Tuesday, August 3, 2010

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.

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