6 March 2006

Cameroon: Training Grassroots in Computer Skills

Addressing Africa's digital divide has become a huge responsibility for African governments in the present globalisation drive. In this vein, information and communications technology, ICT, is now considered a key weapon in the war against poverty gnawing away at the continent.

In the Northwest Province of Cameroon, Paul's Computer Institute, PCI, started in 1997 with three teachers and 30 students, has scored considerable success in training men and women in computer skills.

The brain behind Paul's Computer Institute is a retired Wisconsin fire fighter, Paul Mickleson.Dreaming to bring computer literacy to an impoverished country by creating a computer training centre, Mickleson looked around and not seeing any money in sight, with a fire fighting spirit, he sold his house, topped it up with his retirement benefit and life-savings and flew to Bamenda.

The Paul's Computer Institute has recorded tremendous success in its eight years of existence, but not without incredible support from Paul's hometown and other sources.

Boasting of more than a dozen staff, and graduating more than 400 students a year, the Institute receives gifts in the form of computers and books from business people and residents in his hometown.

Once, the Rotary Club of Beloit and the Friends of Paul's Computer Institute collected more than 400 computers, thousands of books and office equipment to be shipped to Cameroon. The gifts arrived and were put to good use.

50,000 US dollars accompanied these gifts for tuition reimbursements and equipment that would be purchased in Cameroon.Rotary International, an organisation that provides humanitarian service and help to build goodwill and peace, with branches in 163 countries, has never stopped extending a helping hand to Paul's Computer Institute.

It offers at least 10 scholarships a year to the Institute.Delphine Fonja, one of the beneficiaries of the Rotary International scholarships, speaks joyfully of her luck.

"It was a friend of mine who encouraged me to fill the scholarship forms. I did it and bang! I landed it." She is pursuing the 15-month hardware course.

The Institute's success is discernible not only in the jobs that its graduates find easily, but also the new life for the students and their families. Most of the employees of the Institute are actually alumni of the educational centre.

"Almost the entire staff of PCI have passed through PCI. We hire the best of the class," said Mickleson in a phone chat. Mrs. Fonglory Firih studied Microsoft at the Institute. She has put in seven and a half years at the Institute and is now the Financial Officer/ Administrator. Talking to her over the phone she sounded elated.

"I enjoy my work a great deal - I advise the staff, and handle recruitment. I am also the cashier and I take care of the bank account."Edwin Asobo, the Dean of Studies, also passed through the Institute's processing unit. Loveline Chidimma has just graduated from the hardware class and is brushing up at Canal Communications in Bamenda.

Several current students The Post talked to on phone were in the affirmative that Paul's Computer Institute is the right place to be.With the increasing student population straining the present infrastructure, there is urgent need to expand. Mickleson says they have already raised US $100,000 back home.

Now they are hoping to raise another $100,000 from friends and well wishers to build and fully outfit the school. In this vein, Mickleson says the Fon of Mankon, Angawor III, has offered the school five hectares.

Besides training people in computer skills, the Institute also donates books to schools.

Says Mickleson: "We donate books to all schools... We have donated books on three different occasions to PSS Mankon. All the Government schools, which have a library, have been given books.

Most of the Principals of these schools tell me that the GCE passing percentage has increased since they have been given books. In the last container, we had about 25.000 books. We donated many books and three computers to Star Bilingual Nursery-Primary School in Bali."

The Institute also sells a few computers cheaply, to get them into homes and especially businesses, which may employ the students.

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