Archive for September 2009


IMG_0747Last weekend was Meskel – a celebration of the finding of the true cross. Last year I’d arrived in Mekelle just in time to celebrate Meskel so this year we were going to head up to Adigrat as there is a bigger celebration there. Unfortunately all the hotels there were booked up, so we didn’t go in the evening. Instead we stayed in Mekelle and headed up the mountain overlooking town to watch the bonfire being lit and the torchlit procession down into town – much as we had done last year.

Early on Sunday morning, we drove up to Adigrat just for the day to see the daytime Meskel celebrations there, held in the football stadium, a bonfire ready to be lit on the centre spot and the whole town out in their traditional clothes. First a few speeches by some of the chief priests from the region, then the fire was lit and people used the ashes from the fire to draw crosses on their foreheads.

On our way back into town we stopped at a friends family’s cafe for a couple of drinks, where a TV crew from Ethiopian TV (ETV) interviewed us. So if you’re able to receive ETV, we may be on sometime this Sunday. In case you miss us on TV here are a few photos:

Head priest returning after lighting the bonfire

Head priest returning after lighting the bonfire

Spectators in the grandstand

Spectators in the grandstand

Waiting for the fire to die down to collect ashes

Waiting for the fire to die down to collect ashes

One of the horse riders who had been racing around the stadium before the fire

One of the horse riders who had been racing around the stadium before the fire

Interview for ETV

Interview for ETV

Keeping Organised

When was back in the UK I made a lot of use of RememberTheMilk (RTM), after a bit of a play around with a number of ‘to do’ applications. Now, without good internet access I’m unable to make much use of RTM. I know it’s meant to have an offline mode (using Google Gears), but I’ve never managed to have that working reliably.

Since being in Ethiopia, I was back to using a notebook and pen for keeping track of things I needed to do – which, obviously worked anywhere, anytime, but isn’t great at reminding you which things need to be done in the future.

I started having a look at the programs available in Ubuntu and found Tomboy notes ( There are other to do applications but none appeared to allow synchronisation (the most useful feature in my opinion) between different computers. Although Tomboy is not really a to do list application I have been able to use it as such. I have a number of notebooks, one of which is called ‘todo’ (unsurprisingly), then I add notes (tasks), the title preceded with the date the task needs to be done, in the format YYYY-MM-DD (so they keep in proper date order). This has proved to work well over the last couple of months and I’ve had no problems at all.

Switching Operating Systems

After having moved the our elearning server over from the Business Campus over to the main data centre at Arid Campus, I was then ready to change the operating system. Originally the server was running Windows Server 2003, but all the rest of the main University server are running either Debian or Ubuntu – so it made sense to switch over to one of these for consistency if nothing else 😉

So yesterday morning I backed up the Moodle database, files etc and set about installing Ubuntu – it was actually far quicker than I’d first thought it would be. Within an hour I had the basic system back up and running, with just a few small tweaks left to do. So I was very pleased there weren’t any major disasters getting this set up. The only slight issue I found was that I also upgraded Moodle from 1.9.3 to 1.9.5 and it complained about the database not being unicode which was slightly puzzling, all I needed to do was run:

ALTER DATABASE `moodle` CHARACTER SET utf8 COLLATE utf8_unicode_ci;

and then the Moodle upgrade continued normally without any complaints.

Since the change of operating system I’ve already found a number of advantages:

  1. I can now set this server up as a cache form Ubuntu/Debian desktop updates – using apt-cacher (thanks to Liam for the info and guide on getting this set up). There are already a number of people using Ubuntu here on their desktop, and the more bandwidth is saved by using apt-cacher. Now just to let people know how to configure it on their machines.
  2. ClamAV works much better with Moodle/Unix than it does with Windows. It was possible to get working with Windows, but needed a bit of tweaking (see:
  3. It seems much faster in generating pages (ok, I don’t have any benchmarks to verify this – but the site generally feels much more responsive than it previously did.)

So I’m pleased to have finally made the change, plus there are more staff (usually from IT dept) beginning to use Ubuntu.

High Speed Internet – coming soon?

Although there seems to be plenty of talk on the new broadband internet connection for East Africa, for me it only means that Ethiopia will get yet further behind it’s neighbours. Being an undersea cable, it’s natural that coastal countries would be first to benefit, but there has been little (no?) mention of Ethiopia being connected, despite other landlocked countries (Uganda, Rwanda etc) being talked about. The BBC article talks about the expense and slow speed of internet access in Kenya, but if those connection speeds were available at those prices in Ethiopia – that would represent a huge step forward. The new faster connections are a great for some countries, but remember there is still a long way to go in improving internet access across the region.


IMG_0517Last weekend I had a fantastic trip down to Lalibela ( It’s one of the main tourist attractions in Ethiopia and, in my opinion, was far more worthwhile visiting than Axum. Although a small city, it feels like a small village, with very few large concrete building common elsewhere. I guess this has a lot to do with it’s UNESCO World Heritage site status – only slight ruined by the huge covers that have been erected over some of the churches to stop them decaying further – I’m sure there are ways this could have been done to fit in better with the local surroundings.

If was only a flying visit for us, 6 of us drove down via Samre and Sekota, this is the cross country short cut, around 300km on unpaved roads against over 500km if you go the paved route. In the entire 7 hour journey we only saw one other vehicle on the road.

On Saturday morning we visited, with our excellent guide, the amazing 11 rock churches in the two main church complexes in the centre of Lalibela. Around 800 or 900 years old, the churches have been carved down into the rock, some consisting of only one solid piece of rock:




The priests here seemed much amiable to tourists, especially compared to some priests at the rock churches around Tigray and Mekelle.

In the afternoon, we took a trip on mules up to another church, Asheton Mariam, around 7km from town. Unfortunately they’d doubled the entrance fee a couple of days before (for the Ethiopian New Year), and we were all a little reluctant to pay 100 birr (approx 10USD) to get in, so actually we didn’t go inside. It may seem a little odd not spending this money but it soon mounts up when you’re visiting many churches, plus all of us had residence IDs, but no discount for that.

IMG_0665Then on Sunday we drove back – stopping off at Yemrehanna Kristos – around 45 km form Lalibela. It’s a church and palace built inside the mouth of a cave, further back in the cave are 1000’s of skeletons of pilgrims who came to the church to die and be buried – over the course of the last several hundred years. A little gruesome, with all the skeletons are just piled up at the back, only one or two having coffins.

The traffic was rather heavy on the trip home, must have been at least 10 other vehicles on the road. It gave me chance to really try out my GPS, so now I have the entire route from Mekelle to Lalibela to upload to OpenStreetMap, plus many villages and towns on the way – few of which we found the name for.

It was a great trip and I’d recommend anyone to go and visit. Being more of a tourist town than Other places, it is more expensive to eat, drink, sleep, but certainly worth the extra money 😉

New Year Messages

On all the major holidays here, the telecoms company sends various greetings to all mobile phones, we also occasionally receive them from other (government) institutions. Here are 3 texts I received over the last few days:

“New Year, New Life! Test for HIV, test with your partner, get your children tested and brighten the future of your family! Free testing. Happy New Year”

“The Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation wishes all Ethiopians a happy and joyful festivity of the Ethiopian New Year 2002”

“Wish you a happy and prosperous new year. Compliance to laws including the laws governing tax and customs is basis for a sustainable growth”

Facebook Lite

From the BBC:

The world’s biggest social networking site has launched a slimmed-down version for people with slow or poor internet connections.

Facebook has said the Lite site will be faster and simpler because it offers fewer services than the main site.

Initially it is meant to support users in developing countries and where bandwidth constraints make the current version too slow to use.

Over the last few months I’ve noticed more and more people here using Facebook – the connection we’re got at the Uni has been gradually improving and it’s finally now got to the point where you can usually reliably load Facebook. But then we’re on a broadband connection – users in internet cafe’s etc have had slim chance of loading up Facebook when on a shared dial up connection. Now with Facebook Lite, I guess I’ll start to get many more friend requests…

A new website for a new year

digital-campusTomorrow (11th September) is the first day in 2002 in the Ethiopian Calendar. Just in time for the new, we have now launched our project website:, designed to give an insight into the work that we’re doing, providing details of the course “Certificate in Online Education” which we’re writing and delivering to staff in Health Sciences and Engineering Colleges. The website also provides technical information regarding the new labs that we are building, the servers, terminals, software etc. We’d be very grateful for any feedback about the site, especially if there’s anything you’d like to know about the project that’s missing.

Also just in time for the New Year, I have a new office. My computer and desk were finally moved yesterday to the main University campus. My desk is temporarily located in the ICT department and I’ll move back to Computer Science once the network is installed and the building is connected to the rest of the University network.

Hectic Week

IMG_0372I’ve just come to the end of probably the busiest week I’ve had in nearly a year in Ethiopia, most of which has been involving chasing paperwork and bureaucracy.

Firstly, I finally managed to get the Moodle server moved from one campus to the main ICT data centre at another campus. Originally the server was in the Computer Science department, but the erratic power supply and lack of working generator meant the server was often off. Moving to the main data centre means the there is a more reliable power supply and generator. However, moving the server is not quite as simple as you may think. Several different letters and stamped pieces of paper were needed to allow me to move the server, mainly so the guards would allow me to take the server off campus. It took almost a week to get the paperwork done, but it’s finally moved. There’s now just the small issue of configuring it properly on the network, this was started today but not finished as the guy with the one of the necessary passwords isn’t in the office.

This week work started on the networking for one of the new computer labs (the photo shows the channels being cut in the floor for the cabling). I was at the Health Sciences campus a few days ago when I was called to go up to the Arid campus to show them where the channel should be cut as the labourers had arrived. Arid campus is two bus journeys away from Health Sciences, so I was told that I could get a University car to take me to save time. Unfortunately a drill also needed to be taken, so we had over an hour getting the paperwork sorted out, again, so we’d be allowed to take the drill off one campus and onto another.

The car we were then given was actually an ambulance, but we were prevented from leaving the campus as the papers we had to allow the car off campus didn’t cover the ambulance, so we couldn’t leave, and I ended up taking the 2 buses.

So , having received the call at about 9am to go to Arid, I finally arrived just before 12, all for a 4km journey. I later found out that the ambulance must have the proper paperwork to leave the hospital grounds even if it is on an emergency call-out. Hopefully I’ll never need an ambulance in a hurry.

I’ve finally started to receive post again this week. I had been expecting several letters, none of which had arrived over 3 weeks after posting. I manage to persuade the new lady at the post office to let me go and have a look in the other PO boxes, and found most of my letters (to box no 3060) had been put in the wrong PO boxes, some in box 3006, some in 3070 and some more in a cupboard. I’ve still yet to find a parcel my parents sent over 3 weeks ago, so suspect it’s just gone missing. All of which is quite annoying as last year we had no problems at all with the post, but I think they now know how irritated I was by it all, so the post should be fine now. Please don’t let it put you off sending me anything, just label it clearly and let me know you’ve sent something so I can look out for it.

The final saga of the week is that I’m currently office-less. Although over the last week many of computer labs have moved over to our new building, my office has yet to move, not that with everything else going on I would have spent much time this week in the office anyway.