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Back To Boston April 30, 2010

Filed under: Vietnam — polyachka @ 11:35 am
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It’s been 2 weeks since I came back from Vietnam. The first week I finished my taxes, met with my friends and organized my belongings scattered among several locations.  I finally met Nancie and we discussed the need for volunteers in Vietnam to keep our OLPC pilots alive. After what I experienced in Vietnam I realized that I can’t really do what I used to do: places I lived, my work, places I shopped, events I attended… Many things didn’t make sense anymore… I realized that I see everything in a different light. I don’t need to live in Back Bay with a view of the beautiful park and tall buildings anymore, my job didn’t mean much, as I never understood what I was doing it for and to whose benefit. It always kind of felt meaningless, even though well paid… I was able to afford a lot and yet I felt miserable and depressed (Adam had no clue why I was blogging up the storm back in December, but that was what I felt inside) as I knew my life was not fulfilling. According to Robin Sharma, one of the principles to true happiness is to do what you feel passionate about.  Perhaps, somewhere in the hills of Sapa, Vietnam, I finally realized that happiness is not about getting a better something, but feeling helpful and needed and doing work for other people’s goodness.  As a result of this realization I said Adieu to my work and decided to do what I really want to do – to be an advocate for volunteering services.

I looked up volunteering organizations in Boston and found BostonCares. It went through their orientation and signed up for several events. In one week I taught math to adults who are studying to get their GED in Roxbury, I packed and distributed food to those in need at the Red Cross Food Pantry…. I visited Braille publishing house and learned about press for the blind.  I met a lot of people who volunteer regularly. Some of them are doing AmeriCorp program. As I learned more and more, I sensed we all have this feeling to help others subconsciously, but sometimes opportunities are not easy to find. I decided to start my volunteering organization that would match good volunteers to good projects around the world.  There is no need to answer Roger’s question, as we all know the answer to: “Isn’t it great to do something you love to do?”


Mike Dawson: Part Five April 21, 2010

Filed under: Vietnam — polyachka @ 10:42 am
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Mike told me that he took a leave from his University studies to work on Afghanistan OLPC project. At the same time he started his own company PAIWASTOON Networking Services Ltd. To learn more about Mike, click here 

First time he came to Afghanistan was 4.5 years ago. Even though he had to leave his comfortable life, friends and family, he is glad he did it as he has accomplished something here. See more:

Polyachka: What do you think about volunteering and international development?

Mike: International development in general is not working well in most places. The amount of resources being spent is huge, but the outcomes are not sufficient. Things get done very slowly and in ineffective ways. It happens because many people don’t know how to accomplish things in foreign countries. Short term consultants come and they may feel good about what they to, but unless they understand how it works, their efforts have minimal effect…

Polyachka: I agree. They lack local insight and they are not personally responsible for the outcomes

Mike: You have to have a local NGO be on your side , to work with you…

Mike: The other thing is to work in these sorts of environment, dealing with local customs and traditions.  There is a different work culture, you constantly have to check and motivate people to do well

Polyachka: How do you achieve that?

Mike: We make sure everyone has specific tasks and they have to put their work on the network drives on-time…

Polyachka: What about teacher’s resistance?

Mike: The bottom line is teacher’s confidence… How your get it is your problem, but it should be culturally appropriate. In our case we provided 6 day teacher workshop and then identified 7 teachers who were very enthusiastic and gave 6 more days of training to them. Those seven became the experts and “the go to” for others.

Mike: If you don’t have resources to give teachers training, then they don’t have confidence.

Polyachka: What kind of volunteers are you looking for?

Mike: Various. There is no language requirement, but we always are looking for volunteers with good skills and good attitude. We need people who can prepare manuals for teachers and check them for quality and many other things… We need programmers, fund-raisers, legal and educational professionals, etc.

Mike: With help of volunteers we can achieve so much more here. If we do it right in Afghanistan , it could be replicated anywhere in the world.


Mike Dawson: Part Four April 18, 2010

Filed under: Vietnam — polyachka @ 12:52 pm
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Mike: in terms of finance, we got $300,000 from USAID for non-laptop expenses, teachers training…

Mike: 5,000 XOs were donated by OLPC and the rest 800 were bought by a local company. So about 2,500 are deployed, others to be deployed…

Polyachka: What locations?

Mike: 2,500 XOs are across 7 schools: 4 in Kabul and three outside of Kabul, see our recent deployment

Mike: If you are interested to find funding proposals for educational projects, look at

Mike: I don’t know how to do it in Vietnam in particular, but it still may help… Find donor contacts,  development folks in USAID, World bank and they will know people in the government…

Polyachka: So what is Afghanistan like nowadays?

Mike: Afghanistan is relatively safe, everything happens for a reason… You are the target if you live  in luxury… And you are not a target, if you follow some basic rules, like do not attempt to covert locals to Christianity.  23 South Korean Evangelicals did…

Mike: I wrote about basic rules in the country guidance pack.

Polyachka: what’s in the future for Afghanistan OLPC?

Mike: we are looking for more funding, we asked for 4.5 mln. dollars to fund 10,000 laptops and to do the pilots. It will cover project management, developing a complete interactive curriculum and will give capacity for the Ministry of education to be able to handle the teaching

Mike: In other words it will pay for the laptops and teacher’s salaries, teacher’s training, monitoring evaluation to test whether it works or not…

Mike: 4.5 mln dollars is a lot of money, but if it works then we found solution, and then we’ll get a million latops here…

Polyachka: How are you doing evaluation right now?

Mike: It is only basic, have to overcome infrastructure challenges, server, localization…

Mike: after using the laptops for 2.5 months results of standardized tests improved 41%

Polyachka: in what subjects?

Mike: language, math and art… It is not scientifically valid but strong indication – control group….

Mike: Lets start the model and see if it works. Currently there are thousands of files in the digital library – local version of Wikipedia, photo gallery, story books, games, health guides, etc. XO is a substitute to having a book, used in class… Children are getting a library with digital curriculum, skill to think and learn for themselves, things that we take for granted…


Mike Dawson: Part Three April 17, 2010

Filed under: Vietnam — polyachka @ 1:50 pm
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Mike: So the goal here is to work with the Ministry of Education to create interactive digital books, use them plus multiple choice quizzes. In other words we need to create a learning system, with half the time is spent at school, and half – outside with interactive tools. Also we’ll need to give feedback to students –what is accomplished and what is not…

Mike: It is not a substitute for the lack of teachers… Again, 48% of all Afghan children don’t go to school … And those who go to school, only get half the time of what they need…

Polyachka: How long do they stay in school?

Mike: they should attend technically 12 grades, but some do 6,  some do 12 in the cities, but in the country side and the rural area a lot don’t go to school at all.

Mike: we have another problem too …

Mike: we have to prove the case, make scientific study… If you spend 300$ per child in conventional way by hiring teachers, building the schools, you will get the result. But by spending it on a computer, the results are hard to prove. In case of OLPC, there is no scientific study currently: kids with laptops and no laptops – no difference… But we have to test and prove it… You have to have a measurable result for the donor, who will justify the spending… It hasn’t been done yet…

Mike: You need curriculum content…and extra curriculum stuff… English? Also things to do with health, hygiene, home…

Polyachka: How much have you already developed?

Mike: household health guide, economic development section. We have a program that will ask parents questions and identify what skills they have to suggest appropriate micro business they can start. There are games, interactive books for math, science, religious education for grade 4. Adding more games now…

Mike: There was no Internet, we developed schools server with digital library. All updates are done with usb stick… You can have a server, a developer key and by pushing a button all computers in the area become copies of the master laptops…

Polyachka: Are you in touch with Nepal deployment?

Mike: I’d like to go there. They have complete digital curriculum in e-paath, check it out at

Mike: most of it is in Nepalese. Both of our deployments want to do the same things but they use flash to develop it all…

Mike: it is easier to get development people in other parts of the world, in Afghanistan it is almost impossible…


Mike Dawson: Part Two

Filed under: Vietnam — polyachka @ 11:53 am
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Polyachka: I don’t know if it ever happens in Vietnam

Mike : Does Vietnam have a normal paper based curriculum?

Polyachka: it must

Mike : that’s what you need to take as the starting point

Polyachka: unfortunately, that was not my priority here

Mike : I’m hoping our content development system will do to the cost of content development what the XO did to the price of hardware

Polyachka: and I’m leaving the country in 2 weeks

Polyachka: I was trying everything on a small scale

Mike : That’s the only way really….

Polyachka: but what do you mean about the cost of content?

Mike : Well there’s a cost to making digital educational content in terms of man hours / skills

Mike : the more hours and the more highly skilled the more it will likely cost

Mike : if you can make it easier and faster you can use cheaper people and less of them

Polyachka: don’t they just use unpaid volunteers?

Polyachka: to do all that?

Mike : Unfortunately it’s one of the last thoughts in pretty much every deployment except for us and Nepal from what I can see

Mike : (content)

Polyachka: Sugar is free and open source

Mike : Sugar is indeed free and open source… but it’s not curriculum content

Mike : it’s an OS

Polyachka: agree

Mike : Actually why don’t I spare 20 mins now and grab my headset?

Polyachka: But how do people involve UN in paying for it?

Mike : The UN are my competition – they pay people too much

Polyachka: ok

Mike : one moment…

Mike : we have a briefing note we prepared for

Mike: …educational challenges we have in Afghanistan are similar across developing countries: 1) Too many kids in the class, not enough teachers, 2) because of the lack of teacher time the children are not given the feedback they need, 3) Need for libraries, resources, independent studies, etc.


Mike Dawson: Part One

Filed under: Vietnam — polyachka @ 11:40 am
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Right before I left Vietnam, I had a chance to speak to Mike Dawson about his Afghanistan OLPC deployment and more. Here it goes:

Mike : sorry at the moment I am busy on some programming work and gotta finish off quite a bit before tomorrow morning….

Mike : would anytime that you are in Hanoi work?

Polyachka: ok, so I’ll try to contact you before then if I’m back to Hanoi

Mike : But on the plus side by then our new content development plugins will be out

Mike : I’m making a point and click educational game creators based on exelearning

Polyachka: which plug-ins?

Mike : check out if you haven’t already

Mike : I’m making Hangman (guess the letter game), Place the object game, find the place on a map game, speed falling object (e.g. tuxmath), wordsearch, crossword, sequencing game …

Polyachka: nice

Polyachka: btw, do you have a big team there working with you?

Polyachka: how many people?

Mike : relatively… 15 people

Polyachka: who work on XO/Sugar stuff?

Polyachka: all paid?

Mike : Unfortunately only one software developer (me)

Mike : XO/Sugar stuff – also me

Polyachka: the what else do they do?

Mike : Yes all paid – although a fraction of what some international organisation will pay them

Mike : teacher training

Polyachka: pay for what?

Mike : curriculum content development

Mike : They will pay someone who knows MS Access $4,500/month

Mike : Local staff

Polyachka: that’s great – curriculum…

Polyachka: I’m jealous 😉

Mike : $4,500 is a massive amount of cash here per month… 

Polyachka: no, I’m saying I’m jealous about the curriculum content stuff creation

Mike : ah I understand


Hanoi Q&A April 11, 2010

Filed under: Vietnam — polyachka @ 10:00 am
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It’s been 10 days since I left Saigon. Hanoi is everything Saigon doesn’t have, I feel like I’m in Paris of Asia. Weather is cooler here and I see it as a bonus at the end of my volunteering term!

As we planned, the girls at the shelter had Internet access last weekend and I received 2 emails from them, saying something in Vietnamese, I couldn’t really understand but it sounded positive 🙂 I couldn’t translate as they used English characters to write in Vietnamese, because Vietnamese characters still  don’t work on the XOs properly. I  sent more pictures to them and asked to write more, and to run software updates on their XOs.

There are a lot of volunteering organizations and NGOs in Hanoi. I visited two of them, met the managers and learned about different programs. Volunteers are always wanted! Habitat for humanity is offering micro-finance programs for families willing to start a business or renovate their houses. Volunteers come and help build houses for the most in need.

I met Phuong from VPV, and he told me about his programs. His focus is international development and volunteering. Local hosts and volunteers work together and learn from each other, make their friendship long-lasting and businesses sustainable. In the case of Giao Xuan, it took two years to develop sustainable eco tourism businesses with good qulity of services and  goods.

I thought of Hung, a business owner of a home stay in Can Tho, Mekong Delta. Hung was a former boat driver, who learned English from tourists. He saved some money and built several bungalows  next to his house. Today he hosts tourists and offers additional services, like private tours, cooking classes, etc. He learned how to be independent and successful.

I remember my questions from and I think I found some answers. Volunteering is very rewarding and I would recommend it to everyone. The XO and Sugar, besides being fun educational tools, help children develop skills, including problem solving skills, that they can use in real life.  Skills plus access to information help people to find ways to improve their lives and help others.

Vung Vieng Village. What is in its future? Will its residents stay poor or learn to be entrepereneurial and start their own businesses and then they will supplement their income from fishing? I hope they will not become heavily dependent on toursits like in Sapa.


Vung Vieng: Part 2 April 5, 2010

Filed under: Vietnam — polyachka @ 11:11 am
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I had a local coordinator traveling with me. He was born in the village, but now lives in Halong City. He is a member of the committee that helps the village. All people I met were very kind to me. I was given a towel, a toothpaste and a toothbrush, even though I had everything on my own and didn’t ask for it. There was no hot running water, but Hong brought some hot water in thermos, so that I could take a shower. More about the village is here

I planned to do a lot of teaching that day for all teachers and children (two shifts). Around 7AM I received a phone call from Mr. Tuyen, who said that I had to go back in 2 hours… If I missed 9AM boat there would be no boats to take to the main land for the next three days.

I hadn’t started teaching yet… but I still had two hours to perform my teaching duty. I ran to the school and met two teachers. Hong was translating.  At first, I showed digital books to them and how to share books among XOs. Out of 10 XOs, only three had  books, which was good for testing book sharing in class. I asked the teachers about the books they want and they made a list: Harry Potter, comics, any tales in Vietnamese…

Next, we opened Geography Activity.  Girls liked it a lot. Boys switched to other Activities like Trains, Traffic and Planes. They asked me questions about the rules of all new games: Missing  letter, Memory, Chess, Paintings, Hanoi, etc.  Children were eager to use the XOs and try new games. I showed TamTamMini to Mai, who is 4 years old. Within minutes she was experimenting with sounds (see pic).

I asked the teachers:”When do children get to use the computers?” The answer was almost every day at 10AM, but I sensed the teacher’s hesitation. It looked like both teachers and pupils would greatly benefit from a solid Sugar training. I wish we could have a volunteer to work with them for at least several weeks!  There is no Internet in the village, but I’m sure it is coming soon, as they already have phone land line and cell phones, which work perfectly.

At the end of my stay, my coordinator presented me with a framed picture of the boats in the village. Even though my visit was very brief they valued it. While on the big boat, I learned from the tour guide (former fisherman) that life in the fishing village is very tough. He is glad he learned English from TV and now has a better job. Vung Vieng is a big village and has a school, other small floating villages (like his own one) don’t have any teachers. In a couple years he wants to bring his children to Vung Vieng to study.


Vung Vieng: Part 1 April 4, 2010

Filed under: Vietnam — polyachka @ 11:11 am
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As promised to Nancie, I arranged to visit the Vung Vieng floating village

I contacted Mr. Tuyen at Indochina Junk company, which provided transportation from Hanoi in a tourist van and a boat to the village. I had to run software updates on 10 XOs and teach the children. Vung Vieng doesn’t have the Internet, so all XOs were transported by boat to the office of Indochina Junk company in advance.  I had to stay one night in Halong City. Mr. Tuyen couldn’t give me the XOs that day, as he was busy with the opening ceremony for the new office of Indochina Junk in Hong Gai. I was invited, so I came to watch. As I was the only foreigner, the TV camera man was making sure he covered my presence. 

The next morning I reached the office, received 10XOs and worked on upgrading the software, which eliminates errors, adds improvements to already existing programs/Activities. Unfortunately, wi-fi was not catching up with our agenda. It took several attempts (up to 5) to connect each computer to the Internet, which was slow. I still managed to update all XOs, download new games and change language to Vietnamese. While doing that I checked the journals and noticed that some computers were not used in a while, which concerned me. 

At 12:30 I was dropped off at the harbor and boarded the 4 star boat Paloma. Tourists paid up to 170$ for two day cruise on it.  Mike, the manager,  told me that he is very honored to give me (a volunteer ) a ride to the village as he cares about its residents. He explained that two years ago Vung Vieng was very poor, but now more and more boats bring tourists there. Tourists shop at the pearl shop, take scenic boat rides,  giving the opportunity to the locals to make some money. I was glad to hear that and to have free lunch as a bonus for being a volunteer 🙂

Two hours later the boat stopped at Vung Vieng village and the tourists onboard were surprised that I plan to stay in the village. Vung Vieng looked like massive rocks surrounded by water and scattered floating houses.

Hong (the pearl shop keeper, who speaks English) was my hostess. I didn’t do any teaching as I still had to finish working through some updates and file sharing capabilities. I also had to recharge all 10 Xos, which was not easy as electricity is limited in the village.

At 6Pm Hong ( who happens to be the brightest 20 year old  female and an OLPC project leader), the dance teacher and I had nice dinner on the deck.

I settled in a  pearl shop – the center of cultural life in the village. At 7PM about 10 young people arrived by boats. They came for one hour of  traditional dancing class. As I learned later, Indochina Junk hired the dance teacher for several months. I suspect, these young people will be performing for tourists in the future and will bring money to the village. Great idea.  

When they finished dancing, which looked like they were rowing, I was super exhausted, as I had almost no sleep the night before. Hong was kind enough to set up a mattress for me in the middle of the shop. She made me company and  stayed in the shop overnight as well. I fell asleep quickly, it felt like I was on a different peaceful planet and no one in the world can spoil anything. It was so serene.


VPV: Final Chapter

Filed under: Vietnam — polyachka @ 12:42 am
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My time with VPV is over. I received an IVHQ letter asking for my feedback. Oh, well. Where do I start? It’s been interesting… I am glad I tried it and found my limits. I found out that I can live with three roommates, sleep on a bunk bed, tolerate cockroaches, lizards, ants, spiders.  I can live without hot water and in a place with dirty floors and therefore have dirty feet… Loud dusty streets, indigestion … It was very difficult.

My main issue was heat, as our house had no AirCon, but fans, which were not always functioning properly. When there was no electricity, fans stopped working and that was what I think hell is. About heat… For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, imagine living in an oven. It is not too hot for you to get cooked to death but enough to get roasted. And what difference does it make if they give you a fan???

I didn’t want to be in any pictures as my face was red, even though I tried not to expose my skin to sunlight. My hair was a mess and I wore no make up. Would you wear a make up if you lived in an oven? The main priority is to survive, by all means. It makes me think of those prawns that were publicly executed in a glass pot for dinner – all they wanted is to survive in boiling water.

What got me going? Fruit shakes, any kind of shade, my students and volunteers I worked with.  I met a lot of good-hearted people. Last Sunday night we had a roofdeck party for all local and international volunteers. About 15 people came. I made Russian salad Vinegret, Linh brought Vietnamese food, Minh – fruit and Sandy – a delicious cake.

In my two months here I met some volunteers who were not serious about their responsibilities, it was just a stop on their big itinerary in South East Asia. They would get drunk at night and in the morning they would come late or skip visits to the orphanage or shelter, they would not get properly dressed, not respect the rules of the Peace house, but there were many others who were really great.

Lan and Zerlene brought a lot of presents for children in the orphanage: toys, T-shirts, sweets… Other volunteers brought children to the pool, which was a major delight for them. Eighteen children together with 10 nurses were taken to the beach for the first time in their lives. Some bought CDs for children to listen and dance to. 

I made friends and learned why people volunteer. Many said that they don’t want to be selfish but help others. I got some cool ideas about future business opportunities and met possible partners… I got my happiness back because it derived from the smiles of the children I worked with… Thank you, Saigon!


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