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:

Backyard Landfills

I would challenge my friends and family back in the states to try this one out…
Instead of putting your trash out on the street for pick-up next week, dig a small hole in your backyard and start dumping your waste there. It will be amazing to see how quickly your consumption habits change and how environmentally conscious you become.

As you can guess, this is the system for garbage disposal in Malawi. Any trash we make, literally, make a landfill of our backyard. In this light, composting is an absolute must. Any organic waste gets dumped onto the compost pile, which will then be used as fertilizer in the garden where we will grow many of our own veggies and herbs. Soda and beer bottles are all recycled, so much so that, cans aren’t stocked much at the stores and you get a refund on new beverage purchases when you return used bottles. What a brilliant system! Other recycling services do not exist, so we end up making all sorts of consumer decisions to minimize the size of the landfill in our backyard.

Categories: month in Malawi

This week Jon and I are finishing the website design for OIBM a micro-finance bank servicing the poor. It's been really fun working with them b/c it's a crew of really motivated Malawians and I happen to really believe in the transforming nature of the services they are offering to the poor.
I'm also preparing to head out on my art safari next week. For me, this means practicing with watercolors and some other materials, doing some drawing studies, etc. I'm really excited to see more of the country and work with other artists.

I feel like I have my hands and my mind in a little bit of everything (art, humanitarian aid distribution, web design, micro-enterprise, jewelry making research, bird watching, and peanut butter making!). Obviously, there are a lot of needs here in Malawi with the challenges of disease and poverty. I'm not sure yet how to feel about prioritizing my time while I'm here. On the one hand, a year is a very short time to see any of my contributions materialize in a major way. I feel like I need to do "good work" (like volunteering at the hospital or public schools), but then I remember what I learned through my teaching experience, and that is that I must follow my passion and my giftings. I think those things are art and business (income-generating activities). I'm praying that God will show me ways to use these things to bless Malawians while I'm here. There have been little windows of exchanging painting classes for wood carving lessons with some of the local carvers...or maybe teaching jewelry making techniques to women in villages nearby so they can sell jewelry to tourists. I have plenty of ideas but getting the ball rolling and trying to get more involved in the local community is a slow process...I need patience, otherwise I start to feel discouraged, like I'm not doing anything useful.

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.


Jon and I are hoping to purchase our car today and be on our way upto Mzuzu. In the mean time, we have had some fun times taking the mini-buses around town. Sheila's Lodge, where we are staying, is about a 30min walk from the nearest stop. On our way, we pass beautiful flowering trees, bright red and yellow birds, butterflies galore, and LOTS of people. There are all kinds of foot paths darting every which way off the paved roads...the Malawians call them "shortcuts"…they usually lead through the maize fields that are integrated into this semi-urban landscape, and off to neighboring villages. The women carry all kinds of things on their heads, 40lb sacks of grain, sugar cane bundles, and loads of firewood...not to mention a baby strapped to their back! Like Jon says, they are stronger than ants. Even though we are staying in a neighborhood where many expats live, the kids get a kick out of seeing us walking down the road (I guess most white people are using cars around here). As we approach kiddos we hear them say "ooo...mzungus!!!!" Mzungu is the word for foreigners or white people. We get a kick out of it too.

The Box Project

Our so called “Box Project” involves a large shipment of humanitarian aid supplies that will be delivered to Malawi through collaboration between World Care International and the University of Arizona. World Care is directed and founded by Lisa Hopper, a former teacher, who has experience shipping aid supplies to more than 30 different countries over the last ten years. Hopper and her volunteers are especially experts in getting books and school supplies into the hands of children and communities in developing countries.

This will be World Care’s first shipment to Malawi, for which they are partnering with Dr. Wayne Decker and his International Studies students from the University of Arizona. Three students are responsible for fundraising the $15,000 needed to cover transport costs, while World Care will provide all of the supplies to fill a 40ft shipping container. This is serious business!

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.