science & technology the lede Technology

Breaking the Code

Two women from Afghanistan hold courses in computer programming

By ketaki latkar | 1 May 2018

On a humid April evening at the Symbiosis International University’s girls’ hostel in Pune, most of the students stepped out for a stroll. Arifa Orfan, a 23-year-old computer applications student from Ghor in Afghanistan, picked up her laptop and walked to a nearby cafe. Her classmate, Habiba Hussaini, from Ghazni in Aghanistan, accompanied her. When I entered the café, the women were already seated with their laptops and books open next to them. They looked hassled. The internet at the cafe was acting up.

We had met so that they could show me their project, “Hour of Computer,” which comprises modules on programming and coding. Its website hosts courses on networking, web development and application development; it also teaches programming languages, such as Python, Java and C. The course material is free and available in English, with subtitles in Dari, one of the most widely spoken languages in Afghanistan. The two women, who have lived in Pune for the last three-and-a-half years, are in India on an education grant organised by Educational Consultants India—an initiative by the ministry of human-resource development—and the Afghanistan government. They plan to return to Afghanistan after their course and work in education, especially in rural areas.

Orfan and Hussaini told me about the impetus behind their project, for which they have compiled course material over the last year-and-a-half. “We hope to improve access to computer programming for young women in Afghanistan,” Hussaini said. “I always wanted to study something that had a more practical and application-based approach than mere theory. In Afghanistan, most of the good colleges for computer studies were in Kabul. But the courses they offered were usually in computer science and not computer application,” she continued, adding that she and Orfan plan to identify schools and colleges in villages and conduct weekend classes.

Last year, assisted by their mentor Shehrevar Davierwala—a postgraduate in information technology and the officer for international initiatives at Symbiosis—the women started working on a different project, Coding Sisters. Orfan and four other Afghan students from the Symbiosis Institute of Computer Studies and Research taught the fundamentals of programming to girls in the seventh grade at Pune Police Public School.

Over two months, Orfan gained hands-on experience in classroom teaching. “We were teaching the girls Html, CSS and JavaScript,” Orfan told me. “Though we were absolutely thorough with the course content, spoken language was a big barrier. Simplifying the concepts and explaining everything in English was not easy. We realised we need to work on our language skills, in addition to revisiting the curriculum and making it very simple and fundamental to understand. So, we came up with e-notes that we added to the modules, with a view to make the learning easier and more user-friendly.”

Later in the year, while Orfan was visiting Afghanistan, she conducted a week-long training course for a class of 20 eleventh-and twelfth-grade students at Roshd-O-Taalee, a school in Kabul. “I went thinking it will be fine, but for us, things have never been smooth sailing,” Orfan said. Among other things, they were constantly interrupted by power cuts. The initial plan had been to upload videos on their website for students to access during the classes. “But soon, we realised that most of Kabul’s schools do not have the technology and internet services to support such an idea,” she said. “Every day I used to go to the school, stand before a bunch of enthusiastic faces, eager to learn, and pray that the electricity supports the projector for the next two-and-a-half hours. But that did not happen, and though I managed to complete the course, the rhythm of the class kept getting affected,” Orfan said. But it was heartening for her to see a full class of students and an equal number of girls and boys. “It took me back to my childhood days in Ghor, when the socio-political situation was worse, and girls were seldom encouraged to attend school,” she added.

At the moment, both women are considering extending their student visas to stay in India and complete their post-graduate studies in computer application. When our conversation moved to the subject of life in Pune, there was an awkward silence. “It was definitely not easy,” Hussaini said, finally. “I always felt that there was no connection between me and the city, and its locals. I think language was the greatest barrier, as when I came to Pune, I could barely speak any English. I couldn’t function without my dictionary in the classroom,” she continued, adding that using local transportation was difficult since she was not conversant in Hindi or Marathi. At the moment, she is exploring options for intensive English-language courses that she can pursue alongside her graduate studies.

Ketaki Latkar is a Pune-based journalist who writes about art, culture and community.

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