Learning Technologies in Mozambique: Fact, fiction, fairy tale?


One of the most challenging things for me is to explain to people what I was actually doing in Mozambique. Officially, I was an advisor for e-learning at a local university. So far, so good. However, what impact does such a project have on the sustainable development of a country? Do people in Mozambique have computers to go and study online? Isn’t it an elitist approach to create online courses for the lucky few who have the means and the infrastructure to participate? Wouldn’t it be more beneficial to address the general literacy in the country (which is currently estimated at 58.8 % among the total population, 45.4 % among women according to the World Fact Book) before discussing web literacy?

Each remark justifies a very interesting discussion for itself. Yet, I am not attempting the large (and super-interesting!) field of ICT for Development (ICT4D) scientifically. Instead, I will reflect on a couple of personal observations and experiences that represent important aspects of a very complex and multilayered reality.

What’s up, Africa? WhatsApp is up!

Probably the most important observation to understand the ICT structure of Mozambique (and presumably most other African countries) is the omnipresence of mobile phones in comparison to desktop and laptop computers. A while ago, I wrote about mobile providers, state of the infrastructure, and costs in another blog posting. Voice credits and data packages, are available widely, for reasonable prices – and in a “scalable” manner. While a European telecom consumer probably wonders why someone would buy phone credits for 50 Cents every other day instead of spending 7 Euros for an entire month, it makes perfect sense for a fruit trader with varying daily income who usually doesn’t have 7 Euros at disposal at once.


Buying and activating a SIM card on the streets of Beira

With a Chinese mobile phone in 2017, one can do more things than with a high-end Personal Computer 20 years ago. Let’s talk about WhatsApp. I never thought of WhatsApp as an education technology – until I met some kids in a remote village in the province of Manica, close to the Zimbabwean border. My Portuguese was very basic , but I managed to teach them the English phrases they asked me for – and send them the transcriptions on WhatsApp so they could revise and practise. It was them who asked me for that as well.
I also came across WhatsApp in formal education – at universities which had never implemented email distribution lists, but are now using WhatsApp groups where students can ask their professors questions about assignments and other stuff.

So…why WhatsApp, and not Facebook, or Skype, or good ol’ Hotmail? I could not explain it any better than Toby Shapshak, technology writer and TED speaker from South Africa:

“WhatsApp’s hidden beauty is how little data it uses – something the tech industry based in bandwidth-rich Silicon Valley often fails to understand about the bandwidth constraints in emerging markets, even if Africa’s internet is the fastest growing in the world. And, very importantly, Africa is a mobile-only continent. Because mobile data is so expensive, there is a natural adversity to using data-intensive services like YouTube. WhatsApp, with its tight compression, means videos won’t break the bank for cellphone users.” (Quoted from the Forbes article Why WhatsApp is South Africa’s favourite app, September 2015)

Multiplying education: a “new middle class”

Another observation is not directly related to Mozambique, but significant for ICTs and online learning in emerging markets. Since 2012, I have completed several courses on Udacity, and recently even enrolled in a Nanodegree. Udacity has been founded by a Google engineer. It is “pure Silicon Valley”. And at the same time, it isn’t. In 2012, the second largest group of students (7 %) were from India. Coursera, another major MOOC platform, reported 6 % of its users being from Brazil in the same year. (Find more details here.) That’s only numbers, of course. But as a student, I can also feel a certain shift in course materials, examples given in courses, and most importantly, forum discussions among the learning community. Movie database examples feature recent Bollywood productions as templates. Assignments for mobile apps programmed by students take Mandarin keyboards into consideration. And participants proactively organise face-to-face get-togethers – in Mumbai, Nanjing, and São Paulo.

It is true: A Nanodegree at Udacity requires money, time, fast internet, and a relatively good laptop. Same goes for online curricula in South Africa, Mozambique, and other countries. Such offers do not reach – and are not addressed to – underprivileged, rural communities at all. But they enable something else: high quality, up-to-date education and information for a population stratum that is often referred to the as “new middle class”. And whilst certainly not every well-educated, modestly wealthy, urban Mozambican will dedicate their life to the multiplying effect of distributing skills and knowledge to less privileged compatriots…I am deeply convinced that it is this group of teachers, doctors, enigneers, and entrepreneurs, who has the ability to tackle sustainable development way better than any “Western” NGO or missionary has ever done.

One example: Distance learning programs for teachers in remote areas of Central Mozambique. We are talking about teachers that have already been practising for years, and probably already made hell of a difference in their respective villages. However, they never had an opportunity to get formal education, let alone brush up their knowledge and skills on a regular basis. With learning materials on paper, being distributed by universities every other month, they finally get that opportunity for a (semi-)academic education. And learning technologies – be it tutorials with professors via WhatsApp, video lectures, or simply the possibility to look up facts on Wikipedia – can facilitate such education programs and help improve the quality enormously. Quality that trickels through to rural schools and communities. This is exactly what my university – the Universidade Católica de Moçambique – is doing and what my project was contributing to. It definitely is a long way to go. But it is a way that must not be ignored or neglected.


Distance Learning in Mozambique – state of the art

And then there is Brazil…

As an advisor at an African university, I had to do with several international cooperations – most of them with…guess whom…Brazil.

Why Brazil? First of all, it’s the language, of course. But why not Portugal? Of course relations with Portugal play a huge role in Mozambican economy, education, and also every day life (yes – in July 2016, everyone in Beira was cheering for the new European champions)…but to some extent, Brazilian reality might “understand” Mozambican reality better, at least when it comes to IT-related topics. Brazilian institutions and advisors naturally know what it means to deal with real distances, with really remote areas, with weak infrastructure, with multicultural and multilingual audiences. I remember several projects where Mozambican universities turned to Brazilian universities for advise when it came to the implementation of ICT systems – and I realised that many Brazilian systems had another major advantage compared to what European universities could have offered: The whole process of adopting and implementing learning technologies has started several years later in Brasil than it did in Europe. Hence Brazilian institutions could base their strategies on more advanced technologies, and possibly also on clearer requirements catalogues than European organisations which started experimenting with newly born open source versions in the early 2000s, years before new paradigms like Web 2.0 came to life. And we are still confronted with the results today, such as heavy “historical” bulk and overly complicated, historically grown island solutions.

So, to some extent, many Brazilian solutions I came across appeared much “cleaner”, more lightweight, than what I am used to from Europe – regardless if they were commercial or open-source-based. Why would an African university copy bulky European solutions when they can “leapfrog” to the state of the art that fulfills their current requirements?

Well then…what’s the conclusion?

I believe the most important aspect about ICTs in emerging and developing areas is that, like everywhere in the world, they are a part of reality. The context and circumstances of their diffusion and adoption might be different (and very specific for each country, each region, each social stratum), but their existance is a fact. And like everywhere in the world, ICTs have can – and are used to – enable learning and education.

I don’t have a ready-made answer to the solution if and how ICTs will change education in Mozambique in the long term. I don’t have that for Europe either. But I believe that it would be a mistake to try zoom out the existence of digital technologies in the field of education – or any other field, that is, because at the end of the day, they cannot and must not be ignored.


Province of Manica – where everyone communicates via WhatsApp





“Yo falo portañais – et vous?” – What I learned about language learning when I learned a language at the age of 34

One very practical impact of living in Mozambique is the presence of the Portuguese language. Mozambique used to be one of the African colonies of Portugal (besides Angola, Guinea-Bissau and the island states of Capo Verde and São Tomé and Príncipe). Portuguese is still the (only) official language of Mozambique. However, only half of the population does actually speak it, and only a quarter of that half considers it as their first language. Given the dimensions of the country – its North-South extension is roughly 2.700 km, which is more than the distance from Stockholm to Rome– it does not surprise that the native languages of the country are of an enormous diversity. There is no dominating indigenous language that is understood in wide parts of the country and hence could become a Lingua Franca (as it is the case with Swahili in several Eastern African countries. In fact, Portuguese does fulfill the role of Lingua Franca, the link language that connects the regions and enables communication, and of course language of the national media. In Beira, as in other larger cities, Portuguese is the main language used by locals also among each other.

That means, of course, that I also have to speak Portuguese. And I do admit, that is a daily challenge and gives me the most controversial experiences – from deepest frustration (“I will never be able to get along in that language!”) to highly motivating success stories (“Wow – I just gave an unprepared, spontaneous presentation…in Portuguese!”). For me, it is the first time that I have to “function” in a language that I do not master properly. When I lived in France and the Netherlands, it was different. I knew French profoundly before I got there, and Dutch – well, a German speaker is never an absolute beginner in Dutch.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tower_of_Babel

“The Tower of Babel”, painting by Pieter Breughel the Elder

I am definitely a competetive person, which means I do not like doing things I am not already good at…this goes for sports, games, crafts, and definitely for languages. On the other hand side, this challenges me to try to get better every day.

Just as so many other things that I experience here, my process of getting used to the new language is highly interesting to observe.

Here are some of the things that I have discovered about language learning in the last few months:

1. The worst thing of not speaking a language properly is feeling ignorant and incompetent.

And that is a terrible, terrible experience. It is quite normal that passive language skills – understanding – exceed active skills. Hence, in reality I end up in countless situations where I am able follow the course of a conversation, but all I can do to participate is nod or shake my head and express attention and understanding by making big eyes and a friendly face. As soon as a question is directed towards me, I need “special assistance” – someone to repeat the question over and over again, someone who would quickly switch to English for me, someone to help me out with words I am searching for. And that makes me feel so – handicapped, so stupid, so ignorant.

However, it is definitely something to bear in mind in the future when dealing with people who are not fluent in the language they have to function in – maybe they are feeling exactly the same.

2. Paradoxically, the more abstract and specific conversations are, the better I master them in Portuguese.

Conversations that are related to my job, my professional background, my field of expertise are usually the motivating ones, the ones that trigger an adrenaline outburst, when I start babbling about E-Learning Policies, Sustainable Development Goals or Content Management Systems. The conversations that leave me frustrated are usually unexpected everyday encounters – someone addresses me on the street, a question from the cleaning team, administration stuff at the immigration office. The latter ones, however, are the classic “textbook” situations that go as basic language skills, whereas the former are much more specific and usually not even covered in language courses.

I have given some thought to that phenomenon – and after all, it might not be so paradoxal: Whenever I use “language or specific purposes”, I am usually familiar with the purpose, the context, the typical communication patterns. Talking about concepts, aspects, ideas, theories, requires a certain level of abstraction that I had to acquire gradually during my professional development – and it is relatively independant from a specific language, hence quite easily to be transferred from one language to another. On the other hand side, the everyday encounters are unanticipated. I have no frame of reference about the subject, the content, the purpose of the question someone addresses to me on the street or in a restaurant, neither about the attitude or expectation of the other person…and that makes it way harder to decode and react to.

Source: http://www.archdaily.com.br/br/01-73879/cinema-e-arquitetura-encontros-e-desencontros-lost-in-translation/73879_73882

Scene from “Lost in Translation”

I always thought the urban legends about scientists who give a highly complex speech at a conference in a foreign language and then, during lunch break, don’t manage to order coffee at the bar, are highly exaggerated. I don’t really think so any more.

3. “Conquering” a language on Duolingo does not automatically qualifiy you to “function” in that language

However, neither do several years in high school or even a university degree in the respective language. Duolingo, in any case, is a great starting point, and an even better means to keep me motivated – and now, that I am learning new words, expressions, structures mainly “in the field”, it is a wonderful platform to every now and then monitor how much I have actually progressed. Unless another revolutionary platform appears on the horizon soon, I assume Duolingo will remain my favourite and most recommendable language learning app for quite some more time. Even more since they are currently working on Swahili.

Source: www.duolingo.com

August 10, 2015 – The Day I conquered the Portugues skill tree

4. Latin languages are sexy.

The more Latin a language looks and feels, the sexier it is. And Portuguese, which has conserved a lot of conjugation, does look and feel very Latin, at least to me. And Latin is pretty awesome.

Source: http://thebigbookoflatin.github.io/

Keep calm and love Latin


5. My requirements for grammar do not follow a linear pattern

To give you an example: In reality, I do not have the time to first learn to conjugate all irregular verbs correctly in present tense before putting myself in a situation where I need to refer to a past event. Similarily, I cannot wait to get started with adverbs only after knowing everything about adjectives by heart, and at times, a badly formed conjunctive, that nevertheless obviously is a conjunctive and hence fits the politeness requirements in a given situation, is more appropriate than a well formed indicative.

“I would likes a Pizza Margarita” is definitely more appropriate than “I want a Pizza Margarita” when placing an order in a restaurant. Wouldn’t you agree?

6. Talking to people I know is often easier thantalking to strangers

It probably has a lot to do with habits. If I know someone’s way of speaking, their specific accent, their mimics and gestures, their individual tone and melody, it is much easier to focus on the actual content of what they are saying. Also, it probably is related to trust. So, to my Portuguese speaking friends and acquaintances out there…if I dare to speak Portugues with you, it probably means that I trust you.

7. Learning a language is definitely an excellent excuse to re-read all Harry Potter novels.

No further explanation needed. It just is.
Source. http://mentalfloss.com/article/58137/magical-origins-harry-potter-words

8. “Yo falo Portanais, et vous…”

The anti-phrase I used in the title was a special creation, born during lunch break in the international language school in Lisbon where I studied Portuguese for three weeks last summer. At some point, me and some colleagues got hopelessly lost in translation and mixed up all fragments of all Latin languages we knew, ending up with an Esperanto-ish dialect that sounded strangely like the Minion language without the extensive use of Bananaaaaa.

Source: http://www.minionsipsum.com/

The magnificent Minions-themed Lore Ipsum Generator, to be found under http://www.minionsipsum.com/

9. Moçambicanismos are a thing

And finally, of course, Mozambican Portuguese is neither European Portuguese, nor Brazilian Portuguese. Like every variety of a language, it does dispose of some very specific elements, mainly on vocabulary level. Find here is a list of some of my favourite Moçambicanismos:

matabicho: breakfast; also comes in the shape of a verb, matabichar (eating breakfast). Nobody uses pequeno-almoco (Portugal) or café de manha (Brasil) here.

machamba: farm, agricultural space. Borrowed from Kiswaheli shamba(ma) and widely used.

tchungamoio: informal market, mainly used in central Mozambique. It derives from the Cindau language where it literally means “open heart“, and figuratively refers to being courageous.

tuga: Informal, pejorative expression to refer to the Portuguese (as a noun and an adjective), people from “Tugalândia” (Portugal)

txapo-txapo: means “fast, quickly”, derives from the (Pidgin-)English expression “chop chop” that itself was imported from China and probably also forms the origin of chopsticks.

xingumbungumbu: Unsurprisingly, this is an onomatopoeia that originates from the sound of hitting a plastic can and hence refers to exactly that kind of container.

muito-muito: Portuguese muito means much; many; a lot. The doubled expression in Mozambique means mainly and is influenced by the common construction principle of Bantu Languages to intensify the meaning of a word by repeating it.

gangsters paradise: Playful reference to cars with the letters GP on their licence plates that appear in large quantities in Maputo and the Southern coastal region, mainly during South African holidays. GP (in reality) stands for Gauteng Province, the South African province where Johannesburg is located.