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Kenya within an arm's reach

Students' cultural exchange programs were taken to another level this spring through a project that involved state-of-the-art video conferencing technology and joint virtual classes for a group of Hungarian and Kenyans students. Organizers hope lifelike meetings could be an engine for change.  

Stepping into the room, it is just like a regular class in a secondary school: sixteen students sitting around a table, within arms' reach, talking. With just two days before the summer holidays in Hungarian schools, the topic is also obvious. But that's when you spot the first difference: while students fast agree on the most preferred activities, such as dancing, listening to music, bathing and partying, on one side of the table, it is wide-eyed incomprehension regarding an 11-week summer break. “When you go back to school, you forget how to read your name,” as one student put it, laughing.

He is from Kenya, a student of Magnet High School in Ongata Rongai, and is only sitting in the room virtually. With his seven fellow classmates and eight others from the Dániel Berzsenyi Secondary School of Budapest, they are taking part in a tele-class series, a unique cultural exchange aided by technology. Cisco's real-time video conferencing tool Telepresence (three simultaneous high-quality video streams and a high-definition, full-motion content sharing stream, plus superior lighting and sound) provides the background for the lifelike classes, while the two distant countries are joined by the One World Learning project initiated by the International Centre for Democratic Transition.

“We knew very little about Kenya before, that people are poor there and some basic information that the media had covered,” a student of Berzsenyi school said. “We heard the people are poor there,” another one adds. Then, over the term, they learned a lot else and a lot more about this part of Africa, where a significant part of the population is still living in the traditional way but has taken up, for instance, mobile technology very quickly and efficiently. Students answer my questions taking up short, to speak about getting used to the Kenyan accent, about how different being religious is there, and how some tribal traditions like initiation to adulthood still live on. And besides all the differences, they also speak about how similar their lives are, details of which they have been sharing with each other on Facebook and Skype.

The topics of the classes are somewhat determined by what the ICDT considered important, such as knowledge of foreign cultures and universal development issues, but in the end, the students' interest was the main driving force. Both groups prepared a couple of topics for the meetings, with added multimedia content. “See, this is Hell's Gate national park, that's where we spend a lot of time during the holidays,” the Kenyans share, while on the other side of the table, eight Hungarians lean over their desks to see the pictures on the small screen in the middle. Then the Hungarians show some of the energy developments in their country.

In the beginning, Kenyans had little or no idea at all what Hungary was about. By now, they know there's more to this country: from “a place somewhere in Europe,” it became the home both for innovations like the Rubik cube and for the real people they've just made friends with. “That is the major motivation to learn more,” says their teacher, Manases Karanja. He is also very proud of his students because they opened up like noone would have expected, and because they were able to show the more optimistic side of Kenyan people.

Stage fright was gone very soon, and in-depth conversation followed on families, girl- and boyfriends, faith, preserving nature, and even some sensitive discussions on sex, family abuse and orphanhood. “I also had stage fright at first, but then these classes turned out to be a good therapy,” one Hungarian student admitted. Several others claimed the best part of the project was getting to know the Kenyans as real people.

“These students in fact learned how to become acquainted with another culture,” ICDT program organizer István Csákány told us. So with a successful pilot now behind them, the Centre prepares for another round of meetings between Egypt and Hungary, hopefully in 2013. They would like to continue with at least eight sessions on a weekly basis, and with six semesters altogether involving further countries. Even this way, the project remains a low budget one, as its costs will not exceed $80-90 per student, personnel costs included, assuming that video equipment is used at 75% capacity on school days only. As the emphasis of the project is on the unique learning experience that proved to be just as effective as face-to-face events, ICDT plans to bring mobile equipment to the schools in the long term.

But for now, it is time for the students to say goodbye, and it is hard indeed. Although everyone has made friends with each other on social media sites, there's still a lot of sad faces, last messages, and promises of keeping in touch. With the screens gone black behind them, the Hungarian students are still recalling the nice memories. “We have learned that the famous song from the movie Lion King, Hakuna Matata, was actually used in Kenya and means don't worry. Our entire childhood finally makes sense.”

Anikó Jóri-Molnár