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Geek Volunteer Overseas - Prologue

By thaths in Technology
Tue Sep 03, 2002 at 05:06:22 PM EST
Tags: Culture (all tags)

In less than a week I will be flying to Kenya. For the next nine months I will be volunteering as a Computer Instructor in a small college in rural Kenya. This article is the prelude to what, I hope, will be a series of articles that will provide first-hand glimpses into the ups and downs of working as a tech volunteer overseas. Over the coming months I hope to share with the K5 community my experiences living in a small town in rural Kenya and teaching computers to high school graduates. I will be exploring the state of development in the third world, their computer needs, their hopes and dreams, their culture, politics, educational system and much more. Internet access permitting, I plan to write one article every thirty to forty-five days on how things are going, what I've learned and my impressions. Think of this series as a Tech-Teach-Travelogue.

In this prologue I describe how I got to this point, where I am headed, what I hope to achieve and my concerns. I write it in the hope that it might be useful to others who have similar aspirations of volunteering and traveling abroad.

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 acquired.

The Search
I began the search for volunteer organizations that would need someone like me. I was looking for organizations:

  • 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.
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 many openings.

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 called VSO.

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 all.

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 employee.

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
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.

Corruption, 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 article.

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.


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Related Links
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Geek Volunteer Overseas - Prologue | 65 comments (59 topical, 6 editorial, 0 hidden)
local politics (2.00 / 1) (#2)
by xah on Tue Sep 03, 2002 at 04:17:42 PM EST

System administrators inevitably become involved in politics. The introduction of IT resources to a community will cause a power shift that could challenge the prevailing authorities who are probably antidemocratic. So do you have the mindset of helping the local political establishment wherever you end up? Or are you going to challenge it?

I think your conception is a bit off (3.00 / 1) (#31)
by Shren on Wed Sep 04, 2002 at 08:22:26 AM EST

You said:

System administrators inevitably become involved in politics. The introduction of IT resources to a community will cause a power shift that could challenge the prevailing authorities who are probably antidemocratic. So do you have the mindset of helping the local political establishment wherever you end up? Or are you going to challenge it?

Story author said:

My placement description says that I will be teaching computers to first and second year secretarial course and IT diploma students.

I say:

It's not like he's bringing computers into a place where people usually count with rocks. I doubt he's going to be a walking upsurption of the power structure. Sure, some of Africa is tribal - but Africa also holds the email scam capital of the world. Probably nobody is going to mistake his computer for a magic box.

[ Parent ]

Excellent (3.50 / 2) (#3)
by Quixato on Tue Sep 03, 2002 at 04:23:41 PM EST

I look forward to reading further articles. Perhaps you can inspire some other would-be dogooders to help bridge the electronic divide. Unfortunately, in situations like this, people often question the value of teaching 'high tech' skills to people who are probably struggling to find enough food and fresh water to survive... And this is a valid point. However, exposure to the internet and general computer skills may help in ways that are not so easily definable. Any knowledge is good knowledge.

"People are like smarties - all different colours on the outside, but exactly the same on the inside." - Me
"Learn to question, question to learn." - Sl8r

Not all Africans are starving (5.00 / 1) (#15)
by Paul Johnson on Tue Sep 03, 2002 at 07:18:02 PM EST

We tend to have an image of Africans as either filthy rich kleptocrats or starving peasants, because this is the image that the media presents us. In fact most Africans most of the time have enough to eat and a bit left over to sell. They face grinding poverty and hard labour. Knowledge is something that might just lift them out of that poverty. It is certainly not irrelevant.

You are lost in a twisty maze of little standards, all different.
[ Parent ]

Thanks (none / 0) (#27)
by Quixato on Wed Sep 04, 2002 at 02:56:21 AM EST

I'm pretty sure that's what I was saying, despite the fact that I've never been to africa... But thanks for pointing that out to me.

"People are like smarties - all different colours on the outside, but exactly the same on the inside." - Me
"Learn to question, question to learn." - Sl8r
[ Parent ]

Corruption is a major issue (4.00 / 1) (#34)
by hughk on Wed Sep 04, 2002 at 10:01:57 AM EST

I have worked in the Former Soviet Union (FSU) where corruption is a major issue. The paperwork systems used in lesser developed systems for keeping track of bureaucracy is easy to subvert.

People come ten a penny in such places as this, but the problem is that the people receive little in the way of pay so they they seek rewards for favours.

The main use of a computer is to shed a little more transparency on the whole process. It definitely isn't a cure all, but it does help to ensure that inofmation isn't so easily manipulated (if the system is reasonably well designed). This is particularly important for things like taxes and registrars of property ownership. It can also help to ensure that people are seen to be treated equally and that there is less cronyism or tribalism (a curse of Africa).

[ Parent ]

excellent! (4.00 / 7) (#4)
by Run4YourLives on Tue Sep 03, 2002 at 04:34:05 PM EST

This is the type of article that I personally would like to see some more of on this site.

I'm interested in seeing how things go from here...and on how the whole experience affects you in general.

Good Luck!

It's slightly Japanese, but without all of that fanatical devotion to the workplace. - CheeseburgerBrown

Really interesting. (2.66 / 3) (#7)
by bigbtommy on Tue Sep 03, 2002 at 05:13:16 PM EST

Sounds like your doing some really valuable work, and helping communities. Gets a +1FP from me...
-- bbCity.co.uk - When I see kids, I speed up
Natural Heritage (4.00 / 1) (#8)
by Baldrson on Tue Sep 03, 2002 at 05:20:50 PM EST

Humanitarian actions in Africa are not responsible unless they take into account the possible side-effects on the natural ecosystems there. Traditionally "the white man's burden" has resulted in empowering populations within Africa that further the destruction of the Earth's most valuable natural heritage from hunter-gatherers to bonobos to mountain gorillas to the rest of the amazing African ecology.

Paying lip service to the preservation of the natural heritage of Africa while doing things like "modernizing" populations there is simply another form of colonialism cloaked in the mantel of altruism.

-------- Empty the Cities --------

um, (none / 0) (#12)
by faecal on Tue Sep 03, 2002 at 06:13:59 PM EST

Do you really value the environment above the people? I'm sure that preserving the environment makes it a nicer place to take a holiday, but what if you had to make a living there? Surely most families would rather have a table and some firewood than a nice leafy tree for their garden?

[ Parent ]
You have a valid point, but... (none / 0) (#35)
by Baldrson on Wed Sep 04, 2002 at 11:23:44 AM EST

while some forms of "modernization" can temporarily decrease environmental impact in some cases the basic reality of technology is that it alters environments to fit human will. It really is far more important to remove populations from existing ecosystems by creating new where virtually none currently exist than it is to make conditions more livable for people within them.

-------- Empty the Cities --------

[ Parent ]

oh please... (none / 0) (#41)
by faecal on Wed Sep 04, 2002 at 05:55:21 PM EST

welcome to the present. Check your orbital agricultural platform at the door. Keep your tribble on a leash.

[ Parent ]
The Present (none / 0) (#46)
by Baldrson on Wed Sep 04, 2002 at 10:35:20 PM EST

The present is a place where sharing needles and anal sex with random partners doesn't kill you. You are welcome to it along with all others who are trashing the future.

-------- Empty the Cities --------

[ Parent ]

I like your first sentence, (none / 0) (#53)
by faecal on Thu Sep 05, 2002 at 06:16:13 PM EST

but I fail to see how my "trashing the present" is any worse than your living in a fantasy world where you want to create a better future with technologies that are not yet at our disposal.

That is to say, when you're having sex with random partners, use a condom, don't rely on the nanotechnology to clean the virii out of your bloodstream - it's not here yet. Tools of today to prevent problems of tomorrow. Not pretty, but neccessary.

[ Parent ]

Nontechnology vs Reality (none / 0) (#57)
by Baldrson on Fri Sep 06, 2002 at 11:40:11 AM EST

Certainly there are learning curves to drive down just as there are with most any technology that is not deployed. However I making no reference to anything like nanotechnology or "tribbles"/warp drive/Star Trek in my web pages concerned with the means by which life may be dispersed beyond present ecosystems via human presence and you offer no better exemplars of your sardonic attitude. It is clear you are interested more in hyperbole than critique.

-------- Empty the Cities --------

[ Parent ]

I;ll keep this in mind (none / 0) (#18)
by thaths on Tue Sep 03, 2002 at 08:44:46 PM EST

I will centrainly keep your words in mind.  I do plan to visit places like Olduvai Gorge (where Dr. Leakey discovered some of the erliest of hominid bones) and Gombe Stream (where Jane Goodall did her ground breaking research) while I'm in Africa.  I will write in detail about ecology and eco-tourism and local involvement in conservation.


[ Parent ]

Good One (none / 0) (#11)
by blackpaw on Tue Sep 03, 2002 at 05:56:29 PM EST

Interesting, I'd never heard of the VSO, I'll have to check them out in Australia. Good luck p.s. I've heard of the "white man's burden" but never really followed up on its exact meaning, can anyone illuminate me ?

<click>... (4.00 / 2) (#14)
by cestmoi on Tue Sep 03, 2002 at 07:09:13 PM EST

... you're illuminated

Don't forget to turn the light off when you're done.

[ Parent ]

more simply put.... (none / 0) (#26)
by biggs on Wed Sep 04, 2002 at 01:32:31 AM EST

It was the duty felt by white people to go civilize "savages" of the world... and more often then not bring them to Christianity. Er... I guess that was kinda redundant... I mean heathens were all pretty much considered savages.

"Rockin my 'hell I made it' wetsuit stitch so I can swim in elevators crazy wet through piss" -Cannibal Ox
[ Parent ]
interesting (3.66 / 3) (#13)
by 5pectre on Tue Sep 03, 2002 at 06:34:50 PM EST

i plan to do a volunteer work placement in the third year of my degree (compsci) (i start my second year this september).

ideally i'd like to work in one of the ex-soviet states (i think africa would be too hot for me).

but i'd doubt how much use i would be, i mean who needs a geek when there are much greater problems facing the population. i'd feel that i'd be more a burden than a help.

a question for the author, did you have any african language skills before going? do you think that the language will present a problem?

"Let us kill the English, their concept of individual rights might undermine the power of our beloved tyrants!!" - Lisa Simpson [ -1.50 / -7.74]

Never underestimate the power of your work (5.00 / 2) (#20)
by thaths on Tue Sep 03, 2002 at 08:53:14 PM EST

Never understimate the contribution you could make volunteering.  And think of the benefits you'll get by living in a foreign country for a year or two.  You'll never regret volunteering later in life.  In fact, I bet that you'll turn back and look at you days abroad with joy.

I do not know which country you are currently living in.  If you are in Canada, VSO does something called NetCorps which is designed specifically for IT students and fresh graduates.  The placements are typically 6-9 months long.  Other countries might have simiar programs.

In regards to your question, I do not know any african languages at this point.  I have picked up a word or two or Kiswahilii.  The medium of instuction in Kenya is English.  So the actual teaching should not be a problem.  I have to learn some to get around the remoter parts of the country.  VSO will teach some Swahilii as part of my in-country training.


[ Parent ]

I worked in some ex-Soviet states (5.00 / 1) (#29)
by hughk on Wed Sep 04, 2002 at 07:40:06 AM EST

I have done work in two countries of the Former Soviet Union: Russia and Uzbekistan. Russia doesn't really need inexperienced people it has a lot of people who know computers. What it lacks is knowledge of project management and spare computers (particularly away from the major cities).

Lesser developed economies such as Uzbekistan may hav computer coursees and Internet cafes in the capital. Fifty km away, there is very little. All book-keeping will be done manually with all the associated problems with embezzlement and corruption. Computer systems have their place in such economies, especially in the government because they are harder to subvert than a scrappy piece of paper with a stamp on it.

At my end of the business, I was provided with interpreters and translators. As someone at the other end you would have to know the local language. Probably, that would mean Uzbek in Uzbekistan rather than Russian as the language is de-emphasised now and is not so well known outside the big cities and the older people. This is fairly typical of Central Asia, so that means Tajik in Tajikistan and so on.

In both cases, I was working on reasonably well paid assignents. Working at home would have paid better, but I was definitely not on a subsistance wage for my assignment.

[ Parent ]

thanks (none / 0) (#38)
by 5pectre on Wed Sep 04, 2002 at 03:43:45 PM EST

VSO is pulling out of Russia in 2003 anyway.

Yeah, my biggest concern would be the language, english is my first language and i can get by in french, but i would imagine that central asian languages are a lot different. Learning russian is on my long term plan of "stuff to do", but learning a language isn't exactly something you can do in a weekend :)

I'm not really concerned about the money, I have some saved for travelling and at the kind of prices Meatbomb was talking about i think i could get by ok with a subsistance wage.

If what you say about them not needing computer science guys is right, I'll start looking into alternative destinations.

"Let us kill the English, their concept of individual rights might undermine the power of our beloved tyrants!!" - Lisa Simpson [ -1.50 / -7.74]

[ Parent ]

A primer in slavic (none / 0) (#65)
by tekue on Wed Jan 22, 2003 at 08:41:42 AM EST

[..] english is my first language and i can get by in french, but i would imagine that central asian languages are a lot different.
I can't say about central asian languages, but judging by the languages I know (Polish, English, a bit of Russian) the differences are big, but understandable. For example, Polish and Russian use only three times -- past, present, and future -- as compared to English who has an awful lot.

On the flipside, (most?) slavic languages use declination which can be hard to learn for someone who never used it. For example, with a word "pies" ("a dog") you also have "psa" ("of a dog" or "[take out] the dog"), "psu" ("[give it] to a dog"), "psem" ("[with] a dog"), "psie" ("[about] a dog" or "[hey!] dog!"), and moreover, there are different words for single and multiple items :). Also, a dog -- and many other nouns -- would be considered a he, not an it, while other nouns could be considered a she or an it, which I guess is diffrentiated by the ending of a word ("-a" for she, "-o" for it), but I'm by no means an expert.

Also, there's no such thing as "the"/"a" difference. When you refer to a dog, you just say "dog", or if there's room for confusion, "my dog" or "that dog".

There are a few differences, but they can be fun to learn. After all, I've learned some English and don't find it that hard. Have fun!
Humanity has advanced, when it has advanced, not because it has been sober, responsible, and cautious, but because it has been playful, rebellious, and immature. --Tom Robbins
[ Parent ]

Keep your eyes open.. (4.71 / 7) (#16)
by StephenThompson on Tue Sep 03, 2002 at 07:43:40 PM EST

While it seems to make sense to teach computer skills to Kenyan students, I am sure you will notice there are one or two more important things they really need. I havent been to the village, but I have been to Nairobi, and I tell you what they really need is basic sanitation service. If you can do one thing to really help out the people, get them to understand the idea of garbage collection! Nairobi is a mess, a putrifying example of western culture meets african nomad culture resulting in a pile of garbage and decay. You see, their cultural heritage does not contain non-biodegradable materials, so they just throw things like plastic and styrofoam on the ground. Where it never goes away, it just gets into every nook and cranny.

Interesting.. (4.00 / 4) (#17)
by X3nocide on Tue Sep 03, 2002 at 07:56:26 PM EST

but I think Garbage Collection will pass over students heads, since they really haven't been introduced to programming, let alone memory management.

[ Parent ]
on Kenya (5.00 / 7) (#19)
by SocratesGhost on Tue Sep 03, 2002 at 08:45:21 PM EST


I'm no expert on Kenya; I was conceived there (on the island of Lamu--it's disturbing to know the exact geographic location of your own conception; parents should just keep some things to themselves) and have been there several times. The last time I was there was about 12 years ago.

It's a breathtakingly beautiful country, filled with contrasts. Nairobi appears to be just like any other modernized city, although 12 miles out you can find yourself in the bush amid wild animals. A great spot to visit while in Nairobi is the Treetop Hotel. It's famous for an Acacia tree (a thorn tree) where travellers stick messages in the hopes that a future expectant party will read that message. It's not unusual to see a message like, "Hey Rick, just got back from Mombasa. See you in Amsterdam." It really makes you feel like the world is a much smaller place.

Outside of Kenya, another obligatory city to visit is Mombasa. It's a port for the US Navy, so there's some services that cater to Americans. Also, it's dirt cheap. Last time there, I got Lobster Thermadore for about US$8 and these prices are relatively common. Fort Jesus is an old Portuguese/Arab fort that is a worthwhile tourist stop. And there's nothing like watching a sunrise off the Indian ocean. The sunrises (to my recollection if not in reality) were of the purest white, as though it were the first dawn on earth.

Kenya sports a large population of Indians. The locals call them "Asians", so when they use this word, they're not talking about Southeast Asians, Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, etc. There tends to be some prejudice against Indians by the local population; a good comparison would be to liken it to the presence of Jews in Europe. A sizeable population of them have well paying jobs, a good education, and a degree of success that makes them stand out. The local population kicked out the British colonists back in the 60's and I think that there is some remnant xenophobia.

For example, my parents used to live in a small village called Kericho not far from Kisumu, a port town on Lake Victoria. The one time we went back to visit the area, we visited the house and the city and had a thoroughly unpleasant time. We were followed by the police, we weren't served in restaurants, and no one was willing to look at us when we were asking for directions. It should be noted that my skin color is pale, ghostly white. Being on the receiving end of racism like this was one of the most important experiences in my life, though I wish never to repeat it.

I'd be surprised if there were any changes when the administration changes. There's really no such thing as typical Kenyan politics, considering that in the last 30+ years it's had only two presidents. When the first president left, Arap Moi replaced his entire cabinet and all positions of power with people from his own tribe. Since then, most blocs run along tribal lines, and we can expect that if the presidency changes hands to anyone else, that the same effect will likely happen.

Be careful taking photographs, particularly of state buildings and soldiers. You will have your camera taken away. It'll be a bit of a shock when you get off the airplane and see the guards armed with weaponry that only Schwarzenegger carries.

Barter is very common. Typical barter rules apply: whatever price they offer, start off at 1/10th that amount and haggle up from there.

Oh, and while you're there, a real treat is the passion fruit. Sure, you can get it in the states, but Kenya's has a lot more pulp and is tastier, IMO. It provides for very exotic drinks.

While talking about food, it should be mentioned that refrigeration is not as pervasive as in the States. While this is to be expected, this has some real consequences on the quality of the food you eat. Restaurants are generally OK, but typically, most perishables are treated with a formaldehyde derivative. You can smell it in the milk and it tastes unpalatably awful. Cola's are generally served room temperature (if not downright warm) but meat is very tasty.

I drank what?

correction (none / 0) (#21)
by SocratesGhost on Tue Sep 03, 2002 at 08:55:27 PM EST

it's not called Treetop. (hehe. that's the company I work for now) It's called the Stanley Hotel, but the name is of the patio cafe : The Thorn Tree.

I drank what?

[ Parent ]
Thank you (5.00 / 1) (#23)
by thaths on Wed Sep 04, 2002 at 12:01:51 AM EST


Thank you very much for all your suggestions.  I am Asian Indian myself and have been warned by returned volunteers about possible discrimination.  I am more worried about being looked at as a rich asian when I will be living on a meagre volunteer stipend.  I plan to write about the Asians in Africa, how they got there and how they are looked at these days after I gain some first hand knowledge of it.


[ Parent ]

Quality of groceries (none / 0) (#24)
by DodgyGeezer on Wed Sep 04, 2002 at 12:26:04 AM EST

Oh, and while you're there, a real treat is the passion fruit. Sure, you can get it in the states, but Kenya's has a lot more pulp and is tastier, IMO. It provides for very exotic drinks.
Is that anything to do with GM or attempts to grow things to enormous proportions in the US? Some English friends visited me in Canada recently and refused to buy some of the groceries, insisting on searching for something more normal and natural looking. It seems they found the grapefruit taste better when they're the size of an orange, not a FIFA soccer ball!

[ Parent ]
maybe, but probably not (4.00 / 1) (#25)
by SocratesGhost on Wed Sep 04, 2002 at 12:56:39 AM EST

Food always taste different in different countries because of the soil, climate, shipping time, etc. The Kenyan beef was some of the best I've ever had, bar none. The beef in Japan, however highly acclaimed it was, was sub-par from my experience. But then again, the Kenyan soil was very very fertile while that Japanese soil was not.

Also, add to that cultural bias. Not that your friends think everything British is better, but they were raised with foods that define the British palate. It's what they know to expect. If you've watch the Iron Chef lately while they were on tour, the Japanese Iron Chefs were getting creamed in France, because the French palate isn't in harmony with Japanese food preparation.

But, I'm probably being generous. The French really do have a love affair with their culture.

I drank what?

[ Parent ]
Importance of the Internet in the 3rd World (2.00 / 1) (#22)
by cronian on Tue Sep 03, 2002 at 11:31:26 PM EST

The are so many problems facing the third world and especially many of the countries of Africa. Yet, I would hope that you can help provided better communication between these remote places and the rest of the world.

However, I think just introducing these people to computers really isn't all that useful. It will just make the country have infrastructure that can be more easily exploited by large multinational corporations.

We perfect it; Congress kills it; They make it; We Import it; It must be anti-Americanism

Technology is not evil. (3.00 / 2) (#33)
by Tezcatlipoca on Wed Sep 04, 2002 at 08:50:21 AM EST

people that know how to use technogloy have the posibility to empower themselves and apply their knowledge in new areas.

More knowledge means less dependency.
"Every duck should aspire to be crispy and aromatic." sleepyhel

[ Parent ]

Internet and Development (none / 0) (#63)
by bodrius on Sat Sep 14, 2002 at 03:16:05 PM EST

At another point in history I would agree that computers would not be that useful per se, although "evil large multinational corporations of doom" would not be among my reasons). Rather, the kind of problems computers solve are not among the bottlenecks for development in most of the "Third World".

However, the Internet itself changes all of this.

In a sense, the Internet is more valuable for the Third than for the First World. For countries like the US, the "Internet revolution" was heralded by e-commerce, instant messenger systems, blogs and entertainment. Communication was the key.

While these are Good Things (TM), they are nothing compared to what the Internet had been for a long time before the Web, and what it still is behind all these websites: a pretty large (and continually expanding) searchable subset of the information available in the world. The Knowledge Base is the key.

For a country like the US or UK, this may not be as revolutionary because that subset was pretty much available before. The bottleneck is the same as it was before: the searching process. Technology born from the Internet has helped a lot with this, but you have always been able to go to a public library and request information on almost anything you can imagine. The Internet is an immensely useful tool for research, but it's just a more convenient incarnation of something that was already there.

Many Third World countries do not have this capability. Some don't have the books, some have the books but they're library systems are centralized and distributing the books is almost impossible, and some have the books and the distribution system but their material is hopelessly outdated. The Internet is not an "upgrade" to their system, it's a base of knowledge that was previously unavailable to them.

For countries like this, access to the Internet is a major educational boon. And unlike other bounties of computer technology (fast calculations, silly computer games, etc) the benefits apply to almost any bottleneck in the national system, and every social class.

Freedom is the freedom to say 2+2=4, everything else follows...
[ Parent ]

Nakutakia Safari Njema! [have a good trip] (4.00 / 7) (#28)
by yawning angel on Wed Sep 04, 2002 at 05:34:59 AM EST


I'm a Kenyan studying computer science in the U.S., and it's great to read about your plans. You're actually going to be living and working pretty close to my home town! (Machakos).

I did something like this recently in Mali. It was just for four weeks, and not everything went according to plan, but it was immensely rewarding. I still have gifts from some of my students and letters they wrote to me . . .

It's also great that you're putting your story on K5 - more publicity for Kenya! I wish you all the best.

South to South (none / 0) (#37)
by thaths on Wed Sep 04, 2002 at 12:52:38 PM EST

Thanks for your encouraging words, yawning angel.

VSO has a program in Kenya (abnd Phillippines) called South to South Exchange where volunteers are recruited from developing countries to work in other developing countries.  I think that is a really nice program.

I plan to visit Machakos pretty often.  Anything specific I should see / do while I am there?


[ Parent ]

alternative ways to help Africa!!! (2.50 / 2) (#30)
by Corto2Maltese on Wed Sep 04, 2002 at 07:52:07 AM EST

I invite you (and all others) to visit a site www.edirisa.org - I think it could give you a little perspective on how can modern technology (and wise use of it) help Africa!!! (and if you happen stop there, say HI! to my friend Miha Logar-one of the founders, an European, who went to study there, and then decided to stay!) Edirisa's ideology and approaches (summary) : One of the central problems of rural development is the lack of relevant information and abundance of misinformation that have a devastating effect on people's self-esteem. Edirisa intends to empower the people of Eastern Africa with information relevant to sustainable rural development and useful for people's everyday activities. We need to demonstrate that it is possible to live a good life in a village. Edirisa's point of view is that the greatest potential lies in a skilful combination of older and modern technologies. We want to provide both the missing content and the missing link between technology and rural people. Both schools and the media in Eastern Africa are preaching the religion of a superior First World way of living and somehow primitive and hopeless African cultures. Edirisa strongly opposes this: Africans should be themselves, should be proud of their culture and not a bad and sad copy of the First World inhabitants. We are not idealising African cultures, we are only saying that they have a lot to offer. Africa is not the only part of the world that is terribly under informed. The ageing First World is ignorant and self-centred to an alarming degree, and this is becoming increasingly dangerous for the planet. Edirisa will endeavour to meet the First World's escalating drive to supplement its spiritually poor materialism and boring life with African cultural richness. Edirisa strives to remain independent and not to seek sponsorship. We see our information business in a wider perspective: we will use all the possible things as a medium to spread our message and get income at the same time; Our area of operation is "Eastern Africa", a geographical term better than "East Africa" (because it's broader), while Edirisa's media production side is of an all-African character; We want to cooperate with everybody, we would like to evade duplicating any activity of others. The only inevitable conflict will be with those who are exploiting the ignorance of people. (Corto2maltese@yahoo.com)

Can't Kenyan's do this job? (5.00 / 9) (#36)
by Alhazred on Wed Sep 04, 2002 at 12:46:07 PM EST

My wife just happens to be Kenyan, and Kamba as well for that matter...

Her immediate reaction to this story is "How come volunteer organizations are sending people to Kenya to do jobs Kenyans could be getting paid to do?"

I know many people seem to think that people in Africa are ignorant of how things work, how to do things, etc. etc. etc. Unfortunately this is a totally false picture, at least for large parts of Africa including Kenya.

People in Kenya have perfectly excellent educations and there are plenty of people with the training to do IT work, and to teach it, but there ARE ALMOST NO JOBS.

The upshot is that going to a 3rd world country as a low-paid volunteer (and one the host country doesn't pay for at all) is doing negative things, its driving the value of work down to 0 in that country (why hire an IT guy when you can get an American volunteer for free). Its also depriving the host country of valuable aid money which COULD be used in a constructive fashion instead. In other words what they spend on sending you over there could have been used to hire Kenyan workers to build a road, a sewer, or a power line.

This is not at all meant as an attack on people volunteering to work overseas. Volunteers do a lot of good things, but what Kenya and the rest of the 3rd world need is investment in Jobs for their own countries. We in the west can do more good for them by lobbying our own governments to end protectionist and predatory trade practices that destroy any chance of economic growth there instead of trying to do things for these people that they could do for themselves if they were only allowed to earn some money...
That is not dead which may eternal lie And with strange aeons death itself may die.

One problem with that. (1.33 / 9) (#39)
by tkatchev on Wed Sep 04, 2002 at 03:50:31 PM EST

The niggers might get too uppity if you actually ebcourage them to do useful work.

(P.S. That was sarcasm, you retard.)

   -- Signed, Lev Andropoff, cosmonaut.
[ Parent ]

One problem with that. (1.33 / 9) (#40)
by tkatchev on Wed Sep 04, 2002 at 03:51:17 PM EST

The niggers might get too uppity if you actually encourage them to do useful work.

(P.S. That was sarcasm, you retard.)

   -- Signed, Lev Andropoff, cosmonaut.
[ Parent ]

Thank you for your comments (5.00 / 2) (#42)
by thaths on Wed Sep 04, 2002 at 05:55:52 PM EST

Thank for your comments.  The problem you mention - local organizations hiring an international volunteer instead of a local candidate - is definitely a problem that international development agencies face.  In VSO's case, every effort is made to ensure that volunteers are not used by local employers as "cheap foreign labor".  For example, VSO never places volunteers in the same position for more than 2-4 years (depending on the position).  Without actually being there, it is difficult for me to say what exactly my personal situation is.

I'll have more information once I arrive in Kenya and spend a few months learning the ropes.


[ Parent ]

:o). Its nice to hear that (none / 0) (#64)
by Alhazred on Sun Sep 22, 2002 at 09:26:13 PM EST

I mean personally I wouldn't want to kick volunteers out of these positions either, there are as other people said a number of positive benefits. As long as people are cognizant of the balance between the positive and negative and try to make reasonable choices.
That is not dead which may eternal lie And with strange aeons death itself may die.
[ Parent ]
Paying jobs for locals are best (5.00 / 1) (#44)
by TON on Wed Sep 04, 2002 at 09:03:26 PM EST

Of course you are right that healthy investment and economic growth are absolutely needed. However there are at least a few things that international volunteers can do that locals cannot.

First, the int'l volunteers typically go home (or elswhere) when their term is up. This is a good thing. Kenyans can live in Canada or the US, but for some people people just the knowledge that, "Oh, yeah. That's Jack. he went to live in Africa for two years. Why don't you ask him about it." is still a pretty important message to get out there. It is a very different from immigration. Int'l volunteer programs really increase knowledge of other places back in the home countries. This may help your points about investment and jobs later.

Second, even if someone locally can do the job, maybe they aren't. This has nothing to do with money or resources, but politics and culture. I do not mean that people do not want to do the job or know how. We have all seen enough examples of bad management, power struggles and inertia. It happens everywhere. Injecting a new person into a situation can upset rigid practices. Sometimes a "loose cannon" is the desired effect. This was certainly the case on my first job in Japan (paid, not-volunteer, but a so-called "quasi-NGO").

Third, the intangibles can be hard to count up. Yes, someone locally can teach IT. Maybe the teaching that gets done through VSO won't make all the students fully employed middle class citizens. However, temporarily bringing in somebody with greatly different experiences can have good results. What results? I don't know. That is one of the mysteries of teaching. More than just the bare facts on the syllabus get communicated (we hope).

"First, I am born. Then, the trouble begins." -- Schizopolis


[ Parent ]

Re: Kenyans (none / 0) (#47)
by weston on Wed Sep 04, 2002 at 11:04:08 PM EST

Perhaps the real solution is to have the locals apply to work for VSO. That way, the locals who can do the work and who'd be willing to for the salary would have the same shot as the volunteers. And... I agree that predatory economic practices need to end, too, but there's no chance of that happening. The best defense against this is for a country to simply be able to hold their own: by developing their own industries and becoming self-reliant. Relying on foreign investment is a slippery slope that leads away from that.

[ Parent ]
Perspective (4.00 / 1) (#48)
by bayankaran on Thu Sep 05, 2002 at 10:09:59 AM EST

While what you are saying might be true, the perspective of an American who did software jobs in the most technologically advanced society cannot be overlooked. The benefits may far outweigh the economic problems of an American geek displacing a suitably qualified Kenyan.

I can give you examples...when I was in film school, a friend of mine introduced me to a young film maker from Yugoslavia. I asked him to take two one hour lectures for my class (Production). This was a very rewarding and rich experience for all of us...not only we knew how pre-production and production activities happened in Europe, he gave us valuable perspectives on his struggle of being a yet to make the first film director.

Recently the biggest Chinese software company, HUAWEI Technologies started a branch in Bangalore...India's silicon valley. They themselves admitted it was not big business they were after, but learning from their Indian counterparts and Indian techies the best practices to adopt.

[ Parent ]
Teach Programming (none / 0) (#43)
by zerovoid on Wed Sep 04, 2002 at 06:19:25 PM EST

In a broad sense:
a) relating one quantity to another quantity, and
b) evaluating a relationship by substituting values for names

This is equally applicable to administrative secretaries using spreadsheets as it is to application programmers.

Teach problem analysis and solving without getting caught up in syntax.

Have a look at How to Design Programs, specifically Why Everyone Should Learn to Program.

That is useful (4.00 / 1) (#49)
by thaths on Thu Sep 05, 2002 at 01:42:46 PM EST

Thanks for the links. I have been looking around for good teaching mateirals to use in the classroom. The only thing I came across so far is The Chalkface Project. I submitted a qestion in 'Ask Slashdot' 3 weeks ago asking for similar sources in the US. The submission was rejected.


[ Parent ]

Future article/diary request (none / 0) (#45)
by TON on Wed Sep 04, 2002 at 09:14:36 PM EST


According to the VSO site:

Before you leave, you will be eligible for an equipment grant of up to $1000 to equip yourself with any necessary items to help you carry out your job overseas, or for items of a personal nature that will be unavailable in your country of placement. An additional grant will be made mid-way through your placement for further unanticipated requirements.

It may seem trivial, but I'd love to see your shopping list for the posting to Kenya as part of the next installment. I think it would be an interesting way to look at your expectations. We might see later how they compared to reality.

Best of luck!

"First, I am born. Then, the trouble begins." -- Schizopolis


Consider it done (5.00 / 1) (#50)
by thaths on Thu Sep 05, 2002 at 01:46:13 PM EST

I'll include my shopping list in my next article. I'll even include a list of everything I intend to take with me.

One thing to keep in mind, though. That is 1000 Canadian dollars. Not US dollars.


[ Parent ]

I've been thinking about something like this (none / 0) (#51)
by ShadowNode on Thu Sep 05, 2002 at 03:19:21 PM EST

Did you have to travel to do the assessment? Would you be willing to go into more detail about what they're looking for? Any tips for a prospective applicant?

Assessment Day (5.00 / 1) (#54)
by thaths on Thu Sep 05, 2002 at 07:30:02 PM EST

I did have to travel to the assessment day. VSO flys people to Vancouver or Ottawa (depending on whether you are in te West or East coast of North America respectively). The Assessment Day is the second pass. First you have to submit an application (you can also do it online at the VSO Canada website) which they read in detail and determine whether you are volunteer material.

I am not privy to everything they are looking for in a candidate. But I did hear about some of the the qualities they look for in a candidate include:

  • A serious commitment to volunteering overseas.
  • Flexibility to handle changing situations.
  • Ability to think on ones feet.
  • Prior experience working/living overseas is desiarable but not required.
  • Ability to work well with others.

As I mentioned in the article, there are no written tests and technical questions. You effectively are only interviewed by 30-45 minutes max. During Assesment Day (an entire day of activities) you get to play various games with the others who are also there for assesment. It is vitally important to remember that you are not competing against the other candidates.

Good luck! I hope you give volunteering with VSO a shot.


[ Parent ]

Not a troll, but... (none / 0) (#52)
by John Miles on Thu Sep 05, 2002 at 04:55:13 PM EST

... what earthly use would these people have for computers and software skills?

It seems that, like Bill Gates points out, there are a LOT of more fundamental problems in Africa that need to be tackled first.

For so long as men do as they are told, there will be war.

Since you're flying soon - Kenyan "Flying Toi (none / 0) (#55)
by Taro HITACHI on Fri Sep 06, 2002 at 01:20:10 AM EST

Since you're flying soon--check out Kenyan ''Flying Toilets'':
Kenya's flying toilets a Summit challenge

September 05 2002 at 11:58AM Reuters Nairobi

''I heard a bang on the roof, and when I went outside to look, I saw it was a plastic bag full of human waste," she said, gesturing towards her dwelling in the slums of Nairobi.''

''For most people here, the 'flying toilets' are the only way of answering nature's call: you simply use a plastic bag, then fling it as far out of sight as possible.''

''There are only five toilets for the more than 2 000 people living in the slum known as 'Ghetto'- a fetid labyrinth of claustrophobic dirt lanes and streams of stinking effluent.''

[While] ''World leaders at the World Summit in Johannesburg pledged on Wednesday to halve the number of people in the world who do not have access to basic sanitation by 2015.'' [www.iol.co.za/index.php?click_id=87&art_id=qw1031218021298F452&set_id=1 ]

After teaching IT and eCommerce to students in Viet Nam and Nepal, I felt ashamed to be instructing them on finer points of PowerPoint formatting.

Taro HITACHI, in concrete_Tokyo

--for a more globally warmer world

A friend's VSO Experience (none / 0) (#56)
by Greener on Fri Sep 06, 2002 at 04:35:13 AM EST

A friend of mine is also doing volunteer work in Africa (Uganda) with VSO Canada. He regularly posts updates to his web site relating to both the type of work he is doing and his experiences living abroad. He's also got links to websites of other VSO volunteers he met in training. He's been there almost 3 months now of his 6 month term.
Interesting stuff. I'd do it myself if I weren't already travelling.

I shouldn't feed the troll (n/t) (none / 0) (#58)
by faecal on Fri Sep 06, 2002 at 06:25:41 PM EST

why not stay home? (none / 0) (#59)
by blisspix on Fri Sep 06, 2002 at 09:54:12 PM EST

I was just wondering why you didn't choose to volunteer to do this sort of thing in the US.

Are there any organisations doing similar things for people IN the US, UK, Australia? The West has a lot of problems with technology too, amongst the poor, and I'm wondering why people choose to go overseas instead of helping those closer to home.

This isn't an attack on your decision, I'm just curious about the whole volunteering and decision-making process.

Will you get an opportunity to help out with other projects while you're in Kenya?

Because I want to see change (none / 0) (#61)
by thaths on Sat Sep 07, 2002 at 01:18:21 PM EST

This, and the question about why I am volunteering in India where I was born and grew up are probably the two most widely asked questions. My personal reason for not volunteering in the US or India is the desire to work in a new environment where I can learn new things. Long term, I'd love to teach in a Native American reservation.

Regd. helping out with other projects, certainly. But it will probably be a couple of months before I am able to stand comfortably and firmly on my feet.


[ Parent ]

Bao (none / 0) (#60)
by guet on Sat Sep 07, 2002 at 08:37:08 AM EST

while you're there be sure to try the local boardgame, Bao, played with seeds from the Baobab tree - hours of fun.

Impressive (none / 0) (#62)
by Platy on Fri Sep 13, 2002 at 07:21:42 PM EST

wow, that's really impressive. I wish you all the best, good luck, don't get ill! :)
Have fun! :-)
Tongue-tied and twisted, just an earthbound misfit, I.
Geek Volunteer Overseas - Prologue | 65 comments (59 topical, 6 editorial, 0 hidden)
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