AN Australian relief team in southern Sudan is turning to technology to help educate the region's displaced orphans, planning to bring solar-powered laptops to school rooms.
As MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop per Child project gathers steam, a small group of Australians are using existing hardware to provide technology to children who have never seen a computer.
|Teaching aid: Schoolchildren in Juba experience the wonders of Australian supplied solar-powered laptops|
Dr Negroponte's proposal to have millions of $US100 ($132) laptops built and distributed to children in developing countries, is still in planning, the first machines to be issued next year.
But cheap laptops have already made their mark on Sudan, since Sydney information technology consultant Chris Chan took a solar-powered laptop loaded with English-language teaching materials and running Linux to a rural school in southern Sudan.
His group hopes to return with 20 machines for a new school it is building.
The team, run by local group Sudanese Australian Life Assured Ministries, has been allocated land in Juba, the capital of the breakaway southern region, for a school, hospital and orphanage. It will be back next month to construct a well.
Southern Sudan is experiencing peace for the first time in 20 years after the Sudanese People's Liberation Army signed a treaty last year with the Government in Khartoum.
The biggest challenge facing the people now is disease, sanitation and education.
War continues in the western Darfur region where two African Union peacekeepers were killed on Saturday and the central Government, which has been accused of backing the Janjaweed militia, is rejecting calls for UN peacekeepers.
In the past year, the influx of refugees from surrounding areas to Juba has taken the city's population from 100,000 to 400,000.
"There are hundreds of street kids there who have lost their parents," Mr Chan said.
"We intend to offer them, under government supervision, housing and a good education. Education is one of many fundamental needs. It gives them a future and without it the only options are the army or crime."
The laptops will give teachers the materials they need to educate their classes.
"A lot of the software is basic - they just follow the screen prompts." Mr Chan.
Teachers use the laptops to display the material to a rapt audience of children.
The group also hopes to set up large TV screens in the city to help with public education campaigns.
"If you set up TV screens in Juba you'll get 10,000 people watching," Mr Chan said.
"With technology you can educate on a mass level, rather than one-to-one."
The Government of southern Sudan has issued tenders for developing telecommunications links to Juba, opening up the possibility of giving people their first taste of the internet.
"The internet is hugely important," Mr Chan said.
"Lots of Sudanese have never even heard of Australia. They have no idea of what is going on outside their borders."
The internet would also allow nurses to use the laptops to help diagnose and treat illnesses.
The Australian team hopes to one day conduct tele-medicine campaigns, allowing Australian doctors to treat patients remotely.