Archive for 2008

Two steps forward one step back into the New Year

I now feel like I’m beginning to make some progress – though there are still a few things which may throw a spanner in the works. I’ll start with the progress…

I have arranged for our site to be launched to students in the week of 12th Jan. Rather than waiting until everything was in place, course materials uploaded etc, I decided that a better option was just to pick a date and work towards that. Even if no computer science courses are loaded and running, I’ve uploaded some OpenLearn materials to the site for students. If students find the site useful hopefully they’ll apply a bit of pressure to the course teachers to upload their courses.

As well as having Yonas helping to check all the course materials are up to date and uploaded for CS courses, Wondwossen (my counterpart) is going to run a Moodle training course on Monday afternoon for Computer Science staff, so they have the skills to update/maintain the courses themselves.

I’m arranging a series of 1-hour ‘Introduction to Moodle’ workshops for the students, to give them their usernames/passwords and to introduce them to the site and how to post to forums etc (as well as appropriate use of the site!). There are around 300 students in total, so I’ll need 15 workshops in total (only 20 PCs in the lab), hence why I’m keeping them to 1 hour! After this time we’ll have the lab open a few times a week for drop-in sessions when Wondwossen or I will be available to help answer queries.

I’ve also been talking to the (now-ex – see below for explanation!) coordinator of the Distance Education program about how we can begin to move responsibility for the elearning site to them – as it’s a service given to the whole Unviersity, it’s not something the Computer Science Dept can (or should) support indefinitely. This will also involve looking at how to get the server supported by the main uni ICT dept, and training people in the distance ed office who can support and run the teacher and student training courses.

There are several potential hiccups which could scupper some of these plans…

Firstly, next semester our dept is due to be moving to the main uni campus on the other side of town. This could be fairly chaotic as the rooms we’re due to move into currently have no networking. As it’s taken me nearly 3 months just to get the server up and available on the uni network, I’d rather not have to repeat this. With the huge potential disruption in computer access for students, especially while some will be doing their project work, I’m unsure why we may be moving mid-semester. It would seem to me to be preferable to move during the inter-semester break in Feb or during the summer break.

Secondly, the current Distance Education dept has been dissolved and we’re waiting for a new Distance Education dept to be set up, which may not consist of the same people. Until this new dept exists, I won’t really have anyone outside the Computer Science dept to hand over to.

Finally, I heard about a new university-wide e-learning project which is due to be starting soon, who apparently had no idea about the project I’m working on. I think it’s funded by a Spanish Uni (or at least a Spanish organisation) and I’m hoping to meet with them in February so we don’t end up replicating each others work, or rather, so that we do end up working together!

Anyway, I’m off now to go and celebrate New Years Eve, generally it’s a bit of a non-event here as the Ethiopian new year falls in September, so we’ve hired a bar for the evening to have our own party. Hope everyone else out there has a Happy New Year and please keep in touch with emails and comments 🙂

(Hoping that the internet speed will improve soon so my blog postings can be a little less text-heavy!)

Ferenji Christmas

Fortunately the power held out long enough for us to cook Christmas dinner. About 20 of us got together at Mike & Rafs house, and had plenty of mulled wine, sheep (done on the bbq), roast potatoes, yorkshire puddings, plus cake and chocolate. I’ll spare the photos of the demise of “Rudolph the Christmas Sheep”, so here are alternative pics from our Christmas dinner…





Christmas was bit of a strange day, as it was just a normal working day for everybody else, so all the shops, line taxis etc were open and running as usual. In the evening we decided that we needed to watch a Christmas film, so Terra and I went to the DVD shop to rent a selection. No James Bond, Wizard of Oz or other suitable films were available so we had to make do with the choice of Ironman, Mr & Mrs Smith or Shanghai Noon. Shortly after we were back at the house, whilst trying to decide which one to watch, our decision was made for us as the electricity went off, by the time it came back on, it was a little late to start.

The electricity was also off 6am to 6pm on Sat, then again on Sunday, apparently they’re doing some work as the power station, so it’s likely to be the same on Tuesday and all next weekend. The big advantage of this is that the metal works next door can’t run their angle-grinders and arc welders with no power (no generator either). They usually start up at about 7:30, which isn’t a problem during the week, but not so great you want a weeknd lie in.

Unsurprisingly, post Christmas sales don’t exist here, but I did find an alternative suitable activity for Sunday morning. Going to a garden centre. Yes, Mekelle does have a garden centre, albeit without coffee shop or tropical fish section. My plan was to get a few house plants, but despite there being someone working there, he couldn’t give me the prices for anything and had to try and call ‘the seller’. Being Sunday the phone network was very busy (or due to the phone masts not having power), and I gave up after numerous replays of the pre-recorded Amharic message about network problems – so I came home empty handed.

Slow internet day(s)

Since the problems with the broken internet cable in the med last week, the internet has been even slower than it’s usual snails pace! I’ve just given up on downloading a file, as the max speed I was getting was around 150 bytes/s.

Similarly, work is progressing at what feels to be an ever decreasing rate – not that it was progressing very quickly to start with! This week and next the students have their mid-term exams, so it’s going to be tricky to get anything done during this time. Actually, there’s lots that I could be doing and just getting on with myself, but unfortunately that doesn’t really help anyone, as there’s no sustainability once I’m gone. So I’m having to sit tight, which is making things a little more frustrating!

There are two main things I’m working on at the moment. Firstly to get Moodle hooked up to an SMTP server, so allowing self-registration and forum subscriptions etc. As the uni has it’s own mail system (on which I have a working email address), you may think this ought to be a fairly trivial matter, but I’ve now spent over a week trying to track down what the SMTP server name/IP is and whether or not a username/password is required. Nobody seems to know much (if anything) about it, and I’m very close to just setting up my own SMTP server, but I really want to leave that as a last resort. What I’ve managed to find is that there used to be an SMTP server, but it stopped working and no-one has fixed it yet, but still no idea of it’s address or much else!

In the meantime, in case I can’t get connected to SMTP server, I’m tracking down the list of computer science students so at least I can automatically create their accounts. Again, unsurprisingly, this hasn’t been an easy job. Our dept doesn’t have a complete list of current students, the registrar for our campus only had a list for 2nd and 3rd years. Apparently we need to get in contact with the registrar on the other campus to get a complete list of the first years.

Secondly, since I found the departments intranet site, I’m attempting to get the content from this site moved over to Moodle – as it’s mainly used for storing the course handouts/manuals etc, but just in an IIS ‘browse directory’ way. The site also has discussion boards, but these don’t appear to have been used for some time now, so again, I’d like to recreate these on Moodle – so the course content and forums can all be in one place.

Teddy, head of computer science dept, has assigned one of the new teachers, Yonas, who graduated last year, to help move the content over and to check with the teachers that the handouts etc are all up to date. So that should be a great help and ensure that there’s someone here who knows a little about the Moodle server once I leave.

So, I’ve started to move forward with some of the things on my project plan, but I doubt very much that I’ll get to the end of it within a year here! I am now getting a little used to how slowly things move here, but if I get too used to it then I’ll get too laid back and never get anything done! Fingers crossed things will improve slightly once the exams and Ethiopian Christmas are out of the way.

Teaching English

It’s now been nearly 2 weeks since I had an evening staying in at home, so tonight I’ll attempt to do so, though the chances of someone ringing to go out for drinks and dinner remain high!

I taught English for the first time on Saturday. It was never my best subject and the only grammar I know comes form learning foreign languages. This wasn’t strictly English teaching, more conversation practice for the students at the agricultural college in Wukro, so I didn’t feel too unqualified. The practices sessions have been running for the last couple of weeks by other VSO volunteers, but this is the first time I’ve been able to go. I had a group of 13 17-20 year olds, and it was their first time coming to the practice sessions too.

At first I had no idea about their current level of English, and they were very shy to speak at all. So I started to ask about their families, saying that I had one brother and he was 32. I’d messed up slightly here, as most Ethiopian families are quite large, the conversations were along the lines of “I have 4 brothers and 5 sisters, one brother is 15, one brother is 31…” and so on. Half the lesson was gone before I knew it!

Their vocabulary was really good, but they hadn’t had much practice in constructing sentences, so in the second half of the lesson I did past/present/future. Their responses to their plans for the future were most interesting. One girl was going to be killing cows in the afternoon, several of the other girls wanted to be mechanics or pilots. I didn’t quite get why so many wanted to be pilots, although it may be because almost all wanted to live in Europe or US.

So after a bit of a shaky start it all seemed to go well. Towards the end they were noticably more confident in speaking out loud, although I didn’t manage to get them to understand when I asked them to work in pairs, practicing their sentences to each other. I think this comes from the fact that it’s not the way they’ve ever been asked to work before.

I have now seen my first Christmas tree of the year – one of the supermarkets in town had a 2′ plastic tree with flashing lights and decorations, though still not quite enough to get me ‘into the spirit’! At the main outdoor market, I eventually managed to find all the ingredients for making gluhwein. Cloves were a little tricky to track down, only 2 stalls seemed to have any at all, and thn only about and eggcup full each.

Slightly disappointingly, there will be no turkey for us this year – well, there were 2 left at Wukro, but obviously if we take one or both of these, the chances of any turkeys in the future will be greatly reduced! So we’ll have to make do with a sheep or two for Christmas dinner. Numbers for dinner now stand at around 25, so not sure there’s any room for gatecrashers but we could probably squeeze them in if they bring their own plates and cutlery!

Another quiet weekend…!

It’s not every Sunday evening you spend in a bar eating goat and drinking neat gin with the local chief of police whilst watching “ultimate fighting” on satellite TV.

So basically another normal weekend in Ethiopia. The rest of the weekend was only slightly less eventful. Had an early Christmas meal up at the Gheralta Lodge, near where I went up to the rock churches a few weeks ago. We climbed up to another rock church and this time we actually managed to get in, though this might have been to do with the fact that we went to pick up the priest from home and gave him a lift home.

Corinna and Tina, who’d arranged the weekend, wouldn’t let us get away with just visiting another rock church despite Guh church requiring scrambling and free climbing up a few hundred metres – certainly not one for anyone suffering vertigo. To make the weekend more fun we had a checklist to complete…

  1. Find the local village chairman and take a little film with a short intervew
  2. Take photo of one team member on a donkey
  3. Take photos of all team members drinking tilla
  4. Rebuild and Ethiopian symbol with human bodies (build in local people)
  5. Dress 2 team members in local clothes and take pictures
  6. Find the local water well and bring a sample
  7. Bring something personal from the priest of the church
  8. Take photo of the team with an many animals as possible
  9. Sing a simple song with groups of locals and film it

Despite only setting off at 4pm, and it gets dark at 6pm we managed to complete the entire list as well as visiting the church, although we weren’t back to the lodge until well after dark – Prem and Corinna had driven out to find us, thinking that we’d broken down or got lost. We arrived back in time for dinner at the lodge, four courses followed a sheep bbq, a few bottles of wine and carrot cake.

Monday evening has been relatively quiet – a few drinks with a colleague from work, whose friend wanted me to find him a wife in the UK!

Mekelle Uni elearning site online

Our Moodle server is now up and running, well, it’s available to users on campus (which is a good start) at – won’t be available generally on the internet until the domain has been registered on the Ethiopian Telecoms (ETC) servers in Addis. Hopefully this will be fixed up soon.

For those interested, the network problems we were having before were due to an IP address conflict – two servers (including our Moodle one) had been given the same IP address, creating all sorts of odd problems!

Bad news

On Friday, 11 university students were killed when a lorry lost control and crashed into their line taxi as they were heading from the Mekelle city centre back up to the main campus (Arid) in the afternoon.

The university Research Day, planned for Saturday, was cancelled and there are posters up in the city centre with photos of all those who died, many of whom were first years, so have only been in Mekelle for a few weeks.

The incident happened to be on one of the days when all the specialist doctors from Mekelle hospital were (800km) away at a workshop in Addis. Not sure which bright spark thought it a good idea to send the almost the entire cities doctors away at the same time.

All play and no work??

Realised earlier that I’ve not posted much up about work recently – so just to reassure you that I am doing something (or rather trying to do something!), here’s what I’ve been up to…

My ability to launch our Moodle site has been hampered somewhat by a variety of network issues and problems that I’ve spent far too much time chasing up and not getting far! I’ve not worked out how the network is set up here (I’m unsure that anyone knows). We have 3 different proxy servers, all having different settings (2 allow external internet access, 1 doesn’t, 1 allows the download of mp3’s, the other doesn’t). So to browse the web you regularly have to set up your proxy first. Currently I can access the web, but no https sites (so no email!).

I set up our Moodle server on a machine in our server room, but it’s only accessible from some computers on the network, and it appears random as to whether you have to use the IP address or the machine name (which will become art of the final URL). On my desktop PC, in XP I can access the server on remote desktop using the IP address, but I can’t browse to the network shares using \\ (the same IP that works with remote desktop) and I can only occasionally access the website (
Anyway – far too dull and annoying to go into more detail here – just really hoping that it gets sorted out soon so I can get on with some more meaningful work – like actually letting people use the site and the lab (see photo).

Yesterday I met the university president for the first time. It was at meeting for all ex-pat staff at the Uni (of which there are over 50, mainly from India) to explain to us the implementation of the recent Business Process Review/Reorganisation (BPR), and to listen to our input on the problems we thought the university had and how they could be resolved.

Today I ran my first lab sessions for the “Internet and web page development” course that my counterpart usually teaches. He’s away in Addis this week so I said I’d take the sessions this week, on CSS, to save delaying the course. I found out this morning that our head of dept isn’t too happy with me running the class. Not that he’s unhappy with me, more that it shouldn’t have been left to me to do and it seems my counterpart has taken unauthorised leave.

The sessions seemed to go well, about 40 2nd year students per class, but there were a few things I hadn’t realised would happen. Firstly, that my handwriting is really bad – I wrote some bits of code up on the whiteboard and very few students managed to copy it down correctly. Secondly, that the students don’t seem to have had much hands-on computer experience – including just using a keyboard (many had difficulty finding keys). I’m not sure if this is just because of my accent (‘e’ might sound like ‘i’), or just general lack of time with a keyboard. Finally, I hadn’t thought that they may have difficulty with the punctuation, but maybe again this is to do with lack of practice and experience. Fortunately, all things that I can try to do something about in the next lab sessions though!

…so I have been doing a little bit of work!!

The photo above is one of our World Bank DIF (Development Initiative Fund) project computer lab, so you can see that the PC’s are all quite new, with flat screens and good memory/hard drives. Unfortunately some of the extension wiring in the lab probably wouldn’t pass an electrical safety test…

Wat’s Ethiopian food

“Wat’s Ethiopian food”
That is my rubbish attempt at a joke – here’s the explanation (must be a good joke if it needs an explanation??!)… wat is the Ethiopian stew eaten with injera.

Rather than just repeat what already on Wikipedia about Ethiopian food, here are my experiences so far… people seem to have a marmite-style love/hate relationship with injera – all Ethiopians love injera (well I’ve not yet found anyone who doesn’t like it) and consider that a meal (breakfast, lunch or dinner) isn’t complete without it. Our maid said that she gets through nearly 50kgs of teff flour per month making injera for her family, another couple who live near us said they get through 20kgs per month. I’m not quite so enthusiastic about injera, I’m happy to eat it occasionally, but given the choice I’d usually pick something else – but I’m not as adverse to it as some – “injera is like eating carpet underlay but without the taste” – is one quote.

Being in Mekelle we can get lots of ferenji food in the supermarkets here – though the choice can be a little limited – and the prices can be high – e.g. 60birr (about 4 GBP) for box of cornflakes (not even a large box) – essentially anything that’s imported is expensive. Pork is almost totally unavailable due to religious beliefs, we did hear about a village nearby where you could by pork, but unfortunately you need to buy the whole pig. Very, very occasionally we get bacon, but that’s sent up from Addis.

Meat is quite a big thing here – most meals consist of goat or beef with injera and very few vegetables. As my Mum pointed out we seem to be eating goats quicker than Oxfam Unwrapped can sell them as Christmas presents.

Drink-wise the juice houses in Mekelle are great, an avacado & mango smoothie, made completely fresh to order, is about 7 birr (50p).

Hyaena watching…

After playing volleyball for the first time in my life on Monday afternoon, we went up to rubbish dump to watch hyaenas…

– a not-very-great photo of 2 hyaenas – my zoom isn’t great and I didn’t want to get too much closer!

– as the sun sets so quickly here every other time I’ve seen a decent sunset by the time I’ve gone to get my camera it’s gone dark!

Have since played volleyball again, though no one seemed the realise that me asking what the rules were would indicate that I might not be a very good!