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UEL student gives children in Sierra Leone their first experience of computing

Israel Cole travels to his homeland to 'give something back' to school pupils before starting his master's degree

The sudden loss of his elderly mother did not prevent Israel Cole, a University of East London (UEL) student, from fulfilling his dream of inspiring the next generation in his homeland of Sierra Leone. 

From 2014-15 the country was ravaged by Ebola, claiming 4,000 lives. Although outbreaks of the deadly disease have since subsided, Sierra Leone is still in the process of recovery.

Israel, 52, who is studying for a BSc in Computer Networks, turned his final-year project into a personal mission to improve the prospects of Sierra Leone’s youth by offering them an educational and enjoyable computing experience.

But just days before he was due to fly out, he learned that his 82-year-old mother, Ada Cole, had died. Although the cause of her death was not Ebola, the spread of the disease in Sierra Leone has led to all burials in the country now been carried out immediately. It meant Israel was unable to attend the funeral.

“It was a very emotional time for me,” he said. “She passed away at the end of April just before I was due to arrive. I had a heavy heart but I kept going.” 

At the start of May, Israel waved goodbye to his wife and four teenage sons in Streatham, south London, and travelled to the coastal neighbourhood of Goderich, in Sierra Leone’s capital, Freetown.

With three Raspberry Pi computers in hand, he arrived at the newly opened Slypeaf School, spending ten days with 20 five-13 year old students. One computer was loaned by UEL, with Israel buying another two out of his own pocket. 

“Raspberry Pi are very affordable, small and simple computers, which is ideal for bringing to a developing country,” he said. 

“They work on open-source software like Linux, which means the copyright allows people to study, share, and develop the software. This is good if you’re taking it to economically poor countries.” 

In a short video made by Israel during his trip, the young students can be seen gathered in a sparsely furnished room with bare wooden floors and benches, listening attentively as Israel tells them about computer components and code.

“The school had computers there but had never been used, and IT wasn’t even on the curriculum,” he said. “So, when the students started using the keyboard and watching what happened on the screen, they were amazed. They were laughing and clapping.”   

Israel felt he wanted to do more, so he left the Raspberry Pi computers at the school for the students to carry on using.

He has also started to sponsor the school so they can have a trained tutor to teach the students IT for two hours every Friday. 

Speaking about his own upbringing in Sierra Leone, Israel enthuses about his science studies and working in the country’s ministry of education. 

“I had a good job and loved learning, but knew I needed to push myself. I had some family in England and decided I could pursue my education here. So, in my mid-20s, I came over. 

“It meant I had to start again, going to college and doing lots of manual jobs in kitchens and retail.
“Now I’ve got a wife, children and a great degree. I’ve been given a lot and I’m in a position to give something back.”

Israel will return to Slypeaf School in the summer to teach coding and see how his students and their new computers and IT tutor are getting on, before starting his master’s degree at UEL in digital forensics later in the year.