jon's blog

Go Cats!! (or Super Toilets)

Its amazing but two of our best friends here in Malawi are graduates of the University of Arizona also!! As if Cheri Blauwet were not proof enough that Arizona Wildcats are taking over the world... :)

Our good friends have been living in Malawi for about 20 years now working in health and water/sanitation issues. We were over at their house the other night for dinner and had a fascinating conversation about toilets that I wanted to share with everyone. Yes I said toilets... enough talk about computers and the internet for the moment... lets get serious for a moment folks and talk about toilets.


Recovering Deleted files with Linux and Sleuthkit

Ever accidentally delete a file you really needed from the recycle bin? Ever format a disk and install a new operating system only to find later that you forgot to save off some really important files first? The former recently happened to us here at the Univeristy in Mzuzu... we thought doom was upon us until we stumbled upon a open (free to change, use, and distribute) software utility called Sleuthkit (

When we realized our disaster, we started searching Google for "data recovery", "recover my files", etc. Listings appeared for companies charging hundreds of dollars for data recovery services and software. We tried some of the trial versions of the commercial software, but nothing was able to detect our files. Finally one of us here in the office in Mzuzu stumbled upon Sleuthkit, an amazing utility that was able to recover out deleted files from a formatted disk and didn't cost us a penny!

Webmail suggestions for Malawi

Just before moving to Malawi Marissa and I changed our email adresses from YahooMail to Google's Gmail accounts. I was pulled away from yahoo buy some great new features that Gmail offered and I was worried that Yahoo's beta interface for webmail would not work well on older computers in Malawi.

Since arriving in Malawi however, I have found that my Gmail account is not suited for connecting over the overworked internet connections currently in place here in Malawi. In fact I am almost never able to access my email via Gmail's web interface (so we use POP access instead) during the daytime peak hours for internet usage. At night, when few other users are online, Gmail works fine.

Further evidence of a dotcom boom in Malawi

Further evidence of a dotcom boom in Malawi... Last week the students of Mzuzu University went on strike because they felt that they had not been provided enough access to computers by campus administration. Unfortunately, (or fortunately depending upon how you look at it), Marissa and I were out of town at the time, in Tanzania. We have heard that the student strike was mostly peaceful. Students organized a sit-in and skipped classes. One of the days of the strike, however, things seem to have gotten a little out of hand. Students decided to burn old tires near the campus gate, so the police and some sort of weak tear gas became involved.


VSAT Community Networks

I just read that the internet is growing faster in Africa than anywhere else in the world. Most of us here in Africa are connecting via satellite or VSAT connections which are a fairly expensive way to transmit data (though costs are rapidly dropping). While I am finding sufficient knowledge on how to purchase VSATs, I have found very little discussion or collaboration online concerning how best to maintain VSAT internet connections.

Just yesterday I received an email from a friend here in Malawi describing the experience of another friend who “successfully” installed a VSAT connection for their NGO. The NGO found that the the installers from the company they hired to install the VSAT “haven't got a clue [how to install a VSAT]. It took them over 10 days to get it running - basically they installed it and it didn't work and they couldn't work out why.” After asking help from a local internet cafe owner the NGO found “the VSAT company had supplied the wrong kind of network cable (not a cross over one) - a fairly basic mistake and they haven't apologised or anything - so we're not really very impressed.”

Professor Saints and the nutty open source textbook

I must apologize for the lack of content on the blog recently. Things have been busy in good ways... very good ways. I have been asked to teach the first ever introductory to computer science course here at Mzuzu University Department of Mathematics! Fortunately the course is only meeting twice a week, so there is plenty of time to piece together lessons and lectures. So far, the students seem to be enjoying themselves. They are very excited about having the chance to learn to program computers. Our only problem so far is that the number of computers on campus comes no where close to matching the students enthusiasm for the subject.

Differences between internet connectivity in Colorado and Malawi

Malawians, in general, are both very poor and very ambitious. I think this is why I am finding engineering in Malawi to be such exhilarating experience. So often here we are asked to do a lot with a little. Its forcing me to push the limits my creativity, my imagination, and my skills as an engineer.

I was in a meeting last week to discuss the redesign of the internet network architecture for Mzuzu University. There is a need to rethink how users are allowed to connect to the internet here in Mzuzu. Currently the network is designed much like the networks of the universities in the USA. In general, computers with connections allow users are to have unlimited access to the internet. A quick comparison of the internet connection here in Mzuzu to the last connection I used at my house in the USA will show why a different network architecture is necessary in Mzuzu:

Our look into the Malawian Hunger Crisis

Here is our first inside look at the Malawian food crisis which so many of you back home in the USA have read about in the papers. We have found that there is much more to the “crisis” than the papers have told. This is our first attempt to explain the problem, as we see it, more fully. Its a twisted tale of economics, agriculture, taste buds, and “drought”.

Newspapers in the USA usually list drought as the culprit for hunger in Malawi. Predictably every year Malawi receives large amounts of rain during its rainy season from November to March. From April through October is the dry season. This is what newspapers in the USA often refer to as the drought. Its hard to call the dry season in Malawi a drought, because it is a very predictable weather pattern that happens every year in Malawi. A drought is a severe, unexpected absence of rain; Malawi's dry season is neither severe nor unexpected. The dry season happens every year. Currently in Malawi we are in the rainy season, everything is green and tropical. The forests look like the forests of Brazil. During the dry season, Malawi makes a transformation from a tropical paradise to an arid climate which feels and looks much like the plains of Colorado or the mountains of northern Arizona. Its dry, but like Arizona, a fairly green and lush – capable of sustaining indigenous plants adapted to local weather patterns. So if you hear about drought in Malawi, chances are you are really just hearing about our dry season, something that all of us living in Malawi know will come every year. We are convinced that there really is no drought in Malawi. There is only a dry season.


Buying a car in Malawi

We bought a car today! And so we say good buy to the mini-busses for a while. Buying a car in Malawi was an entertaining experiment and a wonderful insight into the economy here. In all the process took about one week from when agreed to buy the car. Everything here is done in cash, so it made things the transaction a little tricky. We were able to wire money from the US to our recently opened Malawian bank account. It took about 4 days for the transaction to take. We then wrote a check to ourselves for an amount equal to about a foot and a half tall stack of bills in Malawian Kwacha. The largest bill in Malawi is 500 Kwacha (this is about $4.50). If you can imagine buying a car with a stack of five-dollar bills you will quickly be able to visualize the chunk of change we were carrying with us. So we loaded our chunk into a backpack and a friend of ours drove us to the office of the owner of the car. The office is in a rougher end of Lilongwe, a place where you really wouldnt even want to walk around with as little as $10 in your pocket (hey, we really needed wheels). There we traded the stack for the car you see here... a pretty good deal if you ask me.

OIBM tour continues

Our tour of Opportunity International Bank of Malawi continues! After some discussion it seems that Marissa and I will be working with OIBM to construct their website and train employees on how to publish to the web. Today they took us to the homes of a few of their “success story” clients. I have heard so much wonderful hype about “microfinance” that I really enjoyed the chance to meet some of the people that have benefited from it directly.

We first meet Essime Mussa and her husband who now run a profitable grocery store in a town called Kaliyaka just outside of the capital city Lilongwe. The grocery is a one-room storefront with a large service window extending across the face of the building. An inventory of everything from soap, sodas, to breads is stacked up against the back wall from floor to ceiling. Several steps lead down from the store to the road in front and display the stores stock of maize and cooking oil.