Sunday, August 15, 2010

Hello from Dubai!

Behold, the magic of free wifi at the airport. The flight from Nairobi to Dubai was uneventful, and I'm now waiting to board the plane to New York. I already miss Kenya but am looking forward to all the things to come in the next few months, including my trip to San Francisco, starting classes, and working on my thesis. Oh, and figuring out how to get myself back to Kenya soon. As much as there are times when I think I will break if someone calls me muzungu one more time, I really feel at home there in some way. Not sure why.

The last day in Nairobi was fun. I met up with a friend, Ilana, for brunch, and met a few of the people she works with as well, then just hung out with another friend for the afternoon. I had intended to meet up with some of the folks from University of Hartford, but by the time they were back in town I was about 30 minutes outside the city center, so I decided not to go back in since it wasn't on my way to the airport.

I somehow managed to fit everything in my suitcase, even though I've gained a lot of stuff during the trip. Not sure how I managed that, but I did. I'm looking forward to getting home and sleeping! The last plane was pretty uncomfortable, so hopefully this one will be better.

Anyway, that's it for my blog this summer. Thanks for reading! Love, Sharon

Last Day at ARO

Thursday was my last full day at ARO Centre. We got to a slow start in the morning, especially because the laser cutter was not working. There was some sort of communication problem between the computer and the machine and we couldn't figure out how to fix it. Fred, Rodgers, Kevin, and I did a mini photo shoot after much nagging on my part, which was really funny. I wanted to have some pictures of us to keep.

Afterwards, Kevin returned to his post, tending to patients, and Fred, Rodgers, and I headed to Bondo so I could use the ATM and to print some photos. When we got there I was fortunately able to withdraw enough money to cover all of my bills from the last two weeks, and then we walked around the town for a while. We bought some sesame seed balls, sesame seeds = sim sim in swahili. They had a bit of honey (or some other sweetener), sesame seeds, and a few groundnuts (peanuts). They were definitely a different sort of taste, but they reminded me of something one might find in the middle east and they were good.

I happened to see an electronics store, so we went over to check it out and see if they had any components. Buying components anywhere near Majiwa is quite difficult, but Bondo is just a 10 minute drive away, so having components available there would really help in terms of the sustainability of the lab. After our failures in Kisumu, I was not very optimistic, however, I was wrong. They even had a list of all of the components and ICs that they carry. We wanted to photograph the list so that people in the lab could know what was available when designing their circuits, and after a LOT of convincing, the shop owner finally allowed us to do so. She also told us about two other electronics stores. The first one again had a list of available components, so I took photos of that list as well. The last store didn't have any consistent stock, so it was not as helpful.

The power has been in and out all week, and unfortunately the power was out while we were at Bondo, so we ended up having to find a place powered by a generator to print our photos. Fred and Rodgers had been hinting that they were going to make me a picture frame, but I wasn't sure. Unfortunately, the girl who was assisting us was dreadfully slow, so we waited almost an hour to print 5 pictures! I told Fred and Rodgers that they need a Kinko's. They were amazed when I explained that they could do all of the work themselves in a timely manner if they were in the US.

Finally we were back in the matatu, headed to Majiwa. I had a very late lunch, then began finishing up some various taks, including settling my bill and going shopping at the small outlet run by the Majiwa Modern Weavers. By the time I went back to the lab, Fred and Rodgers had managed to fix the problem with the laser machine. I'm not sure what they did, but I came back to find it working. I think they reinstalled some software or drivers on a different computer and got it to work. We were supposed to go meet Fred's mom in the afternoon, but it was raining and starting to get late, so we didn't have time.

After dinner, Kevin, Fred, Rodgers, and I spent the rest of the evening in the lab, as we do every night. I was working on some emails and blog posts until the internet turned off, and then just hung around for a while. Another guy who had been away for most of the time I had been around came by to say hi/bye to me, so I talked with him for a while, then went and packed most of my things. Fred and Rodgers were hard at work on something secret, which they had hinted was a gift for me, so I let them be and went to watch a movie with Kevin. I finally watched the whole movie of Up (I had seen the first half before). Even Kevin liked it, and he doesn't like cartoons usually.

Fred and Rodgers both slept over at ARO, in Kevin's little apartment. Friday morning, they were up at about 6 finishing up some wooden boxes for me to take to display at Maker Faire RI. After breakfast, I went and found them in the lab and they gave me my gift. They made me a picture frame that has a picture of the three of us and each one of them picked out a quote for me. It was so sweet of them that I almost started to cry. I'm really going to miss them. We had such a fun two weeks. We headed back out to where the taxi was waiting for me and they went to wake up Kevin. He came out half asleep and I said goodbye to everyone. Then it was off to the airport. The taxi driver was crazy and going way too fast, but luckily I made it safely.

The day in Nairobi went by very fast. I met up with Lawrence, another guy from the lab, to interview him, and he ended up roping me into helping him with a bunch of errands, so I didn't get home until early evening. I met up with Claudia around 7:30 for dinner and we hung out for a while, catching up and stuff. She left early this morning (Saturday) for safari, so I'm sure she'll be having a great weekend. I was supposed to see some people from University of Hartford yesterday as well, but it turned out Clarice had arranged for them to go to Mount Kenya, so they won't be back until this afternoon.

I can't believe I'm flying out tonight! This trip has certainly flown by and I'm not sure I'm ready to face reality back at home quite yet. At least I just have to get through one week and then I'm off to San Francisco! Can't wait.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Ndori Part 2

Today (Wednesday), we spent a while in the morning cleaning the lab since we were to have a visitor. The visitor was Dominic, a friend of mine, who was coming to check out the lab and find out what could be brought to Maker Faire from here in a few weeks. Hansel will be going to represent ARO Fab Lab, and Fred is talking about trying to get there as well. Hopefully they'll both make it. Hansel is really into electronics so I think he would meet some interesting people there.

After cleaning, Fred and I headed again to Ndori, hoping to find the guy that we had looked for yesterday. All of the matatus headed in our direction were full of people going to Akala (it was a market day today), so we started walking. About halfway there, we flagged down a motorbike to take us the rest of the way. It was my first time on a motorcycle, so I was a bit nervous, but it turned out to be fun. Fortunately, we found the guy that we were looking for and I got my interview done and took a few pictures. We also ran into Tom! It's crazy that I run into people I know around here considering I only know about 10 people.

After I finished the interview, Fred put me in a matatu going toward Kisumu since I was meeting Aggre at a place called Obambo. My first solo ride in a matatu. A bit scary, but then I worry too much. It was a longer ride than I thought, but I finally made it and Aggre was there to meet me. We took a motorbike toward the lake and hung out for a while, then I went back home. When I got out of the matatu at Majiwa, I looked up and there was Marvin! He's another one of the guys who works in the lab, though he's been very busy at home and not able to come for several days now. What are the odds that we were in the same matatu! He said he had seen me but he was sitting in the front, so I hadn't seen him there. Anyway, he walked me to ARO since it was on his way, so that was good.

When I got back, Dominic had already come and gone, and Tom was about to leave to go to Kisumu and then on to Nairobi. I said goodbye and thanks and then he headed out. I hate that my time here is ending! He said he'd like for me to come back, so I really hope that I can make that happen. We shall see, though. Tomorrow is my last day here so I'll be running errands and tying up some loose ends most likely. Will write more soon!

An Adventure in Ajigo

Tuesday I spent the morning with John, a local artisan who uses the Fab Lab to make some wood pieces for his jewelry. He took me to see several of his customers and found me another local artisan who makes hand-woven scarves, kikoi, rugs, table mats, and other items. I bought several things from both of them and had a really fun morning hanging with John and learning more about him. I'm really starting to get used to riding in matatus as well, which is good I think. It makes me feel a bit like a real Kenyan. As we were about to leave to come back to Majiwa, it started to pour, so we were stuck at John's house for a while until the rain began to let up and we were able to go back to Majiwa.

In the afternoon, Fred and I went to Ndori, which is a nearby market center. It's a few kilometers away from Majiwa, but there weren't many matatus coming by, so we decided to walk. It was good to get some exercise, and I really enjoy spending time with Fred. We were hoping to find an artisan there who has worked with Tom but he wasn't around. I bought a sheet of plywood for Fred so that he can make me some of the small wooden boxes that someone designed (and I happen to like) as well as some other items for me to display (and hopefully sell) at Maker Faire RI, which is coming up in a few weeks. Steve wants us to have a table representing Maker Faire Africa, which will be happening at the same time. We're hoping to even have a live feed between the two events. It should be fun.

While we were at Ndori, I decided to buy a stalk of sugar cane, which is grown locally. You can eat it by peeling back the outer shell with your teeth and then biting off some of the inside and chewing it until there is no more sugar left inside. It's hard to do, but I had great coaching from the guys in the lab, who spent about as much time teaching me as they did laughing at me. Rodgers took some hilarious pictures of me, though I doubt I'll be showing those to anyone!

I finally got around to interviewing Tom on Tuesday night, and when we were just finishing, the power went out. It's the first time that the electricity has gone since I've been here, so I'd say I have been very lucky. Fortunately, we had a bunch of rechargeable lamps around since the Fab Lab has been working on a project with them, so they really came in handy. A new guy, Hansel, was around the lab on Monday and Tuesday, so we all hung out and joked around for a while before going to sleep.

What Would I Do Without Fred?

Sunday was a bit of a lazy day. Not many people were around and Tom was still gone in Nairobi taking care of some visa stuff for his trip to the Fab Lab meet-up in Amsterdam next weekend. I spent most of the day working and reading and relaxing after an eventful day on Saturday.

Monday I did more interviews at ARO. Fred helped me with translation, especially with the consent forms. He's been so great to have around and I hope that the amount I am able to pay him will help him with his college fees. He holds the record for the highest score on the primary school exams (8th grade) for his primary school and is now struggling to afford to stay in school. He was lucky enough to go to a provincial level secondary school (with help from a kind neighbor, who paid some of the fees) and because of that, he has been awarded the lowest level of government loans for school (the government assumes that if you were able to afford to go to a provincial level school that you're well-off financially). Anyway, it so frustrating to see someone like him struggling to get an education. He's so smart and hardworking and a really nice person too.

We've been watching movies most nights since I've been here, and between Sunday night and Monday night we watched Rush Hour 1, 2, and 3. I forgot how much I love those movies. Rodgers loves Jackie Chan, so we all had a really good time. I'm going to miss being here a lot.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Adventures in Kisumu

On Saturday I needed to go to Kisumu to change my plane ticket. I'll be heading back to Nairobi next Friday morning to attend a few meetings and just have some time to rest before getting on the plane to New York. Since I didn't want to go alone, I asked Fred and Rodgers if they would come with me. I figured that it would be good to have company, and I also wanted them to have a fun outing. We left Majiwa at about 9:15 and walked down to the highway to wait for a matatu. The wait was not so long this time, and soon we were on our way. When you're in a matatu, the degree of cramped-ness is always variable, depending on the guy who is collecting the money, since he is the one who determines how many people are allowed inside. There's constant push and pull between wanting to get more money and the number of people who can fit somewhat safely. On this particular day, there were 24 of us in a 16 passenger vehicle, so you do the math! I was wedged between two men for most of the ride, and was sitting on the space between two seats. Not that I would have been able to fall anywhere!

When we reached Kisumu and got out at the main bus station (or, as they say here, the stage), everyone was coming up to me, trying to take me to Nairobi or Mombasa or a whole range of places. We walked quickly out to the main road and toward Oginga Odinga street, which is the main road in Kisumu. We headed to Mega Plaza, where the Kenya Airways ticket office is located, and I changed my ticket. This whole process took about 15 minutes, and then we had the rest of the day free just to hang out. I was interested to see what sorts of electrical components could be purchase in Kisumu and also wanted to know if they sold very small solar panels, like the ones that might charge a mobile phone. Fred and Rodgers helped by asking around, and we set out first to an electronics shop that Fred had been to once before with another friend, Lawrence. On our way there, we ran into Kevin, who is the doctor at ARO Centre. We knew he would be in Kisumu for the weekend, but it was definitely a nice surprise to run into someone that we knew. He decided to join us in our quest for a little while.

We headed first to this electronics shop, but found that they mostly had replacement parts for radios and TVs and things, but no electrical components. They directed us back to Oginga Odinga street, where there is a row of hardware and electrical stores that sell quite a range of different things. However, our search came up mostly empty. We didn't find a place to buy electronic components and there were no small solar cells to be found. The smallest size was a 10 Watt solar panel, and the price would definitely be out of reach for those in the village, who are the primary target of the solar rechargeable lamps that the Fab Lab is working on. However, we did find a solar charger for a mobile phone, so I bought that to bring back to ARO. The way it works is it has solar panels charging a battery, and then that battery is portable and can be used to charge other things, like a phone. At the very least it will be a good example of the circuitry involved in charging a battery from a solar cell, so it may help in developing the solar lamp further. Also, it will be a good way to get an idea of the specs needed for a solar cell than can effectively charge a battery. The ones I brought aren't working so well, so I'm hoping that this may help move the project forward.

Fred also was able to buy a new phone charger (his had been melted by high voltage), so overall I would say that our quest was somewhat successful. We had fun, anyway, going from one place to the next, each time being directed to someplace new. We also met up with Aggre, who happened to be in Kisumu for the day, running some errands, and the four of us went to lunch together. I had been craving tilapia and ugali, so we went to Railway Beach, as Westerners call it. The locals refer to it as the place with lots of flies. It's just a small strip of tiny restaurants that serve fish located right on the shores of Lake Victoria. It's a pretty place to eat. When you walk in, you see a table full of different fish. You negotiate with the restaurant owner as to what price you'll pay for the fish you want to eat. Then they fry them and serve them with ugali, kale, and broth. It's a very messy lunch, but so much fun to eat. While you're eating men come up selling all kinds of different things. I bought a few DVDs for us to watch this week and a gospel CD for Fred. It's about $2 per DVD, and each has maybe 8-10 movies on it, so it's a pretty good deal.

When our food came, we all dug in and barely came up for air. By the time we had finished, we were all stuffed, so we just sat and digested for some time. I had also spoken with Kalie, from One Acre Fund, earlier in the day. She said that she was in Kisumu and would be hanging out at Kiboko Bay, a resort right on Lake Victoria, but south of where we were eating lunch. Once we were ready to go, we found a tuk-tuk to take us to Kiboko Bay, which is in a place called Dunga. It was my first time in a tuk-tuk, so I had a lot of fun, despite the bumpy ride. We met Kalie at Kiboko Bay and I caught up with her a little bit. I talked more about my trip so far and asked her some questions about One Acre Fund. I learned that they employ mostly Kenyans - about 200, and then there are 7 ex-pats who work in Bungoma. They primarily do the strategic planning work, while the Kenyans are executing the programs and serving as field officers. The ex-pats help to kick off implementation of new programs or innovations, but afterwards this is run by the Kenyan staff. They seem to be doing quite well, and I know the organization is very focused on measuring results, which is always nice to hear.

After Kalie left, we took some pictures by the lake and just relaxed for a bit. When it was time to head back to town, we realized that we hadn't gotten the phone number of the tuk-tuk that dropped us off, and were worried we were going to be stranded. We were told to take a boat back to where we had come from, but that would be about $20 as compared to a $1.50 tuk-tuk ride. Luckily, a few minutes later, a tuk-tuk came to drop off some other people, so we got in and headed back to town. I stopped at the ATM to take out a lot of money to pay for the car on Tuesday and then we went to Nakumatt, which is the largest grocery store chain in the country. I wanted to get some chocolate for myself (I've been missing it!), something small to bring back for people at ARO, and some mangoes. Unfortunately, there were no mangoes! The season is really not here yet, sadly. After we finished our errands, we headed to the petrol station where we could find a matatu back to Majiwa. Luckily we arrived just in time to claim the front seat, which is arguably the most comfortable position.

The ride was uneventful, though when we were at Akala, a drunk guy wouldn't leave me alone. Our driver had to get out to do something and was gone for what seemed like forever. I could smell the alcohol on this guy, and he was just mumbling things that I couldn't fully understand. Finally, our driver returned, and we were again on our way. We arrived in Majiwa safely and it was just about to rain. Luckily we reached ARO before the rain began. My dinner was waiting, and Susan (the woman taking care of me) was very happy to see me. I managed to make it through dinner and to my room before the rain really came, then packed some things and walked over to the lab to watch a movie. Overall, it was a really fun day, and I was happy to bring Fred and Rodgers along. When we came back, Patric said I must have fed them well because they looked a little bit brighter. Rodgers and Fred both agreed that it had been such a good day that it was like a day and a half. I was happy to be able to give them a day of just relaxing and having fun.

And the Interviews Begin

Thursday was my first day of interviewing. Even though my main reason for coming was to conduct interviews, I had been holding off, waiting until I got to know people here and earn their trust before starting. Since a week had now passed, I decided it was time to get moving. Tom came up with a list of people for me to interview, but he has been away since last Tuesday, first to vote, then to Nairobi to get a visa for an upcoming trip to Amsterdam for the Fab Lab International conference/meet-up. However, Fred has been kind enough to help me with organizing people and with translation as needed. Thursday I was able to do three interviews, starting with those I know fairly well, which made me a bit more comfortable as I was feeling apprehensive about getting started.

The first set of interviews went well, and I learned a lot about people that I had been interacting with for about a week now. There are always things about someone that don't come up in casual conversation, so it was really interesting to learn more. I was able to do almost all of them in English, as many of the people here are fluent, and Fred helped me with translation for one of the interviews, specifically with translating the consent form. It's funny, when I ask people to sign the consent form, they look at me funny, and I have to explain that doing research in the U.S. is very strict, so we are forced to have those who are interviewed sign consent forms. Not much to report on the interviews. It was nice to have busy days on Thursday and Friday, but interviewing is more tiring than I thought! I don't think I can do more than 4-5 per day without exhausting myself since they last about 60-90 minutes each. I have tried to be very thorough and ask each question in more than one way to ensure that I get complete responses from everyone. I should be finishing up next Monday and Wednesday, though for the remaining interviews I'll be doing a bit of traveling. Not far, just maybe to a few nearby town centers.

I have also arranged to visit One Acre Fund, an organization that works in a place called Bungoma, which is northwest of where I am. A Brown grad named Kalie came to Brown to talk about the organization and just about what it's really like to do development work in the field. This was during spring semester. I talked with her after and told here I would be in Kenya, near Bungoma, during the summer and was hoping I might be able to visit their operations. She gave me her card and I contacted her a few weeks before I was going to be traveling so I could get her local contact info. I'll be heading to Bungoma on Tuesday. Professor Agong arranged for me to hire a car from Kisumu, which I have decided is a better option than public transport, even though it is really expensive. My cost of living has been much lower than anticipated, and I'd rather be safe than have to worry about getting a matatu to and from.

Otherwise, that's about all I can say about the second half of last week. I've been having so much fun here, hanging out and also doing the interviews. I feel like I've made some good friends. And, I almost forgot. Rodgers and I decided that on Friday we were going to try to fix two broken computer monitors. We weren't very hopeful, but figured that if we opened them up and tried, the worst thing that could happen would be that we still had two broken monitors, and we'd be no worse off than we already were. After taking them apart, we did some crude investigations into what the problem might be, and seeing as how we had no prior knowledge about how LCD monitors work, it was a bit slow. However, we managed to find an issue with one of the wires in one of the monitors - it had been damaged by too much current - and we cut off the damaged part and resoldered it. Otherwise, there were several loose connections, and after fixing those, we had two working monitors! It was a good day.

Kenya Votes on a New Constitution

Referendum day was a very exciting time here in Kenya! All eyes from around the world were watching as Kenyans cast their votes. At ARO Centre, it was a very quiet day, as many people had to travel to their rural homes for voting, and would not return until late in the day or the next day. Patric, Rodgers, Kevin, and I spent most of the morning in the lab watching movies. I just relaxed in the afternoon and went for a walk around the area here and it was nice to get out of ARO for a bit. In the evening we were back for more movies, and we spent quite a while watching the news as the preliminary results came in. By the time I went to sleep, "Yes" was in the lead with about 66% of the votes. No violent incidents were reported, and things seemed to have gone smoothly. Most of the people I spoke to about the violence of the last election said that the Kenyans had learned from last time and they did not want that to happen again. People were very much taken by surprise when the violence broke out in 2008, and this time around, everyone was paying attention and doing his/her part to ensure that the situation remained calm. I think it also helped that this vote was less along ethnic lines than last time.

On Thursday, there were a few press conferences in which the "Yes" and "No" camps made statements, as did leaders of several of the churches. William Ruto was the de facto leader of the "No" camp. He is the Minister of Education and comes from the Rift Valley region (central point of violence last time around). He has been advocating for "No" based on a clause about abortion and some issues with the sections that concern land reform. However, Ruto spoke on Thursday about all Kenyans being winners and that we need to work together to implement the new constitution effectively. He is also actively working on developing some amendments to the parts that he took issue with. Most of the churches in Kenya were also advocating for "No" because of a clause in the constitution regarding abortion. While the constitution says that abortion is not permitted, unless the life of the mother is in danger, church leaders have been speaking out about how this will open the door for widespread abortion. They did not seem to be so effective, though, as most people chose to vote based on their political ties and not their spiritual ones. Overall, it was a great day for Kenya and the vast majority of people are excited about the possibilities of the future.

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Counting Down to Referendum Day

Today I woke up very early to go to Bondo University to meet with Professor Agong. We had some time in the morning to discuss collaboration between the Fab Lab, Brown, and Bondo University, which was definitely exciting. I think there is potential to create a very interesting program and a platform for knowledge-sharing and cultural exchange. I always forget how much I learn just from hanging out and talking to people here. So many questions come up about customs and I find out new things every day.

One interesting point that I learned recently about the education system is that in Kenya, everyone takes a national exam in high school. Then, the government determines how many spots are open in the universities all over the country. They rank all of the high school students based on their exam scores, and they fill the university spots based on how students performed on the test. The test is basically a collection of questions about a variety of topics, and it seems that whoever has the best memory has the advantage because some of the questions are quite specific. Once the government has determined who will be admitted to university, they divide the students up into the various programs. Students have no choice as to which program they are accepted into, and their choices are to enter that program or not go to university at all. The only way out is to find another person who is willing to switch spots with you. Otherwise, too bad.

Coming from a school like Brown, it's pretty hard to imagine being told what subject you will study, and it seems to me that maybe Kenya is limiting its progress by preventing passionate people from pursuing their goals. For example, I learned today about a student who has been accepted to Moi University to study business administration (bachelor's degree). However, he only wants to study aviation and refuses to accept his spot at Moi University. His only other option is to attend school outside of the country. How sad that this situation probably comes up time and time again.

Professor Agong also let me borrow his USB modem, which gave me a much-needed internet fix as the internet at ARO has not been working since I arrived. I think I must be bad luck or something! While I was checking email, updating my blog, and finally getting to my IBM mail, he had a meeting with some people from Plan International, and they were able to develop some ideas for collaboration. Bondo University's engineering school will be focused on sanitation, renewable energy, and in general, doing community work, so they are looking for local NGOs to partner with to give the students practical experience.

Professor Agong was kind enough to invite me to lunch at his house. His wife, who lives in Nairobi most of the time, was in town for the month, so she cooked us an African feast (plus organic pasta!). Their youngest daughter, Esther, is still in primary school, so once she finishes, she and her mom will move to Bondo to live with Professor Agong. The other three children are already attending university, and the oldest will soon graduate. She's about the same age as me. Mrs. Agong was an absolute riot. I also met Horace, who is another relative of Professor Agong's. He might accompany me to Bungoma if I'm able to find time to go next week. I don't really feel comfortable taking public transportation by myself as a young white girl, so it will be good to have some company. I think once I learn better Swahili, it would be a lot easier to go on my own since I would be able to negotiate my way around much better. Still, a white girl in a matatu is always quite the spectacle.

Lunch was a lot of fun, and I discovered Horace was wearing a Brown Engineering t-shirt, which caught me by surprise in a good way. For any Brown engineers reading, it was the green one with the pulley and the bear on it from about 2 years ago. I'm guessing Chris and Marijoan brought them when they came in January, but it was still funny that Horace happened to be wearing the shirt today and that I actually have that shirt at home! The food was really good, but I've been stuffed all afternoon.

When I came back to ARO, I discovered that it was very quiet here. Many people were traveling home because tomorrow is the referendum, so they need to be home to vote. Tomorrow is a national holiday and the government requested that everyone be let out from work early today in order to travel home in time. It's a very exciting time and most people are really optimistic about the changes that will come with the new constitution. Most of the people I have asked have said that they really think things will change. The only problem happening now is that churches in the U.S. are really interfering and paying people to campaign for the “No” camp. There is a clause in the new constitution that says that abortion is not permitted unless the life of the mother is in danger – basically, save the mother over the unborn child. Apparently several U.S. churches have a problem with this clause and are trying to convince people to vote “No”. It's really disheartening because they are meddling in something that really isn't their business and this is the type of thing that could really cause conflict here. Why are we intervening and causing trouble? This constitution is for Kenya, so Kenyans should be making their own decisions without all of this interference from outside. I think it's really hypocritical to talk about how maybe it's dangerous to be in Kenya – the U.S. embassy has sent out a travel warning – when we are the ones who are making things worse than they would have been.

Anyway, tomorrow is a big day, and the results come out on Thursday, so people are hopeful that we will have a new Kenya, one where the wananchi (ordinary citizens) are well represented. Some people are around now, just playing computer games and hanging out. Rogers was trying to teach me how to play some first-person shooter game (like Halo) and I was terrible! But it was funny. I also helped him install a gmail application onto his phone so that he can access his mail more easily. I'm really excited to be around during the referendum, and I hope that everything will go smoothly. Everyone is very aware of what could happen, whereas last time it took everyone by surprise, so I think the country will be calm.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

A Case of the Mondays

Sunday night I learned that my friend Frederick's phone charger was not working, and we determined that the problem was inside the charger, not with the plug connection to the phone. Unfortunately, the charger is heat-sealed, just like the voltage converter of a laptop charger. I spent about 30 minutes working on cracking it open, then had to leave to eat dinner. When I returned, another one of the guys, Roger, had managed to open up the charger. Upon inspection, I noticed that the transformer or voltage converter inside had been very badly melted. So we decided that Freddie would have to buy a new one since this one was basically destroyed. Apparently he had left it plugged in overnight and I guess the voltage must have been very high at the outlet where it was connected. I've definitely noticed that my laptop and cell phone chargers get very hot when plugged in around here, so we need to get some components that can handle these very high voltages!

Monday morning I was supposed to be picked up by Professor Agong to go to Bondo University for Monday and Tuesday. I met with Tom at about 9 to discuss my schedule for the rest of the time that I will be at the Fab Lab. He agreed to begin setting up some people for me to interview, so he made some calls to get some people to come by the ARO Centre on Thursday and Friday. As we were meeting, I called Professor Agong, who told me that he would be by to pick me up at about 4 in the afternoon, leaving me the whole day to be at ARO. I spoke with Tom about some of the problems that have been happening at the Centre, specifically with internet connectivity. Since I arrived, the satellite internet has not been working. Right now they have a satellite dish that receives a signal from the UK, and they pay about $400 per month for a relatively slow connection. I decided to spend the day thinking about some alternatives for connection. From the research I was able to do using my cell phone, I found several websites explaining how to set up wireless networks using USB modems, and came up with two ideas.

One idea would be to buy a router that you can plug a USB modem into. This is an upfront expense for the router, but it would mean that we wouldn't have to use a computer as a server/router. The other idea would be to use a free software to turn one of the computers in the lab into a wireless hot spot. We would plug the modem into that computer and broadcast the connection to the other computers in the lab. After speaking with Professor Agong today, I have learned that actually the Yu network is the fastest around here. They also have a monthly data plan that is Ksh 1000 per month for unlimited data, which is significantly cheaper than any of the other plans. If we can get several of the Yu modems to the Fab Lab, we could have pretty good bandwidth for either a backup connection or even just rely solely on that network. I'm just wondering if we can create some sort of router that will add together the bandwidths of several modems, say 5-10, then we would have very fast internet for several users at once and wouldn't have to plug a modem into each computer. I'll have to look more into this over the course of my stay here.

I have also been thinking about designing a typing and basic computer course for students here. All of the guys in the lab are fascinated by my typing speed, so it would be great to help teach them and to even get some younger students, maybe those in primary school, into the lab to learn about computers at an earlier age. Having an understanding of IT early on can help inspire more people to become engineers and scientists. It would be great to help Bondo University and the Fab Lab to produce highly-qualified students with advanced IT skills, beyond what other students in the country are able to get. I think especially with typing and basic computer applications, setting up programs with local schools could be very interesting, and I think maybe each school could pay some small amount for the workshop. Having local computer technicians would be really helpful, especially if they were well-versed in mobile communications and internet connectivity, as they could help to set up and maintain some better infrastructure for access to information in the region.

At about 4 pm, Professor Agong called to inform me that he would not be coming to pick me up until Tuesday since his meeting had run very long. So it turned out that I had an evening to spend at the Fab Lab. It turned out that many people were hanging around, including Freddie, Rogers, Tom, Patrick, Kevin (the doctor at ARO), and Lawrence. They were asking me a lot of questions about the U.S., mostly about marriage and education. It was really interesting learning more about the differences between here and home. The time until dinner went by very fast, and we continued afterward, discussing foods and also different appropriate technologies and why they had failed. It was really interesting to hear the views of people who have grown up in the area.

One thing that came up was the debate between giving things away for free versus charging people. Tom said that the people that he is trying to help cannot afford to purchase anything, and that if he were able to give out, for example, several biogas systems, he thinks that 70% will maintain them well and 30% will not. He said that people will take care of something that was given for free if that something really improves their lives. For example, if someone could not afford to buy a mobile phone, and you gave them one for free, they would probably take very good care of it because it would really change their lives. He said the same thing about a laptop.

I have always been against giving these things away for free, but I think he made a really good point here. Just because something is free doesn't mean that you won't take care of it. If that something is very useful and really improves your life, you will take good care of it. So there is some relationship between the value of the product and how you treat it. There is also probably something that has to do with your personality and how you were raised that determines how you treat your possessions. I have yet to read an economics study that looks at things holistically to find out whether it is really the price of the item that matters or if it is actually the value of the item to the user that matters. Of course, this is much harder to measure, but it seems like something that should be explored.

Today I left ARO at about 8 am to come to Bondo. I discussed some potential projects with Professor Agong, as well as worked on firming things up for collaboration of Brown, Bondo University, and the Fab lab at ARO. Professor Agong sees the Fab Lab as a great place for engineering students to do their practicals, and maybe even get some certificate in electronics through the learning that they will do at the Fab Lab. Things seem promising, and I'm looking forward to seeing things develop.

Another thing to think about - the Fab Lab needs computers and laser printers badly. If anyone has an old laptop to donate or is willing to help contribute to sending some computers and printers over to Kenya, let me know. I'll be working on that when I get back to help the Fab Lab be more effective.

That's all for now. Hello from Bondo University! You'll have to wait until I get back to see pictures as the uploading speed here is much too slow to bother. I love hearing about what everyone is up to, so write to me! I'll do my best to return personal emails, but the best way to find out what I'm up to is to check here.

A Weekend at ARO

Saturday is a busy day at the ARO Centre. Tom, Frederick, and Marvin were in Kisumu at the trade show again, so there weren't many people around the lab, besides Patrick and a few others. However, the childcare department here takes care of about 120 orphans in the area. The children live with family, mostly grandparents, during the week, but on Saturdays they come to the ARO Centre for the day and they attend some classes and have lots of time to play. The classes cover life skills that are normally taught by parents and the people at ARO feel that it is important for the children to have one day per week where they can just be kids and play and have fun. They all seemed to be having a great time.

I offered to help with some of the cooking, and ended up sorting rice for about four hours. We had to go through each and every bag, of which there were about 10-15, and separate out all of the small stones. Of course, my first instinct was, how could we do this in a faster and less labor-intensive way? I'm wondering if there is a kind of screen available so that you could pour some rice on top of the screen and then just shake it to let the stones fall through. The amount of time it takes to complete this task is a bit oppressive, and the job is very tiring! By the end my back and shoulder were pretty sore, but I am glad to have had the experience because it makes me appreciate how hard the women here have to work every day.

I spend the afternoon reading and hanging around the lab, not doing a whole lot. I was trying to help find some information about battery charging circuits that use solar power so that we could move forward with the solar-rechargeable lamps that Tom and Patrick are working on. I found a few sites, but searching the internet is a very time-consuming task here, and even this slow internet connection costs about $400 per month – that's nearly 10x what I pay! Just add it to the list of why things in Africa are forced to move so slowly and why people here have so many things working against them.

Today, Sunday, I'm just hanging out. There's not much activity here. A few people around the lab, but Sunday is for relaxing and spending time with family and friends, I suppose. I learned more about the university system here this morning when I was talking to Ben, one of the teachers at the school up the road. He said that when you apply to university, you can't choose your major. The government distributes everyone and tells you which program you'll be in. Unless you can find someone in another program to swap places with you, you're stuck wherever they put you. He wants to study medicine, but ended up as a teacher. He's due to finish school after next semester.

Sometimes the number of policies and systems that prevent people here from getting ahead is pretty astounding. Infrastructure is so poor that it really restricts people from moving forward. These guys in the lab are smart and well-educated, but they are just stuck and powerless to do anything to change their communities because all of the money available to do such things is controlled by the government. People here also work much differently than in America. We expect things to move so quickly but I think people here are much more patient and used to things inching forward only a bit at a time. Trying to go any faster gets you nowhere.

One more anecdote about internet connectivity here. The internet provides access to an enormous amount of information, and yet, there was one guy who spent most of yesterday trying to download one email so that he could fill out an attached form and send it back to his boss. He is a traveling salesman of sorts and needed to submit a report. Imagine if each time you had to send an email, it took half a day just to download your mail. The reality of the situation is so disheartening. I'm already racking my brain trying to come up with some way to help the people here, but I'm not sure if I'll be able to come up with anything, considering the number of smart people before me who have tried. The one bright spot up ahead is that some people from MIT will be in Nairobi for three weeks in August setting up a Fab-Fi network there. It would be the second Fab-Fi network in existence (the first is in Afghanistan). This is a mesh network where information is passed between each node, so anyone can join the network and each person who joins extends the network further. My hope is that there will be a way to extend the network all the way to Majiwa, but that will probably take quite some time. But at least there is hope.

Trade Show Take 2

Friday morning we were to leave for Kisumu at 8:30 am to go to the trade show. However, Kenyan time is always at least 30 minutes late, and we were waiting to finish making a few things on the laser cutter that people from the trade show had ordered, so we didn't start walking down to the highway until about 9:15. Once we got to the highway, we waited for over an hour before there was a matatu with space for us to get in. Several schools had just finished either that day or the day before, so the public transportation was really crowded with people going home. We had 7 people in total – me, Tom, Marvin, and Frederick from the Fab Lab as well as three of the Majiwa Modern Weavers, who are another group within the ARO center.

The ride to Kisumu was cramped but uneventful. Being a tall person in a matatu is not the greatest as the space between the seats is quite small, but I managed just fine. When we reached the transportation hub in Kisumu, we got out and walked to find another matatu heade to Mamboleo, the area where the trade show grounds were. After a bit of drama, we finally made it to the show. There was some argument about which road to follow to get to the gate and the driver refused to drive all the way to the gate, letting us out to walk the rest of the way. Once inside, we headed to the building where Kisumu Polytechnic was located, as that was where the Fab Lab had a table to display its stuff. We met up with Frederick, who had managed to get into an earlier matatu, and I got to see some of the things that they had brought to display at the show.

After setting our things down, Tom and I went for a walk around the showground to see some of the other stands. We went by several universities and some manufacturing companies to see what kind of things they were doing. Tom is looking for groups to partner with as well as places to source materials, as these are two of the challenges that the Fab Lab here has faced. There were a few promising leads, including a student at Bondo University, which was exciting because we are already connected to Professor Agong. I hope that I can facilitate a strong partnership there.

Afterwards, I mostly hung around the Kisumu Polytechnic building, sitting and talking with some of the other people as well as trying to get Marvin to teach me some Swahili. He teaches Swahili and English at a primary school nearby the Fab Lab. I learned a few new words, and am hoping that by the time I leave here, I will at least know a few sentences. I think I'm getting better already!

Later in the afternoon, Aggre came by to meet up with me. It was great to catch up with him, yet strange to see him out in public as the only time I've seen him is at Clarice's house by the lake. Right after he arrived, Tom said we were going to leave, but then we ended up not going anywhere for about an hour, so we had time to hang out for a bit. I think we are going to hang out at least once more before I leave, depending on schedules. My time here is already moving very fast, but hopefully I will make some good progress with interviews next week. I'm going to sit down with Tom and discuss what is feasible tomorrow morning, and we can start to develop a schedule. I've met pretty much everyone who comes to use the lab, nearly all boys in high school, college, or recent college graduates, so I feel a lot more comfortable interviewing them now than I would have last week.