Supplies shipped to school in Africa

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When the 40-foot gray metal container left Pittsburgh in May, it first traveled to Baltimore by truck.

It went by freighter around the southern tip of Africa next, then to Madagascar, before turning inland to Mozambique.

Finally, three months later and with no set arrival date, it made its way to a school in Mulanje in the tiny African country of Malawi.

Amazingly, all the stuff inside arrived intact. Good thing, because a classroom of kids, a newly hired teacher and officials about to open a brand new school in the village at the base of Mount Mulanje were depending on it.

Wrapped neatly inside the container were some medical supplies for a nearby hospital and electronics, including 60 old computers from the Mt. Lebanon School District.

The years-old machines salvaged by the district technology director Chris Stengel had only one other destination: the landfill.

Instead, the Carnegie Mellon University alumnus spent two weeks last month installing the computer system to make St. Andrews school in Mulanje the most wired secondary institution in the country.

It cost $15,000 to $20,000 to ship the behemoth container and was paid for by Brother's Brother Foundation, a North Side nonprofit that has been packing shipments to faraway lands for decades.

After the sojourn in which he and several other Pittsburghers helped prepare St. Andrews for its grand opening, Mr. Stengel had a few takeaways himself.

"What I brought back is a clear appreciation for what's important," he said

The Rev. Dan Merry of Southminster Presbyterian Church in Mt. Lebanon led the trip and touted Mr. Stengel's work.

"There are no secondary schools in Malawi that have the computer technology that is at this school," he said.

Southminster has enjoyed a 20-year relationship with the Blantyre Synod church, near St. Andrews, and from 2004-05, Rev. Merry and his family worked as missionaries there.

The church purchased new monitors for the computer lab at the school, which took some 40 machines (the rest went to a nearby hospital). Headmasters hired a university-educated teacher specifically to teach students how to use them -- before the equipment even arrived.

The school has roughly 80 students enrolled presently, but can serve up to 240.

Mr. Stengel has been keeping in touch with school leaders via email since he returned. He's invested in the school's success and is willing to be their satellite IT guy in hopes their technology program will inspire other schools throughout Malawi.

"There's no reason we can't get this school to lead by example," he said.

Setting up technology in Malawi could have been a formidable challenge, even for a brain like Mr. Stengel, who was "terrified" he might not have all the answers once he got there.

He emailed the school project diagrams (though technology is scarce, many school leaders have BlackBerrys) so the leaders could get a head start and let him know what last-minute materials they needed that he could squeeze in a suitcase.

At home, he's the go-to guy for every IT problem in Mt. Lebanon. He's usually capable of the fix, but he also has a whole staff to farm out a project to.

In Malawi, it turns out the school didn't even try to turn the computers on before he got there. As a result, he was a one-man tech department -- crawling around, setting up machines, plugging in power strips.

Everything worked.

And the language barrier? Malawians speak the Chewa language -- and fortunately for this crew, English, as well. Mr. Stengel downloaded an iPad application for the native tongue just in case and can still comfortably rattle off a few greetings.

St. Andrews hired the new 20-something computer teacher fresh out of school, Mr. Stengel said. She was quiet and reserved, but he encouraged her: "Make this room your own."

Her curriculum will begin with the basics: word processing and spreadsheets. Soon, Mr. Stengel said they will have full Internet access. He brought St. Andrews a Web cam and hopes Mt. Lebanon students will communicate eventually via Skype with their peers overseas.

The student population at St. Andrews is diverse: Some students hail from affluent backgrounds and others walk 10 miles to and from school every day.

The space would be ideal for a dormitory. In Africa, Mr. Stengel said, boarding schools don't carry the stigma of being stuffy and exclusive to the elite. One new friend told Mr. Stengel he sent his daughter to a school where the dorms were hardly glamorous -- but where the student exam pass rate was 100 percent.

The value of a good education sees no boundary.

"That is something that's universal in all parents no matter what kind of country you live in," Rev. Merry said.

Mr. Stengel, who maintains the Mt. Lebanon School District's "Far From Bloggin' " website and Twitter feed, also blogged about his trip to Malawi at http://blogginfromfar.blogspot.com.

neigh_south

Molly Born: mborn@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1944.


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