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.