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Soothsayers of Burkina Faso and the Illusion of Knowledge

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Guest post from former FAVL volunteer Brian Lance!

Burkinabè soothsayers crossed my mind the other day as I was listening to a podcast
about the illusion of knowledge
.  The host, David McCraney, and his guest, Christopher Chabris, discuss our tendency as humans to accept information regardless of our own level of
understanding, the legitimacy of the source, or the severity of the consequences when we use it to make a decision.

"They continue to claim insight into chaotic, impossibly complex nebulae of shifting data, and they continue to profess powers of divination even though research shows they are slightly less reliable than a coin toss."

This quote from the podcast summary refers to the experts on Wall Street that led us blindly into the current recession. While we obviously need to find new sources for financial insight, we continue to allow them on television because they speak with a confidence that invokes a convenient emotional substitute for our own lack of financial knowledge.

The same may be true of Burkinabè soothsayers. No one else in a remote village speaks confidently with spirits about the future. And their words are a nice substitute for fears of the unknown, such as the yield of a crop or the health of a newborn. And although they are surely incorrect from time to time, at least they're predictions are based on rituals such as
which side of a chicken lands facing the sky. That method is more likely to be correct about anything, no matter how complex, than the experts on Wall Street will be about tomorrow's stock market.

I wonder what a soothsayer would predict about the benefits of a few dozen e-readers versus a village library (not that we actually need to ask).
What should be the big debate in education circles for Africa is where to make the marginal $50 million investment... in e-readers for schoolchildren, or in community libraries. 

I would venture the numbers are something like this:

$50m gets you 500,000 Kindle equivalents, which maybe gets you 12 months of reading say, for 2 kids, until it burns out (my wife's lasted 18 months with lite usage in the ideal climate of San Jose!).  So 1 million kids read for a year. 

Alternatively, $50m gets you 2000 libraries with 4 years of library service for, say, 200 kids.  Assuming each library costs $15,000 to get started and then costs $2,500 per year for 4 years, so $25,000 per library.  So $50m gets you 2000x200= 400,000 kids read for 4 years or 1.6 million kid/years. 

So the two are pretty comparable.  Why is all the attention on distributing e-readers rather than extending the pathetically low numbers of community libraries (Burkina has at most 20 village libraries for maybe 5,000 villages that ought to have libraries.  Uganda has a 100 in Uganda Community Library Association, for a population that is almost double the population of Burkina.) 

Then we start thinking of intangibles.  E-readers generate demand for recharging and... nothing else.  I doubt there will be much of a market for repairing e-readers.  Libraries generate demand for... carpenters, authors, publishers, newspapers, librarians, summer reading camp counsellors, good governance, etc etc.  I'd love to see e-readers subject to a proper test... distribute $50m in Kindles, and spend $50m on an NGO (hmmm... FAVL?) library program.

Anyway, what prompted this is this blog entry from Berk Ozler at the World Bank.  Child laptops had very few effects in any case....

A few months ago, the first randomized evaluation of the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) came out as a working paper (you can find a brief summary by the authors here), after circulating in the seminar/conference circuit for a while. Many articles and blogs followed (see a good one here by Michael Trucano and find the short piece in the Economist and the responses it generated from OLPC in the comments section) because the study found no effects of OLPC in Peru on test scores in reading and math, no improvements in enrollment or attendance, no change in time spent on homework or motivation, but some improvements in cognitive ability as measured by Raven's Progressive Colored Matrices.
At the Australasian Development Economics Conference (ADEW) I attended last week at Monash University in Melbourne, another paper on a smaller pilot of the OLPC in Nepal presented similar findings: no effects on English or Math test scores for primary school children who were given XO laptops along with their teachers (This study has some problems: the schools in the control group are demonstrably different than the treated schools, so the author uses a difference in difference analysis to get impact estimates. There are worries about mean reversion [Abhijit Banerjee pointed this out during the Q&A] and some strange things happening with untreated grades in treatment schools seeing improvements in test scores, so the findings should be treated with caution). What I want to talk about is not so much the evidence, but the fact that the whole thing looks a mess - both from the viewpoint of the implementers (countries who paid for these laptops) and from that of the OLPC.
Elisée wrote:
Donkoui just sent us the last update of the solar lights impact on the students whom are preparing their primary school final examination in Bereba:

Le premier examen de l'école primaire CEP au BURKINA FASO a débuté le mardi 12
Juin 2012 sur toute l'étendue du territoire. Beaucoup sont les élèves du programme de recherche de FAVL ayant bénéficié des lampes solaires et candidats à ce dit examen.
Les élèves de l'école de KARABA ont composé dans le centre de HOUNDE. Ils sont
venus avec leurs lampes solaires pour s'en servir. Ils ont été logés dans une salle de l'école HOUNDE B sans lumière. Généralement dans ces cas de figure, les eleves apportent chacun sa lampe pour éclairer le logement et pouvoir réviser les dernières notions la nuit avant de dormir. Approchés, les élèves se sont exprimés sur l'utilité des lampes solaires qui se prolongent jusqu'à la phase de leur examen final du CEP .Je cite les propos d'un élève de KARABA : « les lampes que nous avons reçues l'an passé nous ont permis de pouvoir étudier la nuit et de passer en classe de CM2 et nos parents les utilisent souvent pour des activités à la maison. Aujourd'hui, nous les avons apportées ici pour l'examen du CEP parce que chaque année notre école est logée dans des salles de classe sans lumière. Nous avons vraiment la chance d'avoir eu les lampes. Nous souhaitons que nos petits frères en gagnent chaque année. »
Le maitre de la classe et la directrice de l'école qui ont travaillé dans le même centre
d'examen que moi ont dit que l'utilité des lampes n'est plus à démontrer car les enfants s'en servent sans frais. La motivation de certains enfants à apprendre est du à cela. Ils souhaitent que le donateur donne encore des lampes solaire à un maximum d'élèves possible.

Donkoui Koura
FAVL coordinator

Solar panel energy project in Burkina

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Elisee wrote:

I have just read an artcile about an inovative solar energy project in Burkina Faso. In fact, this  will be (to my knowledge) the biggest solar energy project ever realized in Burkina Faso. And, this will happen in Zagtouli (a village near Ouagadougou, which you pass through when you are going to visit FAVL libraries in the westside of the country). In Burkina Faso, we have sunny days nearly all year. However, even if solar panels are a good long term investment, this technology is still really inaccessible for people in general. In addition, the traditional electric energy supply is too expensive. Friends of African Village Libraries is one of the organizations who believe in the solar alternative as a solution to the energy issue in Africa, especially in rural areas. We try to communicate this message by supplying the village libraries with solar electricity. After Zagtouli, maybe it will be in another village where there is a real need.  It is very useful, especially for reading at night.

The letter below is from Pemou Lufo, member of the comité de gestion of the village library in Sara, which received a solar panel. The letter speaks for itself.

sara remerciement.JPG

Kindle for Christmas!

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I received Part 1 of my Christmas presents from my parents today. Alongside the requisite treats, Crystal Light packets, and chewing gum, there was a Kindle and two Amazon gift cards! I've never been technologically advanced. I carried a Walkman tape player well into middle school, didn't have an iPod until I left for Africa, and just recently acquired my first laptop. But when I went back to America, I noticed I was even more technologically behind than usual. Everyone had an iPhone and an iPad, and I was the only one who was carrying an actual book in the airports! It was kind of scary. My mom mentioned wanting to buy me a Kindle, which seemed like a realistic enough option now that I live in Ouaga, but I didn't think she'd actually buy one. But she did! I'm still unsure on how I feel about the Kindle, as I am a very big supporter of an actual book, but I've heard good things about them. I'm working on searching the Kindle store to find my first purchase, so I can cuddle up with my Kindle tonight and try it out. I let you know the verdict!

Electronic Books in Africa?

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Since the introduction of the electronic book, I have had a strong aversion to the idea. It's not that I'm against technology. I love technology. It allows me to have access to my family and friends via telephone and computer while I'm living in a less developed nation. It's wonderful. However, being born in the 80s makes me apart of this weird generation that has always known computers and cable television, but did not have a cell phone in middle/high school and grew up having the majority of my interactions with my friends be face-to-face rather than electronic. Thus, I do not understand the attraction of staring into a computer screen that masquerades as a book rather than cuddling up with a real one that physically allows me to turn pages and will never decharge on me. But since starting my new volunteer position at FAVL and seeing the need for a wider variety of books in Burkina, even in villages fortunate enough to have libraries.During our last round of library visits, there were students at each library requesting different books based on their school and class level. FAVL (or any organization for that matter) could not possibly physically provide all of those books in any library. And even if they could, it would only be one or two copies. Definitely not sufficient enough for an entire population of people. So what if there was a different way? What if kids in these villages had access to electronic books? What if they could just download all the required books for that school year? They could find the works of Nazi Boni, Suzy Nikiema, Plato, Norbert Zongo in just a few seconds instead of having to wait years. And the books would never get worn out from over use. While I know the technology and the variety of books is not yet available for these electronic devices for this to be a reality, but this question still intrigues me. Burkina skipped over the whole landline thing right into cell phones, saving a lot of valuable resources and money that might have otherwise been wasted. What if one day they can do the same with books? Just skip right over paper copies into electronic books? One organization, World Reader, has conducted an interesting pilot project exploring this very question. Maybe one day soon these electronic books will be available to our readers at FAVL libraries...

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Photo courtesy of

Ludditicic justificatory reduxified - Wykup kll to kndl rdrs

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Better Learning Through Handwriting ScienceDaily (Jan. 24, 2011) -- Writing by hand strengthens the learning process. When typing on a keyboard, this process may be impaired.

Associate professor Anne Mangen at the University of Stavanger's Reading Centre asks if something is lost in switching from book to computer screen, and from pen to keyboard. The process of reading and writing involves a number of senses, she explains. When writing by hand, our brain receives feedback from our motor actions, together with the sensation of touching a pencil and paper. These kinds of feedback is significantly different from those we receive when touching and typing on a keyboard.

Together with neurophysiologist Jean-Luc Velay at the University of Marseille, Anne Mangen has written an article published in the Advances in Haptics periodical. They have examined research which goes a long way in confirming the significance of these differences. An experiment carried out by Velay's research team in Marseille establishes that different parts of the brain are activated when we read letters we have learned by handwriting, from those activated when we recognise letters we have learned through typing on a keyboard. When writing by hand, the movements involved leave a motor memory in the sensorimotor part of the brain, which helps us recognise letters. This implies a connection between reading and writing, and suggests that the sensorimotor system plays a role in the process of visual recognition during reading, Mangen explains.

 Mangen refers to an experiment involving two groups of adults, in which the participants were assigned the task of having to learn to write in an unknown alphabet, consisting of approximately twenty letters. One group was taught to write by hand, while the other was using a keyboard. Three and six weeks into the experiment, the participants' recollection of these letters, as well as their rapidity in distinguishing right and reversed letters, were tested. Those who had learned the letters by handwriting came out best in all tests. Furthermore, fMRI brain scans indicated an activation of the Broca's area within this group. Among those who had learned by typing on keyboards, there was little or no activation of this area.


According to Mangen, perception and sensorimotor now play a more prominent role. "Our bodies are designed to interact with the world which surrounds us. We are living creatures, geared toward using physical objects -- be it a book, a keyboard or a pen -- to perform certain tasks," she says.

How do computers help reading in Africa? They don't.

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Seeing this photograph by Nyaba Leo Ouedraogo, a nominee for the prix Pictet, I could not resist the temptation for smugness.  I'm not anti-technology, really!  But sometimes the e-boosters give me e-fatigue in my i-brain.

Photographer's blurb (he is from Burkina Faso originally) and more pix are here:

Ouedraogo could have run the 400 meters, but a serious injury caused this former 32-year old athlete from Burkina Faso to turn to photography. Assistant to Paris photographer Jean-Paul Dekers, still-life photographer, fashion and industrial photographer. A travel enthusiast, he is now devoting himself to photographic journalism. His approach, as much photojournalism as it is documentary work, consists in "not showing images for what they depict, but for what they transmit."

Christmas Lights

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From this morning's New York Times: African Huts Off the Grid Glow With Renewable Power

"With the advent of cheap solar panels and high-efficiency LED lights, which can light a room with just 4 watts of power instead of 60, these small solar systems now deliver useful electricity at a price that even the poor can afford, he noted. "You're seeing herders in Inner Mongolia with solar cells on top of their yurts," Mr. Younger said."
With our iPod trumpeting Christmas music, the lights on our mini synthetic tree glowing brightly, and a couple of laptops charging to watch Love Actually later this morning, it's easy to forget that just a few months ago I had to bike into the local market to charge my cellphone at a solar shack once a week or bike 40km into Djibo to charge my laptop once a month in order to use it for a couple of hours to catch up on 30 Rock and It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia.  But last night as I travelled by bus down to Bobo-Dioulasso to celebrate with other Peace Corps Volunteers, I watched countless bonfires dance along the horizon, defining the distance between those who are on-the-grid here in Burkina and those whose villages have yet to be plugged in.

But big city or little village, solar panels are prevalent in Burkina Faso.  Even on the streets of Ouagadougou one sees them stacked for sale outside boutiques and in the Grand Marché.  And the Volunteer who worked in Belehede before me started a fundraising campaign to finance the purchase of solar panels for the local elementary school and a computer to keep better records of students' performance.  While I have not been back to visit due to lingering security issues in the Sahel, I've been told that the panels are in place and functioning well, even if the computer is unfortunately just gathering dust at the moment.

Here at FAVL, we're excited to see how we can incorporate solar technology into our libraries and programs in Burkina Faso.  We recently received a $5,000 grant to purchase LED lights and run a study evaluating the effects they induce in several communities.  Emilie and I will be designing and implementing a study early in the new year in an effort to gauge the utility of the lights at the village level.  We're hoping to observe results such as those that the Times reports taking place in Kenya:

"Since Ms. Ruto hooked up the system, her teenagers' grades have improved because they have light for studying. The toddlers no longer risk burns from the smoky kerosene lamp. And each month, she saves $15 in kerosene and battery costs -- and the $20 she used to spend on travel."
While it's hard to imagine the lights not making a positive impact on the communities, there is the slight fear that they await the same fate as the new computer in Belehede: relegation to a dusty corner, box unopened.  Or, that the children who are the intended beneficiaries of our project will have their lights appropriated by older family members or members of the community.  We'll be doing our best to make sure that the lights remain in the kids' hands and that they will be used to help bring about the forthcoming reading revolution that Michael blogged about a few days ago.

However, while we hope that everyone here in Burkina will eventually have access to affordable, renewable sources of light, there will always be those moments when it's still better to hit the switch.

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(Peace Corps Volunteers caroling in Bobo-Dioulasso)

Merry Christmas,

After reading Michael's blog entry below, I was curious to see if some studies have been done comparing e-books and printed books and their effects on children's reading skills.  I found two interesting ones.

One study from 2007 (1) compared the effects of children's individual reading of an educational electronic storybook on their emergent literacy with those of being read the same story in its printed version by an adult.  Children who read the e-book on their own without any adult help and those who are read the printed version of the book by adults scored  similarly.  This was true for children from different socio-economic status.  I think this is very interesting considering that the study was done before the advent of friendly electronic book readers, such as Kindle,  which provide an even better experience for young reader.

I found another very recent study from 2010 (2), comparing  three different groups of children, one group  independently reading an e-book, another reading an e-book with adult instruction, and a third one reading the printed book with adult instruction.  The results were different, with the group reading an e-book with adult instruction making the most progress.  The children were from a low income socio economic background, but of course they were not from developing countries.  Their familiarity with computers might explain the results and it is hard to know if the results would be the same with children from developing countries who have not been exposed to computers. 

(1) O. Korat & A. Shamir, Electronic books versus adult readers: effects on children's emergent literacy as a function of social class, Journal of Computer Assisted Learning, Jun2007, Vol. 23 Issue 3, p248-259, 12p,

 (2) Segal-Drori, O., et. al., Reading electronic and printed books with and without adult instruction: effects on emergent reading. Reading and Writing v. 23 no. 8 (September 2010) p. 913-30

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Books, reading, and libraries relevant to Africa by Michael Kevane, co-Director of FAVL and economist at Santa Clara University.

Other contributors include Kate Parry, FAVL-East Africa director, Peace Corps volunteer Emilie Crofton, Krystle Austin, Elisee Sare, and Monique Nadembega.

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