Zhazgul Zuridinova hikes for fun almost every month, but trekking the narrow mountain pass to Zardaly, a remote village near Kyrgyzstan’s southwest border, still makes her anxious. The 12-kilometer trail carved through the barren rocks is unpaved and bridged by wooden planks. One misstep could send her tumbling down the steep cliffs, a fate that has befallen many locals over the years.
“Zardaly is a place that no one goes to,” said Zuridinova, a 28-year-old project manager from Bishkek, the capital. “They don’t have the internet or electricity. While all the world is changing, they’re still living in the past, like a hundred years ago.”
It was Zardaly’s isolation that brought Zuridinova, two colleagues, and a donkey there last November. All three are employees of the Internet Society, a nonprofit that builds community broadband networks and teaches digital literacy around the world. Their aim was to bring the internet to the local school’s dozen students — who had been cut off from education during the coronavirus pandemic — using a tissue-box-sized digital library called Ilimbox.
The Ilimbox, whose name translates to “science in a box,” stores 500 books, 250 videos, and 4 million Wikipedia articles in Kyrgyz, Russian, and English. The device is only an interim solution for the lack of an internet connection — a thin facsimile of being online, but it has become a lifeline for students in the most remote areas of Kyrgyzstan, who faced being left behind when the country moved to e-learning last year.
“It’s a window for a person who wants to access knowledge,” Zuridinova said. “It’s not the door.”
Building internet infrastructure has been a great challenge in Kyrgyzstan, which is further away from an ocean than any other country in the world and is almost entirely mountainous — 94% of the country lies at over 1,000 meters altitude. That makes laying cables expensive and difficult. More than 60% of Kyrgyzstan’s population is still not covered by any form of internet, and those with a connection are concentrated in a handful of urban areas.
Talant Sultanov, co-founder of the Internet Society’s Kyrgyzstan chapter, first came across the concept of the “internet-in-a-box” when he attended the 2016 Internet Governance Forum in Mexico. The devices — repositories of downloaded internet content that can be accessed by offline communities — were being used to connect indigenous communities in the Yucatán peninsula.
“That’s when it occurred to us that, in Kyrgyzstan, we had a similar situation,” Sultanov said. “And that’s when we decided to also apply this experience in Kyrgyzstan and bring the internet-in-a-box to schools and libraries in remote areas.”
With funding from international organizations and an endorsement from the Ministry of Education, the project team — which most of the time comprised Zuridinova and one other engineer — created an Android app and assembled the boxes using low-cost microcomputers and hard drives. When connected to a power source, the Ilimbox becomes a local Wi-Fi hot spot, which students can use to install the app and download the content stored on the drive. The app also functions as a PDF reader and video player, so there’s no need to download other apps.
Even though there is no data network in rural Kyrgyzstan, many people there have Android smartphones, which are often brought in by Kygrgyz migrant workers living in neighboring countries.
Choosing content was a challenge. Schools in rural Kyrgyzstan have suffered from a lack of textbooks and other learning materials in the local language. Higher education institutions increasingly prefer to use Russian or English. “[Rural schools] have to share books or get worn-out books, if they’re lucky. And oftentimes they don’t even have that,” Sultanov said. That didn’t give the Internet Society much to work with. “There really wasn’t much to choose from, so we were happy just for any content,” Sultanov said. “We’re beggars, not choosers.”
Wikipedia has been a surprisingly important source of their material. There are currently more than 80,000 articles on the Kyrgyz version of the site, the majority of which were written after 2010 in an effort organized by Kyrgyzstani social worker Chorobek Saadanbekov, who mobilized academics and college students to translate Wikipedia articles from other languages. Saadanbekov said he was motivated by his own experience of growing up in the countryside and receiving education in only Kyrgyz. “And now I have hopes in our country,” he told Rest of World, “that if you only speak Kyrgyz, you can [still] access knowledge.”
Between 2017 and early 2020, the Internet Society delivered Ilimboxes to around 100 schools across the country. But the urgency of their efforts increased dramatically last March, when the Covid-19 pandemic forced schools across the country to close. In August, the Ministry of Education announced that, of all public schools in Kyrgyzstan, 2,106 were already connected to the internet, while the state-owned telecommunications company was laying fiber optic cables for 11 more. Twenty schools, however, would be left out, either because they had no electricity or there were plans to resettle villagers in the future.
“When we learned that,” Sultanov said, “we took it as a challenge and a goal — that we should definitely go to these villages first.”
The school in Zardaly was on the list. The village has around 100 families but no electricity, fixed internet, or mobile data. On November 2, Zuridinova and two colleagues arrived at Zardaly after hours of driving and walking. They brought with them an Ilimbox, a big solar panel, some batteries, and two solar-powered streetlamps. The digital library was placed in the primary school, the only public institution in the village, and 11 students between 7 and 12 came to learn how to use it.
Many older students already had a smartphone, but the team had learned in advance that the only girl in the school, Raiana, didn’t. So, two weeks before the trip to Zardaly, they posted a request on Facebook asking if someone could donate a used handset. A woman saw the post, cleaned and repaired her phone, and sent it to the Ilimbox team. “Thank you, sister,” said Raiana, holding the phone and the Ilimbox in a video recorded by Zuridinova. “I took the phone. I will study hard.”
In Chakmak-Suu, another village on the list, a cell tower put up four years ago offers relatively stable mobile connections. There, Aitunuk Talaibekova, a 15-year-old student, has been able to send homework to her teachers over WhatsApp and conduct searches on Google. However, most of the information she finds online is in Russian.
Because she reads much quicker in Kyrgyz, her native language, she had to use a physical dictionary to translate material she didn’t understand. The Ilimbox, installed in her school in October, gave her access to all the Krygyz language content scattered around the internet and put it in one place.
“Learning has become more interesting for me,” she told Rest of World. “I used Wikipedia to study the biographies of historical figures, authors, and poets, for example, to find their poems that we had in our lessons.” She also uses it to look up textbooks, so she can help her younger siblings with their homework.
With the last of the remote schools connected in November, the Ilimbox team is now planning to expand the program to include Kyrgyzstan’s recently created jailoo kindergartens, which allow thousands of children to receive preschool education while they keep an eye on grazing sheep in the pastures. Zuridinova and her colleagues decided to include the jailoos after realizing that the Ilimboxes could work without access to the electrical grid.
Zuridinova says that, the next time they visit Zardaly, she wants to bring the real internet to the village. “We thought about going there to teach [them] how to use Booking.com for tourists, how to use e-commerce websites,” she said. “Not only bringing the internet there, but also teaching [them] how to use it for work, study, and other things.”