Tala on the Internet
After struggling for 10 months we have finally managed to connect the college to the internet. Holy Rosary College is now a murram
(Non-tarmacked mud) road in the information superhighway thanks to generous support from a cocktail of donors: Cisco, US Agency for International Development (US-AID), Computer Frontiers and UN Development Program (UNDP).
The odyssey began when I arrived in-country and learnt from the Principal and the staff that the college had begun offering Cisco's Cisco Certified Network Administrator (CCNA) programs in addition to the course in IT. Being a nonbeliever in the idea of industry certification I was highly skeptical of the whole venture. After all, aren't these programs yet another revenue stream for IT companies? I wondered how learning about networking technologies and having the ability to administer a router was going to help Kenyans. Over the past few months (see next section for details) I have learnt that people with such skills have much better employment prospects than those with the ability to program in C, C++ or Java.
Cisco, in conjunction with UNDP, is currently involved in an initiative to provide IT training as a means of bridging the so called "Digital Divide". The CCNA program is an on-line certification course in computer networking. The problem the college wanted me to solve when I arrived was to somehow connect the college to the internet so that the students can take the CCNA exams that were only conducted on-line. When the college signed up to the program, little though was given to how exactly the students were going to do their exams.
My first task was to investigate all available options to get connected. Since there are no internet facilities in the surrounding 30-kilometer radius, I realized that the college can generate income by starting a cyber cafe when it got connected. However, for a viable cyber cafe, the connection has to be one that is "almost always on".
The simplest option was dial-up. There are many ISPs in Kenya and the competition among them is fierce. Decent dial-up services are currently
available for a flat fee 10,000 Kenyan Shillings (KSh 100 = US$ 1.33 = GBP 0.82 approximately) per year. The problem is one of recurring telcom charges.
Tala being a backwater, there are no ISPs with a local access number. The average cost of a 3-minute long distance call to Nairobi (our closest access number) is 40 Kenyan Shillings. Doing the math we realized that this was too expensive in the long run.
The next option was reducing the telcom charges through a leased line. The telcom backbone in Tala is analog. Kenstream - the digital telcom backbone - was not expected to land in Tala any time soon. This option was ruled out.
The third option was to connect through a radio link. The problem with radio is that it is technology based on line-of-sight. For a radio link to work, there should be no significant obstruction between the radio dish in Tala and the one in Nairobi 60 kilometers away. As luck would have it, there is a small hump of a hill called 'Koma Rock' some 15 kms from Tala bang in the path of any radio waves. The cost of installing a booster / relay on Koma Rock was too much.
The final option was hooking up through a satellite. Very Small Aperture Terminals (VSATs) are the ideal solution for remote sites. Till a few years ago, the license to do VSAT connections in Kenya was exclusively in the hands of the state telcom monopoly Kenya Telcom. Luckily for us, a
year ago the government began liberalizing its monopolies. The Israeli company Gilat was issued a license to install VSAT connections in Kenya. Gilat provides the satellite link and one of the bigger Kenyan ISPs piggyback their IP traffic on the Gilat link.
The problem now was one of money. Talking to the spectrum of donors I learnt that they were willing to foot the bill for the installation. They
were even willing to fund the connection for a year with the proviso that the college will reach a point of sustainability by that time.
We investigated various ways in which the college can sustain an internet connection. I talked to parties that I thought might be interested in
sharing the college's internet access. Primary and Secondary education being a lucrative business in Kenya, there are quite a few schools in the
surrounding community. Many of them said that they could not afford getting a VSAT hookup on their own but would gladly pay a small fee
(5,000-10,000 Kenyan Shillings a month) to share our internet access. Even the local Town Council was interested. Based on these factors I developed a plan to hook up the colleges and institutions in the surrounding region using a 802.11b Wireless network. As I write this, the
college is waiting for the arrival of WiFi equipment from donors to begin the networking. Another income generation idea is to begin a small cyber cafe in the college.
C/C++ Does Not Provide Your Daily Bread/Ugali/Chapati
The students in the college go on industrial attachment for 3 months as part of the curriculum. Our first batch of students went into attachment
last quarter. I volunteered to visit the students at their attachments and supervise their work. I wanted to find out whether the skills they were being taught in the college were useful and how the college could adapt to demands in the Kenyan marketplace. I suspect that the Principal of the college gladly agreed to my proposal because a muzungu (foreigner) supervisor does loads for the reputation of the college.
During my supervisory visits I spoke to the student, her supervisor and a colleague to get a cross section of opinion on whether the college has done a good job preparing its students for jobs in industry. Overall, the feedback seems to be that the college is turning out well-rounded
students. Knowing that Kenyans, in general, don't like giving negative feedback, I concentrated on quizzing my students. They, having known me
for over 2 terms, were much more comfortable with me and gave an honest opinion.
It turns out that most IT jobs in Kenya have very little to do with development. Most of the work is maintenance-oriented. Those that managed to find attachments in the area of development were programming in Visual Basic and Delphi. The C, C++ and Java that the students had learnt was not of any use. The computer maintenance knowledge, on the other hand was being used by them on a daily basis. Computer networking skills, they
told me, was also much in demand.
I conveyed the feedback to my Kenyan colleagues. They have taken corrective measures. During the upcoming term in September the number of programming languages taught have been reduced. In place of some of the programming languages, advanced courses on networking, troubleshooting and maintenance are being introduced.
One of the most difficult aspects of preparing to leave Kenya has been saying goodbye to the numerous friends I have made over the past year. One representative farewell involved seeing a 50-year-old colleague tearfully telling me how much of a difference I had made in the life of the college and the staff. I told my students that one of the reasons I was leaving was because I needed more money than I was being paid as a volunteer to pay off my debts back home. I was touched to learn that they went to the principal of the college saying that they were willing to contribute more money if that would make me stay longer.
On the last day of classes I opened up the classroom to questions on any topic. "The questions you have been asking me so far have been technical ones. Today the classroom is open to ask any question, technical or personal," I said. Here is a small list of some of the more interesting questions (with my answers) asked by the students:
"Do you believe that Jesus Christ is the son of God?"
After a long explanation on how what we believe is mostly dependent on how we were brought up, I carefully phrased my answer as "I do not believe
Q: "What kind of food do you eat in Kenya?"
A: "I am a pretty decent cook and cook my own food. Being a vegetarian I have not been able to eat most Kenyan food. But, what little I have eaten were good."
Q: "Why are some Indians in Kenya racist?"
A: "Because they are blockheads and narrow-minded."
Q: "Will you come back to Kenya?"
A: "I hope so."
Q: "Will you forget us?"
A: "Of course not!"
Q: "Can I send you emails?"
A: "Of course."
Coming Up Next
Epilogue where I reflect on my Kenyan experience, Development and global understanding.