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GVO - Murram Road to Information Superhighway

By thaths in Technology
Fri Aug 08, 2003 at 08:16:19 AM EST
Tags: Culture (all tags)

In less than a week I will be flying back to the US after spending the last 11 months in rural Kenya as a Geek Volunteer Overseas. This is the final chapter in the series to be written from Kenya.

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.

Saying Goodbye
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 in religion".

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.


Voxel dot net
o Managed Hosting
o VoxCAST Content Delivery
o Raw Infrastructure


What bridges the Digital Divide
o The internet 5%
o IT education 5%
o Overall education 54%
o Digital Divide is just a buzzword 28%
o K5 5%

Votes: 35
Results | Other Polls

Related Links
o Geek Volunteer Overseas
o Cisco
o US Agency for International Development (US-AID)
o Computer Frontiers
o UN Development Program (UNDP)
o CCNA program
o Gilat
o Also by thaths

Display: Sort:
GVO - Murram Road to Information Superhighway | 39 comments (25 topical, 14 editorial, 0 hidden)
Thanks for sharing this. (2.00 / 2) (#1)
by megid on Thu Aug 07, 2003 at 06:30:42 AM EST

Again, a pretty good real life report/story. I like it.

"think first, write second, speak third."
Hey thaths! (5.00 / 1) (#6)
by arvindn on Thu Aug 07, 2003 at 11:54:42 PM EST

I was wondering where "chapathi" came from. Then I realized you must be this thaths. Am I right?

So you think your vocabulary's good?
Guilty as charged (5.00 / 1) (#9)
by thaths on Fri Aug 08, 2003 at 01:23:36 AM EST

I was wondering where "chapathi" came from.
Chapathi (unleavened bread for the unitiated), I've found out is not just Indian. People have been making unleavened bread since before the dawn of civilization. The name 'Chapathi', on the other hand is Indian in origin. Indians have been trading with East Africa (in spices, beads and even slaves) for over 400 years. They also came to Kenya as coolies to help build the railway from Mombassa to Kisumu. Chapathi, I suspect, is one of the terms they brought into Kenya.

The Kenyan chapathi is different from the Indian version. Kenyan chapathi is thicker and closer to the Indian bread 'paratha'.

Then I realized you must be this thaths. Am I right?
Guilty as charged.


[ Parent ]

Mexican chapati (none / 0) (#17)
by jjayson on Fri Aug 08, 2003 at 04:21:30 AM EST

called a tortilla. Of course griddle-make breads are everywhere.
"Fuck off, preferably with a bullet, if you can find one that's willing to defile itself by being in your head for a split second." - Parent ]
[ot] mexican tortilla's (none / 0) (#31)
by univgeek on Fri Aug 08, 2003 at 08:36:48 PM EST

are usually made of flour, to my eternal regret :-(. Indian Chapathis are usually made of whole wheat - a much healthier alternative (and tastier ;).

However, uncooked flour tortillas have saved my life on more than one occasion :-)..

Arguing with an Electrical Engineer is liking wrestling with a pig in mud, after a while you realise the pig is enjoying it!
[ Parent ]

Difference between flour and whole wheat? (none / 0) (#33)
by thaths on Sun Aug 10, 2003 at 08:52:10 AM EST

What exactly is the difference between flour and whole wheat?  I mean, isn't flour just ground up wheat?  Is flour bleached and whole wheat flour unbleached?  Also, tortialls, I thought were made of corn.


[ Parent ]

yep.. (none / 0) (#38)
by univgeek on Mon Sep 01, 2003 at 12:50:13 PM EST

Flour - typically bleached.
Whole wheat - typically unbleached.
Tortillas - may be originally they were corn, are available now in a wide variety - corn, whole wheat, bleached wheat etc.

BTW. aren't you supposed to write one more story? nag nag nag :-)...

check out www.tortillaland.com , they were supposed to have an online store for the past 6 months :-(..

have fun!!
Arguing with an Electrical Engineer is liking wrestling with a pig in mud, after a while you realise the pig is enjoying it!
[ Parent ]

Giving myself some time to reflect (none / 0) (#39)
by thaths on Wed Sep 03, 2003 at 09:08:11 PM EST

I am back in the US.  I am giving myself some time to reflect on what happened to me in Kenya and how volunteering has affected me.  I will be writing the epilogue soon.


[ Parent ]

Chapathis are wonderful (none / 0) (#20)
by nebbish on Fri Aug 08, 2003 at 06:50:24 AM EST

I wish you could buy them more readily in London (I used to be able to get them quite easily in my native Leeds). Why people prefer nan bread in restaurants beats me.

I could make my own, but Im a bit too lazy :-)

Kicking someone in the head is like punching them in the foot - Bruce Lee
[ Parent ]

-1, Takes Away American Jobs (1.56 / 16) (#10)
by egg troll on Fri Aug 08, 2003 at 01:41:34 AM EST

First off, I admire your motivation behind doing this. I think there needs to be more altruism in the world today. However, American software jobs are already being stolen by Indians, Pakistanis and other foreign peoples. I fear that in 20 years we'll see what jobs are left being pilfered by the shifty Kenyans. Thus, to protect my job and my family I must vote this down.

He's a bondage fan, a gastronome, a sensualist
Unparalleled for sinister lasciviousness.

That is Un-American, it is. (4.00 / 1) (#12)
by thaths on Fri Aug 08, 2003 at 01:57:16 AM EST

Isn't America all for the so-called Free Market Economy?  According to this doctrine the cheapest labor wins.

Personally, I am not happy with the situation either.  The amount and kinds of jobs in India are becoming very limited these days.  It is sad to see all the Science and Economics graduates shift to more lucarative jobs in IT.  With this exodus away from pure science India cannot produce such science nobel laureates as Raman or Chandra.  Most of the literature graduates seem to be tied to their desks doing medical transcription.

The problem is not IT.  The problem is the herd mentality to move to the most lucarative jobs never mind the mind-numbing nature of the jobs.  Capitalism is successful because it understands and exploits the fundamental flaw of us humans.


[ Parent ]

Free Markets (none / 0) (#25)
by duffbeer703 on Fri Aug 08, 2003 at 08:28:34 AM EST

Free markets do not mean that you need to actively give away what belongs to you.

Silicon Valley is going to look like Detriot in a few years, because we shipped everything to the East.

[ Parent ]

It all fits in (none / 0) (#28)
by nebbish on Fri Aug 08, 2003 at 11:29:01 AM EST

There is a demand for these skills in Kenya, a demand thaths fulfils by going to Kenya to teach. He doesn't get paid but gets the feeling he has done something good, and a great addition to his resume.

There wouldn't be a demand for these skills if there weren't areas where these skills could be used to earn money. This arises from Kenya's ability to undercut wages in the west, and a demand in the international workplace for the skills thaths teaches.

This is all part of the free market system.

Kicking someone in the head is like punching them in the foot - Bruce Lee
[ Parent ]

Free marker means I have the choice (5.00 / 1) (#34)
by thaths on Sun Aug 10, 2003 at 09:20:21 AM EST

Free markets mean I have the choice to either slave away for a heartless mega-corporation in a dark cube somewhere not knowing whether I have made the slightest difference in anybody's life OR work in a small rural community someplace where I am accepted into the bosom of the community and where I learn from people and people learn from me.

Besides, how can I loose by giving away knowledge.  Isn't it the one thing that the posessor does not loose when sharing?

As for Silicon Valley becoming like Detroit, should you be blaming galley slave programmers or the fat cat CEOs who vote themselves hefty pay raises while cutting jobs?


[ Parent ]

Stolen? (5.00 / 1) (#19)
by nebbish on Fri Aug 08, 2003 at 06:45:42 AM EST

Exactly how are they being stolen - forcibly taken from US companies?

I was under the impression that a global free market was just that. Unless you want the IT industry to go the same way as agriculture and the steel industry, and protect it from the outside world through subsidies.

But oh, if you do that, don't go telling the rest of the world they aren't allowed to do the same, OK?

Kicking someone in the head is like punching them in the foot - Bruce Lee
[ Parent ]

You're taking Egg Troll seriously. (5.00 / 2) (#21)
by haflinger on Fri Aug 08, 2003 at 07:56:46 AM EST

This is usually a mistake :)

Did people from the future send George Carlin back in time to save rusty and K5? - leviramsey
[ Parent ]
Aah (none / 0) (#22)
by nebbish on Fri Aug 08, 2003 at 07:58:21 AM EST

I really will have to learn to check user names

Kicking someone in the head is like punching them in the foot - Bruce Lee
[ Parent ]

That's a necessary trait for survival on K5 (5.00 / 1) (#30)
by iasius on Fri Aug 08, 2003 at 12:42:57 PM EST

the internet troll is the pinnacle of human evolution - circletimessquare
[ Parent ]
Beautiful. (none / 0) (#26)
by The Terrorists on Fri Aug 08, 2003 at 08:39:15 AM EST

Your own jihad has served you well and paid you back in much more than money.

Watch your mouth, pigfucker. -- Rusty Foster

-1, racist (1.33 / 9) (#27)
by etc on Fri Aug 08, 2003 at 11:28:07 AM EST

  1. VB Programmers are stupid
  2. Kenyans are VB programmers.
What are you trying to say?

Whatever make you think that? (none / 0) (#35)
by thaths on Sun Aug 10, 2003 at 09:28:08 AM EST

There is exactly ONE reference to Visual Basic in my article.  Nowhere do I say VB programmers are stupid.


[ Parent ]

Jealous (none / 0) (#29)
by Alhazred on Fri Aug 08, 2003 at 11:37:20 AM EST

I'm just jealous of the fact that you got to hang out in Kambaland for so long! ;o).

My wife is Kamba. Its interesting hearing your perspective on it since I haven't yet been there myself.
That is not dead which may eternal lie And with strange aeons death itself may die.

I'm a honorable Mkamba now. (none / 0) (#36)
by thaths on Sun Aug 10, 2003 at 09:34:04 AM EST

You should visit Ukambani (land of the Akamba) sometime.  It is a dry arid place.  But the people are friendly and wonderful in their resourcefulness.


[ Parent ]

Great article Thaths (none / 0) (#32)
by rweba on Sat Aug 09, 2003 at 11:58:52 PM EST

As a native of Tanzania(which shares a border with Kenya) who is currently in the US, I am always curious how foreigners will perceive and experience East Africa.

Sounds like you had a great experience(and managed to do a lot of good as well of course).

I was a tad bit skeptical of all these geek volunteer trips when I first heard about them, but it seems like they really do accomplish something useful for both sides.

The geeks learn about another country and perhaps get a fresh perspective and the locals get some knowledge and skills that they might not otherwise get.

I can only wish you good luck in your post-Kenya endeavours and I am looking forward to your next piece.

Thanks (none / 0) (#37)
by thaths on Sun Aug 10, 2003 at 09:52:44 AM EST

Sounds like you had a great experience(and managed to do a lot of good as well of course)

I think I learned quite a bit (not professionally) from the people I worked with.  And most importantly, I learnt quite a bit about myself.

I was a tad bit skeptical of all these geek volunteer trips when I first heard about them, but it seems like they really do accomplish something useful for both sides.

Even after doing this I am skeptical about volunteering in general.  To be successful, a volunteer should not take the "I know better and this is what you need" approach.  A volunteer needs to have good listening skills.  Communication is another skill that is very helpful.  Volunteers are usually placed in an alien culture and it is hard for many to communicate across cultures.

If a volunteer goes into a placement with an open mind, eyes, ears and heart, the work will be fruitful.


[ Parent ]

GVO - Murram Road to Information Superhighway | 39 comments (25 topical, 14 editorial, 0 hidden)
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