Joe Slovo Park is a slum.
Mass unemployment. Drunkenness and drug addiction. Gangs. Teenage pregnancy. Tuberculosis. HIV/AIDS. Single room shacks that house five people. Illegal power connections. Lots of children without shoes. It’s a shantytown made up of whatever materials people can scrape together. It’s overcrowded and dirty. You have to know people to be safe.
In the middle of this place there is a high school made of used shipping containers and prefab buildings where students from the area come to study and learn. A class of students at the school has a simple request: they want free access to Wikipedia from their mobile phones so that they can do their homework. They started a campaign on Facebook for “Free Access to Wikipedia from Cellphones” and wrote an open letter to all the telecoms in the country:
Open letter to Cell C, MTN, Vodacom and 8ta
We are learners in a Grade 11 class at Sinenjongo High School, Joe Slovo Park, Milnerton, Cape Town. We recently heard that in some other African countries like Kenya and Uganda certain cell phone providers are offering their customers free access to Wikipedia.
We think this is a wonderful idea and would really like to encourage you also to make the same offer here in South Africa. It would be totally amazing to be able to access information on our cell phones which would be affordable to us.
Our school does not have a library at all so when we need to do research we have to walk a long way to the local library. When we get there we have to wait in a queue to use the one or two computers which have the internet. At school we do have 25 computers but we struggle to get to use them because they are mainly for the learners who do CAT (Computer Application Technology) as a subject. Going to an internet cafe is also not an easy option because you have to pay per half hour.
90% of us have cell phones but it is expensive for us to buy airtime so if we could get free access to Wikipedia it would make a huge difference to us.
Normally when we do research Wikipedia is one of the best sites for us to use and so we go straight to it. The information there is clear, updated and there is information on just about every topic.
Our education system needs help and having access to Wikipedia would make a very positive difference. Just think of the boost that it will give us as students and to the whole education system of South Africa.
— From Sinombongo, Sinako, Busisiwe, Ntswaki, Bomkazi, Lindokuhle, Ntsika, Patrick, Ndumiso, Sinazo, Bathandwa, Nokuthembela, Lutho, Mandlilakhe, Zingisile, Aviwe, Nezisa, Ncumisa, Nokubonga, Pheliwe, Zama, Unathi, Malixole and Ntombozuko.
The letter made headlines in the South African press, and my colleague Kul Wadhwa, who manages the Wikipedia Zero program at the Wikimedia Foundation, shared the news with me. I’m always looking for stories to tell about Wikipedia and this was the first grassroots effort (that I know of) that anyone made to get this kind of access to Wikipedia.
Three months ago, I didn’t know anything about this school and had never been to Africa. Being a Wikipedian at heart, I started a page for the school thinking that maybe the page might grow and help me with my research. I then got ahold of Pam Robertson (one of the teachers) at the school via the Facebook campaign page. I asked if I could ask her pupils a few questions (I later learned that the ‘learners,’ as they call themselves, were excited that someone in America even read their letter). I asked her pupils three things: Who are you? Where are you from? What does Wikipedia mean to you?
Here are a few quotes from emails they sent me:
…I attend school at Sinenjongo high school one of the public school in Cape Town. If I can draw you a picture of school, it can look as follows; my school is made of prefabs, it is surrounded by many shacks, there rubbish dump in front of our school, About 15 classes,1 science lab, 2 computer labs, very tiny garden, no playing fields. Nonetheless our school is one the schools that is obtaining good matric results, this shows that we have potentials. After school I want to have a job that i will earn good money so that I can provide for family and live my life to the fullest-not forgetting about giving back to my community. I want to be a role model. Wikipedia means the world. Wikipedia is up dated, it has valid information and it can link you to other websites. We also use it for our projects. If we can get wikipedia free our lives can be easy.
— Nezisa Mdludlu
I am a 17 year old boy staying with a single mother, sister and a brother not forgetting my cousin and her child. We stay in a small shack having no one working surviving with only R1100 supporting grant in each and every month…When I pass my grade 12 I want to do Bsc Degree in Geology and work here at South Africa. Wikipedia can be very useful to me in such a way that when I am doing my assignments and projects I just go to wikipedia and it provide every information I need. Every term my marks are improving because of the information that I get on Wikipedia.
…I would love studying something like Actuarial Science, Astronomy or Medicine. Big complicated numbers and the amazing theories of the birth and the current state of universe fascinate me a lot.
…my brother was shot in 2005… Wikipedia is one of the most sites I use to search for information for my career it help of use for project because the isn’t facilities at school and the local library is to far that’s why it’s much easier to use our phones for the internet. But it costs us a lot because we have to stay on the internet for hours and most of the airtime is used and sometimes we save our pocket money to buy airtime. So by having free internet on our phones is easy and saves time.
…In my community we don’t have places where we can express our careers…
…As much as we do not have adequate facilities at my school we are determined, proud pupils in the way we perform. The current matric results were rating 94% and we are one of the most improving schools in the Western Cape…
…I live with my mother and my three brothers; we stay in a one roomed house…
…Learning conditions are poor because we lack sources for over time studies like research, internet for finding new things that are being established now. I would like to be a surgeon, study medicine at university and help my family, provide the love for my mother that she is giving me right now…
…The minute i heard about Wikipedia zero by Mr Piet Strieker I became very interested and would be very happy to access it from my cellphone. Without Wikipedia my schoolwork and my assignments are worth no marks.
After about the second paragraph, I had tears running down my face. I read pages and pages of quotes like these, describing similar circumstances, each from a different point of view.
I did some more research and found that the principal of the school had made a TED presentation about how she had turned Sinenjongo High School around from a joke of a school that was going to be closed and made it one that gets a 98 percent graduation rate. She did this in 2 years. In the video she talked about how she made the school work:
True transparency and trust…I was open in every decision, every advice from anyone…it was easy for me to gain their trust… People believe in transparency and also people believe in honesty and openness….Everyone is going to be owning this school, it belongs to all of us, not only me.
— Malinga Nopote
After I saw the TED talk, I was inspired to make a documentary film about the class and their efforts. I sent a letter to the students, their teacher and the administration of the school, explaining what I hoped to do. Happily, they agreed to let me come to film.
I got in touch with Wikimedia South Africa about organizing a Q&A sesson about Wikipedia for the learners and found another filmmaker named Charlene Music (yes, her last name is Music) to help me to make the film. Oarabile Mudongo (an editor from Botswana who I had interviewed at Wikimania 2012 in Washington D.C.) heard of my effort and thought his story was similar to the students I was going to film and he asked if he could help. I enthusiastically agreed. We booked flights and bus trips to go to Cape Town and Johannesburg to shoot for two weeks. My basic plan was to let Sinenjongo High School and Joe Slovo Park tell us what they wanted to tell us. I wanted to see who the learners were, where they come from and what Wikipedia means to them. My greatest fear was that I wouldn’t be trusted and that no one would feel comfortable opening up to me on camera.
My fears were ungrounded.
The class was great. We talked to the learners, teachers, volunteer teachers, administrators, staff, parents, siblings and locals around Sinenjongo High and Joe Slovo Park. We also spoke with a few corporate heads and some graduates from the school, some of whom had gone on to university. The class showed us their township, their school and their homes. We also lent the class some cameras so that they could capture their own images and narrate their own story, without our interference.
We followed a few of the students over the weekend as they went to a university to study in special university-level classes designed for poor high schoolers who want to study and earn a bursary for a university-level education. One of the things you realize by walking around Joe Slovo Park is that cellphone stores and repair shops are everywhere. It’s obvious why the learners want to study using their phones — they all have one!
Wikimedia South Africa, Oarabile Mudongo and I taught the learners how to write Wikipedia articles (during their 1 hour of time per week at the computer lab at their school) and one of the learners corrected the article about Nelson Mandela on the (very small) IsiXhosa Wikipedia. (I forgot to mention that English is a second or third language for these learners – at home and in class they speak IsiXhosa.)
Charlene Music and I will be editing the documentary for the next few weeks and plan to release it into the Creative Commons with as much attention as we can.
Outside of this being used for fundraising at the Wikimedia Foundation, my purpose in making this movie is that if you are under 30 years old today, you probably know what Wikipedia means for education. But if you are over 30, you might not realize how important it is, because Wikipedia wasn’t around when you were in school. Wikipedia is a great place to start any research that you set out to do, whether you are in school or not.
The campaign from the class has received a bit of attention in South Africa, and I think it would be awesome if other schools in other parts of the world read this and decide to start their own campaign. I can’t think of a better example of what the Wikimedia Movement stands for than to share knowledge with determined people like class 12A at Sinenjongo High School.
Before the film comes out, if you want to help this class in their effort, there are a few things you can do:
- You can get in touch with them on their Facebook campaign page: https://www.facebook.com/FreeAccessToWikipedia
- If you work in telecommunications in South Africa or elsewhere in the world, let your colleages know about this campaign and if you are a decision maker at your telecom, please consider waiving data charges for for access to Wikipedia. The Wikipedia Zero team at the Wikimedia Foundation is available to help you roll out this program. Please contact Kul Wadhwa, Amit Kapoor or Dan Foy here.
- If you are a Wikipedian, you can help wikify the pages about Sinenjongo High School and Joe Slovo Park, and translate them to other language Wikipedias. I’m sure there are alot of other things you can do too that I’m not thinking about. Feel free to message me on my volunteer talk page about it.
- You can help spread the word about their campaign by translating this blog post into your language or sharing this post with others. Feel free to add the translation to the Wikimedia blog page on Meta wiki here.
- If you are a teacher, student, or school administrator, you can write your own letter of support for Sinenjongo High School, or if you think your school or community could use free access to Wikipedia on your cellphone, you could start a campaign of your own. I’d be happy to talk to you about it (you can reach me by email: firstname.lastname@example.org). Who knows — you might even make it into the movie.
Victor Grigas, Storyteller, Wikimedia Foundation