Tuesday, August 18, 2009

lots and lots of pictures!

We just posted a bunch of pictures up here on picasa. Check them out!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Back Across the Pond

Just as I wrote at the onset of our project, I am not entirely sure how it will end up. When we were leaving JFK airport at the beginning of June, I suppose there were different uncertainties. Minor things like which country we would be spending the next two months in, which school the project would go to and who exactly James and I would be working with were the questions then. It may sound ironic, but these are the secondary questions now.

Moments ago I read an e-mail about the price of power strips and how Stephanie and Justin plan to completely finish the installation that we began several weeks ago. The maker came in over budget on the first one, so Stephanie, Justin and Devon are planning to look into other options for the remaining strips. This is unusual as we were accustomed to having the first piece of work up to our expectations and seeing the quality decline after the full order was placed.

I am confident that the power strip situation will work out and the charging cabinet construction will finish. The bigger question is how the charging cabinets along with all the material infrastructure in combination with the intangible knowledge transfer take shape in Ecole Notre Dame this coming year. With regard to this we have much to be confident about. Not only did we successfully lead a workshop that instructed teachers on the integration of the laptop into their curriculum, but also instructed students in computer and educational skills. Additionally we ran demonstration learning projects, which illustrated the practical advantages of using the XO in education.

As we administered an exam on the last day of teacher training we were impressed with the progress of many of the teachers and encouraged about the prospect of successful usage next year. One of my major priorities with this project has been making sure that the computers are used. During our orientation in Rwanda we saw hundreds of laptops at different schools not being used. There were several reasons for this and OLPC is working to remedy the problem there. The greatest assurance that this will be far different from our deployment is the already scheduled computer time in next year's schedule.

While we cannot guarantee success, I am confident about the prospects of our project working out into the future. We have teachers that are no longer afraid of the laptop, we have a school that is receptive and supportive of the project, we have enthusiastic kids, and we have time allotted for its use. All of these factors working together make me comfortable that these laptops will not only be out of their boxes, but will be used in a valuable way for the students and teachers of Ecole Notre Dame.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

When West Meets West

Shortly after we opened the Record activity and began our class time for the day, we heard some noise through the open windows. It was a volunteer organization of foreigners trying to make Senegal a better place. Their idea is to plant trees across the country. James reports that they have planted about 10,000 so far.

Why do they need trees here? Shouldn't we give them food first? Why do foreigners have to run this project? Is Mboro the right spot? Why interrupt the natural simplicity of the sand?

All of these questions are ones that I thought of today and was asked by everyone that I mentioned this project to before I boarded the airplane. OK maybe all except the last one.

These thoughts brought me back to the third row of seventh grade social studies class. Looking down from the elevated second to last row, Mr. Clemente's clean shaven face stuck out more than usual. It wasn't because of the glistening sweat resulting from the September heat, but rather from my introduction to seventh grade US history. It was a short story about a people called Nacirema. It talked about weird rituals that they had, one of which included cleaning their face with sharp metal tools. Another quirk is that their name is sometimes read backwards.

Looking out the window it is easy to say that they can't reach every place in the world or that other things are more important or that the development project should be more locally focused. The more challenging action is to ask these questions facing the center of the classroom.

This has served as a good motivator for us as we had one of our best team planning sessions this evening and will try out some new tactics including foregoing a more formal introduction to our day's activity and to instead work off examples from our laptops. We will begin tomorrow's session with Turtle Art, which is similar to a once popular childrens' introduction to programming that involved a mechanical aparatus, a pen, and paper. After that we will work on the Maze activity for a short while and then proceed to Record again. With Record we will show the teachers how they can have their students record poetry or stories even before they can write. Stephanie realized that this was a great use of the XO after finding out that the younger students do not compose their own poetry because of their inability to write.

Staying focused on the task at hand and maintaining perspective is not always easy to do. As in seventh grade there is a time to look out the window and a time to look in.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Peace Corps

Eli's been talking a lot lately about the great way Peace Corps has been treating us so I thought I'd reiterate some of that online. Things that they have been extremely cool about:
-We were originally going to Mauritania, and we had to change that to Senegal in about 2 days. Peace Corps Mauritania handed us off to PC Senegal and we just kind of rocked up one day and they were pretty cool with it. Shout-out to Ginger Tissier (the grant would not have been won without you), Wil Ryan, Chris Williams, Chris Hedrick (the Country Director) and Oliver (the PC regional house manager).
-PC Senegal let us stay at their regional house in Dakar for free, which is at a great location in the city, has great beds and mosquito nets, and a bunch of really fun people always hanging around.
-PC Senegal got our laptops through customs ON TIME (This is crazy) and without us having to pay a DIME (This is also pretty insane). This is critical because it was so easy for us to do, and has been very hard for other teams to do. We didn't talk to a single customs official ourselves.
-PC Senegal drove us to direct to Mboro with half the laptops in a sweet Toyota Landcruiser the first Monday after we arrived. The day after, they delivered the other half of the laptops in the morning - no charge either time.
-We have ordered 10 laptops extra to completely saturate the 5 oldest grades. PC Senegal offered to allow us use of their diplomatic pouch so we would have absolutely no troubles clearing customs. A diplomatic pouch cannot be taxed or inspected - only condition is that whatever's in there needs to be less than 40 pounds. In addition, since the diplomatic pouch forwarding address is in the states (the way it works is that you send stuff to an address in Virginia and it gets automatically forwarded to the country director in whatever country you are shipping to), we saved $330 on shipping.
-Devon Connolly is incredibly experienced, professional, and cool. He's a fully integrated 3rd year volunteer who is also fluent in Wolof. He knows everyone in town and is respected by all. He makes sure we don't get "toubab-ed" (i.e. discriminated against in shops because we're white) and knows the best spots to hang out in town, be it at the beach or at the bar. He also runs Gentoo Linux on his personal laptop - meaning that he knows command line like the back of his hand and is extremely competent with computers.
-PC Senegal is almost certainly committed to deploying another volunteer in Mboro since we have such a large project here - we have verbal confirmation of this from the country director personally.
-Speaking of the country director, Christopher Hedrick is accessible, friendly and professional. We met with him personally a day or two after we arrived and he was really behind the idea and gave us full support from Day 1.
-Every other Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) that we have met (mostly in Dakar at the Regional House) has been extremely welcoming to us and receptive of our idea.

The conclusion:
Work with Peace Corps if you want your project to work. We know that if we go back to Africa to do this project again, it will be Peace Corps all the way in whatever country we choose. We think that it would be even better if in the future, OLPCorps was formally partnered with Peace Corps because of everything we've said. They have the resources and manpower to make projects happen.

Deep into Teacher Training

We're coming up on the second week of teacher training, and in response to feedback we've gotten from teachers, we're making it much more structured than it was before. After last week, all the teachers are familiar with the XO, if not comfortable with it, and we are going to start giving out homework for them to do. We already gave them a homework assignment on friday, which was to come up with a newspaper article, import a photo into Write, and write your newspaper article in Write. We wrote up on the board our goals for next week, which are (in probably horrible french grammar):

Les Objectifs pour la deuxieme semaine
-Il faut soyez capable de faire ces activites sans aide - Liste - Calculer, Ecrire, Naviguer, Enregistrer, Dessiner, Speak, Distance, Memoriser, Lune, Maze, Implode, Ruler, Discuter, ArtTortue, TamTamJam, TamTamMini
-Devoir pour Mardi - avoir un revision de votre article de journale
-Devoir pour Mercredi - pensez de 2 idees pour projets d'apprentissage et les ecrivez dans Ecrire
-Devoir pour Vendredi - Venez au class avec un devoir pour un classe qui vous enseignez (Maths, Anglais, etc). Il faut que cette devoir utilise au moins de 2 activites dans la liste a droite. Faisez un example de cette devoir.

For the non-french speakers out there, that translates to:

Objectives for the 2nd Week
-You have to be able to do these activities without help - List - Calculate, Write, Browse, Record, Paint, Speak, Distance, Memorise, Moon, Maze, Implode, Ruler, Discuter, Turtle Art, TamTamJam, TamTamMini
-Homework for Tuesday - have a revised version of your newspaper article
-Homework for Wednesday - think of 2 ideas for learning projects and write them in Write
-Homework for Friday - Come to class with a homework for a class that you teach (Math, English, etc.) The homework has to use at least 2 activites in the list at the right. Do an example of this homework.

Our eventual goal is that they be able to open up a completely unknown activity and be able to figure it out/use it in under half an hour. We feel that if we do that, they'll have learned the computer enough to adapt to whatever comes their way.

Next monday (a week from tomorrow) we hope to have a session on XO repair - after that we'll move into the more complicated activities like Scratch and Etoys. Teaching those two will definitely take up the better half of the third week. The fourth week (August 2-7) will be the beginning of the camp for the kids. And then Eli and I will be gone :( - but the other half of the team, Justin and Stephanie, will be around until August 20th to continue the camp.

This is a pretty ambitious goal, but we've been helped by a couple of factors:
-Some teachers were trained in computers already. They had a month long training from some Belgian people up at the factory in October. They learned how to use Word, Excel, and Firefox, we think.
-Note - I actually just met that Belgian guy, he was hanging out with the headmaster right now. They have a training center here called CIFOP (Centre Informatique de Formation de.. I dunno after that exactly) which teaches welding, electrical and mechanical skills, and computer skills. He's a secondary school teacher who runs trips down to Senegal with his high school students to promote cross-cultural exchange and to train Senegalese. You can check out their website at http://www.lets-move.be/
-All of us are becoming a lot more familiar with the teachers and what works best for their individual styles. Some teachers learn very fast, and some are a little slower.
-Devon Connolly is awesome, he speaks fluent Wolof - basically anytime we can't communicate something ourselves we go to him. In addition, he's a Linux whiz - he figured out a script to put a swap partition on an sd card to improve application-switching performance, and another command to put the time right on the frame. He basically did all the work to connect the cables to the female jacks in the conduit and he's been doing some stress testing on the network. In short, we couldn't have done any of this without Devon. Another post will be coming soon about how much we love the Peace Corps and Devon.
-My French has been improving little by little, and all the teachers here speak French fluently. Communication is nice :)
-We're getting the teachers that learn faster to help the teachers that learn more slowly. We're training some people that aren't actually teachers (the secretary, Helen, the janitor, Emmanuel, and the priest, Tanis), in addition to a couple of teachers from Garou, a neighboring town that also has a Catholic school. Some of those extra people are the fastest learners, so are having them teach the slower learners. Students teaching students and constructionism prevail! (Warm and fuzzy feelings abound)

I made a point above about me speaking French a little better, and that segues into a point that Eli has made before but I feel bears repeating - people know SO MANY LANGUAGES! Take for example the teachers. They are all ethnically Serer - so they know the Serer language. Then they all know Wolof because it is the lingua franca in Senegal. Then they all know French because it is what all books are written in (almost nothing is written in Wolof). And on top of that, some of them know a little English too! This is typical of most people in town here - they are fluent in both French and Wolof, and if they're not ethnically Wolof, they know their mother tongue (Serer, Pulaar, etc.). We met one guy at Devon's friends house on the beach that speaks English, French, Hassaniya, Wolof, Spanish, and Pulaar. He would be like a renowned scholar in the states, here he's a tourism operator who has some beachfront property. I feel really bad that I can only speak English fluently and French conversationally.

In other news, we've been going to the beach a lot recently. We go there after we've eaten lunch (after teacher training in the morning) so we avoid the hottest part of the day. The walk through the woods/desert is about 5km - I've done it twice now. If we don't want to walk we just take the taxi which is only 150 CFA (.34 USD) In some places there's a trail, but for the second half of it there's just dunes and scrub. Right before the beach there's a little strip of pine trees; to go from a pine forest where nobody has disturbed the needles on the floor for so long that you could sleep there to seeing the ocean is incredibly cool. Devon's friends house that I was talking about is right on the beach, so we go there and sit under the shade in the clean sand and watch the waves and try and speak Wolof/French/English to whoever shows up. It's pretty picturesque, no lie.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

memorize to Memorize

After our second day of training we were not sure how to move forward. We knew that we were making progress and that it is dificult to learn a new technology, but at the same time we could sense some problems with our process. Some of the teachers commented that while it may be nice to take pictures, that is not the point of their class. We debated the merits of explaining contructionism and how it is learning to take pictures and to use a computer, or to just see if we could tailor our teaching to our trainees.

As we walked away from the school around 9pm yesterday I was still unsure of exactly what was going to happen today. I knew that we had chosen to use Memorize as our activity for the day, but I wasn't sure how well the teachers would understand the application, or whether they would perceive it as useful.

This morning began again with a speach not only by James, but by a dynamic duo composed of both James and Devon. Leveraging French and Wolof languag skills, the two communicated that we would make efforts to show examples of laptop learning projects that relate to an elementary school ciriculum. They followed, but were not quite invigorated until we opened up the XO and started with Memorize.

We first had all of the teachers open up Memorize and then load the addition game, which is pre-loaded on the laptops. We again sat with the teachers and explained how to use the game. James described it as a computer version of a flashcard and demonstrated Mali and Bamako on opposite sides of a piece of paper. Some teachers got the concept right away, while others took some encouraging as they wondered why they did not get the answer right on the first time. The concept of luck may translate in language, but is definitely hard for anyone to accept.

After each teacher finished the demo game we had them create their own game. We jumped right into it and each of us chose different tactics. I had the first teacher that I worked with today use Dakar and Senegal as her first pair. Then I had her come up with another pair, which was the United States and Washington DC. Although on that one I had to help change the reponse (answer) from New York to Washington DC.

Other teachers started to make their own games featuring a variety of topics including math, language translations, captial letters, history and countries. Most grasped the concept rather quickly and a few made several differet games. Outside of the initial explanation that most required, there were surprisingly few issues with this session. A minor issue that came up a few times was that on the demo games the questions are at the top and the answers at the bottom, while the default for creating a game places the questions and answers randomly.

At the end of the session again the dynamic duo explained a newspaper project that we have been planning. The group came up with a list of ideas that were written on the blackboard. We then asked each teacher to prepare an article for class on Monday. We asked if they need to have any more skills to complete the assignment, and a few asked questions like how to import a photo into the Write activity, which was easy to re-explain.

After a successful day we went for a walk to the ocean. It's about 5km directly, but we chose to take the path through the breusse and it was definitely a nice to see the open fields and sand in the open instead of on the side of the road. As James was lying down on the beach, friendly crab started crawling on him, which prompted a good reaction.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Our setup

So some OLPC people have asked us to describe our technical setup. At the moment, since our server is not working, we are using a switch to rout the internet to the different routers. The school is setup like this:

with the headmasters office in grey. The blue spot is where the DSL modem, (A D-Link DSL 2640) is located, as well as the switch and the server. The internet setup there is as follows: telephone line->modem->switch->out to routers, since the server is not yet working. When the server is setup, the internet should flow like: telephone line->modem->server->switch->out to routers. The red dots are the routers, and the green lines are the ethernet cables.

From the headmasters office, we drilled a hole through the wall, stuck some ethernet cable in a plastic hose and buried it going out to the two buildings. Once it gets to the buildings, we've enclosed the naked ethernet cable in a conduit like:

The cable comes in at the bottom and terminates at the top like:

In addition, there is an electrical outlet for the router there too:
In that picture, the router is not wired up, here it is:

Because of the different configurations of the rooms, all the different shelves are in different places, for example in another room, the shelf is closer to the floor:

You might have noticed before that we have two ethernet jacks in our conduit, with cable coming out of both of them. That's because our routers are daisy-chained (connected) to each other, but not directly. If they were connected directly, the cable might have broken/torn the router itself if it was ripped out of the router, and we would have to buy a lot more cable to fix it. Instead, the internet comes in through one jack in the conduit, then a short cable comes from the router and goes back to the conduit, and then we have a cable on the wall going to the other router in that building. See this picture:

The router in the picture is closer to the headmasters building. The other routers don't need that second short cable because they're not connected to another router down the line.

Right now all the routers have the same SSID (network name), and the hope is that whatever router you are closest to your computer will connect to. We turned down the wireless broadcasting strength in DD-WRT to 10 mW (from 28 normally) so that we wouldn't be broadcasting outside school walls:

Currently, we've been having some problems with the internet slowing down and we're not sure if it's related to the fact that we're using the internet more or if it's because there are 5 wireless routers (the modem is also sending out a wireless signal because it's a combo dsl modem+switch+wireless access point) and even though we've put them on different channels (1, 6, and 11) there are two that are interfering with the others. We're going to do some testing once we get the server and disconnect a router + turn off the wireless of the modem to see if three routers + the server can handle the load of a lot of laptops. We're going to try to connect a lot of laptops to one specific router and see what happens, to see if the server handles all the ejabbered requests properly. Maybe the internet will be a little better once we have the server b/c we'll have the SQUID internet caching service working.

In other news, today was our second day of teacher training and it went quite well. After diving into a learning activity the first day, we backed up and taught the computer starting from the basics. We drew the keyboard on the board:

and had Devon explain what all the buttons and ports were used for. Next, Devon explained the entire user interface - Home, Group, Neighborhood, Journal, and Frame. We practiced sharing activities and as usual, sometimes it didn't work. I think this was a good thing because it shows the teachers that there are going to be problems with the laptops.

As to be expected, there are some teachers who are really excellent and who have used computers before, and there are some teachers who lag behind. The main barriers are the fact that the keyboard and touchpad are small and unforgiving to larger (i.e. adult) hands, and that we don't speak the language. My french is getting better, but it's still hard to understand when people ask me questions out of the blue. It's much easier for me to understand when I ask them a question and expect a certain response.

It's really nice to finally dive into some real work here! In the coming weeks, we're going to be constructing charging cabinets for the XO, finishing up teacher training, and starting to work with the kids. Also, we ordered 10 more XO's from OLPC to completely saturate the top 5 grades.

By the way, the top 5 grades have this student distribution:
Grade - # students - appx age - teacher name
CP - 49 ~8 - Jean-Claude Sagna
CE - 46 ~9 - Francoise Thiaw
CE2 - 39 ~10 - Mme Elizabeth
CM1 - 33 ~11 - Helene Diagne
CM2 - 37 ~12 - Pierre Khar Tine - also the headmaster

There is a lowest grade, CI, but we don't have enough computers to cover it. The incoming class from the preschool is about 30 kids and it would be too much. In any event, that adds up to 204 kids - however we have 5 teachers, plus the technology director of catholic schools (Elizabeth) who we are giving a laptop to, which brings our grand total of laptops needed to 210 - which is why we need to buy 10 more!

Fortunately, because the UMiami team no longer needs their solar panels (they had ordered 50 in the event that they were going to Kankossa, Mauritania), they are sending the panels back and we are getting credited for those panels (~$1,200). Which means that half the cost of the laptops ($200* 10 laptops + $400 shipping = $2,400) is being defrayed, putting this unexpected purchase happily within our budget. More laptops = more happy kids!

Monday, July 13, 2009

Out of the box(es)

Today we began teacher training at Ecole Notre Dame. Over the weekend we mapped out our three day plan and got up on time to start the part of the project that we have anticipated for the past weeks. We arrived at school around 9 am before our scheduled start at 10. We moved the desks around the classroom, where we have stored the computers, into a circle and then waited for the teachers to arrive.

Once most of our crowd arrived James, in a game time change in the line up, stood up and addressed the teachers. Last night we discussed how to introduce the laptop and I think James hit all the points although I could not follow all of it. Just as James was opening his notebook to inform Devon of his speech, Devon encouraged James to utilize his French skills and it turned out well. The teachers nodded along as James explained that the laptop was not an ordinary computer, but and educational device, and then we opened it up.

When the teachers opened the computer several wondered if their's was ok as it took a little while to start up. Once everyone had successfully booted up their computer we had them change their computer into French. This took a little while as we explained step by step how to go to the control panel and then the language submenu to eventually reach the French language feature. During this process we were spread out through the room and helped with skills ranging from mousing to clicking. Some learned how to scroll through the menu with the up and down keys on the keyboard.

Most of the teachers speak Serere as their first language as we are working in Catholic school and that is the ethnicity and mother tongue of most of this group. Secondly, they speak Wolof as it is the language spoken in public for the vast majority of Senegal. Then most educated people speak French and the more educated people speak another language or too, usually English or another Western one.

With the computers in French we opened up the Record activity. The teachers took a picture of themselves after we briefly explained the process. Again the five of us were integrated into the circle so they had easy access to additional demonstration or answers to most of their questions. After most had command of our first program we opened up the write activity and most started writing either about the training and their feelings or a short bit about their family.

Taking from our collective experiences in Rwanda we decided to have each of the teachers create a multiple language dictionary with photographs. This learning project uses the Record and Write activity in addition to teaching skills such as switching programs, naming files, inserting images, and formating a document. It might sounds a bit ambitious and it turned out as such. Still the success of the project and skills aquired by the teachers was impressive.

Most of the teachers completed a good portion of the project. Each teacher besides one, who had technical issues on her computer, successfully imported pictures and added text to the dictionary.

We started presentations, but the force of Senegalese dejeuner (lunch) was too strong for us to combat. We decided to pick up tomorrow.

After a long afternoon of discussions and rest Stephanie, Justin, James and I had the opportunity to be the first customers at the opening of our land lord's tea house. Neen, omlette sandwiches, and fataya were on the menu in addition to coffee. It was not a classic grand opening as most would imagine, but it was a nice change of pace to be in a dining room that did not contain the heat of the stove and with enough space to feel a good breeze.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Some Video from our trip

You can tell that Stephanie is excited! This was taken some time ago, on the 23rd of June.

Dance, Rhetoric, Wrestle, Rice

James and I originally decided to apply to OLPCorps for a deployment in Tidjikja, Mauritania with the Peace Corps as our local partner because my brother, Seth, is living and working there. We both thought that the project was a good idea, but without a dependable connection we didn't know if the project could work. As it turned out it can. Only a few weeks after we first corresponded with our new Peace Corps contact, we found ourselves fully situated into our school, Ecole Notre Dame, and watching a traditional wrestling match just feet away from the mayor of Mboro. Drumming in the back ground too.

On consecutive weekends we have seen wrestling matches in Mboro. For the first we waited through the dancing, singing and a few speaches for over four hours before the first grapple. The scene in general is completely masculine, but there are women too in a healthy minorty. They sit mostly on one side of the stands, while a few more take seats in the VIP section under the awning.

At our first match we sat only feet away from the current mayor of our town; this past saturday across the stands from the mayor who won the election. Yes it's true. In a contested election the candidate who received the most votes was passed over by his political party for the current mayor. The current mayor has brought much controversy to Mboro for a few reaspons including his religion. The elected candidate in Muslim, like the majority of people in Mboro, while the newly instated mayor is Catholic like the small minority of this town.

In both cases after a few short speaches and a good deal of dancing and singing, the politics took a back seat to the grappling in the sand pit. Each wrestler comes with a couple of buddies to the match and they dance around and participating in ceremonies ranging from pouring water on the wrestler's head to burying leaves in the center of the pit. Nothing sillier than Nomar Garciaparra stepping into the batter's box.

The actual wrestling is a small portion of the time that most people spend at the arena, but it is highly anticipated and exciting. The wreslers swing their arms at each other and try to get a good grasp of their opponent. Often they lock up and can stay that way for a good bit of the fight. The first one on their back loses, while the victor's supporters rush through the string barrier held up by wooden poles to celebrate in a college football way. And instead of a shiny trophy, the winner goes home with a huge bag of rice and a box of sugar.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Development in Africa

Some interesting observations that I've made (obviously from a western perspective) about Senegal:

The entire place shuts down from 1pm to 3pm. Without exception, people take a 2 hour long lunch break. It's really hard to do anything when there's no air conditioning and the humidity is like 70-80%.

There is little formal economy - i.e. the concept of "a hard days work" is foreign to most people because depending on how you look at it, they're always working or they're never working. You could say that everyone is always working because most boutique owners live in their boutique and if you want something at 3am they'll wake up and sell it to you. At the same time you could say that nobody is ever working because they're kind of lounging around their store all the time just talking with friends. The point is that almost nobody in Mboro except for factory workers has a job in the way we think about it in the United States. They all just sell mangos on the side of the street or own a boutique that's been in their family for ages. The reason the town does well is because the factory workers at the phosphorus mine/sulfuric acid plant get paid relatively well and spend their money in town. If not for that industry, the town would just be like every other town in Senegal - completely agrarian and dependent on weather/seasonal change for prosperity.

Sleep is not sacred. We were coming back late one night to the place where we are staying (it's an NGO run by this guy Mohamed Mbengue), and it was about 3am. He had locked the front door, so we were locked out, and we woke him up. In America, it would have been irresponsible of us to come back so late without telling him, and then to wake him up, because he had told us when he was locking the door. So when I called his phone to wake him up so we could get into our room to go to sleep, I was pretty apologetic - but he didn't really have a problem with it. I was talking to Devon and he was saying that we could basically show up at some persons house completely randomly and just hang out, watch tv, and ask for tea. In most situations in America, that would be unacceptable. Here, people would be fairly okay with it. (Disclaimer: I haven't actually tried this, but Devon says it's happened to him once or twice. Eli seemed intrigued by this possibility and wanted to try sometime.)

Speaking of Mohamed, since he was the head of this local NGO called Projet D'Appui, I figured that he would be really "with it." He invited us to his room for tea a couple of times, and through our broken french/english/wolof conversations, I have determined that though he has been the head of the NGO for a year and 4 months, has a place that he uses for programs and rents out to random people (i.e. us and some other teacher), and has some money, he has no project plan. As an American (and the son of a project manager), this kind of blows my mind. He has this operation, a facility, money, and no written plan. I went to Africa for 2 months and I wrote down a detailed list of things I had to do, things I wanted to do, some goals, the dependencies, etc. The point is, this is an educated man and he's winging a major project. When asked about it, he said he had it mostly in his head and that he was solving problems as he identified them, but it didn't seem completely kosher. The idea of even creating a general outline just didn't occur to him because nobody else does it either. The attitude of "Inshallah" - god willing, it will happen, is pervasive.

Another thing is Senegalese generosity. An example of this was when we went to the factory club - it's probably the nicest place in town, and sandwiches cost 1000 CFA (about 2 bucks). Anyways, we were there with two of Devon's friends, and at the end they wanted to pay for everything that we had eaten and drank (this was not an insignificant amount of money). The point is we had met them literally the second before we went to dinner, and they already wanted to give us money, pay for stuff, etc. Senegalese society pressures them to do this if they have the money to do so. In my experience, and from what Devon has told me, if a Senegalese person gets money, s/he spends it quickly not because s/he is irresponsible, but because there is a sick cousin, or a baby shower, or a friend in need, etc. People expect other people to do this - it's kind of like a self-regulating form of socialism.

So back to the title of this blog - development in Africa. The point is that all of these things make development in the way that westerners think about it hard. The workday is shorter, there are no jobs other than what natural resources provide, planning is a foreign concept, and money is given out freely to friends and family.

Fortunately, the people at the school that we're working with are extremely competent and most of these things that I've mentioned before have not been a problem. Maybe it's because we are coming with supplies and not just money, or maybe it's because we're teaching them how to be self-sufficient with the computers, or maybe it's because they just "get it." Whatever it is, Devon helped us pick a great school, because everyone is excited and motivated to make this happen - from the headmaster to the teachers to the janitor to the donkey cart driver (who I need to get a picture of because he's such a character) everyone is great. And that's what keeps me going though there have been many snags and changes in our plan - the enthusiasm of everyone that's going to benefit from this project.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Abra Kadabra

When James and I first started our proposal to deploy laptops in the developing world, we knew that there would be problems that we did not plan for. When we switched our deployment site just days before arriving in Dakar we didn't know what to think. Now with some concerted effort and a good bit of luck we are well on our way to accomplishing our goals for the summer.

Devon Connolly, our new Peace Corps contact and local leader of the project has turned out to be fantastic. Many other Peace Corps Volunteers(PCVs) comment on his outstanding knowledge of Wolof and the culture at our site in Mboro. Also, the Peace Corps administration got our computers through customs on Monday. We hadn't expected them until Friday. We brought a few boxes of computers along with us from Dakar and the rest followed in another Peace Corps vehicle on Tuesday. Our European power adapters, which were shipped to Nouakchott, the capital of Mauritania, arrived today after the Peace Corps Mauritania passed them along to the Senegalese driver at the border.

On Tuesday the director of the school had cable run from the office to the two independent buildings. Each building has three classrooms and we will run cable between each room for our routers. After we complete the installation all the computers will wirelessly connect to the school server. Also, we unpacked the computers and reflashed them (installed new programs and the new version of the operating system).

Yesterday we had a meeting with the teachers and explained the program to them. They are excited and realistic about the program. They asked good questions and while Devon acted as a translator

through most of it, our presence

was appreciated.

We will finish our installation soon and then begin on teacher training. Yesterday at our meeting in Thies with the regional director of schools, the training of teachers was heavily emphasized. The conversation also leaned towards the benefits of information technology or ICT as it is called here. It will be interesting to see the benefits of the XO laptop going forward as we believe in the learning idealogy of the One Laptop Per Child Association, however we cannot neglect the obvious benefits of exposing children to computers that have never used one at length before.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Dakar is Different

So when we got to Dakar 2 days ago, we immediately noticed how things were different just by the way the immigration guys gave us a hard time. In Rwanda, the immigration officials kind of looked at our passport, flipped through it to check out the visas from the different places, and stamped it. Here, the guy barked at me and interrogated me about where in Mboro I was going before Eli rescued me by telling the officer something about the Peace Corps in Dakar.

Speaking of the Peace Corps, I am so glad that they're our NGO. They're providing us with cars to drive the laptops up to Mboro, they're talking to customs for us and just making our lives a lot easier. We've been sleeping at the regional house (which is a little Peace Corps hostel that volunteers stay at when they come into Dakar for whatever reason) and all the PCV's there are a bunch of wonderfully skeptical and hilarious people. I have now heard more stories about sept-places (station wagons with 7 seats in them) than I would ever want to. Some crazy stuff goes on in Senegal and Mauritania - trucks tipping over on the way to Guinea, a little bit of pyrotechnics, goats being strapped to the roofs of cars, etc. Most people really love their sites, though it is slow going for everyone. There is no pill that will make Africa "better".

Going back to Dakar, people are a little more aggressive here - somebody is always trying to sell you something on the street, or trying to get you into a taxi. It's pretty dirty here, people just throw trash into the street or spit out the window. However, the food is definitely better than Mauritania. They have great baguettes, just like France, so the sandwiches are quite good and cheap. (the exchange rate is 450 CFA to 1 dollar). Yesterday, I ate a bean sandwich for breakfast for 150 CFA, then ate an egg sandwich for lunch for 300 CFA, then ate 2 goat (or lamb? counldn't tell) sandwiches for 500 each for dinner. So total that's 1450 CFA, which is like 3 bucks for food for an entire day. Pretty crazy, not going to lie.

On Monday we're going out to Mboro to settle into our apartment, meet Devon, and start doing what we came here to do. From what all the Peace Corps Volunteers say, Mboro is quite beautiful, so I'm pretty psyched about going. We'll see what the actual situation in the school is when we get there. From what I heave from PCV's, kids don't speak a whole lot of French - it could be a problem, but we don't know yet.

That's what's going on - give us a call at (+221) 77 358 7498 or shoot us an email/comment on the blog if you want to get in touch.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Another ordinary 5 to 9

Today as we entered our final full day of training, we stopped to reflect on the first nine days of the workshop and to look forward to our deployments. The discussion was great at points and centered on topics ranging from a critical anaylsis of different learning styles to the most practical security questions. At other times the discussion drooped to the standard interview question, "What do you feel will be your biggest problem going forward?" To this I answered, "That we will bee too successful."

My time in Kigali has been radically different from what I anticipated and included much more technical learning, cultural understanding, and friendships than I could have expected. The technical sessions were truly great and Ruben Caron is an outstanding teacher as well as teechnical expert. Also, Paul Commons and Bryan Stuart as well as the whole OLPC staff did a great job organizing such as large conference in Kigali, Rwanda in such a short time.

The OLPC technical understanding that I am leaving Kigali with in addition to the educational ideology is incredibly valuable, but I feel now that the most important learning experiences for me have been in and around the lobby of the motel that I have spent the last week. Some see the culture of a foreign land in art and artifacts, others in fine dining, yet I find the most value in conversations that are dificult for me to follow even though they rarely advance past an American third grader's vocabulary. These are the conversations with people that live and work in Kigali and work in Kigali and work in Kigali. By the way, my keyboard is made of rubber, but it is not stuck.

Scovia, the receptionist at Hilltop Hotel, is a great person with many interesting stories. She is great to talk to espcially because her English is the best of the hotel workers. She has told me of growing up in Uganda during the Genocide and of her current life working and in the local university. It was a few days after we started conversing that I realized that she was at the hotel in the morning when I arrived at and in the evening the folloing day.

Other people at the hotel such as Emmy have helped to advance my understanding of life in Kigali. As an orphan, he works during the summers and will start at the university in January. Through many broken conversations I have begun to understand how MTN the largest cell phone carrier in Africa, has controlled the continent of Africa through their commision based business model that makes it extremely tough for anyone besides their corporate empire.

With regard to the actual implementation of the program, I spent two days in the school, one teaching teachers and one with the whole class there. I was incredibly encouraged by the capacity for individual teachers and students to learn quickly especially with a strong language barrier. For political reasons President Paul Kagame switched the public schools to teach in English in the last year or two. Even so, most Americans would have a hard time conversing with the majority of teachers and some students, at least in my experience.

Looking ahead I swing between excitment, optimism and concern. Our deployment will have its short comings, but I now know the immediate impact that the four of us can have in Mboro, Senegal. What causes some of the concern is the one size fits all model to educational policy. OLPC is an organization composed of many incredibly smart people with great ideas, however it may have missed many of the pracitcal issues with the deployment of their eduacational tool. Would $200 worth of books would have a greater impact? I don't think we will ever know the best method of changing educational policy or exposing young children to the vast world around them, but I feel that more investment in the future is good and if it is easier to motivate educational policy-makers about a cool technology rather than some other idea then I strongly encourage that investment.

Idealism and hope aside, Rwanda from my own observation and many other countries and regions of Africa from conversation, are vastly differeent from the West. This divide is best understood by lawn mowers and hardware stores. We routinely drive by workers on the side of th road bending down to cut the grass with nothing more than a glorified scissor. While most Americans successfully moved their 5 horsepower mower from Home Depot or the Lowes that is likely across the street, to their home, in Kigali the mower sits in a nice display in the hardware store.

I now see that it is nothing more than luck and circumstance why I and the people that I grew up with will go to work at 9 and leave at 5, while across the ocean a few new friends will work the other part of the twenty four hours. Oh yea, and weekends too.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The King and I

Today we went to Eastern Rwanda to visit the king's "palace" and the National Museum of Rwanda. After waking up at 6am we ate a quick breakfast and set off on our trip. After three hours of winding roads and sitting with my head periodically falling back against the head rest, we reached the king's residence.

As I got off the bus, I heard that the king had been exiled. He was in Paris during the Genocide and is now living in Washington D.C. There has been a running joke since my luggage was first lost that I would not have decent clothes for my meeting with the king. I was disappointed that when I reached his home the king was not there. In his place were huts reconstructed to represent the traditional dwellings of the king. We were not allowed to take pictures in certain parts of the home. The main house which was built in the 1930's, seemed very ordinary to my American eyes and I am still wondering why we could not photograph this ordinary structure. Was the beer cellar a great innovation that should only cross the Rwandan borders in the minds of tourists?

The National Museum of Rwanda has four fairly large rooms composed of typical African artifacts and a great many maps. The museum has woven baskets, photographs, currency, paintings, and maps. The musuem maintained its ordinary record when I decided that either the trinkets in America are all exported from Rwanda, or the same Chinese supplier makes the products sold in New York and Rwanda.

After the museum we had lunch and a technology session where we learned a few things including how to add additional programs to many laptops at the same time. There was a tray with fuit on it and I took all the options including a small green fuit that resembled a lemon. I decided to try it. Instead of the strange tropical fruit that I was expecting, it was in fact a lemon.

This evening I brought my XO laptop outside to the patio of the hotel with the intention of going outside to check my e-mail, when I noticed a few young children looking at me. They were not only looking at me because of my fair skin, but because of the green toy in my hand. The laptop attracted their attention, yet they still did not come up to me. I approcahed them and asked if they wanted to play with the laptop.

One student had his own laptop at school because his primary school had been selected by the government for funding. He was fairly proficint and showed me a few of the programs that he uses. I sat down next to his mother and in between helping him, I found out that she is a teacher at a private primary school in the Kigali area. She teaches French, Kinyarwanda, and math to primary school children. A few more kids came and the laptop was rotated until they had to leave.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

OLPC Kick-off Conference

Yesterday we saw Paul Kagame, Nicholas Negroponte, and a bunch of ministers from different African countries speak about OLPC. They're incredibly serious about it here, Rwanda is planning on deploying 120,000 laptops in the following months, Cameroon just got funding for 5,000 laptops from the Islamic development bank in Jiddah, and Uruguay is finishing its deployment to bring itself up to 400K laptops. Uruguay's story is pretty inspiring, Miguel Brechner who is the OLPC coordinator for Uruguay has really taken the OLPC principles to heart. Uruguay has quantifiable results, Miguel presented some powerpoints that showed that Uruguay has higher attendance now, the kids are not dropping out of school, etc. He also really emphasized including the teachers in everything - if you don't include the teachers, the project will fail. I was talking to Miguel afterward and he also told me that it was very important to roll alot of their own software for the XO. They can't depend on OLPC in America, because if there is a bug and even 10% of their laptops go down, that's 40,000 laptops! So I think that countries need to get up to a certain level of technical sophistication before they can roll out XO's completely.

It's also interesting to note that even though Uruguay has done a complete deployment of laptops to all their children, they still did it in stages. There were like 150K laptops handed out last year, and the rest handed out this year. So I guess my point is that OLPCorps is a step in the right direction because it's a small step to starting deployments in all these different countries.

Speaking of deployments, we are now officially going to Senegal. We might deploy in 2 deployments or just 1 (if it was just one we'd team up with Justin Burnett & Stephanie Selvick). We met Doudou Camara who is deploying to Gabon, but is from Senegal, and he gave us a bunch of great info and contacts. We've confirmed our deployment as going to Mboro, so that's chill.

Anyways, after the long conference, there was a traditional Rwandan dance performance and it was really fun. They should have Rwandan dancing in NYC!

manual gates and french fries

I was a little bored before I left and a little overwhelmed now. We heard the President of Rwanda speak yesterday and watched a traditional Rwandan dance. Today we exited the Kigali Institute of Science and Technology (KIST) after a worker lifted the gate by hand.

Nicholas Negroponte spoke yeterday and made a compelling case for the laptop project. The best part about his work is that he understands the project in real terms, which means that although he is idealistic, he is reasonable and understands the complexity of the develping world. For all of you wanting to buy an XO laptop (the ones from our project) the directors of One Laptop Per Child indicated that it is likely that the Give One Get One program will be reinstated once the version 1.5 comes out. This program where people can buy laptops will probaby begin again around November.

The formality ended today and we started to really get into the program today. We started this morning by taking broken laptops from the Rwandan program apart and fixing them. My group had two with software problems and one with a broken screen. The screens will be ordered later, but the two that we fixed will end up back in the classrooms soon.

Outside and inside of the program we have had an unexpected introduction to Kigali, Rwanda and Africa in general. I still have not seen a McDonalds, I can't escape Coke and Sprite, and I eat French Fries at almost every meal. At first I thought Kigali consisted of our hotel and a small district of town. On Sunday we took a bus ride and saw a lot of the country. Not only was the countryside beautiful, but perhaps equally interesting was seeing the entire city of Kigali as our destination Lake Kivu in the north.

The program has gotten more compelling as the training as it has gone on. We have finalized our changed site to the town of Mboro in Senegal. There are fascinating people here from all over the world and although originally I wasn't sure that it made sense to bring everyone to Rwanda, the idea is gaining hold in my mind.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Thoughts on OLPCorps

Last night I was talking to Paul about my concerns and questions on OLPC - and after meeting him I was really impressed with his level of professionalism. I've been a little skeptical of the program as it progressed because of the short time period that we've had to put this together, and some communication mishaps, but after my conversation with Paul I really think that OLPCorps Africa has incredible potential. Not just potential, but real staying power. I don't know if anybody reading this knows anything about Paul Commons - in a nutshell he's the head honcho for OLPCorps Africa and came up with the idea with his friend and fellow coordinator Bryan Stuart @ Indiana University. Paul has deployed, on his own(i.e. without formal OLPC help), to Honduras, Sierra Leone and South Africa. His independent South Africa deployment has been kind of the model for the entire OLPCorps program. He just went ahead without formal recognition or help from OLPC and made a full scale deployment all on his own - proving that other teams could do the same. Paul and the other people that he's attracted to OLPCorps are exactly what I think that OLPC needs - educators and doers. I think that for too long OLPC has attracted the "web 2.0 techie" (of which I am admittedly one) but OLPC needs a variety of people on the other end of the spectrum, who might not be super tech-savvy. I think OLPC has wanted to attract that kind of people for a long time, but it has been hard because so much of the documentation about OLPC and the XO has been really tech-heavy. However, now that OLPCorps is in full swing, this problem will probably remedied.

Today was the first day of the conference - everyone introduced their team and we met everyone, it was great! I didn't take too many pictures but I'm sure that other teams will post theirs. Internet @ our sites isn't that great so I don't know when I can do a mass upload but I'll definitely link to other pics if I can. Tomorrow we meet all the cool important people - like the ministers and such - I'm excited!

Saturday, June 6, 2009

In Kigali!

We have arrived! We're in room 208 of the Hilltop Hotel. We got a phone number which is 0785105392, if you call using skype & say it is rwanda skype puts the right country code in for you, AND we don't get charged for your call - woot!

We made it through a 16 hour layover in Jo-burg and a midnight flight to Rwanda. Unfortunately, Eli's bag did not come through but it will probably come on the next plane. Tomorrow we get to chill out a little more and then we start the conference on Monday. Exciting!

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Flashing Routers with DD-WRT

So when we bought routers, we bought 3 Linksys WRT54GS's from circuit city, and one WRT54GL from newegg.com . The reason we had to do that was because circuit city only let us buy 3 WRT54GS's. This turned out to be a good thing because the GL was much easier to flash than that GS's.

I decided to flash the routers with DD-WRT because I figured it out first. I tried to flash them with gargoyle, a supposedly easier-to-use web interface, but I could not make it work.

To flash the WRT54GL, you download the appropriate file from dd-wrt. (enter WRT54GL into the box). You have to first flash the GL with the micro or mini .bin file. The way you flash the router is you connect your computer to it by connecting an ethernet cable between your computer & one of the LAN (not the 1 WAN) ports on the router. You then navigate to in your browser (firefox or IE or safari) and type in username: admin password: admin. Navigate to Administration & then to firmware upgrade. Upload the micro/mini (mini is larger than micro) and your router will restart. It will then have dd-wrt on it! It's that simple.

To flash the WRT54GS, it's a little more complicated. You can only flash it with the micro version of dd-wrt, download the file from this forum post. If you're on a mac you'll need to use this TFTP client. It works the same way as the windows one. The link for the windows TFTP client in the forum doesn't work, download it from here and enter WRT54GS in the box & choose your version (probably version 7). The link to the windows TFTP client will show up @ the bottom under "tools". If you follow his directions exactly, it should work. If you have any questions, feel free to ask in the comments!


OLPC Question:

Over the next week (before the Kigali Workshop), we'd like you to discuss why you joined OLPCorps. Feel free to discuss your past experience in your society, other societies, your experience with education, technology, and any other topic you find relevant.

(Eli) Honestly we didn't think about it that much, we just had the opportunity and we took it. There wasn't a long philosophical debate like there usually is between James and myself. We saw that the application was due soon, we talked about it, and called Seth, and started working on the application. We got serious really fast once we listened in on the first conference call and saw that we might actually have a shot at winning the grant.

(James) I'm doing this because it's awesome. Really, I'm doing it because I haven't had a whole lot of opportunity to use my skills to give back before in my life, and this was a great chance to do so. Also, it was a great chance to go on an adventure that will help people.

We had a lot of discussions about our motivations, and while we realized that while our motivations were good, and they should be positive, it is more important that projects get done. Quibbling over trying to adhere exactly to someone else's ideology is unproductive and impossible. What we decided to do is just focus on the project and put all our thoughts and energy into accomplishing the task at hand while still having fun.

We think that we've accomplished those planning goals - all that's left (a gross understatement :P) is to implement our plan! We'll be updating soon with details on that.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009


Since we started planning this trip in February we knew that the trip would not go according to plan. When we said this we were thinking more along the lines of postponed meetings, delays due to border crossing, and an unknown percentage of the children on summer vacation. It turns out that at the least that our plans are changing in a bigger way. Thanks to increasing tension between the US and Mauritania and instability and uncertainty around the upcoming elections it is not easy for citizens of either country to visit the other. The election originally scheduled for June 6th has now been postponed to July 21, with a possible extension to August 4th. Because of all of this we pulled our passports from the Mauritanian Embassy in Washington DC and have shifted our focus.

Our current plan is to move our project to one of several possible locations in Senegal. Senegal provides a number of benefits for us over other countries. One important factor is that our flights are currently scheduled to reach the capital, Dakar, on June 18th. We have not decided on the exact location for our project, but hey our flight doesn't board until Thursday.

The project that the coordinators of the OLPCorps program recommended first is the second year of a program situated in Keur Sadaro, Senegal. The blog for this program involving high school students from San Francisco is available at: http://keursadaro.blogspot.com/. Another possibilty is to work with Peace Corps Volunteers at another location in Senegal. Because of the time crunch in finding a new situation we have been working with the other OLPCorps team that was headed to Mauritania, to find a new site. This team from the University of Miami (http://africaxo.blogspot.com/) has dealt with a lot of the same issues that we have with planning and we look forward to working with them.

Sometimes the best adventures do not end up at their intended destination. With international travel it is likely that we will end up somewhere near the city on our boarding pass, but that could be worlds apart from where we think that we are headed.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Notes on the Learning Setup

When we deploy to Mauritania, we plan to hand out 100 laptops to 100 kids. (1 laptop per student, not 100 laptops per student :P ) To make sure that their internet situation is taken care of correctly, we are in contact with Mauritel, the national telephone company, to run DSL to Tidjikja. Another NGO in the area, Worldvision, has generously offered to build a classroom specifically for teaching XO's, as we are not integrating the computers directly in the schools. The computer program will be run after school, like a gifted and talented program in the U.S.

The reason that we are not integrating directly with the main curriculum is because of the extremely high rate of teacher turnover. It is a national policy to rotate teachers around to different parts of the country every year, and as a result, teachers are not particularly attached to any particular school since they may be very far away from their families. (Mauritania has a very family-oriented culture, so being away from your family isn't fun.) Sometimes teachers leave for months at a time, at which point classes do not meet. To contain the problem that would arise around knowledge transfer from year to year and sustainability, we are working with the Peace Corps to train the teachers that arrive every year.

However, we're still working directly with the school system. We have the Superintendent of the school district (called the DREN) on our side for this project which really helps things along. It is very hard for people in a communal society like Mauritania's to understand the concept of child ownership. To them, it is common sense that the laptops should be shared between many people - that way you maximize their impact on the greatest number of people. However, as we've seen in America, having ones own computer allows one the freedom to explore, to make mistakes, and to learn without being pressured. Seth has managed to convince the DREN of the importance of child ownership and 1-to-1 computing. This is incredibly helpful because the DREN is in a position of authority and when meeting with people in town who have a stake in this experiment (parents, teachers, principals, influential townspeople), the DREN's opinion carries a lot of weight. Or at least that's what Seth tells us :).

We are sure that once we get to Tidjikja we will have to change some aspects of our plan because of delays or obstacles, but we hope that with all these people helping us we can get the laptops in the hands of these kids!

Our Equipment

I've compiled all the equipment we are using for our deployment. I hope it is informative!


We bought 4 WRT54GS's from Circuit City (now kind of a division of Tiger Direct, you can buy from either one and get the same price, there was a promotion on circuitcity.com so we bought from there) to act as switch's and Access Points.

We were given a server. The motherboard from the server's specs can be seen here.

The rest of the specifications of the server are as follows:

SolidLogic GS-L02 Fanless Mini-ITX System
- Mainboard: EPIA LN10000EG 1GHz
- Case: Serener GS-L02 Fanless Mini-ITX Case - Black
- Memory: DDR2 667 RAM 1GB
- Hard Disk/Flash: Seagate Barracuda 3.5" SATA Hard Drive - 160GB
- Operating System: None
- Accessories: None
- Build and Test: Build & Test: Fanless - Standard (3-5 full business days)
- Power Switch: None - Unit will be set to Auto-Power-On
- Wireless: None
- Dimensions: 31cm X 21.5cm X 5cm

We plan to connect one wireless router directly to the server's Ethernet port. That wireless router will act as a switch & split the internet up to the other 3 wireless routers that will act as access points. The reason we are having 3 access points is so we can cover the entire classroom and some space outside of the classroom. The configuration will be similar to this picture:

We plan to install either DD-WRT or Gargoyle on our WRT54GS's as a custom firmware. We are doing this because the stock firmware on the WRT54GS does not allow more than 30 connections - and 30*3 access points only equals 90 connections. Also, it's not probable that all computers will be connected in equal proportions to each wireless router. DD-WRT and Gargoyle allow you to increase this connection cap. Actually, to be completely honest, we were not able to buy 4 WRT54GS's from Circuit City - there was a max of 3 that we could buy, so we bought 1 WRT54GL from Newegg. They are essentially the same router once we put the custom firmware on.

We also bought 4 50 foot lengths of CAT 6 Ethernet cable from Newegg. Those will connect the three wireless routers to the wireless router we're using as a switch, and attach the wireless router as a switch to the computer.

If you were following all of that really closely, you might have noticed that the motherboard on the server only has 1 network interface - and that since the server is in a mini-ITX configuration & uses the case as a heatsink (no case fan - minimizes dust, is more rugged, etc), one cannot add another network interface as a PCI-E card or something like that. Never fear, for OLPC has thought of this! They are providing us with a USB-to-Ethernet adapter.

One might also think that since there is a 480 megabit theoretical cap on the USB's speed, this could be a problem since it might present a bottleneck, right? Well, since internet will be slow if we even get internet, it won't really be an issue. Especially because the kids using the XO will not have a need for super-speedy Hulu movie streaming, and also because the server does some internet caching using Squid. Exactly how that is administered is a little bit of a mystery to me. I am counting on the fact that OLPC will instruct us in all of this kind of stuff when we have training in Rwanda from June 8th-17th.


We bought 10 1GB USB sticks so we can flash the laptops to the most recent operating system. The operating system, Sugar, was upgraded recently to version 8.2.1, so since they've already been manufactured, they don't have the newest release of Sugar. You can find instructions for flashing (i.e. upgrading) the laptop here. These USB sticks will be used for general purpose storage when they are done upgrading the laptops. They'll probably be given to teachers/Peace Corps Volunteers.

Additional storage is being provided by two Seagate FreeAgent Go 160GB hard drives. One is for us to offload video to (more about that later) and to store pictures, as we plan on taking a lot of both and don't know if we can upload it all to the internet. The other will be either attached to the server and used for extra storage that way, or if that configuration is not possible for backup it will be a communal drive, passed around from XO to XO as a way for kids and teachers to store large files (video projects, stuff like that). That was part of the reason we chose a portable external hard drive - the portable means that it is powered off of the USB port and does not need a separate power supply - which would have required another voltage converter (see section below).

We chose not to buy individual storage for the kids in either USB stick form or SD card form for a couple of reasons. One - cost. No matter how you slice it, a usb stick/sd card is at minimum $4, probably more if you want to order from a reputable

Video/Picture Documentation

A Canon ZR950. We chose this because my dad had one that he wasn't using. It's not the best camera in the world, but it works & records onto miniDV tapes, which are cheap and easy to store. Since we are not sure if we are taking a fully featured laptop, we may not be able to do video editing until we are back in the states & the miniDV tapes will be a huge help. The power supply accepts 100-240 Volts, so all we need is a plug adapter - and I bought lots of extras of those.

A Flip Video Recorder is being generously provided to us by OLPC. We aren't sure which model we're going to get, but since OLPC said that it was going to be HD, and I assume they want to save money, we're probably getting the Flip UltraHD. It's a nice bit of electronics :). When it's full we'll offload it to our portable hard drive, borrowing a laptop for that task from a Peace Corps Volunteer if necessary.

My personal Canon A590. The camera in the link is the A590 IS - I only have the A590, an older model, but they're basically the same. It gets the job done, is pretty sturdy, and runs off of AA batteries, which is a plus because that's one less plug adapter we have to worry about.


We needed voltage converters for the wireless routers since their power supplies were for the US's 110-120 voltage, whereas Mauritania uses the French standard for power - 220 volts and the European 2 prong round pin plugs (Type C).

In addition, though the XO's that we're bringing from the states (the ones that were given to our team) have power supplies that accept all voltages, their plugs have American flat prongs instead of European round prongs. As a result, we need plug adapters.

Other essential power items include extension cords, power strips, and voltage regulators. A voltage regulator protects against surges and spikes in the electricity supply so it won't overload the laptops/server & burn them out. We chose not to buy those in the U.S. because they are heavy and bulky. In addition, it is hard to find European power strips & extension cords in the U.S. They are usually expensive online as well.


Of course, we must bring our laptops with us! OLPC provided all the members of our team with laptops, which was really awesome. So we're obviously bringing them, check out the pictures:

Me with my XO.

The XO - open.

For size comparison, the computer on the left is a 15 inch Macbook Pro. The XO is pretty small! That's Eli in the picture.

We are still debating on whether or not we want to bring a "fully featured" laptop with us. We're not sure, as we know that Peace Corps Volunteers in Tidjikja have laptops, so we can use theirs when we really need to, and bringing a laptop could invite theft. On the other hand, it would be convenient to have the laptop, and if we don't get the visas (a post about our visa situation will be forthcoming, it is not good :( ) & we are stuck in Rwanda, having our own laptop would be incredibly invaluable. It is a definite tradeoff.

As a wrap-up, we bought everything from the links that we posted. They were just about the cheapest prices we could find on the web without going through ebay/craigslist. We decided to buy new for all our supplies because we figure it will have to withstand 5+ years of abuse in the Sahara desert.. so we need equipment at its most durable.

That's all for now!

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Just a few details away

Cornell OLPC has been either writing our proposal or working out the details of our upcoming deployment to Tidjikdja, Mauritania for the better part of four months. We have received great advice and help from a bunch of different people and are now ready to go ahead and carry out our project. As we do some basic language practice and decided which routers to purchase we begin to realize the reality of the coming summer. Thinking about logistical issues has a funny way making a project much more real.

While we go over these last few details we learn more and more about a part of the world that we had never heard of except possibly at a glance towards the back of the international section of the newspaper. We realize that our deployment is counting on the approval of our visas and the Mauritanian governemnent's continual approval of our work. We now understand a small bit of the problems of this part of the world. And we hope that our project is a part of the solution.

We will continue to update as new information on our trip comes out and will try to update with photos and commentary of the deployment as it happens.

More information on our project is available at the following links:

Ithaca Times

Cornell Chronicle

The Alernative Press

Also a special thanks to the Mario Einaudi Center for their pledge and to Jennifer Wofford for her continual support.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Jai Ho!

My friend Eli and I had this crazy idea to apply for a grant to hand out laptops to schoolchildren in Africa - something neither of us had ever done before in a place that neither of us had ever been.

For those of you who have just come aboard to our adventure, Eli Luxenberg and myself (James Elkins) won a grant of $10,000 and 100 laptops from the OLPC Association to distribute said laptops in Mauritania, Africa this summer. In addition, we'll be training the teachers and students how to integrate the laptop into their learning The grant program is called OLPCorps Africa in a riff off of the Peace Corps name.

You can find alot more information (though slightly out of date) at our wiki page on the OLPC website.

As Eli stated in the last post, everything is coming together very fast. To give our viewers at home a little taste of what we're up to, I'll post some technical details about what equipment we've chosen to use in the next entry.