessly,'' Blueford said.

Two days later, she called on Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki at his official residence. It was Sunday, and the president was relaxing, dressed in shorts and sandals. He was dazzled by Blueford's QUBE computer, which uses a touch screen instead of a mouse.

Having spent years in the bush fighting, Afwerki hadn't been near a computer, but he was a quick study. ``He's a sharpie,'' Blueford said. ``He's trying to unite nine different tribes through education and he said in a speech on independence day that science education is the way.''

Eritrea was badly damaged after its war with Ethiopia. After the most recent border conflict two years ago, the country lost half its teachers when those who were Ethiopian were pulled out.

Now teachers at primary schools are very young. Most are 19 years old, just one year out of high school themselves. They teach 60 students at a time with almost no materials, Blueford reported.

Teclu Tesfazghi, an Eritrean-born Silicon Valley computer consultant who coordinated Blueford's trip, is so excited by the possibilities that he plans to move back to his native country to work on the project.

While the war was dragging on, some Eritreans living in the United States said they would return home when hostilities ceased. The fighting ended earlier this year.

Blueford said that she met Bay Area Eritreans visiting their homeland for the summer. ``Many people haven't been back for 10 years, so there were lots of families with small children they wanted to introduce to their country again,'' she said.

``This country can make it. The will is there,'' Blueford said.

Contact T.T. Nhu at tnhu@sjmercury.com or (510) 790-7317.