After visit to homeland, Stafford Co. man helps get used computers to schools in Ethiopia

Thomas Wolfe warned “You Can’t Go Home Again,” after growing up in North Carolina. When a Stafford County, Virginia, man returned to his homeland of Ethiopia in 2015, he found many things were the same. And that was the problem.

“I was going back to Ethiopia after 20 years,” said Solomon Desalegn, who emigrated to the United States, and has lived in Stafford County for a dozen years.

Although he saw new buildings and streets in the capital city of Addis Ababa, where he grew up, Desalegn said a visit with his young son to an elementary school showed little had changed.

“Old desks, teachers standing at the blackboard, writing with chalk, trying to teach,” said Desalegn. “There were no computers, period — not only in the classrooms, but also in the teachers’ offices and the principal’s office.”

Desalegn said he felt “heartbroken,” and sad that children in Ethiopia didn’t have access to tools his son did.

These old laptops were some of those refurbished by Educate Africa, repacked, and sent to schools in Ethiopia. (Courtesy Educate Africa)

“These are kids who were not exposed to computers or electronics,” said Desalegn. “They don’t know what they’re missing.”

The reality for the children in Africa’s oldest independent country, contrasted with his son’s experience was stark: “When he was 6, he was using Google Earth to find where his mom and dad grew up in Addis.”

Desalegn, 50, an electrical engineer, started a nonprofit organization, Educate Africa, with the goal of providing computers and accessories needed to establish computer labs in schools.

In the Washington, D.C. area, Desalegn realized businesses and organizations usually replace their computer systems often. After removing hard drives, the computer remains are either scrapped or sold to companies that auction them.

“Refreshing their computers every three years, five years, and I knew they were readily available,” said Desalegn. “So, it immediately clicked — there’s something I can do.”

“We buy the computers cheap,” said Desalegn. “Then we do a lot of refurbishing, to get them ready to go.”

Desalegn, with the help of relatives and friends, organizations and schools in Ethiopia, is able to deal with customs fees. He has traveled to secure computers, and often pays for the refurbishing supplies out of his own pocket.

Last month, Educate Africa shipped about 60 laptop computers to Wollo University. Another 50 desktop computers are set to ship to another college.

“Not only the students, but also the professors do not have computers or computer access,” said Desalegn.

Desalegn downplays his generosity.

“There are a lot of immigrants who are doing similar activities, it just so happened mine is focused on improving the quality of education in Africa.”

Neal Augenstein

Neal Augenstein has been a reporter at WTOP since 1997. Through the years, Neal has covered many of the crimes and trials that have gripped the region. Neal's been pleased to receive awards over the years for hard news, feature reporting, use of sound and sports.

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