From Inspiration to Action: Starting an E-Learning Project in the Kakuma Refugee Camp

September 12, 2016Koen Timmers

One year ago I had an inspiring Skype call with Moses Epem, an Outreach Officer for FilmAid. We spoke about the proverb: ‘Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime’, and the critical importance of sustained engagement in education. He asked me to help him raising the educational bar in Kakuma refugee camp in Kenya, which houses 180.000 refugees and has been in operation since 1992.

The camp’s conditions are very poor, and unfortunately are not unique. There are schools but classrooms house up to 150 students and they have very little resources: a textbook ratio of 1:10 students, insufficient desks and chairs, no power supply, etc.

I promised Moses to find a way to have regular Skype calls in which we teach the Kakuma students, but just as importantly also train the Kakuma teachers. It was impossible to combine daily calls with my fulltime job, so I found teachers from around the world willing to collaborate. I also created the website to inform people, raise funds and find educators willing to participate.

Connecting expert teachers with Kakuma’s classroom’s turned out to be a monumental challenge. In fact, it’s even forbidden to ship many technology devices directly to the camp. The first Skype calls were rather frustrating: we usually had to wait for 2 hours before a connection was established and sometimes there weren’t even calls which made it nearly impossible to involve our own students during the calls.

refugee education elearning e-learningIn response to such difficulties, I decided to start small. I found a Kenyan teacher and paid him to travel 600 miles to hand over my laptop to Abdul, one of the Kakuma teachers. I also started a crowdfunding campaign to buy more devices. Although many people show great enthusiasm towards the project, few donated. Nevertheless, we were able to raise $1000, which allowed me to buy and ship one additional laptop, projector and power generator. FilmAid shared internet connection and some outreach officers promised to host the calls during 8 months. I managed to gather 100 global teachers willing to do Skype calls on daily base. Before long we had 5 Kakuma schools dedicated to our project.

Initial successes

This resulted in wonderful situations. During 2 particular days in December 2015 – our skype-a-thon – we had 23 calls with classrooms from US, UK, Israel, Spain, New Zealand, Belgium, Brazil, Hong Kong, Saudi Arabia, Portugal, Denmark, Austria, Scotland, France, and more. All together our Skype participants spanned the equivalent of 138,000 miles.

refugee education elearning e-learning classroomOne Portuguese teacher, Joao, invited local musicians and taught about art. A Spanish teacher named Vicent taught Physical education. Some countries have issues with the time zones and decided to create instructional videos. A Brazilian teacher Francisco was moved to tears when I showed him pictures of the students looking at his video. Indian teachers started a little spin-off by sending robot car kits to the students and teaching about Science. US teacher Kelli sent English storybooks. Take a look at some pictures.

Project Kakuma was becoming a full time job and so I found one person in each continent willing to be ambassador and informing educators in their region. We are now a well-structured organisation with more than 100 global educators willing to teach voluntarily via Skype. Our story was broadcasted on television and published by several newspapers from around the world.

What do these connections mean for those involved?

You might think, is all of this effort worth it?

refugee education elearning e-learning skype learningFirst of all, the Kakuma students are locked in the camp and not allowed to leave this place. By having Skype calls from around the world, talking about our cultures and habits we show them we care and we open up their education to global interactions that can unlock a child’s world. We also have been training Kakuma teachers, supporting their efforts directly to improve education in the camp. Our global teachers and classroom also benefit from this project. The global educators manage to bring empathy into their classroom and provide a direct experience with refugees – a critical global issue – and African cultures. By having Mystery Skypes during group calls, for example, students can guess each other’s country and learn from each other.

Collaboration and Scaling for the Future

More data is needed to measure our impact with greater specificity, but Project Kakuma’s early classroom sessions have already created experiences that those involved will never forget. Unfortunately, technology and funding constraints continue to limit our efforts. We are excitedly beginning additional collaboration with new partners like the Lutheran World Federation, which operates several schools in the camp, but are still looking for additional potential partners.

If you are aware of schools or other educational organizations interested in technology-enabled exchange, I encourage you to reach out.  Our need for additional funding and technology support is critical, but we are determined to continue.

Koen Timmers is a Belgian educator, author, and founder of Project Kakuma who is passionate about e-learning. Check out his website at or feel free to connect via Twitter (@zelfstudie)

Photo Credits: Project Kakuma

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