Archive for August 2009

Moving Campus

As I’ve probably mentioned before, the Computer Science dept is moving over to the main University campus on the other side of town. This has been planned since October or November last year and is now finally beginning to happen. What I didn’t expect was that we’d end up using tractor as transport:


As it’ll be my final few days on this campus, I took a few more photos of the campus (although I’m sure I’ll be back again). The staff lounge where I buy my machiatos and have ful for breakfast/brunch:


The inside of one of the other office and lecture hall blocks. It appears to have been modeled on a Victorian prison layout.


Computer lab turned bank

What was once a computer lab for students has been turned into a branch of the Commercial Bank of Ethiopia:


The chance of it turning into a trendy wine bar at any time in the near future is quite remote.

Ashenda Festival

Turns out that the signing and dancing I mentioned yesterday is the Ashenda festival. It also goes on for several days, so I’m still getting stopped in the street and asked for money!

In an attempt to avoid getting stopped quite so often I thought it’d be better to go out on my bike. This mainly worked, though there we a few times when I was almost knocked off by groups of kids trying to stop me to give them money! Fortunately I was going quite slowly and didn’t actually get knocked off. Out on the bike I was able to do some more mapping for OpenStreetMap, adding some roads that I don’t usually walk along. After uploading these updates for OpenStreetMap I took a look at Mekelle on Google Maps. Last time I looked, several months ago now, there was virtually nothing marked, but now there’s almost a complete map. I’m interested to know where they got this data from, given that most of the printed maps I’ve seen of this region aren’t great and certainly don’t include many of the new residential areas on the outskirts of town.

Yesterday I also went to the cinema for the first time I’ve been back, to watch Teza, an Ethiopian film about a doctor returning to his home village near Lake Tana during the 70’s and 80’s. Although depressing in parts, it was well worth watching – the film won best film at an African film festival earlier this year. I had expected it to mainly be in Amharic, hopefully with English subtitles, but it was actually almost all in English. For info, the word ‘teza’ roughly translates as drop or drip.

If anyone feels like posting something over to me then anything, postcards, packet cheese sauce, etc, it would be much appreciated… the address is:

PO Box 3060
Mekelle University


Singing and Dancing

IMG_0327Yesterday marked the end of yet another fasting period, this time it was only for 2 weeks. I was given a number of different reasons for the fasting, so not entirely sure which is the right one, but all had something to do with St Mary.

As well as being allowed to eat meat again, groups of girls roam around town in their traditional costume, singing and dancing with home made drums, collecting money. Fortunately I had been forewarned and that being foreign I was likely to stopped regularly, unless I was either going to stay at home all day or get taxis everywhere. I did leave the house to go into town and then I was stopped every few steps by yet another group of singers who wouldn’t let me pass until I’d given them some money. The pocketful of small changes I’d taken out rapidly disappeared, until all I was left with was a 50 birr note.

In the evening one of the main roads in town was closed off for a fun fair, celebrating 20 years of the TDA (though I never found out what TDA stood for! – Tigray Development Agency was a best guess). A stage had been set up for a cultural dancing show (and speeches), although I arrived a little late and had no chance of getting to a spot where I could actually see the stage, but I’d probably already seen enough singing and dancing for one day.

Settled back

IMG_0301I’ve now been back in Ethiopia only 2 weeks and I’ve got back into the way of life here very quickly. Work has been very busy making arrangements for the networking and furnishing of the two new computer labs, ensuring all the necessary equipment has been ordered. Most of the orders have now gone off, the final part is the order for the tables for the labs. This morning I went up to the agricultural college in Wukro to ask them to build the tables for us – the photo above is one of their main workshops, now just waiting for them to return with a quote.

I’ve been spending far too much time in line taxis (local minibuses) traveling between the three university campuses, my office is at one campus and the labs we’re building are at each of the others. So I’ve had little time in front of the computer. In a way this is fortunate as the power supply has been very poor, so I wouldn’t have got much done in my office anyway. We’re also due to be moving the Computer Science dept to the main campus later this week. The new building still has no network connection, so I’m not sure how that will work when the new students arrive in less than a month.

All the traveling around town has given me plenty of opportunity to use my GPS and contribute towards the OpenStreetMap of Mekelle (there was none before). Here is the map as it currently stands (I’ve yet to upload the changes following my trip up to Wukro):


View the ‘live’ version of the map with my most recent edits.

Last weekend I had a few people over to visit and I finally went to visit the second of the only two tourist attractions in Mekelle, Emperor Yohannes palace. Good to finally go, though not entirely sure it was worth the 10 month wait before visiting!

Computer Viruses in Ethiopia

A recent article in the Guardian this week discusses the problems of (computer) viruses and the chaos they can cause in Africa. Alan Mercer, one of my fellow VSO IT volunteers was interviewed for the article. It’s interesting reading, and has generated plenty of comments worth reading (even though I may not agree with all of them!).

It’s easy to spot the comments written by people who obviously haven’t worked in developing countries, yes, we all know that there are (theoretically) technical solutions to many of the problems, use linux, run XYZ piece of software from your USB stick etc. But in my experience here, as one of the comments states, it certainly is ‘much more complicated than that’.

Back in Mekelle

Now back at work in Mekelle after spending a few days in Addis catching up. It doesn’t feel as if I’ve been away very long, even though I spent 3 months back in the UK. I arrived in Addis at about 3am last Thursday morning and immediately knew I’d arrived back when I had to help jump start the taxi out of the airport car park. At the hotel they’d forgotten about my reservation, but they found another room for me at the back of the hotel. I suspect it was actually one of the rooms used for staff. Woke the next morning to find the power off and didn’t come back on until the evening. Apparently the daytime power is still rationed to alternate days – though there is plenty of rain so the hydro electric dams should get working properly again soon. What I call power rationing is officially termed ‘power-sharing’ – in the same way that the loan given to students here to help them through University is called ‘cost-sharing’.

Had a couple of days at home getting everything unpacked, restocking the food cupboards and catching up with a few people, then back to work. The first day at work was strange, meeting everyone again. My office had been broken into whilst I was away, but fortunately nothig had been taken of mine. Wondwossen, who I share the office with, said two students had broken into our office and another to steal exam papers, but they were caught. Both have been now thrown out of the university, but also put in prison for couple of months.

Wondwossen, plus about 20 of the other computer science lecturers are all leavng this year as they have got scholarships to do masters courses, in Addis, US & Europe. That is out of a total staff of less than 30, so almost all the staff teaching next semester will be new. Apparently 5 or 6 new staff are coming from India and the rest will be made up from last years graduate students.

Afer spending some time in Madrid the other week working out a training programme and to get the labs up and running, assuming the new semester will start in mid to late October as it did last year, I’ve now found out that the next semester actually starts mid September, with staff training for a few weeks before. This means the elearning training we were hoping to start at beginning of September probably can’t now start until October. So we may already need to rethink our training schedule, as we were hoping that we’d have time to train tutors and for them to prepare activities for their students before the semester starts.

The reason for the change of semester date is due to the Ministry of Education wanting all universities and colleges to have the same semester dates across the whole country and to finish the second semester before the elections in May next year.

So guess things are all back to their normal uncertainty, but at least I have plenty of work to be getting on with.

Flying back

Tomorrow morning I fly back to Addis, where I arrive at some crazy time on Thursday morning (2 or 3 am). Spending a couple of days in Addis and then on to Mekelle on Saturday.

Despite only bringing hand luggage back with me, I now have a bag full of random items to return with. I’ve very few clothes to take back (they’re still in Mekelle), so my hold luggage consists of:

  • Hand blender (for making soup etc)
  • Packs of herbs and spices
  • Seeds for planting
  • Tape measure – for sizing up furniture for the new computer labs
  • Small radio
  • 1kg chocolate (I was only going to take half kilo, but then I was given a further half as a present!)
  • Paperbacks
  • GPS
  • plus other assorted items

Not sure what customs will think if they decide to search me.

It feels very different heading out now than it did in September. This time I know what I’m going to, the people, places and the work. I’m especially more confident about the work and that I’ll be able to achieve more. In working with Alcala Uni on a project to build new computer labs and starting a training program, I have much more support and access to funding. Previously I was working very independently trying to encourage staff to use Moodle and create more interactive tasks for their students, with few resources. Now we’re running a training course which the uni president has assigned people to and we are building new computer labs for students. Just hope it works out well!