Monthly Archives: October 2010

Ubuntu Revelations: Better Safaricom Integration, One App Away

It took me two years to come to this revelation, which is sadly two years too late for me, but I hope this helps out some others.

When I first started using Ubuntu in Kenya, I was more than pleased to notice that the Safaricom modem, a Huawei E160 by model name, is seamlessly supported by the stock Ubuntu kernel from as early as version 8.04 I believe.  Of course, though the modem is seamlessly supported, not all of the features found in the Huawei dialing app bundled with the modem, are supported.  This includes such functionality as the ability to send an SMS through the modem, particularly useful for activating new data bundles and checking your existing bundle’s remaining balance.

To rectify this situation, I first started to hack my own program to send an SMS, as searches were returning very few positive results.  Wanting to push something out quick, I found myself settling on Python (of course), and scouting out various libraries for interacting with AT commands over a serial interface.  This project didn’t go over well and I always seemed to find myself with more pressing concerns, [insert other hacker excuses here].  For the past two years I have stuck with the good ole’ switcheroo method of taking my modem SIM out of the modem, putting it in a phone, performing any necessary SMS-based functions, and then replacing the SIM in the modem.  Clunky but functional.

It turns out that over the past two years I have been searching for the wrong terms and the application I have wanted has been here all along.  It is known in the Ubuntu graphical universe as Phone Manager and in the command line world as gnome-phone-manager.

What threw me off the scent was that the app is heavily advertised as focusing on working with phones via Bluetooth, whereas my modem uses a USB connection.  Upon reading the fine print, I noticed that some descriptions also include, “and other serial connections.” Well, hmm, that changes the situation a bit.  While the app installed, I crossed my fingers hoping it included a halfway-decent serial port selection mechanism.

It does.  It’s so decent that it even lets specify the device node directly!  Huzzah!  For Huawei modems, once the USB Modeswitch finishes its song and dance, the modem portion of the device will settle on /dev/ttyUSB0.  Under the Phone Manager app preferences, just throw that into the “Other port” input box and you are good to go.

Now with just a click of the icon I can be sending balance check SMS and even activation SMS through Ubuntu and my Safaricom modem.  To activate new bundles, just sambaza your modem credit from another phone, or MPESA, and you are good to go.  Ubuntu (and other Linux) are first-class modem users after all. Take that Windows.


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A Day At The Baraza: First Impressions of Google Baraza

Baraza – n. – A Kiswahili term. An attempt at translation would be, “a meeting,” but usually it connotes a meeting with a specific goal, usually solving a problem or answering questions, led by a village committee or village elders.

I thought I would take some time and share my first impressions with a new Google service specifically targeting Africa: Google Baraza. Last week I was lucky enough to be individually selected amongst a group of handpicked candidates to help pilot this amazing new program.

Actually, that’s a lie. I requested a beta invite, and got one.

But the first version makes me seem so much more important! I’m not important, and in fact, here’s the link so that you might sign up for the service yourself if you so choose.  Mind you, it is heavily Africa-oriented, so join only if you have specific local knowledge about various parts of Africa (with a heavy focus on Ghana, Kenya, South Africa and Nigeria at the moment).

What is it?

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Boats and Buildings: An Analogy For Your Social Supports

black and white image of a sailing boat

Last night a friend of mine and I were discussing life, as we do in Peace Corps, and our personal social support systems. Who are our friends? What do they mean to us? Where do they fit in our respective lives. Over the course of the discussion an analogy emerged about friendship; about the different types of support people get from their friends, and I liked the analogy so I thought that I would share it: as an individual, depending on your support system, you are either a boat, or a building. Neither is better or worse than the other, and there are some distinct advantages and disadvantages to each, and obviously in reality it’s not so black and white, but give me a chance to explain.


Boats are craft designed to move around over the waters of the world. Their world is inherently a moving world, even when they desire to stay relatively fixed, and as a result they must learn to sometimes just ebb and flow with the currents that take them. A boat’s support is an anchor. Anchors are extremely beneficial to a boat because they allow a boat to pick a spot to stay at for the time being and while their world moves around, find some sense of calm. When they are ready to go, boats can pull their anchors up with them and move on to the next stage of life, knowing always their support is there with them.

Problems for boats arise when they lose their anchor. Without an anchor, a boat is constantly forced to move about, most likely heading for the nearest harbor or port to put up in dry dock for an anchor refitting. But boats do not last long in dry dock, as their structures are designed to be floated, and without constant attention and unnatural external support structures they will actually collapse in on themselves. The casual example of this that my friend shared was that of the stereotyped old man who has lost his wife, the love of his life, and passes away briefly afterwards. Sometimes anchors are just that important.

Being a boat primarily, may also mean that you find yourself as someone else’s anchor (obviously in real life, boats and anchors don’t work this way). Problems can arise when one person’s anchor is inherently not a boat, and is unwilling to travel around, to ebb and flow through life. If your anchor cannot come with you, or will not come with you, it may be hard to find peace in your journeys.


On the flip-side of boats are buildings. Buildings are people who have developed a foundation of friends, preferably dug deep for an even more solid footings. Though no single individual in this group may shine above the rest, it is only because all of them are so important. When a building is having problems, the problems can be distributed amongst different friends, never putting too much stress on a single person (some friends may exist to help with specific problems). Depending on the strength of the foundation, buildings can grow tall, and become even larger than the largest boats, but at steep costs.

Buildings cannot ebb and flow, and though they may sway in the breeze, their ability to journey is limited. The deeper their roots, their foundation, the harder it is to move locations. Though a boat may lose an anchor and potentially survive, a building losing its foundation is an almost guaranteed tragedy.

What is both a curse and wonder of foundations is that a solid foundation rarely needs constant attention. Sometimes, a completely unattended foundation might allow small problems to escalate into friendship-shattering problems, but by striking a healthy balance of giving attention depending on each unique part of the foundation, a building is able to grow tall and mighty. However, even the strongest buildings will need their lally columns, those not-quite-foundation individuals that are still ever critical to holding a building upright.

Some buildings are built on slab foundations. With a slab foundation, there is a very real sense of support every day. Your foundation is constantly beneath your feet, you feel it, you attend to it every day, and you may think it is the best thing in the world. But beware slab foundations, as the true strength of a foundation lies in its depth, and though you might not be as immediately aware of a more depthful foundation, it is ever more important than the sense of constant support granted by a slab foundation.

There you have it. Boats and buildings. Please feel free to tell me what you think. It’s not a perfect analogy of course, nothing is, but I liked the fit of it.


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Witch-doctors and Pretty Pink Ribbons

pretty pink ribbon around my right ankle

Peace Corps Kenya has a tradition (which we admittedly stole from Peace Corps Thailand). About three months from out Completion of Service (COS), we hold a COS workshop and it is during this workshop that the tradition takes place. Without getting into the specifics of the ceremony (because it’s a super secret ceremony), the end result is that we all end up tied together by a ribbon. We are not to remove this ribbon until we return “home” (whatever that means to you) and tumesifiri salama (we have traveled safeyly).

Our particular ribbon just so happened to be bright pink, or maybe electric fuscia, with gold thread through it.

Hot, I know.

There are some traditions that I appreciate and some that I despise; this particular tradition struck to my core because I am full believer in the power of “reminders,” or little items that are constantly present on our body, lest we never forget. In more fantastical terms, these reminders have morphed into talismans, or to the Harry Potter generation, horcruxes. What these items do is they allow us to tap our own inner strength, our power of mind, so as to embolden ourselves with a sense of belonging, one of the most important aspects of our highly social nature.

Needless to say, I walk around with a Pretty Pink Ribbon tied to my right ankle.

It turns out, the ribbon also brings it’s own Kenyan culture-specific protection as well, not only emboldening myself, but also instigating preconceptions in those around me: I’ve been to the witch doctor.

The coastal regions of Kenya, particularly the regions of the Mjikenda, are steeped in sorcery, spells and witchcraft. Living on the NYS compound, I am not particular exposed to heightened levels of this tendency, but I do remember the stories a fellow volunteer would tell me of her more remote coastal village, including women casting spells by dancing naked with octupuses on nights of the full moon. Yes, it really does happen, and may explain why immolation is our favorite means of mob-justice: not even a demon can escape wrathful fire.

On several seperate instances I have been informed that my Pretty Pink Ribbon is a sign that I have visited the witch-doctor, and though nobody seems to be able to tell me anything specific, people are cautious of me. After having “integrated” for two years, I am appreciative of the breathing space it gets me, especially while waiting at the cattle pen for the ferry. And for those who are brave enough to ask me why I wear a ribbon, I get to talk to them about Peace Corps and the work we do, and traditions we have. It’s a win-win. Those who are fearful and afraid of change stay away. Those who are curious about the weird mzungu approach and respectfully inquire.

My advice to any Coast volunteers looking for some piece of mind once in a while: tie yourself up in a Pretty Pink Ribbon and enjoy the space.


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Push Versus Pull: Newtonian Development

map of kenya colored with kenyan flag, force lines for push and pull

People like parables and anecdotes. They are short, easy to remember, and oftentimes presented in such a familiar and anthropomorphized fashion as to be irrefutable. The perception of such facts s that the collective wisdom of all the world’s storytellers is infallible. Yet when grouped together and thought about as a whole, these short, out-of-context truths seem to fall apart, contradicting one another, and would serve to confuse an individual to the point where they might actually begin to wonder why he listened to talking lions and mice in the first place.

On my way to work this morning I was recollecting my thoughts on Friday night’s Mombasa Tweetup when I began to think of two popular anecdotes, “Don’t put the cart before the horse,” and the Hollywood-famous, “If you build it, they will come,” (the original actually states “he will come,”). I thought I would apply them to community building, and not just communities in the specific sense of “village communities,” but more along the lines of, “People who have similar interests or live in a similar circumstance, sharing resources, including knowledge, to engage their specific circumstance.” That sounds pleasantly generalized and filled with enough jargon to get into a textbook on development, right?

In my time in Kenya, I have witnessed development along the lines of our latter anecdote above regarding the construction of buildings and the subsequent arrival of people. Buildings are an easy accomplishment for a development worker, and look great on paper, as they can actually be counted, photographed, budgeted, cost-analyzed, etc. Buildings also fulfill a very critical role for donors: the manifestation of an idea. There seems to be a philosophy amongst some that by building a, “community center,” you will build a community.

As a Peace Corps volunteer, I, and hopefully any well-trained and experienced development type (the two being mutually exclusive…) will tell you this is all hogwash. Building a community center, or a library, or a school, or a dispensary, or a tech hub (see, I am being fair!), or anything of that nature, without there being a need, is a complete waste of money. The building will sit there, eventually fall into disrepair, and warrant another volunteer and another round of donor-funding. Why? Well, the most common answer I can get, cynical as it sounds, is that it becomes a status symbol, a trophy and not a functional component of the pre-existing community.

Mombasa has a very small tech scene. Most of the tech development is in Nairobi. That’s part of the reason why Friday’s Tweetup was so fun. A bunch of people who just like tech, got together. We didn’t have a space, but we didn’t need one because we had a common interest, and sharing knowledge should never be confined to a specific building. In Three Cups Of Tea, I appreciate that the first school is built for a community that is already teaching its children. Nairobi has had a tech scene long before the iHub was constructed. In these examples, the focus is on the community already communing in as best a way possible before needing to construct any spaces.

Newtonian physics claims that push and pull are equal forces on an object. Despite my personal inclination to believe that Nature replicates its patterns across all systems, I do not feel that push and pull are equal in development. Pulling along a community, or a non-existent one, into building a building they don’t really need, is just a waste of time and resources. Targeting groups that push for such spaces to enhance their pre-existing communities results in a far more effective utilization of space, as well as easier justification for the resources.

Of course now, any good reader will ask, “What do you mean by ‘really need’?” Well, isn’t that why development workers have jobs in the first place?


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Possibility. People always speak of standing at the “edge of possibility.” Yet this phrase befits Possibility with inherent characteristics to which I take issue. An edge grants Possibility too much shape. That in fact, Possibility is maybe a downward trip, as if at the edge of a cliff. Or that Possibility is a mere shift from one state to another, that you before you were not in Possibility, but now you find yourself there. Possibility is most certainly not a locality.

The coherent image of Possibility presented leads one into a state of false comfort. Not that Possibility should be feared, lest one shirk away from its potential. But nor should it be so easily approached as to think it conquerable, for if anything, Possibility is the unconquerable. It’s not an edge to be jumped, only to look back and say, “I survived!” Just as you finish your triumphant fist pump and turn to continue along your way, there is Possibility, leering at you, willing to put up with your exuberant naiveté, just don’t do it again.

Imagine yourself weightless, darkness all around you. You have lost all sense of direction, and all that was absolute a minute ago is now lost in sea of relativity. Then, all around you, lights begin to shine, stars almost, pinpoints, the beginnings of Possibility.

These points of light, they grow, they feed on your affinities, your pleasures and whims, your fantasies. Yet they also feed on your dislikes, your animosities, your horrors. As they grow they begin to snake out, to intersect one another, small threads making their way through this dark nowhere, illuminating this realm in your future.

Despite the increasing illumination, you still cannot orient yourself. You catch site of a Possibility out of the corner of your eye, yet just as you take focus it has reshaped itself, perspective and attention drastically affecting the growth of an individual Possibility. Attempting to bring another individual into this realm only serves to malform and mutate the Possibilities at an exponentially increasing rate. Shoo, you just make it more confusing.

Grasping one Possibility, for better or worse, you try to follow it to it’s completion. Though the threads of light are all around you, any individual thread vanishes in the not so distant future. Was it heading over towards happiness or despair? I couldn’t tell, it just went over there. Not for me.

Coming to this realm too soon leads you to madness, as the Possibilities only grow until they crowd you out, no longer in control, no longer responding to your thoughts and desires. Coming too late and Possibilities have started to die off, shriveling up, yet in their death leaving you none the wiser of their final destination. You leave defeated.

Coming at just the right time does not exist, for you will never convince yourself, in the moment of decision, that whatever you choose is the perfect choice. You may lie to yourself, but that is just human nature, to lie to yourself. The only benefit of coming after too soon but before too late, is that you have not been blinded by their light for so long, spiraling into madness while Possibilities die.

Seizing upon another (was it pulsing quickly with excitement and adventure or slowly with comfort and familiarity?) you begin your journey toward the unknown. The guidebook you hold in your hand is abruptly torn from your hand, the power of Possibility denying you any right to foresight. Preparation might protect you from all but the strongest buffets as the energy courses over you, but you will never be fully guarded.

Hindsight will justify your decision in the end, don’t worry. Making the decision is the most difficult part, though for future reference, most any decision will do. The trip might be short, it might be long. Others may grab onto the thread as it makes its way along. Take them as they are, for like you, they are happy simply to have made a decision, unlike so many of their peers. It truly is a small bunch that actually seize a thread of Possibility so surely and hold on throughout its course. It’s almost as if the thread itself exudes an aura of camaraderie, a bolstering effect, uniting the disparate individuals together for the journey.

Possibility itself is neither good nor evil, wishing neither to factor in malice or benefit. It thrives upon the energies of those it surrounds, some feeding it more than others. From passion it draws power, from apathy it shies away. Ultimately, it is you who creates Possibility from the nether. Once conceived, its life becomes its own, only its primordial transition is initiated by you. Seizing upon it, once grown, is the least you can do to fulfill its existence.

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Development As A Video Game

We all know I like to make analogies. Recently I was inspired by a Penny-Arcade (PA) comic to analogize by two seemingly disparate parts of my life: development work and video games. I realize that niche filled by my readers who also find themselves in this crossover is most likely limited to me, Jeff and Paul, but for anyone else out there who might be interested, I hope you read on.

In the comic from which I draw my inspiration, the main characters of PA, Tycho and Gabe, find themselves discussing two recently released video games: Starcraft 2 and Civilzation V. Both of them being sequels and continuations on wildly successful franchises, these games often find themselves together in many a gamer’s collection. The comic opens with Gabe lamenting over the pace of the most recent Civilization game, especially when compared to Starcraft, while Tycho attempts to explain that, “Civilization has a different pace… Relax. Start small.”

“Like how small?” asks Gabe.

“Like, making pots.”

I chuckled at this for many reasons. Working in development for going on two years now, you need to appreciate starting small. Coming from America to Kenya is often like coming to Civilization from Starcraft, and the comparisons don’t end there.

Just looking at the title of Civilization should give you a hint to its scope. You are litlerally thrown into a world with nothing but the ability to make fire, or, if I remember correctly, not even that. You win your game by either conquering and vanquishing your foes, forming a global alliance, building a structure of monumental importance or taking to the stars. Games can take hours, even days, depending on the scope of the paramenters you set, such as the number of opposing civilizations, or the size of the game map.

Starcraft on the other hand is a significantly faster paced game. Matches can be over within minutes, depending on your opponents play style. There is also only really one way to win: kill all your opponents. Your economy is limited in the number of resources you manage, your army size is fixed, and the maps represent kilometers of space, not hundreds of kilometers. It’s a different game entirely.

Yet to the untrained eye, these games often get generalized a level too far, and thus lumped together. In both games you manage resources, you manage “units” representing individuals, you manage infrastructure, and your ulimate victory or defeat is based on how well you do these things. But the games could not be further apart when looked at closely.

Too many development agencies and individuals come to Kenya trying to play Staracraft. With their zerg-rushes of resources and volun-tourists, armed with paint rollers and youthful exuberance, they feel that by vanquishing the foe within their 10 meter radius, be it local orhpans, AIDS, or trash collection, they have saved the world. It’s a complaint we have heard before so I will not expound. And for some, the rush is enough. If the Starcraft play-statistics are to used as a measure, it is in fact one of the most widely popular forms of development around.

But development needs more pots, to paraphrase Tycho in the comic. Development starts small, and this is something that should be cultured and nurtured amongst the development players. Starcraft matches come and go, sometimes a dozen or so in a day, but Civilization matches are for the memories, with hours of arduous decision making and setbacks, but hopefully with ultimate triumph as you watch your spaceship travel off into the stars, knowing you have advanced your civilization to its next level. It’s not the same shot of adrenaline that you get from Starcraft, but more a sense of supreme accomplishment.

Will Civilization V sell better than Starcraft 2? No. Will the entire country of South Korea fall in love with Civilization the game, the way they have for Starcraft? No.

Just the same, the volun-tourists will still arrive in Kenya in droves, and the money and resources will be spent as if there’s no tomorrow. People want that adrenaline fix, it makes them feel alive. What we need is for the adrenaline junkies to take a back seat and let the civilization builders in: those who are content to sit and make pots or weave baskets or simply teach, happy each time any accomplishment occurs, instead of rushing down their tech trees to get to the latest and greatest.

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