Archive for October 2008

Another Sunday another walk

This time we went up into the hills to the south of Mekelle, starting with a long slog uphill to reach the plateau – fortunately it was all flat or downhill after that!

We met some kids taking cattle to market, some of the whom must only have been 6 or 7:

Had some great views:

Were followed by lots of kids (who didn’t ask for money for a change!) who wanted their photos taken:

and we saw some huge cacti/succulents:

All this was in a 5 hour circular walk from the centre of Mekelle.

OLPC trial

One of the schools in Mekelle, in fact it’s not far from my house, has just started a trial of the One Laptop per Child (OLPC) project. Apparently, it’s the first trial for OLPC in this region (Tigray), but trials are already underway in other regions of Ethiopia. The laptops have been funded by Italians (not sure if this means an Italian foundation, or the Italian government) and have just been given out to the pupils – all their parents had to come in a couple of days ago to sign for them.

I’m hoping to be able to pay them a visit, to see how the teachers and pupils are making use of the laptops. I know some of you reading this might be interested in how it’s going, so I’ll post again once I’ve visited, but if you have anything specific that you’d like to know or me to ask then please drop me a line or leave a comment below.

Learning by watching

One teaching method that’s used in schools here is to use what’s called ‘Plasma Learning’. Some colleagues have visited schools which have only very basic facilities (perhaps not even functioning toilets), but then in each classroom there’s a big (expensive) plasma TV to broadcast lessons to students.

The idea is that students across Ethiopia all receive the same standard of lesson at the same time (these lessons are broadcast, not pre-recorded on DVD). This may help with the fact that experienced teachers are in short supply, but introduces its own problems, which are probably too numerous to mention, but I’ll give it a go… firstly there’s the question of power supply. Once the broadcast has started there’s no way to stop or pause the lesson, even if it’s obvious students are getting stuck (or they’re late), the lesson ploughs on. Naturally, it’s completely one-way, plus it’s all in English – so a fairly high level of English is needed even to understand a biology lesson for example.

Not sure how this compares to the old OU/BBC night-time broadcasts, but at least people had the option of recording them, or watching a later repeat and they were in the viewers native language.

Whirlwind of Activity

I’ve been waiting for the server room to be cleaned up and reorganised so we can put the Moodle server down there – as it’s been sat under my desk since I arrived and only rarely plugged on, let alone connected to the network.

I came back from lunch on Friday to find 5 or 6 cleaners, 2 porters and several staff moving everything out of the server room. It was great to get this finished and the room looks far better than it was before – unfortunately I didn’t have my camera with me, it would’ve been good to get before and after photos. The amount of dust we moved around was quite incredible – I use the word ‘moved’ deliberately, we didn’t have a hoover, only an electric blower, so we took the servers outside and, with the casings off, gave then a quick blast with the blower to create large dust clouds, crossing our fingers that it wouldn’t just land back inside the servers before we got the casings back on. One of the cleaners tried to help with a wet towel, but we managed to stop her filling the servers with water just in time!

In other news, on Thursday night we had an English guy (Dr John Painter) over for dinner, he’s been working in the Uni ICT department for the last 5 years, and before that spent 5 or 6 years working in Bahir Dar – so he’s fluent in both Amharic and Tigrinya, plus he knows most people working at the Uni and how to get things done!

We’ve had the first rains since we arrived in Mekelle (a month ago now) – a downpour for about an hour, followed by a rainbow. The fresh smell makes a great change from the usually dusty dry air, humidity inside is normally around 30-40%, but the rain as brought this up to 60%. Trying to make the most of it as it’s unlikely to rain much (if at all) until next May or June.

Unfortunately the rain coincided with the time our night guard (Tsegay) was moving out. As he’s a teacher and will be taking evening extension classes, he couldn’t continue being our guard. A couple of weeks ago we arranged for a new night guard to come and told Tsegay that’s he’d need to move out. This was a couple of weeks ago, and we reminded him about moving on Thursday. Come Saturday and the new guard arrives, Tsegay is very unhappy about moving out saying that he doesn’t have anywhere else to go and that we owe him 5 months pay. We just managed to persuade him to go, given that we’ve paid him for the month he’s worked for us and that fact he’s known about the dates etc for a month, and then the rain started. He went away saying he was very unhappy about not being paid for 5 months, even though we know he was paid until end of July by the previous VSO volunteer living in or house and the house had been empty over summer. Was all eerily similar to our experiences with paying the guides up at Chele Anka waterfall last weekend.

Though our new guard can’t speak any English, he did give me a demonstration of his ‘guarding stick’ – a 2 foot stick with a curved blade, similar to a billhook. We’re just hoping he doesn’t need to make any use of it!

Changes in my use of technology

Although I’ve not been in Ethiopia very long, my technology habits have adapted quickly. The main changes I’ve noticed are:

  • I’m not using Google search. Or, in fact, any search at all.
    I can’t actually remember the last time I googled something, it will have been when I was back in the UK, though I’m sure Google will have remembered for me. The sites I visit consist almost exclusively of Gmail and my feed reader.
  • I write all emails and blog postings in text files first (including this one).
    Because, firstly it’s far quicker at internet cafes to cut and paste something I’ve already written. Secondly, it means I still have a copy when internet connection drops, as frequently happens. And I do mean frequently – with almost every second page the connection has been lost. Third, I can write at home, ready to (fingers-crossed) upload at work the next day. Unfortunately it doesn’t mean I make any better use of a spell checker!
  • I now care about image file sizes.
    Though not, as you may expect, for the people who are going to be viewing them, but rather selfishly for my own ability to upload them. I’m pretty sure most people reading this will not be on slow dial-up speed connections, but that’s what I’m using to write this and reducing any image file size makes uploading far more reliable (and less frustrating).
  • I use Ubuntu almost exclusively.
    Since I loaded Ubuntu onto my Asus Eee PC and my desktop machine at work is Windows/Ubuntu dual boot, I basically only use Ubuntu. The main reason being that the machines will be less susceptible to viruses, which are pretty rampant here (see next comment).
  • I carry around a USB drive all the time.
    Although there are servers, people at work here don’t generally tend to use them for storing their work, all of which tend to be either on their desktops, or on USB drives. So documents are shared by taking them on a USB drive and copying to the other users machine. This goes for printing too, although we have 2 large printers in the dept, neither are networked, nor is there a network shared area to put documents to be printed. With few anti-virus programs installed (and even fewer actually up to date), and this widespread use of USB drives, viruses are everywhere. I end up carrying a USB drive to get documents printed and shared and to move files between home and work – ‘the cloud’ doesn’t exist here.
  • No-one has ever mentioned the word ‘backup’
    I not seen any evidence of anything being backed up. Most PCs are just set up to operate standalone, only connected to the network to get access to the internet, so the closest anyone gets to backup is to copy documents onto their USB drive. I heard a story about a phd student who had the only copy of his thesis on a USB drive, which then got corrupted, losing 2 years of work!
  • I use a download manager and count download time in days.
    The chance of downloading anything larger than about 1Mb with any reliability is slim to zero. So I now use a download manager (the DownThemAll Firefox plugin) for almost everything. I’ve spent several days trying to download (with the Ubuntu download/package manager) the whole 11Mb of Thunderbird, it’s now at 29% (on 21st Oct), so should have finished by Halloween.
  • I haven’t sent an email to someone who sits just down the corridor.
    Email generally isn’t used within organisations, almost all communication seems to be done either face to face, phone or via letters. Very few organisations have their own email servers, Mekelle Uni does, but few people have an account, so staff just don’t seem to be used to using email for work purposes. The ‘purple stamp’ may also have a part to play, in that any form of official request couldn’t be made by email. Digital signatures spring to mind but I’m probably getting ahead of myself.
  • I actually phone people!
    As a result of not using email to communicate with colleagues, I actually phone people. Although, like most staff here, I don’t have a phone on my desk, I end up using my mobile and buying plenty of top-up cards for it. There are only a couple of desk phones in our department, and they’re with the dept head and his secretary.

Pretty much all of these things boil down to that fact that my colleagues and I don’t have quick, easy and, above all, reliable access to the web.

2 Hargoses and 1 Waterfall

On Sunday I finally made it out to the countryside. Andy, Marcel and I took a walk out to the Chele Anka waterfalls, just south of Mekelle. The directions we had were slightly vague… turn left out of the house, keep walking straight on for about 7km, then you’ll come to the village of Debre, at the village find a guide (one of the local kids) and they’ll take you the rest of the way (for a bit of money obviously).

However vague these directions seemed, they did work well for us, it’s only a short walk from our house to the edge of town, and the track to the village was easy to find and follow – it was quite amazing how quickly we felt like we were actually in the countryside (rather than just the outskits of town). Once up out of town the route was very flat, through fields of tef (the staple grain here, that’s used for injera). A guy with his donkey walking the same way insisted on carrying my water for me, and to every other Ethiopian he saw said something along the lines that he’d got some ferengis. All seemed to find his comments very funny, so I’d probably missed the actual joke!

Once at the village we attracted quite a few kids, who all wanted to show us the way, though none actually said up front that they’d want money to be guides. Our water carrier was still with us and he passed the bottle to two of the kids, which we took to be an indication that they were going to be our guides for the rest of the day.

Both of our guides were called Hargos, aged about 10 (Hargos 1) and 8 (Hargos 2), but only Hargos 1 spoke much/any English. Despite already having guides several others tied to tag along – presmably in the hope of getting some money, but we did make it very clear that we only needed (and would only pay for) the 2 Hargoses.

They took us through to the edge of the village, which consisted of small stone houses – some with the traditional thatch, others with new tin roofs. Then we arrived at steep gorge, with the waterfall and church in the distance, and started the descent to the bottom. It’s around 200m deep and very steep, some stone terracing to stop it all collapsing but not really any path to speak of. At the bottom we could see how much greener it was due to the river passing through and the crops being planted down there.

Basically we scrambled down the gorge then walked along to the river to the pools at the bottom of the waterfall. The waterfall is about 100m with plenty of water, especially considering there’s been no rain here for at least a month. next to the falls at the top is an impressive stone church. Lots of locals were out having a swim. Whilst having our picnic, loads of other (teenage) kids joined us, who we suspect were also attempting to be our guides even though we’d already arrived.

After some lunch we started to make our way back, then, just before we started to climb back up through the gorge, some of the older kids started to hassle us for money. Essentially they were saying that the Hargoses were too young and wouldn’t be able to protect us properly. All that we could see that we actually needed protection from was the older kids themselves (we’d previously heard that sometimes kids will throw rocks at the tourists). In the end we gave up trying to argue with them, having explained that they hadn’t actually done anything and we already had guides, and started to make our own way back up. The Hargoses seemed a little intimidated by the older kids and so caught up with us a little later on as we were about halfway back up.

Back at the top we were escorted back to the track back home, where we paid each Hargos 10 birr each (about 1 USD), even though they then went on to demand more – something along the lines of wear and tear on their shoes. 10 birr is a very good rate, given that it’s near the average daily wage for an adult and they’d only been with us for a couple of hours.

It was great to get out of the city for a while and see a bit of the countryside, though slightly spoiled by the hassle and demands for money – but I guess that’s what comes with being a foreigner out here!

Purple stamps

After a frustrating week, I finally now have my contract signed and stamped – unfortunately it took several visits (on different days) to the main Uni campus, about 7km away on the other side of town, to get it sorted, but at least the finance dept now seem happy to pay me at the end of the month. Virtually every document here, if it’s to be regarded as official or valid in any way, must be accompanied not only by a signature, but also a purple stamp. Good to have my contract signed and stamped, but the hassle involved wasn’t aided by me having a bit of a stomach bug most of the week, which made me feel pretty rough.

So the weekend (and by then feeling better) was quite a relief. Andy came over from Abi Adi on Fri afternoon as his college are looking to buy some computers and other equipment. The process of purchasing can be painfully slow, as it’s tightly regulated in the name of beating corruption. First of all you need to get at least 3 quotes for the equipment you want, the supplier then gives their quote in a sealed envelope. The quotes are then opened all together by the procurement committee and the cheapest quote is given the contract, different parts of the order might be from different suppliers, which is fine, but then it starts to get complicated. On the purchase order, you need to specify the exact model of (say) DVD drive you want. The supplier may then only be able to supply a slightly different model. Then begins lots of to-ing and fro-ing between the the requestor of the equipment, the supplier and the procurement committee, as the committee won’t always know the differences between models of computer equipment. As an example, the server for our project took over a year to be purchased.

Andy and his colleagues visited the same 12 shops 3 times each over the course of the weekend, and now has 8 quotes to take back and review. Why did they visit each shop 3 times? Well, the first time was to give each shop a list of the items they were looking to purchase. The second was to give each shop the same list, but this time with the official purple stamp. The final visit was to collect the quotes. So why couldn’t the first and second visits have been combined? We have absolutely no idea!

Office views & scary scaffolding

I’ve not posted up many photos recently, so here are a few I took last week of my office…

Wondwossens desk (server in bottom right corner)

Wondwossens desk (server in bottom right corner)

My desk

My desk

We’ve actually now tidied the office up a little bit, and I have another chair – one which has a back to it! I’ve mentioned before that it’s dusty here, well this is the state of the server that’s on the floor in my office:

I had to blow the dust/dirt out from the USB ports to get them to work, I’ve not actually looked inside the machine yet, but judging by these pictures, it’s probably not in a great state. It’s a relatively new machine too, and if we don’t get it cleaned up and moved I guess it’s not going to last too much longer. The server room downstairs is still in the process of being built – so the floor is thick with brick and plaster dust (whilst still in use as a server room), so I’m reluctant to move the machine until that room is completed.

Finally the view from my office window:

This is the scaffolding on one of the new office/residential they’re building at the Uni. Just on our campus there must be 5 or 6 new buildings going up. All the scaffolding in Ethiopia is just bits of wood nailed together – this photo was taken about 3 floors up and often you can see it all swaying around even in a light breeze.

Cooking on gas

After a couple weeks cooking on a 1kW electric ring and a kerosene stove, Marcel and I finally gave up and bought ourselves a gas stove, with a 25kg bottle of gas. The electric ring never really got hot enough, plus it was too small to heat up the whole frying pan – you could only heat half at a time.

The 3 ring gas hob cost us 350 birr (around 40 USD) and the gas bottle 620 birr – including the deposit on the bottle, so to refill it’ll be arond 260 birr and each refill ought to last us a 2-3 months.

This weekend has been quite chilled out, on Friday I went over to Doreens house to look at some furniture that was in the VSO store there, we’re after some new armchairs, as ours are quite basic and feel as if they’ll fall apart at any minute. They’re just made from 1″ square tubular steel with a bit of foam and fabric stuck on. There were a couple of much better ones in the store, so I’ve put my name on them and will need to figure a way to get them up to the house, along with a new bookcase.

We went for a few drinks and a meal with most of the other VSO volunteers in Mekelle, then a few of us went on to play pool. Pool seems very popular here – there are several pool ‘bars’ near the house – most are just a single pool table, actually without a bar! It’s played very differently here to how I’ve ever seen it before. The balls are set up evenly spaced just up against the side cushions (in numerical order) and the red (no 3) is placed just off the top cushion. The balls are potted in numerical order (starting with the no 3) and you get points corresponding to the number of the ball (although the no 3 ball is worth double, being the first ball). No penalty shots are awarded, but your opponent gets the points for the ball you fouled on. Extra points are gained if you pot a ball using the object ball, so if I hit the no 9, and the no 9 then pots the 14, I’d get 14 points and another shot at the 9. Makes for quite an interesting game, as you can pot fewer balls than your opponent and still win.

On Saturday morning, after getting the new stove, we did some more food shopping and spent most of the rest of the day cooking. I made some ginger cordial, having a rough guess at how to make it. Root ginger here is really cheap – about 25p a kilo, so I got a couple of kilos, chopped up half, just covered with water then boiled it with sugar for about half a hour, left it to cool and then strained through some muslin. I’d only cleaned the root, couldn’t be bothered to peel it, as I’d probably still be there now if I had. Then made some lentil burgers for dinner, again they seem to have worked well and was enough for lunch the next day.

Sunday was haircut day – although Mike had told me about a good barbers, I was a little nervous about what I may end up looking like, as wasn’t sure how they may be with cutting ferengi hair, plus my Amharic isn’t up to asking for short back and sides. Fortunately the guys English was quite good, so managed to say that I wanted it the same style but shorter – I didn’t want any extensions!

I’m feeling much more comfortable at the end of my second full week here in Mekelle, the first week was quite confusing and had a lot to do with finding my way around and things to sort out with the house. Seems like I’ve been in Ethiopia for a long time now, even though it’s only a month since I was in the UK.

I’ve finally made some progress!

Today I feel as if I’ve actually made a little progress and have achieved something. No, I still don’t have my contract signed off and sorted out – so still might not get paid for my first month. But today I managed 2 things…

Firstly I’ve managed to arrange a meeting with Abiot (head of the computer science dept) later this week to go through where the project has got to and for me to present a proposal as to what should happen next. The proposal ought to be straightforward enough to write, as it’s easy to see that the server needs to be put online and made accessible, along with a few pilot courses. The hard part is going to be actually getting any of this put into action and finding teachers willing to invest the time in supporting their students online. As the internet is so unreliable here, we’ll have to concentrate on courses that are offered on campus rather than the distance education courses, and offer the campus based students access via the intranet in the computer labs. Not really an ideal demonstration of elearning and reaching out to those students based in much more rural areas, but about the best I think we’ll be able to manage given the infrastructure.

Secondly, I’ve got our Moodle installation configured and working with Clam anti-virus – so any uploaded files are virus checked and are rejected if found to be infected. The server itself already had over 100 viruses, so they’re now cleaned up. The ClamAV settings in Moodle seemed to be designed for Unix servers, but we’re running on Windows Server 2003 and although you can enter the path to clamscan and the quarantine directory, I still couldn’t get it working. After a little digging around, I found that on Windows, you need to specify the database directory on the path (using –database=E:\ClamWin\db). This can be entered in the Moodle admin settings (though it results in a message saying the path isn’t valid – but that can be ignored). The final step was to comment out the section of code in moodle/lib/upload/lib.php which checks that the clamavpath setting is a valid file and an executable. I’m really pleased to have this fixed given the prevalence of viruses here and the high probability that any files uploaded to the server (e.g. student’s assignments) will contain viruses.

In the rest of today’s news (or whenever I manage to get this uploaded)… we now have a cleaner/maid, who will be doing all our cleaning, washing etc for us. Petrol prices here have gone up nearly 50% in a few days, so there are far fewer bajaj’s on the road. The bajaj’s are basically tut-tuts which follow set routes around the city – this combined with the removal of fuel tax rebates for drivers, means it’s not viable for them to stay on the road. Another consequence is that food prices have gone up already and I guess they’re likely to rise further.

On the agenda for this evening is to take apart one of our 4-way extension leads & surge protectors and attempt to fix without electrocuting myself! It was new a couple of weeks ago (from Addis) and now only 1 of the 4 sockets works reliably 🙁

[Update 8-Oct-08: extension lead is working fine and I’m still here!]