Tag Archive for 'laptop'

Solar Computer Lab in Lamu

About a month ago I got a donated iBook from a volunteer who was setting up a solar computer lab, and the plan was that I’d set it up to my liking, with lots of educational games and whatnot, and then just “clone” it to the 20 other laptops when I get to Lamu.  This would be the easiest way, since at least here in Mombasa I can get fast Internet to download programs for the iBook.  I ended up working for a long time on this one laptop, though, mostly because there were so many delays with the solar panels that there was just no point traveling up the coast to visit a computer lab with no power.  I ended up throwing together a cool Linux/Mac dual boot system.  Anyhow, the ‘grand opening’ celebration for the lab was scheduled for Nov. 7, so I decided to go no matter what, and hope that I’d be able to get my work done while I’m there.

So a week ago I got on a bus to Lamu with two other volunteers.  Here are some pictures from the trip.

Here’s a view from the bus as we back up toward the jammed traffic around the collapsed bridge.  Most of the men in the picture are opportunist porters, trying to make  a buck (or like 20 cents) carrying bags to the other side.  I carried my own bags, since  I was carrying laptops in my nice waterproof Pelican case, because I had heard stories about crossing the river on foot and/or canoe.  Anyhow, it was nothing like that, since the water had since dried up, and as a result I didn’t even get my shoes wet.  Yet another instance of me being comically overprepared and just having to carry heavy luggage as a result.


Here’s where the bridge should have been:


On the other side of the bridge, a second bus took us the rest of the way.  The area was usually wet due to the rains, which made it quite picturesque.  Too bad the dirt road made it hard to keep the camera still:


Eventually we got Mokowe (pronounced McCoy), where the actual school is, but we went a little further for the first night and we took a boat to Lamu Island and stayed in a hotel there.  This monkey was there to greet us, since it is kept on a leash at reception;


Here’s Lamu the next morning:


You can be forgiven for thinking it looks a lot like Mombasa Old Town or Zanzibar.  In fact they were all at one time under the rule of the same Sultan!  Anyhow, Lamu is a bit different, especially because there are no cars or motorcycles… people ride donkeys around!  I didn’t have enough time to try that for myself, though.

Here’s a view from the boat as we leave Lamu Town;


We left the Island and headed back to Mokowe for the computer lab opening celebration.  It was going to happen despite the fact that the solar panels were still not installed and I hadn’t set up the computers yet, both of which I’m sure were stressing out the volunteer (who is finishing her service in a couple weeks) to no end.

Speaking of whom, here she is with the school headmaster in front of the lab.  Pretty good likeness on the wall, huh?

After all the ceremonial stuff was over, the lab was opened for people to see.  All the laptops were there, and also a giant selection of donated educational CD-ROMs.  This gave me an internal moment of panic, since I had not set up the computers to be able to run old Mac CD-ROM games.  Well, I was in luck, because I had a few days to work on it, just using a single solar panel and inverter in the cafeteria.  During this time I met a lot of the students, and I got to see the KCPEs (big deal exams) being administered.  I wanted to take a picture of the army men with machine guns escorting the headmaster around to deter cheating, but I didn’t want to die, so I didn’t.  So for those few days, I sat with kids behind me, watching the exciting progress bars moving across the screen as I installed the different CDs and set up Mac “Classic”, and I also spent a little time shooing away the goats who sneak into the cafeteria and seem drawn to the electrical wiring around the car battery.  Apparently the goats belong to the nearby Somali pastoralists, who are not viewed favorably by the teachers who try to maintain gardens on the school grounds.

In this time I also saw a couple giant baboons, and also this monitor lizard which the students were flinging high into the air for fun.  A teacher made them stop, and then I took this picture:


Anyhow, I got all the CD-ROM stuff figured out just in time for the solar panels to finally be installed on the lab’s roof.  We promptly began cloning the computers, and when I left this morning, there were 19 computers all set up!  Not ideal, but I had to leave two unfinished, although I left behind some USB drives and some instructions so it can be finished in just a few hours in my absence.

I did have a chance to give a short computer class, mostly about how not to break CDs or CD drives, and it’s always nice to see kids playing math games and whatnot.  Of course, I even included my FUZOMA project on the computers, and it was cool to see all the DOS games I picked running on these old Mac laptops!

On one of my last nights there, we went out on a sunset dhow ride, free of charge, courtesy of a woman from the US embassy, two gentlemen from the US Navy, and a Belgian woman working on her PhD in Lamu.  A nice reward!


Overall Lamu/Mokowe made for a nice trip— it’s the kind of Peace Corps experience that I had anticipated for myself, one with limited electricity and a small community where you have limited options for food, so it was surreal, and a bit saddening, to be a visitor there, knowing that I will return to my life of luxury (relatively) in Mombasa.

Well, now I’m off again tomorrow morning, this time for a week in the town of Machakos to help with the training of the next round of Deaf Education volunteers.  One of them will actually end up at the school with the solar computer lab.  Talk about living on the shadow of a previous volunteer… this one will have Megan’s face on the computer lab watching them every single day!

OK, my ten hour bus ride starts in eight hours, so I need to prepare… hopefully this week is exciting as least week was!

3 Responses to “Solar Computer Lab in Lamu”

  • Andy Christensen

    Great reading. I lived in Lamu as a PC Volunteer ’83-’85. I posted a bunch of pix on my facebook.

    Take care bwana!


  • Love your story Paul. As the father Megan, the Peace Corps volunteer who built the computer lab, it is wonderful to be able to see exactly what happened during that week of installation. We speak with Megan all the time – but it is very difficult for her to send electronic updates and pictures due to her remote location! Thank you for all your help. You really made a difference to that community and to my daughter!

  • Hi Paul! I am a pc tanzania volunteer and i am trying to look into info about solar computer labs. I googled it, and your blog came up. Is there any chance that you can send me some more information about how this lab was set up or the contact info of the volunteer who set up this lab so i can learn about the possibility of doing the same thing here?

Solar Power Mania

As a researchaholic, it is difficult to decide what to bring to Kenya.  On one hand, I have no desire to overwhelm myself and my community with amenities that make me stand out.  On the other hand, there is the possibility that I will want to further develop the e-learning software used in the deaf classes, which would require a laptop and possibly a video camera, and I want to make sure that if that opportunity arises, I can take advantage of it even if I’m in an area without reliable power.  (For that matter, I don’t want my interest in that software to inherently mean that I have to work in a urban district.) 

So… I splurged yesterday and bought some items to keep me off the grid:
-a 62w fold-able solar panel (about 3 pounds)
-a charge controller so I can hook it up to a car battery if I get one while I’m there
-a voltage limiter to so can hook it up to laptop/AA chargers, etc.
-various cords and stuff

This was no small investment (I won’t list prices but if you look these things up you’ll see), and I may feel silly if I end up in a place with reliable AC power, or I end up simply not needing my camcorder or laptop, but as a Boy Scout it’s just not an option to go unprepared.  The good news is that this stuff won’t take up much space; however, if I do use the panel, I’ll definitely be the Crazy American with all my gadgets.  I can live with that though.

4 Responses to “Solar Power Mania”

  • paul i am super excited for you! i wish i could see you before you leave. =)

  • good work, paul. off the grid is definitely the way to go. you know how much i’m counting on you to poop in a hole.

  • Of note: Mombasa at least is HUGE on clever electricity. There are entire stores here dedicated to car-battery-type off-the-grid power. Can’t wait to visit one…

  • You forgot one thing: Lowry’s seasoning salt, for the termite salads.