Archive for November 2009

Lab Preparation and Training Week

Trainers in the new lab

Trainers in the new lab

The week before the opening of our labs by the Spanish Ambassador we had run a full week of training with about 25 teachers from the Health Sciences and Engineering Colleges. Simultaneously with the training we were also trying to get the labs complete – so quite difficult to coordinate with everything done right at the very last minute.

The training went far better than we had hoped, with the teachers being very keen, even to the extent where when we suggested a coffee break, it was hard to get people away from the computers. We also had many requests from other staff who would like to join the training. The next two challenges are to get the labs open and available for students and not to lose the momentum we’ve built up with the recent training. We’re continuing with weekly half day workshop/tutorial sessions and will be opening the labs for a very select group of students so they can test out the labs for us and help to identify any possible problems. This also gives the ICT team the opportunity to learn and deal with issues.

So much has happened over the last 2-3 weeks so it’s impossible for me to note (or remember) everything that’s happened, although there were a couple of notable exceptions.

Last minute varnishing

Last minute varnishing

Firstly, the tables that we ordered from the agricultural college in Wukro finally arrived. I mentioned in a recent posting about the delivery over the weekend, well, the other half of the order arrived on Friday morning, only the varnishing hadn’t been finished, so the college sent a technician to complete the tables as they were being unloaded from the truck. Despite the delays, I’m very pleased with the tables and how they look in the labs, I was slightly worried that I’d miscalculated and the tables would be too big for the lab or too small for the computers, but fortunately this wasn’t the case and everyone tells me how good the labs look.

Sewing the ribbon

Sewing the ribbon

The other event which stuck in my mind was organising the ribbon for the ambassador to cut. At about 5pm the day before his visit, I was given a copy of the schedule, one section read ‘cutting the ribbon’. I then made the mistake of saying that I was going into town after work, only to be asked if I could by some ribbon as they uni didn’t have any. I mistakenly assumed this would be a relatively easy task given that all tailors and fabric shops are down the same street. This was not the case, after visiting too many shops, the only red ribbon I could find was about 1cm wide. we had to settle for a strip of edged red fabric and hoe that it would be wide enough for the door and wouldn’t look too bad. On the day I also took pair of scissors with me, just in case.

As a surprise for us and the trainers, the University had arranged a meal at the Axum hotel on the last evening of the training, so we finally had chance to wind down a little…

Dinner at the Axum

Dinner at the Axum

Cutting the Ribbon

DSC_5213Today we had a visit from the Spanish Ambassador to Ethiopia, D. Antonio Sánchez-Benedito, to open our new Digital Campus training labs. He arrived this morning to cut the ribbon and to hand out certificates to those tutors who participated in the training last week. Last weeks training went very well, certainly exceeding our expectations, so have been very pleased with the response so far. Very short posting today as have much to catch up on from the past week, so hope to post a more in the coming days.

VSO London Social Event

Julia, a friend who was also working last year with VSO in Ethiopia but now returned to London, is organising the VSO London social group. Anyone, ex VSO, prospective VSO or just generally interested is welcome to attend:

6.30pm – 9.30pm, Monday 30th November, 2009; Pitcher & Piano, 40 – 42 William IV Street, Trafalgar Square, London WC2N 4DD
You are cordially invited to the second social evening of the London VSO Group!

We had a good time in September – about thirty of us turned up. This time we want more!

As you may recall, the group is open to all, returned volunteers, friends and family, potential new volunteers, VSO staff – literally anyone with any involvement with VSO or an interest in development.

We want to have another “just” social evening, to get us feeling like a group, but would like our meeting in the new year to be more formal with some sort of theme/structure – as ever, we’re keen that YOU help shape how the group proceeds, so we will be canvassing your opinion on this. Thoughts to consider:

How often would you attend?
What would you like to come along to – what would be really nice to get involved with?
What can you bring to this?
Where would you like to meet – do you have venue ideas?

Here is the link to the VSO site, which will keep you updated with activities –

We very much hope to see you at our second drinks evening on Monday 30th November. Please bring along friends or anyone else – the more the merrier. Please also distribute this notice to your own networks.

Look forward to seeing you there!

Kafka would be proud

Last Wednesday, Roman, Jaime and Mike all arrived from various parts of the world to run the first training week for the Digital Campus project and to get the servers and labs labs set up.

Everything for the rest of the week was rather stressful as we were chasing up where equipment was and arranging to get it moved into the right place. The bureaucracy of getting all the items logged into the store, plus the lack of communication or any sense of urgency has been quite astounding. To get the items into the labs, they first must be moved into the main store, I then write a letter confirming that the items match the specification, then they are registered with the main university store manager, only then can the equipment be signed out and transferred to the college, which then has the responsibility of moving the items from the main store into the lab. With many different items, arriving at different times, to different university sites, then being distributed to two different labs, for different colleges creates rather a huge scope for mistakes, inaction and buck passing.

One reason we were given that the monitors hadn’t been moved into the labs was that the terminals hadn’t been moved and there was no point moving the monitors until the terminals were in place. Sure, the monitors are quite useless without terminals, but vice versa is also true, leading to a ridiculous catch-22 situation.

On Saturday, we went up to Wukro for a bit of what should have been relaxation. The tables for the labs are being built by the agricultural and we’ve been waiting a little while for these to be completed and delivered. When we called in the morning to ask about the tables, we were told, rather ominously, ‘you’d better come and see them’. We arrived at about 6pm to be told that the tables had just left on a truck bound for Mekelle Uni. As it was highly unlikely that any of the University store managers would at work at 7pm on Saturday evening, Father Angelo set off in his truck to catch up with them to stop them but they’d had too much of a head start. I’m unsure where the tables spent the night, but I was then called at 7am Sunday morning to say they were at the University, is someone around to receive them? I was still in Wukro and again, unlikely that anyone else would be available at the Uni at that time on a Sunday. after a few phone calls back and forth, the guards at the Uni allowed the tables to let left there for us to collect, check and sign for on Monday. The tables were actually finally located on Wednesday morning.

On top of all this we also had the training course and associated arrangements to finish off ready for the 5 day training course to start tomorrow (Monday). The following Tuesday the Spanish Ambassador is due to visit the project. As the Spanish Cooperation (AECID) organisation is funding the project, it’s important we have something to show in terms of labs/servers etc – so keeping many fingers crossed that next week is less stressful than the last, though I have major doubts about this!

We did manage to fit in a little relaxation by visiting a rock church near Wurko on the Sunday morning. We were accompanied by two researchers who have already written a couple of books about Tigrayan rock churches, who were also allowed to take photos of every page of the churches old prayer book.

Sycamore tree used as basis for logo of Digital Campus project

Sycamore tree used as basis for logo of Digital Campus project


Elearning site available off campus

On Friday, I finally rebuilt our Moodle server, following the power supply failure of the old server. The site is now running on the same server as the main Mekelle University website and so can be accessed off campus (another big achievement) at:

Initially, we’ll use this Moodle installation as the place where the Engineering and Health Sciences tutors can upload their courses for the Digital Campus pilot project, but any other college or department is welcome to use this server for hosting their courses.

The building of the labs for the Digital Campus project is all coming together at once, the servers and terminals are on their way up from Addis as I write, the tables are almost completed and will be delivered by the end of the week, plus the other networking and electrical work is almost finished. All of this is on top of organising the training week (16th to 20th November) for tutors, followed by week of training for th ICT staff. This training is being run by the Digital Campus project team, with the others arriving from around the world during this week.

Given how busy I’ll be over the coming 2-3 weeks, I’m unlikely to be checking email much or updating my blog, so be prepared for a long catch up post in a month 🙂

Mums for Mums

Last week, I was asked to go and visit the Mums for Mums centre to help them to help them out with the redevelopment of their website. Mums for Mums is a local NGO which helps women into work by giving them training and childcare, plus much more. They’ve recently won a grant of 100,000 USD from the Stars foundation to expand their activities. This is a huge amount of money for a relatively small NGO in Ethiopia.

They’d like to revamp their existing website so they can better advertise the work and projects they’re able to undertake with the new funds. The current site was built by a VSO volunteer when she was working in Mekelle a few years ago – she worked at the Computer Science department at the University and started the elearning project that I worked on last year. As she has now left Ethiopia, I feel it would be more appropriate if the office staff could keep the site up to date themselves, rather than depending on someone abroad to do this for them.

My first task in this work is to write a proposal they can send to Stars, so at least they can show they’ve started thinking and planning how their website will be renovated.

Updating the site to use a content management system (not sure which one we’ll use yet) and training the staff will be straightforward enough. The more complex facility that they’d like is the ability for people to donate money online, as they receive many offers of donations, often from people in the UK. Currently there are two ways in which money can be donated. Either by transferring money directly into the Mums for Mums bank account in Mekelle, or by donating through a partner charity (Friends of Ethiopian Children in Need – FECIN) in the UK.

Neither of these methods are ideal, transferring money directly by international transfer is expensive (approx 40 GBP per transfer) and so is only appropriate for very large donations. Using a partner charity in the UK means they are dependent on this other charity.

We had a discussion about how we can find a solution for this, but is difficult as Mums for Mums is not a registered charity in the UK and so can’t use (for example) the JustGiving website. Registering as a UK charity may be a solution, but they’ll need representation in the UK, plus all the associated paperwork.

If anyone has any suggestions as to how we could find a good solution to this problem would be gratefully received. There must be many other NGOs around the world who receive donations from the UK without being registered as a UK charity, so we’d be interested to hear any possible solutions. Please either leave a comment below or email me directly (

Birthday Cake

IMG_1081On Thursday, rather than celebrating bonfire night – the meaning of which would have been a little lost on most people here, we celebrated Martin’s birthday. Over the week we’d had several other VSO volunteers coming to Mekelle, so the promise of a good meal out and some birthday cake was enough to convince them the stay on an extra day or so. Mike, an IT volunteer from Maychew technical college came up on Tuesday to look at the IT infrastructure at the University and also for me to show him the main computer suppliers in Mekelle. Cathy and Peter came over from Axum, I’d visited them the previous week, to see the English Language Improvement Centre (ELIC) and the Academic Development Resource Centre (ADRC). Marcel also returned to Mekelle after an extended back in Australia.

For Martin’s birthday meal we went to the Boston cafe, one of the main ferenji restaurants in town. We had a great turn out, with about 25 people coming along, so was lucky that accidentally 2 cakes had been ordered.


Getting to travel…

With being based in the Computer Science dept, it’s quite rare for me to have to travel for work, other than just across to the other side of town to visit a different campus. This week however I was invited to attend a training workshop over at Axum University to find out about some English language training software that has been donated to the University there, and has also been made freely available for Mekelle Uni to install too. The training had been arranged by the previous VSO English Language Improvement Coordinator (ELIC) at Axum, and has been taken over by the new VSO volunteers who arrived a few weeks ago, so was also a good opportunity to get to meet the new volunteers.

Four of us from the Uni (plus driver) set off on Sunday morning. What I thought was a very optimistic start time (7:15am) for a Sunday, turned out to be only 15 mins short of our actual departure – very unusual for such good timekeeping here.

The ELIC centre at Axum looked very well organised, with a computer lab set up and a very clean (dust free) room. The software used for the training was from a company based in Hong Kong, Clarity English and one of their directors, Andrew, had come over to do the training and has donated the software to both Axum and Mekelle Universities. There are a range of different programs for different aspects of learning English and all seem very easy to use, though staff and students would need little introduction in how they can use the software and get the most out of it.

Out of the 8 programs (CDs), two were of particular interest to me. Firstly was a training for the IELTS certification. I’ve been asked by the Computer Science department here to help set up an IELTS certification centre, as an income generation scheme for the department. So will be good to be able to offer students facilities to train and test themselves before taking the exam. Secondly, there was some test/quiz authoring software. Although this had fewer options than the quiz module in Moodle, it had a much clearer and cleaner interface in terms of authoring, so would be much easier to get teachers trained up in how to create their own quizzes than it would be with Moodle.

The software looks good and will be great if we can find some computer labs where it can be installed for students access, all need to ensure is that the labs have headphones with mics available to get the most out of the software.

IMG_1023Whilst in Axum we also had chance to visit a few of the historical sites too, though most I had visited on my previous visit last year. Our route back to Mekelle took us via Adigrat – I’ve never taken this route back before, having always gone through Abi Adi. The Axum – Adigrat – Mekelle road is well paved almost the entire way, so although further than via Abi Adi, it’s quicker and more comfortable.

We stopped off at the Yeha Temple, which, according to our guide, at 2500 years old is the oldest building in Africa, and was the centre of the Yeha empire (before the Axumite empire). We were told that ibexes were then common in the area and can now only be found in the Simien mountains. I’m sure this will be related to that fact that as they held some religious significance, ibexes were sacrificed in the temple (although obviously I could be wrong!) – we were shown the area in the temple where it’s believed the sacrifices took place.

In a small museum next to the temple we were shown some carved rocks and pottery that had been found in the surrounding area by farmers, although a problem is that when farmers find historical items, they are often sold on to collectors.

Yeha Temple

Yeha Temple

Carvings and pottery

Carvings and pottery