For the past year or so I have been helping in various capacities, from friend to advisor to consultant to on-call technician in order to implement a technology solution to enable Kenyans living in rural areas (little access to electricity being our main definition of rural) to access information technology and the World Wide Web. This is a very broad role (and a very broad project) because I started with it when it was just in incubation (in it’s second form at least; the first form being disrupted by Kenya’s post-election violence), and work with the project today in its current form, which is the Rural Internet Kiosk down in Ukunda.
Monthly Archives: June 2010
America doesn’t export much. We all know that. The trade deficit is huge, and though there are arguments about whether or not this is healthy for the economy, in general it makes people uneasy. But don’t worry, this isn’t a post about global scale economics and trade; it’s a far more normal post. One thing America does still export however, is its culture. And by culture, I mean the, “pizza and polka,” side of culture (as a Aussie sociology professor puts it). In particular, America is very good at exporting its movies, its music and its television, as well as all of the celebrity culture and gossip that comes along with it. Heck, we even take in other peoples’ celebrities and rebrand them as American. Did you know that Van Damme is Belgian?
Coming to Kenya, I was shocked at how little American culture is apparent here. For all you hear about international corporations and whatnot, the only branding that I recognized was Coca Cola. There is not a McDonalds or Wal-Mart in sight. And of course, being a former British colony, Kenya has followed European-originated sports, leaving the only American-sports branding to be found on the clothing at the market where it has lost all meaning. Where is American culture?
Turns out, a few errant, seemingly unrelated, strains of American culture have made their way into the fledgling, post-colonial, DNA of Kenya. But boy, sometimes I wonder how they got here. So here they are, as I have witnessed:
- Dolly Parton – People here love her!
- WWE Wrestling – I have been told I look like one of the wrestlers by all the deaf school children at Paul’s school; how’s that for cultural integration!
- Campy, 80’s, Action Movies: AH-Nohld, Van Damme, Stalone and the like.
- Gangsta Rap and Hip Hop, though Eminem is a personal choice.
It’s a bit of an odd list, and always makes for good discussion when PCVs get together. One of the stories that I never get tired of hearing about is when a trainee shares his or her first experience of their host-family sitting down to a nice dinner… in front of Jon Cena kneeing his opponent in the crotch on the latest WWE match.
Living in Kenya, there is far less a concept of personal space or personal time as there is in the West. When I am at work, obviously these concepts have no hold, as I am expected, and offer myself, to help with computer problems for anyone in the lab. But even at home it can be a bit difficult to truly get personal time, especially when newly settling in (a year or so ago for me), as there are higher expectations for social interaction with neighbors here than in the West. Finally, even in the city where one might assume the anonymity a crowd provides would allow one to go about unmolested, my white skin makes me a target for the drunks, the street children, the beggars, the safari touts and sometimes even just random people who, for some reason, feel entitled that I give them my email or mobile phone number. Personal space? Personal time? There are few bubbles in Kenya.
When I got my first job at the age of 14 working at a local hardware store it was my first time I knew my father was preparing me well for the aworld beyonnd his house. It was at this job that my manager taught me his first rule of management: “Never tell an employee to do something you have never done.” Well, duh I thought. This made perfect sense. Lead by example. That was how I had always been raised. Whenever my siblings and I were told to do chores or yard-work, it wasn’t while my father (or mother for that matter) was lounging around in the sun, or watching TV; it was because he was there doing work right along with us. My father easily wins the award of one of the hardest working people I know. I learned very quickly that through hard work you can achieve your dreams, but you have to do the hard work first. Never make someone else do your hard work because then you never really learn what work is.
Though I did learn that one needs to work to live, my father also showed me that one should not live to work. Life is not simply the pursuit of money or pleasure, it’s the pursuit of understanding. Through fostering my need to build and learn how components work together by supporting my Lego addiction; through teaching me that patience brings fantastic results by helping me build model rockets and shoot them off; through constantly introducing me to new science fiction and fantasy classics from his impressive library in order to expand the realm of my dreams, Dad has always pushed me to further question and explain and understand the world around me; to look at it with a critical eye and to never just accept something because I am told to. I am sure some days he wished he had raised a more obedient child 😉
Though he has always promoted less traditional means of education, my dad is also a supporter of receiving a formal education, but he understands that the education process is not easy for everyone and that some people take time to find their own stride in school. This has always been critical, as myself and my siblings have very different approaches to formal education, and all the while my dad (and mom) have adapted to our individual attitudes instead of pigeon-holing us into one approach towards education. There is not one correct way to learn, as long as you learn
On top of all this, my dad has always, and continues to be, “there.” Whenever we kids had band concerts, Dad would go. Whenever we needed to be driven somewhere on the weekends, Dad would drive us. At night, after coming home from work, Dad would relax, but with doors open, always ready to engage with his kids.
Most importantly, whenever I needed to be told to shut up, Dad would tell me. Whenever I overstepped a boundary, Dad would let me know. As a child this happened more, and as I grew older, Dad appropriately backed off, sharing his opinions or feeling on the matter, but realizing he would not always be able to dictate my interactions and eventually I would have to start learning lessons the hard way: by feeling the repercussions of my actions, not always able to hide behind a loving father. Whenever my ego received a metaphorical bruising, Dad was there with the ice pack, making sure I was OK, but making sure I understood the lesson I just learned.
Parenting is one of those things that crosses cultures in my opinion. Children need good parents, no matter what country they live in. There is something about the parent-child bond that reinforces life’s lessons more so than in any other fashion. I am lucky to have had the parenting that I have had, and when I look around at life here in Kenya, or back in the USA, I wonder where all the good parents have gone. Many of the problems that we face could easily be extinguished if parents just did their job: love their child and teach him to treat others with respect and dignity, no matter their walk of life or train of thought. If anyone is confused by this, or if there are any fathers out there who aren’t sure if they are doing a good job, just let me know. I would be more than happy to introduce you to my dad, because if more dads were like him, we wouldn’t be facing half the problems we face as humanity today.
I watched the Celtics vs. Lakers game. Well, if you want to call it “watched.” I loaded up ABC.com in Firefox and had two chats going with some friends back home. ABC.com has a nice text-based play-by-play feature, but it all runs in this hideous Flash instance. The reason I call it hideous is not because I have anything against Adobe or Flash as a company or plugin, but because being a Linux user, I am inherently biased against Flash due to shallow support for my operating system. All was going well.
There are a lot of ex-patriots living in Kenya. They come from far away, from the USA, from the UK, from continental Europe, from Australia and New Zealand and even from other African nations. Living in arguably one of the most beautiful parts of Kenya, it is not surprising that I run into ex-pats a lot, though there is also a heavy concentration in Nairobi. Striking up a conversation, people quickly realize I come from the USA or they ask and I willingly tell them (unless they seem hostile, at which point I come from Canada). I have traveled and lived abroad before, so I know the usual rants against America: the unjust war in Iraq, the foolish handling of the war in Afghanistan, the foolhardy support of Israel, etc, covering the full gamut of US foreign policy.
Recently, it has all gotten a bit more confusing to me. With the election of Obama, our overall image did get a small boost, but as Obama’s policies have come off as more of the same, that boost is slowly fading. What is replacing it is a newfound interest in US domestic policy. These past few months, I received my education on the new national health plan from people who aren’t even residents of the USA. Arizona immigration law riles up the English just as much as the Mexican and Latino citizens of the state of Arizona! Why is everyone interested?
I think there exists some perverse American dream in the minds of the ex-pats and world travelers; that our country is no longer just for Americans, it is for all the world’s citizens to mock and criticize, but to also pin their hopes to. If it happens in America, it can happen elsewhere, or if you prefer the trickle down theory, if Americans do it, eventually it will benefit us. I always felt the mocking and criticism were just side affects of the US being at the top, but the amount of effort ex-pats put into understanding my country’s domestic policy shows a whole new level of interest beyond simple scorn.
Sometimes I wonder if maybe ex-pats should stop showing interest in my homeland and focus on their own. Just as they chide me (not me personally, but me the American) for institutionalized racism and shoddy economic practices, their own homes ban the construction of minarets, forbid people from respecting their own religion, set up surveillance states to rival anything out of George Orwell’s imagination, and implement ridiculous immigration law.
What frustrates me is that with everyone focusing on the USA, waiting for us to do things, criticizing us for being wrong in so many ways, they are ignoring what is going on back home, and before they know it, they may be powerless before their own governments to live the lives they so chided the USA for living. Just frustrating.
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When I began the process of upgrading my base Linux installation to Ubuntu 10.04 LTS, I made an active decision to try something new in my own personal computing environment: I would switch over to a KDE-based distribution. I have been using GNU/Linux-based operating systems for about 10 years now, having experimented with them throughout high school, then making permanent switches on some of my machines in university, and now working completey in the ecosystem while serving in Peace Corps, as well as actively converting others to its use as well. But in all my time with Linux, never did I use KDE. From a principles standpoint, there was that messiness regarding licensing in the nineties and early aughts; from a visuals standpoint, GNOME just always looked better (I prefer simple and elegant), and from a user-base standpoint, I just never felt, “power user,” enough to use it.
For all who don’t know, the World Cup has just started. Football (aka soccer for the US of A-ers) is HUGE in Kenya, but believe it or not, it’s not a huge part of my life here. My neighbor is fairly apathetic, none of the teachers are particularly preachy about it, and even though the students love it, because they don’t engage with teachers on a friendly level, I never hear about it. I must be one of the only Peace Corps volunteers in all of Africa that can say football doesn’t impact my life on a daily basis.
But I cannot escape it completely. It’s still here. I still see jersey’s everywhere, and during World Cup time people are constantly asking if I am going to see any upcoming game, or asking why I haven’t purchased a plane ticket and flown down to South Africa. There has only been one game in all my time here that I have intentionally watched, and that was USA vs. Brazil during the Confederations cup last year. It was a fun game, and watching it in the bar with a mixed fan base was a lot of fun.
Today marks game number two of my intentional football fandom. Tonight, at 9:30pm Kenya Time is England vs. USA. My friends and I are going to cheer on the good ‘ole Red, White and Blue at Forty Thieves Beach Bar in Ukunda. There are bound to be a bunch of football-crazy Europeans and Kenyans, and a very good chance we will be the only Americans in the crowd. Yet again, I predict a good time.
Though my football experience may not be considered typical of Peace Corps volunteers in Africa, it is enjoyable enough, and I can say that I can now at least appreciate the game a bit more. I am just grateful that my exposure to it has been at a comfortable pace for me instead of being surrounded by football-crazy individuals who are completely confused as to why I can’t name the lineup of Man U or Arsenal.
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I am alive. I have been running around mad like a chicken with its head cut off (an event I can now say I have witnessed… thank you Peace Corps), and I haven’t had time to blog. What been keeping me busy? Well, a lot of little things that keep cropping up. There have been errands to town that need running, there have been classroom presentations and lessons that have needed making, there have been computers that need fixing (both in the lab, and for other people), and of course there has been a beach that needs laying on because it gets lonely without me there. I have also had a million tech posts I have wanted to put up but not so many cultural ones at the moment, and at times I feel bad inundating my regular readers with my nerd-prose, so I have refrained.
I hope today is productive. I am going to meet a new technical support for the Rural Internet Kiosk. Long story short, Intersat, the company that manufactures the kiosk, wants to, “lock down,” the computer and make the kiosk a black box, meaning it should just work. However, this has not been the case for three the going on four months of operation, and the kiosk has been plagued by technical problems, but always at times where I cannot make my way down to Ukunda to try and fix it. But neither could the technicians in Nairobi come and fix it on a moment’s whim, so we had a real problem: a truly non-functioning kiosk.
Thankfully Intersat has provided one of their Mombasa-based technicians for support purposes. Today, I am going into town to meet the new tech, and basically compare and update each others’ notes on what could be going wrong with the kiosk all the time. I also have to mail a bunch of stuff to another PCV, so that warrants a Posta run. This is all made possible by the fact that I am no longer the only ICT instructor here at NYS and if I am not in the lab, there is somebody else there to keep it open. Hooray!
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I know, it’s been done before, but let’s try again, with a different name. I was reading around Slashdot and was interested in one of their articles about the Qi Ben NanoNote, an ultra-small, clamshell-style computer with specs that match moderately-powered smartphones… of about three years ago. But there’s a catch! Two actually. The Ben NanoNote runs all Free and Open Source Software as well as using all copyleft hardware. What’s copyleft hardware you ask? Why it’s hardware to which everybody has access to final production diagrams and schematics, allowing anyone with resources to implement the hardware design exactly. Finally, the device only costs $99, and that’s an end user purchase, not an OEM bulk rate, which could arguably be much lower.
Where am I going with this? Lets’ revive the personal communicator device, tried time and time again but always failing (I know, I’m an idiot)! Sony did it; there was also that Sidekick device, and many others. So what would be different? Well, none of it ever reached mass-market distribution in Kenya, none of it was completely Open Source and most certainly none of it was only $99.
Statistics already show there is a vibrant mobile-Internet user group in Africa, and more and more people are joining sites like Facebook and getting their daily news off the web, but they are doing so from tiny screens and T9-ing their input. Throw in SMS support and there is potential for a new crop of data-bundle-oriented mobile service customers who don’t care about making phone calls. If you are worried about the perception of lugging around multiple devices, many people already carry multiple phones depending on the number of carriers they use. Make this new device multi-SIM and it’s even more attractive!
There are disadvantages to the device as it stands now. There is no camera. There is no built in 3G modem. There is no custom software that would make the device seem tailored to the mobile social experience. It’s currently un-marketable as far as I am concerned.
Instead, view the Ben NanoNote as a proof of concept that inexpensive mobile devices can be manufactured and run quality software. Mobile consumers in Kenya are already accustomed to a web without Flash and H.264 support, so why not create this half step device that opens up more of the web for a fraction of the cost of a 44,000/- black-market iPhone or 80,000/- Blackberry.
Most importantly, being completely open and, “easy,” to hack (it was designed for it), it could help entice a whole new generation of jua kali hackers in Kenya, who get to see instant results of their efforts running on hardware and over the network. This is where Nokia and Samsung and other hardware manufacturers are getting it all wrong. It is far too difficult to modify their devices, to fix problems, to customize the experience, all of which carry a lot of weight in the markets here. There’s space for an upset and a chance to change how people perceive their mobile devices. If FOSS can make successful inroads, why not FOSH?
Oh, and make it solar powered just for giggles.
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