Thursday, December 15, 2011

Adventures in Technology - Senegalese Style

A post from Manning....

A story regarding my volunteer project which is finally catching some momentum.

On Thursday, December 1st  I traveled to the town of M’boro to visit the one and only One Laptop per Child (OLPC) school in Senegal. What is OLPC? - It's a non-profit organization that started back in the U.S. in 2005 and its mission is to  "provide each child in developing countries with a rugged, low-cost, low-power, connected laptop. When children have access to this type of tool they get engaged in their own education. They learn, share, create, and collaborate. They become connected to each other, to the world and to a brighter future. The goal being to provide them with access to knowledge, and opportunities to explore, experiment and express themselves"

The OLPC program was set up and installed at l’Ecole Notre Dame in M'boro, Senegal in 2009 by a group  of 4 university students from U-Miami, Cornell, and U-Minnesota who received a grant from OLPC to distribute 200 laptops in Senegal. Here's a clip that was done by them with the Principal of the school, Pierre Kahr,  speaking regarding the initial installation.

Sadly since that time, I learned through contacts I had made  - they were in need of some serious help to repair a good percentage of the laptops. With our plans to be in Dakar and a stones throw away (actually more than that when you read on) - one of my volunteer projects then was to take on this effort and help them get a fresh start in using these machines. 

Getting There:
So here's my first account of what it is like to get to M'boro without a car!! -- I left Dakar south of the N1 on the map above at 6:00am by taxi to reach  this large parking lot (by 6:30 a.m.) called the Garage Pompier where there are hundreds of old Peugot station wagons with roof racks, signs for the city they go to and the usual chaos of people selling things (in this case - NescafĂ© coffee, bread, nuts and eggs mostly).  There is no “direct” service to M’boro (but coming back there is - go figure), so you take the “ Sept Place” which as the name implies in French,  room for 7 people, plus driver.  It’s pretty much first come, first serve and in this case means the first person who gets there - gets the front passenger seat and the last people get the rear most seat (2 in front, 3 in the middle and 3 in the back).  There’s a small place for luggage or boxes in the hatchback space in the rear, and anything else goes on the roof.  I kept my laptop bag in my lap…The price is fixed and quite reasonable - but for the comfort I'm not so sure:  1500 FCFA (a bit over $3.00), but only to Thies, the intermediate transfer city.  (kind of a hub and spoke model, I suppose).  Once there are seven passengers, they leave the station.  

The drive from Dakar out of the city was busy with traffic, considering it was 6:30am but once we left the outer city limits there was little traffic.  The country side was actually quite pretty with the national tree, the baobab visible most of the way.  No one talked (a casual car pool of sorts for those who know this back in Berkeley, but no NPR ;+}), just dozed a bit and the radio played something religious in Arabic, then I think the news in Wolof and then French before playing African pop.  It was a very nice break from the Arabic, for my ears.  About 1 ½ hours later we arrived in Thies, and being around 8am, all the school children were walking to school in their uniforms.  It was nice to see everyone happy, smiling, joking around and making their way to work and school. 
The “garage” in Thies was much the same as Dakar, only smaller.  There was no sign for M’boro, which I had been warned about – “just go to your far left” is what I was told, and after doing just that, I was able to find a car going to M’boro.  The cars in Thies seemed older (40+ years old), and a few of them didn’t start, and had to be pushed to start – a common occurrence, it appeared.  When I say “old” here’s what I mean: the dashboard completely missing, no door panels, doors that open up when you’re traveling down the highway, holes in the floorboards that are open to the road, broken or cracked wind shields.  The seats, however did have their original upholstery or a cover.  This leg of the drive was interesting, because the Sept-Place I was in never got out of 3rd gear.  So, it was considerably slower – but it wasn’t hot (thankfully) and the windows were all open.  And I managed to get in the second set of seats, in the middle which was quite comfortable!

View of Senegal "countryside" nearing M'boro

The school:
An hour or so later (9:30?) I was dropped off at the TOTAL gas station  on the outskirts of town and walked to the school.  The school "Notre Dame" is run by the Pierre Kahr who is the Director.  It's a Catholic elementary school with about 50 kids per class for the upper grades.  

After a very, very nice introduction * to each and every class (pre-school through 5th grade) we returned to his office to discuss what was needed to be done.  (*wow, not anything like you’d experience in the US.  Each room we entered the class was called to attention, the kids stood, greeted the director and me (very slowly "B-o-n-j-o-u-r  M-o-n-s-i-e-u-r") in unison and then thanked me for coming.  And it was the same when we left each room too  - everyone saying goodbye in unison.  It was touching.)

The State of technology:
As it turns out the problems were larger than just the laptops…the entire wiring and hardware infrastructure had been “removed” at the end of last year “for security reasons” (over the summer break). As well, a large storm which flooded the directors office - wreaked havoc on the equipment.  So the wireless routers were removed from the classrooms, the server was missing and the laptops were sitting in a pile in Pierre’s office.  On top of that, Pierre wasn’t or couldn’t get a fast connection and was using dialup. Does *anyone* remember those days?  So, in essence, nothing was working.  And the worst part really is that with school having started in October and it was now December - these kids were not getting the benefit if it's intent in the last 2 months - and the school year is at least 1/4 over.   Given the state of things,  for this visit I focused my time triaging the 60 or so OLPC laptops that weren’t working.  The hope was to identify those with screen and keyboard problems that might be fixable.  I managed to get through them all, categorize them, number them and even fixed a couple.  And for those machines with monitor and keyboard problems that can not be fixed - directly - there are plans to ship new pieces for me to replace.

Laptop with Monitor problem

The plan:
The next step is to return, setup the wireless, locate the server, try to fix the 20 or so that may be fixable and upgrade the Operating System(OS) to the latest version.  In the meantime, I think they are supposed to get their connection to the internet re-enabled in some fashion.  I hope to train a couple of local kids (age 13 or so) to repair them, and possibly a parent or two.  I wrote a quick guide on how to take them apart, but I can show them how to do it and we can practice on some of the broken ones.  I also met a computer science grad from Dakar who’s unemployed that I hope to enlist in helping.  I plan to take him with me on my next visit and then we’ll see what arrangements we can make for the future - having some kind of local support would be ideal! And trust me - I won't be living before our year is up without the appropriate documentation and training!

All in all - I think this is a doable effort and I sure hope to make a significant improvement in the time we are here.

The Return Trip
The return trip is direct from M'boro to Dakar.  You'd think it would be faster but nothing is that way here - a long 5 hours (with no bathroom breaks). It's hard to explain  the traffic pattern - but there is one - you are driving along a major thoroughfare into Dakar at a certain point where it is **the only** way in to the city and then you stop. Cars are passing on the right side in the dirt, people are meandering selling mainly, oranges, peanuts and cellphone card credits (different than in the morning). It's crazy and intense when you add in all the cars and taxis and buses on the road AND the people who are on the various buses - inside the bus, atop the bus and hanging out of the back of the bus.  It always seems like sheer random chaos. Let me know forget  - the flies attacking (with a few mosquitoes in force)  and being in an incredibly uncomfortable  rear seat of the car.  My neck still hurts from bending sideways!  We were dropped off "somewhere" alongside the road and everyone walked away and/or tried to find transport.  A curious system, but it works. And lucky me - will get a chance to do it all over again in another 2 weeks.


  1. Manning
    What a challenge! Whatever you can do would be a tremendous accomplishment. Kudos for your work!

    1. Dwight - Thanks. It's Hilary and I'm posting these replies now that we can on the web. Accomplishment with a capital A. There's quite an update since this post coming soon.

  2. Quite a story, Manning. Reminds me of some of my experiences on the dark continent. Keep 'em coming. The girls loved the photos of this and the other blog. Our best to you all.
    Charles, Martha, Lauren and Julia

    1. Replying to all posts now that we can on the blog. Lots to catch you up on. Thanks for keeping upon the journey - it means alot!

  3. Great photos...
    Good luck.
    Andrea Salgues

  4. Was great to hear this from you, and fun to read it again! You should share with TSG on Yammer!

    1. Mike - so much to share since this post. I'm just now replying to all posts now that I can on the blog. New feature they provided. Imagine that ;+}

  5. Glad to read of this, Manning! Thanks to Mike for posting so I would find it. Thinking of you. Happy holidays to you & yours. -- Tony Knox

  6. Wow, Terry and I are eager to hear what happens in the future. You are doing a GREAT job there, Manning!!!

    1. JAMM - thanks for your post. So much to share since this post. It's all good but in Africa - but oh my - there are *so* many other factors that play into getting things accomplished.

  7. Thanks for writing such a good article, I stumbled onto your blog and read a few post. I like your style of writing... Taxi Bristol to Heathrow Airport