In 2001 I ventured to North Namibia as a volunteer at a high school in Oshigambo. It was an incredible experience (of which I will share more another time).
When I first received confirmation of my acceptance as a volunteer, I was asked what I could do, a request for skills. I listed “carpentry, basic masonry, plumbing, electrical wiring, teaching English and writing.” I intentionally did not list computers. The response was, “We need help in our computer lab.” To which I responded, “Don’t you need something built? A leaking roof repaired?” And again I received, “Can you assist us with our computers.” I gave in, “Yes, yes, of course. I will be pleased to assist with your computer lab.” It seems my time away from computers would be with computers.
As this was a few months prior to 9/11, I was allowed to hand carry an Apple 8500 (to which I bolted a black steel handle) onto the plane. Adorned with “Yellow Dog Linux” and “Take a Bite Out of NT” stickers, it drew some attention. In Johannesburg, an American noticed my odd luggage and said, “Oh! My brother uses Yellow Dog Linux.” I was taken back, “Really? What does he do?” “Works at Penn State. He converted his entire iMac lab to YDL last year. Loves it. How did you hear about Yellow Dog?” I smiled. An unexpected ego trip is fun every now and again.
Linux Through the Etosha Pan
Two weeks later I had installed my YDL box and conducted a few crash courses on the use of Linux and Mac OS. I helped to improve the Oshigambo computer lab by digging through more than 50 donated and completely worthless early 80s computers whose only value was the RAM and drives. I consolidated more than 100 floppies onto a single CD-R and introduced a hand-held USB microscope (which I had brought with me) to their biology program.
One evening, having worked another 14 hour day and needing a break, I attached the 8500 to a translucent LCD adapater on an overhead projector (the kind designed for writing on a looped roll of cellophane) and turned out the classroom lights. The teacher, students, and I listened and danced to Samantha Mamba while color swirled larger than life to the rythm of the music. It passed the time while we waited for yet another Windows 3.11 system to re-install. You can’t imaging my frustration for having not brought a set of Red Hat CDs.
I was pleased to learn of Schoolnet Namibia, a not-for-profit that is installing Linux boxes in every Namibian computer lab possible while building a network of wireless data connectivity throughout the country, branching from the sole telcom microwave backbone from South to North. All of the routers and access point control centers ran Red Hat Linux, so the Yellow Dog had good company. But at that time, Schoolnet had not yet brought inernet connectivity to Oshigambo.
No more hand me downs, please.
I had brought a dual-boot 8500 and it was 4x faster than most of the machines in the lab and yet, a few teachers had modern Pentium laptops which topped the 8500 by 2x. I had ventured to Africa with the default American assumption that our hand-me-downs would be well received by those who had less. In other arenas this may may be true, but where computers and the internet are concerned, this is not the case.
While I was feeling bad I didn’t have something a bit newer, the museum pieces in the closet were not delivered a decade ago but donated just a two years prior. They were already twenty years old. Ridiculous, bordering offensive.
In my final day at Oshigambo I prepared a series of HOWTOs for re-installation, maintenance, and user administration. I summarized the many white board discussions that reinforced the training the teachers had gained at the university. And in closing, I addressed the closet full of junk, making it very clear that it was useless and should be recycled, discarded … or buried.
This was the hardest part to explain, to make clear that their relatively new donations were simply not capable of burning CD-Rs, let alone connecting to the internet nor playing MP3s. The teachers and students were well aware of what was available, the latest technology, but knowing their next donation might be a few years away the were very reluctant to let go of 30+ Apple IIe computers whose drives were locked-up or missing and boot floppies non existent.
Leveling the Playing Field
Our three decade curve of technological improvement in the computer industry is completely cut through as people move from never having used a telephone to making home movies on their laptop in one jump.
It is terribly important to recognize the functions the internet serves to bridge gaps between peoples of such varied socio-economic backgrounds, by:
a) Enabling eveyone to recognize the latest, greatest technology offerings.
b) Enabling two or more otherwise disconnected parties to engage and work together to level the disparate playing fields.
c) Enabling all involved to grow through story telling, experience, and most important of all, understanding.
The spread of technology to all people serves to improve quality of life, yes. But if the spread of that technology is not accompanied by improved understanding and empathy, then we are missing the most important aspect of these collaborative relationships –humanity.