Computers on Red Soil

By Martijn Jacobs | On Jul 27, 2009
A friend of mine, Daan Veldhuizen, is a volunteer at the Joint Operation Youth project in Sierra Leone.

This project is aimed to to improve education in the villages on the countryside. Computers and internet are still a rare phenomenon in this region, so Daan went to Sierra Leone to teach the staff what you can do with a computer and how to use it. Improving UI is a 'hot topic' nowadays in the Plone world, so if you're interested how real novice users expierence the most simple tasks, read on :)

Last Christmas I left freezing Holland to spend the holidays in tropical Sierra Leone. Not many people will think of this country in West-Africa when you're talking about sunbathing on beautiful tropical beaches and hiking through lush forests. Instead, images of war and horrific bloodshed will flash through their heads. These images are indeed part of the country's recent past, but fortunately not anymore of its present. What we can find nowadays in Sierra Leone is a vital but poor and disrupted society, set in a country that beholds many opportunities and is blessed with abundance in natural beauty.

Since three years I'm working side by side with a group of volunteers in the Netherlands and Sierra Leoneans to improve education in rural villages. The group in Sierra Leone consists of three friends in their early thirties who have setup a community based organization called Joint Operation Youth (JOY) in the township of Lakka. When they were working as security guards for a big environmental NGO, they got inspired to do something to rebuild their country. Samuel, Abdul and Ibrahim aim to support and improve the existing educational institutions and where needed initiated new ones themselves. In doing this, JOY operates as an independent organization and respects and understands all written and the many unwritten laws of Sierra Leones society. From the Netherlands, we have the same goals, but instead of doing projects directly from a Western point of view, we support the initiative by letting JOY take the lead and help them in becoming more professional and structural as an organization. One of the things that we are working on is teaching the staff in using computers to write their proposals, estimates and to communicate with us through the internet.

Sierra Leone JOY

In our search for sponsors, we found the Dutch based IT company Four Digits willing to help the Sierra Leonean team by donating them a portable laptop. During our recent visit we brought the laptop along and organized several computer courses to train the JOY members in using this modern machinery. In this article I will share with you my findings in using computers in Sierra Leone.

Choosing the right tools

Sierra Leone one of the Villages
Our Sierra Leonean team members are located in the town of Lakka, which is about 25 kilometers away from the edge of the capital city Freetown. The road between the village and the city is literally a pain in the ass and will take you about an hour to reach. Lakka has no electricity and obviously no internet. We figured that the best way to work would be to have a laptop that has a really long battery life so that documents and photos can be stored and prepared from their office in Lakka. Next we will supply the team with a USB stick, so that they can transfer the files to an internet cafe in town with or without carrying around the laptop whenever necessary.

Together with Four Digits we eventually picked a 10" Asus EEE PC with a 180GB hard drive to do the job. Ideally we would have chosen a solid state hard drive which would have been even more resistant against the bumpy Sierra Leonean roads, but by the time this hard drive would only come in 20GB, which would not be enough to store pictures on the long run. We also chose to supply an additional DVD player, since the input of the EEE PC is mainly focused around wireless communication and this is hardly found in Sierra Leone.

Other equipment that we've learned to be useful in a rough environment is a good waterproof cover for the equipment to fight the rain during the monsoon season, a voltage stabilizer for the power coming from generators or solar and spare USB cables because you never know.

Starting from scratch

After introducing the little machine to the JOY members, we started to give training in how to use the laptop. Knowledge about computers within the group was diverse. Ibrahim knew how to use email and how to create simple Excel and Word documents. Samuel and Abdul were pretty much newbie’s. Although Ibrahim knew how to use some software, he still didn’t understand the basic principle that lies underneath it all, which classically brought him in trouble every time he accidently pressed the “wrong” button.

Sierra Leone Teaching

Although I was pretty familiar with “African Logic”, I found it staggering to identify the difference in structural thinking between the African and Western world. Here in the West, we grew up with computers and computers grew up with us. I played simple games and wrote texts on my grandpa’s 8086 system when I was eight years old. As a teenager I settled myself for many hours behind the television screen at my friend’s place, playing Zelda. Later I got my own 486 pc on which I eventually figured out how to draw and create music. In short: my ability to use a computer increased almost simultaneously with the abilities acomputer could offer its audience. Even people from the older generation in the West, who often claim not to know how to use computers, are more or less familiar with programming orders into a machine, like a regular microwave or an alarm clock.

The personal computers that we know today, either Mac or PC, are advertized as being plug and play and easy to use for everybody and so on. In reality I came to realize that throughout the years they have actually become really complex magic boxes.

For example, take the Windows “Start”-button. If you actually lived through the years that Windows progressed from 3.11 to Vista, you could say: “Yeah makes perfect sense to start a new task with the "Start"-button in the down left corner of the screen”. But if you’re totally new to it all, this is not as logical as Microsoft might have thought it would be. My point is that in the beginning these machines look chaotic and confusing and after my first computer course I saw the pure horror on Samuel’s face. “You try it now”, I would invitingly suggest Samuel, on which he responded; “No no, let Ibrahim do it!”

Later that evening it stroke me: the stuff that I was teaching these guys was not fun or entertaining! Hell, the reason that I started to use a computer when I was young, was because it was fun and enhanced the things I was already interested in. Not because it allowed me to make practical to-do-lists or execute a variety of other dull-organizing-things-that-are-handy-but-also-boring. No way, it allowed me to compose electronic music without needing an expensive studio, it allowed me to create digital art and it entertained me with games. Next day I would try a new strategy…

Samuel is a DJ. With his towering speakers, two CD players and an old mixer he sets the groove for a party Sierra Leonean style! Could I describe this? Well, in short it adds up to loud and distorted reggae-ton beats, shaking booties and plenty of palm wine at room temperature in a seriously too small and steamy hot room. Trust me, it is good fun! Anyway, in my second attempt to teach him to use a computer, I asked him if it would be useful for him as a DJ, to make compilation CD’s that contain tracks that he often plays. “Yes, yes!” his reply was, “But how?” It was silent for a while and from Samuel I rolled my eyes to the computer. “Really, can you please teach me!?” he asked. “Yes, I can… yes, I can indeed.” I answered with a grin on my face. The bait had worked.

Later that day, long after the class had finished, I found Samuel and Abdul both sitting behind the computer, moving files, copying, pasting, renaming. In the evening they were still there and it reminded me of my own good old days of figuring out the magic box… The point that I would like to make, is that in teaching people from scratch how to use a computer, it is of uttermost importance to find out what it is that can link the personal interest of the person to the machine. If the goal is to teach somebody how to make estimates in Excel, start out with minesweeper… :-)

Maintenance

Our aim during the Christmas visit was to teach the members of JOY enough skills so that they could maintain the computer by themselves as soon as we would be back in Holland. Although we tried to focus on the controlling fundamentals of a computer, like the operating system, this aim still turned out to be too far out of reach. Alternatively for maintenance there are several computer stores in the capital city, but these would cost way too much money for what they would actually do. Therefore we contacted a friend from another NGO who I had been training in video production a couple of years ago. We found him willing to help out the guys from JOY whenever they get stuck or get returning error messages. We suggested the members to pay close attention when he is fixing the machine, so that they will be able to do these tasks themselves in the future.

Results

The project proposals and estimates that are communicated between Holland and Sierra Leone are nowadays well made in Excel or Word. This is a huge advantage and saves us a lot of time by for example not having to figure out if a character is indeed an '8' or perhaps a '0'. The only thing is that the internet is still very inaccessible. Since some time telecom providers in Sierra Leone also offer satellite internet, but with a monthly price tag that equals a local monthly salary, this is not a real option. All we can hope for is that the road from Lakka to Freetown will be finished any time soon and the internet in town becomes more accessible.

Thanks to Daan Velduizen for writing this excellent article.