In the beginning...
It all began in April 2001. After four and a half years working for a once
great internet company in Silicon Valley I was laid off. Luckily for me,
my severance package was generous and I did not have to look for a job
immediately. I swore to take a well-deserved rest and slack off the rest
of the year. It was during this period of soul searching that I realized
that all that I accomplished working in Corporate America was making the
rich richer. None of my work had improved the world an iota. My hopes and
dreams for the internet being a great equalizer lay shattered. Instead of
being a treasure trove of information it had stagnated into a cesspool of
advertisements, shop fronts and entertainment. Almost half a decade of
working for this company had turned me from a bright-eyed optimist to
cynic. It was around this time that I heard of volunteering overseas in a
developing county. This really appealed to me. I was born and brought up
in the third world (India) and had only emigrated to the west when I turned
20. I wanted to give back to the third world some of the knowledge I had
I began the search for volunteer organizations that would need someone like
me. I was looking for organizations:
Surprisingly, there were not too many organizations that passed these
tests. Médecins Sans
Frontières - one of the first organizations I applied to - was not
interested in Linux geeks. The person who interviewed me did not know what
the open source movement was and didn't think highly of my involvement with
it. Understandably, they were looking for people with more practical skills
like civil or mechanical engineering that were desperately needed in
disaster areas. The Peace Corps
didn't like me because I was not a citizen of the United States. I didn't
like them for their goal of propagating the American Way of Life and their
close ties to the American government. The UN
Volunteers agency was glacially slow and bureaucracy in processing my
application. I was accepted as a volunteer by the UN and "placed in their
volunteer roster" over 7 months ago. I'm still waiting to hear from them
about the next step in the process. The Geek Corps was new and they did not have
- That recruited computer professionals as volunteers.
- That did not require me to pay them a "fee" for volunteering with them.
- Paid a survivable living wage in whichever county I was going to be in.
In the meantime my severance package was running out and the tech economy
was bombing spectacularly, leaving me with few possibilities of getting a
job. I did find a couple of contract jobs to keep the hearth warm. I knew
I did not want to get a regular job. My quest to volunteer abroad
continued. I was out of ideas. I knew beyond doubt that I wanted to
volunteer abroad but did not know which organizations needed someone with
my skills. I posted a note in the Lonely Planet bulletin board
asking for suggestions. Among the many organizations suggested was one
VSO has been in existence since 1958. It
is an international development charity that sends volunteers to share
their knowledge as opposed to sending food or money. VSO sends people aged
17-70 to the neediest of the needy communities. VSO recruits volunteers
from the European Union (through VSO
Netherlands and their head office VSO-UK), Canada and the United States
(through VSO Canada).
I applied and earlier this year went through a thorough assessment process.
I was impressed with their assessment process. Instead of meaningless
questions or a written test their assessment process was actually fun. It
involved games and role-playing scenarios where the candidates interacted
with each other and the assessors took the back seat. The assessors merely
observed and occasionally provided instructions and clarifications. Once
selected, I browsed a couple of potential placements before I accepted this
placement in Kenya. All through the assessment and training process I met
many other computer geeks who want to be involved in bridging the gap
between have and have-nots and making the world a little better. If
changing the world required travel to exotic places, they didn't mind at
Now for the logistics of a placement via VSO. Volunteers are not directly
employed by VSO. Instead, volunteers selected by VSO are offered to local
NGOs and other organizations in developing countries who are looking for
expertise in certain areas. The volunteer, eventually, works for the
in-country employer and gets paid as much (or little) as a local
Returned volunteers say that the pay is just enough to live decently. No
luxuries such as a car or going to the pub every week. VSO pays a small
stipend every quarter to help cover the costs of financial commitments such
as student loans and credit card bills back home. And they provide
intensive training (including travel expenses for the training, which is
usually held in the UK) based on the placement.
My placement description says that I will be teaching computers to first
and second year secretarial course and IT diploma students. Not having
more information at this time I assume that the former involves teaching
things like Word Processing and Spreadsheets and the latter involves
teaching things like database management, troubleshooting, hardware and
software, and maybe even some programming. By the time I write my next
article, I should have more information on the curriculum. To make the
whole thing sustainable, I have to train my local colleagues in the college
so that they can take over from me when I leave.
I will be teaching in a small college in a town called Tala, which is 65
kilometers due east of Nairobi. Most of my students are of the Wakamba
tribe, who are the fifth largest ethnic group in Kenya. They speak Kikamba,
a Bantu language. Kiswahilii, which I hope to learn during my placement,
is also widely spoken.
The placement description mentions that there are 30 brand new PCs (running
various versions of WinDOS) and two LaserJet printers. There is no mention
of the computers being networked. I think networking these will be one of
my first tasks when I am not teaching in the classroom. Tala does not have
an internet connection. The nearest internet browsing centers are an hour
away in Nairobi. One of my goals is to hook up my college to the internet
and provide at least a basic email service to the students there. The
potential of tapping into the four-and-a-half billion pages of the internet
is just amazing. My first task would be to convince the principal of the
college that the internet is an important tool to have.
I am intensely aware of the downside of a technological society. I am
careful not to take the "White Man's Burden" approach to transferring
knowledge. At a broader level, I am plagued by doubts whether computers
can really help a country where there are few jobs to go around and people
lack food, clothing and shelter. I am not a believer in trickle down
economics. I also hope the transfer of knowledge goes both ways and that I
learn from the Kenyan people I will be working with.
Located on the East African coast between Somalia and Tanzania, Kenya is one
of the most visited African countries. Compared to some of its African
neighbors, Kenya has been an oasis of relative stability since it won its
independence from the British in 1963. In 1982 the ruling Kenyan African
National Union (KANU) party officially made itself the only legal political
party, formalizing what was a de facto one-party state since 1963.
Multi-party elections were finally held in 1992 after intense international
pressure. The ethnically divided opposition parties have so far failed to
unseat KANU which has solely ruled Kenya since independence.
Kenya is geographically diverse. It spans arid, semi-arid and semi-desert
regions in the north-east, scrubland along the coast, mountain ranges (Mt.
Kenya is the second highest peak in Africa and one of the two mountains
near the equator which are occasionally snow capped). Perhaps the most
picturesque feature of Kenya is the Great Rift Valley, which encompasses
game reserves like Maasai Mara and crater lakes like Nakuru and Naivasha.
The beauty and diversity of Kenya's scenery and wildlife is one of the
reasons why so many tourists visit the country. During my placement in
Kenya I hope to visit many of the well known and less visited national
parks and write about my safari experiences. I even plan to hike up Mt.
Kilimanjaro in neighboring Tanzania.
AIDS (it is estimated that over 13% of Kenyan adults are HIV positive),
population explosion and unemployment have contributed to Kenya's
deteriorating standard of living. Underneath the relative stability lie
deep fissures. The society is divided along tribal lines and the political
parties are using these divisions to garner votes. Over 40% of the
population is under 14. There are not enough jobs for when they grow up.
This is bound to lead to social unrest.
Yet, there is hope. This is an important time in Kenya's history. There is
potential for change with the Presidential
elections scheduled for later this year. The current authoritarian
President, Daniel Arap Moi, is constitutionally required to step down. As I
write, ruling KANU seems to be splitting down the middle over the question
of succession.Will a new, more democratic and socially responsible KANU emerge? Will the opposition use the split to their advantage and
finally unseat KANU from the helm? Even if they win, will they be able to
make a difference? I plan to write in detail about this election, how the
people participate in it and the changes that it brings about in a future
Coming Up Next
In my next article I will describe my journey to Kenya, and write my
impressions on in-country training in notorious Nairobbery^H^H^H^H^Hbi. I
also hope to write in depth about my college, the students and the town I
will be living in.