Monday, May 31, 2004

UFMG and the telecenters in the public schools

Today we talked to Wagner Meira, Jr., at the Universidade Federal de Minas Gerais,
and visited a shared computing installation at the central university library.
Together with the Secretary of Education of the state of Minas Gerais, and some
NGOs, they are installing computer labs in public schools (in the city of BH and in
the rest of the state). They stress not only the access to the computer and to the
Internet, but also the possibility of content generation. Each school, and each
student and teacher has a space to generate his/her own web page.

We go to Rio today to start the study on CDI.

Sunday, May 23, 2004


Brazil so far seems a place of bizarre contrasts. On one hand there is incredible affluence, people wiht the kind of houses and lifestyles that Americans can hardly imagine having, and on another, the kind of urban squalor that even India does not have. The few Brazilians I have spent time wiht in the cities are very wealthy, whereas all the time I have spent in the villages so far have been in somewhat in poorer neighbourboohds, and i took the pleasure of spending that time in cheap bars with the locals (who are very forthcoming with sharing their alcohol).

If you have seen the "favelas" in movies, they are a patch on what they actually look like. Right in the middle of cities, sometimes like islands, there are massive slums. These slums are often defined by very specific entrances and exits - which may be manned informally by people who live in these areas. Strangely, while on all sides there may be superfast freeways, the favelas will commonly have dirt roads, and this is flat in the center of the metropolitan areas. It is almost as if you are more or less imprisoned in the area of the favela, and everywhere around the favelas, there are highways, which invariably have people standing around asking for lifts. There are few men asking for lifts because it is rather pointless for men to try and get rides, as no one in their right mind will give a man a ride near a favela -- somewhat like the US where men rarely get rides (actually women too, especially after the serial killer movie).

The rich, and for that matter, even the middle classes, have a major concern with security. people i am met here will not park their cars outside their home garages even for minutes to short stops (in all fairness, they were robbed last week at gunpoint). There are walls that are over 15 feet tall (including at the home i am living in) in entire rows of homes, with electrified barbed wires on top of the houses. You cannot see inside the houses except for the brief moments in which the garage doors open. And this is in Belo Horizonte, which is apparently one of the safer cities in Brazil.

Everyone I have met so far has stated clearly that they will not walk on the streets in the evenings after sundown, this is absolutely unambiguous. People drive their cars with their windows up. I noticed another bizarre thing missing in Belo Horizonte which is very striking - there isn't a lot of street food, in that sense it is closer to America and western nations than it is to perhaps Bombay or Bangkok. Of course, this is not entirely surprising, since even in the more deslolate parts of Bombay and Bangkok you can comfortably walk the streets at midnight and pick up an omelet and do this with cash falling out of one's pocket and still not worry.

What must be the difference is the lack of a middle ground for people to interact across classes, which my friend here says are football, the carnaval, and the beach. That aside, the extreme difference in lifestyle makes it rather impossible for people to relate to each other. Plus, the employment situation here is terrible, and for young people in the favelas, it is supposedly additionally difficult to get work - my colleague here has done studies showing that favela addresses are less likely to get work than people from other neighborhoods.

I am probably being unfair to the Brazilians, who are great fun, not to mention the most hospitable people I have . Not to mention that all rumours about the staggeringly attractive Brazilian women are true! Despite everything I have said in the first few paras, I am fabulously attracted to Brazil and am half tempted to make this home. ANd it is in fact the uncanny social complexity of the country that seems to have a draw to it. Like Bangkok, which I once wanted to live in just as badly, the cities here are an strange and fantastic mix of the developed and developing worlds. Pictures will show that it looks exactly like Bombay, and yet has the pace of life and social independence that one comes to expect of from a western metropolis.

Once you move out of the cities and go into the villages (and I can speak only for one province so far) it is even more like India, except far less populated. There are highways with formidable potholes, which end abruptly in dirt roads that go on for miles with some pretty wholesome traffic, which would make you think it were worthwhile to spread some tar there. Instead, the investment seems to be in the area of tyre-repair shops, which are available aplenty, and always well stocked with business.

I've been to four villages so far, and each had more than one bar per 100 adult residents (we calculated). The popular beverage here is a startlingly strong sugarcane rum known as "Cachaca" which I have been drinking to extreme stupidity so far, and I am admittedly rather smashed as I write this now. A funny little thing about Brazilians is that they serve alcohol in small little glasses, which are slightly larger than espresso cups, and are exactly the little Indian "chai" cups in which one gets tea on the streets. Even beer is served in these cups and it takes six of these cups to pull down one average bottle of beer. The average American would have two of these cups worth of beer in his/her first swig of a pint. Also, the small glass is a great ice-breaker, since Brazilians easily share their beer with you.

Finally, the Brazilians from the provinces I have visited are a bit lame about eating spicy food. Everyone seems mighty concerned about me eating some little piddly chillies called Malagueta, which I would wager most Malayali kids would pull down with in dozens. Going by their tropical climate, I would have expected them to have somewhat spunkier spice in their food. Though I believe food from Bahia is very different and closer to Indian food.

The village I am staying in right now has one Internet center, wich has two computers and few are terribly thrilled about using them. The guy who works on getting these computers here is rather disappointed at the state of things here, especially at the fact that peopel would gladly spend a few dollars worth on alcohol daily, but nobody seems to want to spend a fraction of that on using the Internet. As opposed to India, this seems like a more complex problem - in India, people in villages simply have nothing to do with computers in villages, but at the same time, the desire for moving to urban areas has not entirely peaked just yet. Here, people are mostly literate, even in remote villages, and there is massive amount of content available in Portuguese.

In Brazil, urban pressure is legendary, and over 80% of the people here are living cramped into a few major cities. I realized that in India, we are quite shameless about recommending to people in village internet centers that learning technologies would be a gateway into urban jobs for them. I am suddenly afraid of that, after looking at the extent of urban inequity in Brazil. The man here who works with bringing computers to villages explicitly tells villagers to continue living in villages and think of ways of using technology in their space, rather than trying to move out.

That being said, more or less everyone in these villages who has been through the training is looking online for jobs, which will take them out of their idyllic homes (at leaSt to the outside) into Sao Paolo or Rio, wonderful cities to everyone except the lady who told me yesterday "We are all like prisoners in our own homes"

Friday, May 21, 2004


The first telecenter we visited was Rodeador.

More about the telecenter.

We had dinner here, after visiting the local school. There is a great potential for the integration of the school and the telecenter. The school principal, and the vice president of the community association, which takes care of the telecenter, said that the kids now prefer to go to the telecenter as opposed to the school library.

We headed to Conselheiro Mata next, and it was already dark.
Part of the road is where there used to be an old train track.

First destination: Gemas da Terra

We picked up Heinrich (people also call him Henrique), and started our journey towards the "interior" of Minas Gerais. Our destinations were the small rural communities of Rodeador, Conselheiro Mata, São Gonçalo do Rio das Pedras, Milho Verde, and Tombador. We ended up not being able to go to Tombadouro, unfortunately.

These communities are all small, between 800 and 1400 people, and they have different and unique experiences with the telecenters.

Our route was: Belo Horizonte, Sete Lagoas, Cordisburgo, Curvelo, Monjolos, Rodeador, Conselheiro Mata. We then slept in Conselheiro Mata, and moved on to Diamantina, São Gonçalo do Rio das Pedras, and Milho Verde.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Half of the team arrives

Joyojeet, Paula (my wife), and I arrived in Belo Horizonte, the capital of the state of Minas Gerais, directly (well, almost) from San Francisco. ( I came through Dallas and São Paulo, and he came through Atlanta and São Paulo).
We were received by Paula's and my families, and had a wonderful lunch.
Later in the evening I talked to Heinrich Kuhne and Denio Magno, from Gemas da Terra, our first visit.
Tomorrow we will leave in the morning for that.