iSTEP Tanzania

Today is the official last day of the iSTEP internship. While the team in Tanzania won’t be hitting home soil until Tuesday, our formal involvement in the projects ends when we pack it up today.

It’s been a fun 10 weeks, a hard 10 weeks, an exhausting 10 weeks, but it certainly hasn’t felt like 10 weeks. The iSTEP team has braved monkeys, lions, snakes, mosquitoes, tornadoes, and hair cuts. We surprised no one more than ourselves in the progress we were able to make across the three projects. We’ve learned more than we thought possible and made countless memories.

One might think I probably had the boring job in the team being home in Pittsburgh but I had my share of excitement. I’ve worked myself to exhaustion on more than a couple days and I’m proud of the work the team has done and hope to continue my own work in ICTD in the future. The ever-changing day to day conditions, the wealth of viewpoints, and the projects I got to work on more than kept me interested. I hope the things we’ve started this summer continue to develop and make a difference in the lives of Tanzania.

And so it is without any eager that I leave my humble desk that was home to me over the summer. I would say that I don’t know how I will manage to keep myself busy but then I remember classes start at Carnegie Mellon in a matter of weeks. But then, homework just won’t be the same.



Everybody on the team is quickly getting short on sleep. I have found myself working in the AM on more than one occasion and I have caught a couple of the team in Tanzania in what should be early morning time as well. There’s only one week left and everyone is clearly feeling it.

So what’s left to accomplish? We’ve discussed on the blog a lot of work that’s been done and I hope by now you’ve got a good impression on the three projects. A lot of the late nights have involved putting in as much extra functionality as possible so that when we leave it’ll be in a state such that people on the ground will be able to utilize the technology that we’ve been developing for some time. While we’ve spent a lot of time developing recently, slowly we’re starting to shift into a more presentation oriented outlook. Everybody is discussing and developing reports and slides so that we can present to the UCC and students back home in order to show off the work we did and how it’s useful. It’s a nice time to reflect on where we’ve been.

In developing my portions I was able to go back and look at the first reports we did before the team left. It was interesting to revisit the places where we started. Granted a lot of that information continued to be relevant throughout the duration of the project but looking back and remembering some of the research we did, attempting to find relevant work from which we could draw inspiration. CMU HealthLine, Project LISTEN, Project Kané, and countless others. From all of these projects we were able to draw inspiration and learn something new. It’s unlikely we’ll make as much of an impact as things such as Project LISTEN which for over a decade has been improving the way children learn to read, but we hope that when we leave we’ll be able to tell our experiences such that other people will be able to benefit as much as we have benefited from those before us.

Mambo Kaka (s) and Dada(s),

Last Wednesday, Bea and I went to Mlimani Primary School to sit in on some of the English classes that were taught by the 3 teachers that we interviewed during the initial needs assessment process. When we arrived around 9:20am, we joined Mr. Jehudi (a Standard 5 teacher) in his classroom. When we entered the classroom all the students stood up and said, “Good foundation, Good morning madam, how are you today?”. We were received with this same greeting in every class that we visited.

Mr. Jehudi was just getting started with the lesson, and we noticed that almost half of the students in the class stood up and ran out of the classroom. Mr. Jehudi told us that they were going to go and borrow books from their peers, because there is a shortage of books. After all the students returned and were situated Mr. Jehudi started the lesson, Unit 7 Sports Day. He instructed the students in English, but sometimes he spoke Swahili to elaborate and explain certain words.

I looked around the classroom and saw about 5-6 students, per bench, sharing one English workbook. Mr. Jehudi started the lesson by reading a story from Unit 7 in the book. He then asked for volunteers to role play different characters in the story. The students were very anxious to play the roles of: the sportsmaster, Mr. Mburugu, and Mrs. Wetio. Based on the names of the characters in the story, I am guessing that the book was in a Swahili context.

The first group of students that read were very articulate. It was shocking to see some of them reading better than their teacher. The oral exercise was intended to give the students an opportunity to practice their speaking skills. Mr. Jehudi stopped several times to highlight some grammar errors that the students were making. He emphasized the commas, periods, and question marks. The first group of students read their parts of the story with no problem. The other groups stumbled on words, and Mr. Jehudi stopped several times to make sure the class understood how to pronounce certain words. The students that participated were clearly very sharp and eager to learn. There were so many students in the class and with no teaching aids or books for the entire class we saw how difficult it would be to teach them all.

 After the role playing, Mr. Jehudi asked the students to answer some questions from Unit 7 in the workbook. He asked the students the first few questions out loud, and the same students responded. Some students heard others saying the answers to some of the questions and so they raised their hands to answer the question. After a few examples, the instructional portion of the class was over and the students were asked to answer the remaining questions on their own and then Mr. Jehudi would mark their answers. Overall, the students in Mr. Jehudi’s Standard 5 English class seemed engaged and excited to learn English.

After Mr. Jehudi’s class, we went to Mr. Chuo Standard 4A English class. The students welcomed us with the same really cute greeting, “Good Foundation, Good morning…”. The students in this class also had to borrow books from their peers. We saw about 20 students rush into the class to borrow books from the Standard 4A class. There was a scarcity of books in this class as well. I shared a book with three other girls.

The lesson for the day was a review of a unit called “Future Events”. Apparently they started learning this unit in the previous class. Mr. Chuo followed the book, similar to the way Mr. Jehudi did. He drew the same table of words that was in the book, and then called on the students to formulate sentences, using will/shall, for future events. (ie: we shall eat fish. Joan will eat fish.) Mr. Chuo spoke in English most of the time, but would say some sentences in Swahili. The students were very eager to answer the questions; almost every student wanted to answer a question. The unit seemed to be an easy one, but some of the students that answered the questions did not do so correctly. Mr. Chuo was not very supportive when the students didn’t give the correct answer, instead he encouraged students with the right answer to raise their hands. After the students completed all the sentences, Mr. Chuo told us that the lesson was over, and the students would do the exercises in the workbook on their own.

The last class that we attended was Mama Merina’s Standard 3 English class. The topic for the day’s lesson was adjectives. Mama Merina told us before the class that the topic was very easy and she was confident that the students would pick it up immediately. She even showed us the teacher’s guide and asked us if we wanted to teach the students. We politely declined and allowed her to proceed with the lesson. Similar to Mr. Jehudi and Mr. Chuo, Mama Merina used the book as her guide for teaching. She spoke very little Swahili during the class. She made sure she communicated to the students in English. When she started the lesson, she asked the students if they knew what an adjective was, and she asked for one of them to define the meaning of an adjective. No one raised their hands. Then she asked for the students to give her an example of an adjective and then a student raised his hand and said black, and then several other students proceeded to mention different colors. The exercise in the book showed several drawings of young students. Again this was a culturally sensitive book. The students could relate to the characters that were illustrated in the book.

 Mama Merina asked the students to describe the different pairs of boys and girls on the page. (ie: The boy is tall. The girl is short) After every example, she would select students in the class to be an example of adjective. One of the adjectives pairs was tall and short. Mama Merina asked a tall boy and a short girl to come in front of the class as a visual display of the adjectives. After the exercise, the students were asked to copy down sentences that Mama Merina had written on the board. Then, Mama Merina asked Bea and I to help her mark the students work. It was nice to be able to help her and to also have the opportunity to interact with the students. We tried to give them positive reinforcement and make eye contact with them as they came up to us. We said Good job or great work, and I even drew smiley faces on their papers regardless of how many sentences they wrote correctly. Even when the students were copying sentences that were written on the board, it was evident that some students really didn’t know what was going on because they tried to copy the sentences but misspelled several words or made other smaller mistakes. When we were marking, we also noticed that all the students had been spelling the word rabbit with one b instead of two b(s) and that was because Mama Merina had misspelled the word on the board, so we called her attention to it immediately and made sure that the students knew the right spelling.

Last Wednesday was a great day at Mlimani. The school is really starting to warm up to us even more and accept them as part of their community, because they are starting to see that we really care about the success of the students. Its difficult to see the students sharing books and learning with limited materials, but they thrist for knowledge and will definitely benefit from an English literacy game. A quick side note, I walked by Mr. Chuo’s class, and most of the students remembered Yipee!! It was great! The teachers enjoyed the demo that we presented to them last Friday, and we received lots of helpful feedback from them.



Almost everybody has gotten to the point where their projects are demo-ready. Hatem performed the literacy tools demo today showing off the basic soccer game, Dan did a demo for the social worker application a couple days ago and Brad will be testing our new method of mode-switching on the Braille Tutor in the coming week. The program is nearing its final weeks. We’re far from done but at least everything has taken shape.

A big part of my week has been spent on graphic design for the literacy tools game. Just as a preface, I’m not a graphics person. There have been many things I’ve had to learn on the fly for this program but few have put me more outside of my comfort zone than this project as I am far from an artist.

Suffice it to say I have read just about every isometric pixel art tutorial on the internet. Pixel art has been gaining a following, you may have seen examples of it if you play Habbo Hotel or have visited It utilizes the fact that digital graphics are displayed as a collection of small colored squares to make up a large object. When you consider isometric pixel art specifically you consider pixel art when shown at an angle to further illustrate the illusion of depth which when mastered can create stuff like this. However given my week of practice I am not quite at that level yet.

The idea we’re working on for the literacy tools game takes advantage of the immense popularity of soccer – or football – to encourage students to practice their reading abilities. In so doing we have the player in a penalty kick scenario facing off against a goal keeper. The player is asked a question and chooses from a collection of prompts. If the player chooses correctly, they score a goal. An incorrect choice and the ball is either caught or flies wide of the goal.

With that altogether, a large part of my week produced this:


It’s not the prettiest but hopefully it’ll get the job done. If you are a pixel artist and have any tips or know someplace where we can get some, please help us out and leave a comment!

So, this week I’ve been working on scheduling a bunch of different visits to observe the work our community partners do on a typical day, and several meetings to demo initial prototypes of the technology to them. Observations were very helpful to us in understanding the extent of the problems they face day-to-day. Interviews help us gain some insight, but seeing things first hand gave us a better perspective. Also, the two demos we’ve given so far went very well and our partners seem excited about the work.

Anyway, back to the subject of this blog entry…

So, while attempting to schedule one of these visits, I encountered a pretty interesting cultural miscommunication. One of the teachers whose class we wanted to sit in on sent me a text message (SMS) saying her class was at 2:40. Of course, I took this to mean 2:40pm. Since this was only one of many visits I was scheduling, it did not occur to me until the day of our visit that that time could not be correct since schools are only in session until 2:00pm everyday. By the time I realized this it was already 8:30am or so, and shortly after my realization the teacher called me to ask if I was going to be there that day. When I asked her to clarify the time she said “Oh, I am in the class right now!” Turns out that when she said 2:40, she meant class was at 8:40am – i.e. six hours past the time she told me. This was really puzzling to me, but apparently there is a separate “Swahili” time and “English” time. While I and most of the world functions on “English” time, in some Swahili speaking nations they consider 1:00am to be one hour after the sun rises, which would correspond to what most people consider 7:00am, and 1:00pm to be one hour after the sun sets, which would correspond to what most people consider 7:00pm ( So, the time they provide you might be six hours off, as was the case with the teacher I communicated with. Now that I know this, I try to clarify whether they mean “Swahili time” or “English time” time when I try to schedule meetings so that I won’t be six hours late or early!

Hi everyone! This is the first time TechBridgeWorld (TBW) is writing on the iSTEP Tanzania blog :). TBW is a research group at Carnegie Mellon University that innovates and implements technology solutions to address sustainable development needs in developing communities around the world. My name is Ermine and I’m a Project Assistant for TBW and iSTEP is our new summer internship program for Carnegie Mellon students.

It’s been a wonderful experience for TBW so far to watch the iSTEP internship develop from an idea into a highly qualified team of Carnegie Mellon students and alumni, distributed among three continents around the globe, working on three technology research projects specifically designed to benefit communities in Tanzania.

Our iSTEP 2009 interns are currently in their 8th week of the 10-week internship. The interns have done a great job of sharing their project updates and experiences! I’d just like to give you a birds-eye update of the status of the internship and its projects:

  1. Needs assessment for all three projects are complete and technical development for all three projects is well underway.
  2. The ground team in Tanzania has met with University of Dar es Salaam students who are interested in working with the team on the three iSTEP 2009 research projects. Four students will work with Dan on the social worker application project. Two students will work with Hatem on the literacy tools project. And three students will work with Brad on the Braille Tutor project.
  3. The three Tech Leads ( Dan, Hatem, and Brad) plan to demo solutions by the end of this week or early next week to Mlimani and Uhuru primary schools, Institute for Social Work, and Department of Social Welfare.
  4. The two Tech Floaters (Anthony and Shakir) are helping the Tech Leads with the finishing touches on demos and other technical solutions that are almost at demo stage.
  5. Bea, our ground team leader and monitoring and evaluation coordinator, has begun evaluating the iSTEP internship. She is also in the process of scheduling numerous meetings with the partners/communities to demo project solutions, observe classes, and possibly visit a para social worker on site!
  6. Timi, our needs assessment coordinator, is working with Eric and the University Computing Centre to expand her list of organizations that may be able assist the three partners/communities on issues beyond what the iSTEP internship and TechBridgeWorld research group can address.

With the end of the internship fast approaching, we are beginning to think of the sustainability of all three projects in Tanzania. Stay tuned for more updates on the status of the projects and the interns’ experiences!


My friend and I (on the right, with a silly face) showing our support for iSTEP!


Posted on: July 15, 2009

Last weekend the iSTEP team (plus a couple friends of ours from the hostel) took a trip to Mikumi National Park. Mikumi is about 200km west of Dar, so the drive probably should have taken about two and a half hours. We set out on Saturday morning, around 8:00AM, and although traffic added some time to our journey, our drivers’ liberal use of the accelerator took that time back off. We only stopped for breakfast, gas, and to discuss traffic laws with a local police officer.

Even before we got to the motel where we were staying, we saw baboons and giraffes. I had, until that point, never seen a wild giraffe before, so I already thought this was really cool. Little did I know what I was in for. Following lunch and a much needed nap, we left for our first game drive. The first day we saw Thompson’s gazelle and impala, wildebeest, giraffes, zebras and even elephants. It was kind of surreal looking out of our Land Rover and seeing a bunch of giraffes, or a family of elephants casually wandering through the savannah. It’s a totally different experience from seeing those same animals in the zoo.

A zebra and some gazelle - this was a fairly common sight on our safari.

A zebra and some gazelle - this was a fairly common sight on our safari.

After sundown we returned to our motel. I would describe genesis motel as a passably nice place. The food was good, but not stellar. The beds were clean, although a little short for my lanky frame. The showers had hot water, but almost no water pressure. To us, though, it was heaven. I hadn’t had a hot shower in seven weeks, and the one I took at Genesis Motel, low water pressure and all, was one of the best showers I’ve ever taken.

At dinner we got to know our guides, Kathleen and Innocent on a friendlier, less professional basis. They were both very nice and fun to be around. They also had some (hilarious) comments that I can’t reproduce here, since we’re trying for a PG rating on this blog.

Early the next morning – and by early I mean really early, like 5:30AM – we left for our second game drive. En route to the hippo pond we got a real treat: simba. Not only did we see lions, but two of them even walked right in front of vehicle, maybe ten feet away. And there were cubs too. Lion sightings are not rare by any means, but they’re definitely not a given, and we were extremely lucky to get one as good as we did. The rest of the day we had a few other good views: the hippo pond, a bull elephant who decided he didn’t really like us and lots more gazelle, giraffes and zebras, but nothing could compare to the lion sighting.

Two simba.  I cannot accurately describe Hatem's reaction to this sight, but let's just say he was kind of excited.

Two simba. I cannot accurately describe Hatem's reaction to this sight, but let's just say he was kind of excited.

A bull elephant we got up close and personal with.  Apparently they flare their ears out like that when they're mad.

A bull elephant we got up close and personal with. Apparently they flare their ears out like that when they're mad.

Following our morning game drive we took a brief trip to the Genesis Motel’s attached snake park. In addition to a wide selection of snakes, they had some tortoises, a few crocodiles and a small guinea pig farm, presumably for feeding the snakes. I’ve owned three guinea pigs in my life, and it kind of broke my heart to see them as future snake food, but the snakes need to eat to live, and so it goes. The snake park operator took it upon himself to repeatedly poke the largest crocodile with a broom, which he would furiously snap at, for our viewing pleasure. I felt bad for the poor crocodile being bothered by the broom it could never quite get, but it was amazing to see (and hear) its powerful jaws working.

iSTEP and friends.  From left to right: Laura, Timi, Bea, Brad, Kate, Hatem, Me (Dan) and some guy we don't know.  Notice the hippos in the background.

iSTEP and friends. From left to right: Laura, Timi, Bea, Brad, Kate, Hatem, Me (Dan) and some guy we don't know. Notice the hippos in the background.

After the snake park we headed home, stopping in all the same places as we had on the way there, even talking with the same traffic officer. By the time we worked our way through Dar traffic (which is brutal), and found our way home, everyone was tired and in need of a shower, but we all agreed that the trip had been awesome.

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