Ghana Wrapup

So I’m back from Ghana, safe and sound minus a nasty cold I picked up on some continent. (I never get sick!) The camp was a resounding success; sorry for not posting more here earlier, but it’s been a total zoo. I got back last night at 2pm and, shortly after explaining to someone how incredibly important it is to keep awake until it’s nighttime lest jet lag kick your butt. Oops; woke up at 3am, which is always interesting. The camp ended well; the last two days of the camp (Thursday and Friday) the Internet actually behaved reasonably well, so we got to walk the kids through search engines and our Internet Scavenger Hunt, which I think the kids just loved. Saturday was largely spent sleeping and recuperating and Sunday we dropped by the market to do a little shopping. I got myself a cool little twisty-bracelet made out of three metals; it looks pretty sweet, like a secret bangle of power. Then we checked out through Amsterdam, where we got to duck out into the early morning of the city for a little non-airplane-related exercise, walking past porn supermarkets and “coffeeshops” named “Reefer”. Not much was open, but it was wonderful to explore the architecture and frankly just to have a walk around in
the fresh air.

I’m very happy I did this camp; I learned a lot about Ghana, Camp Amelia, ICT, and myself. We were written up in Pravda, interviewed live on Joy-FM twice, and were on Ghana state TV (GTV) twice! I’m really excited that it sounds like I may be able to help work with the Ghanaian government to improve their ICT infrastructure; yay! But for now, I’m back, and am trying to launch my for-profit (Coceve), keep my non-profit (CommunityColo) from running out of funds, get better, write a press release for the camp, throw a huge party, prep for and take my GMATS, apply for business school (HBS & Sloan), and setup our house as a 501(c)(7) non-profit association. Hooray for tax-deductible parties. As a funny side-note, I can’t believe how many business books I managed to polish off during my downtime in Ghana; I read at least half a dozen! Anyhow, it’s back to the thought-zoo for me. Think cold-going-away thoughts for me.

Ghana Update V

Oh, every day has such ups and downs! It’s hard to compress it all here. Immediately after the last update, I think I gave the talk of my life – the kids in the afternoon were a lot more jazzed up than the morning kids, which shouldn’t be surprising – I mean, if you had to
get up at 8:30am during your summer break to sit inside, would you be excited? I was so exhausted at the end of the day that I went right to bed without dinner at 8pm. Part of the reason why I crashed so early was that we had to get up at an insanely early hour to get on TV. That’s right, we were on “The Breakfast Show” live at around 7:00am local time. Woot, state television! After the interview, we went to the ICT Centre to get setup and also to welcome Ghana’s Minister of Education (who actually came today instead of as planned
yesterday). Peter managed to run out and grab some pastries for us, which was a real Godsend considering that I hadn’t eaten since the prior day’s lunch.

After the minister left, all hell broke loose. I was trying to teach a class about email, and a media team from GTV was very loudly navigating the room and asking people questions. Then the DNS server at the ISP died and nobody could do anything. Then it came back up and the power promptly went out. For half an hour. It is *hard* to teach email without power, but Clara and I gave it a valiant tag-team shot; I joked at the end that we should have a David-and-Clara Technology Show…which would be great provided we don’t kill each other first. Then the power went back up and I was walking kids through registering for Yahoo Mail. Which doesn’t have an option for “Ghana”. And which keeps kids under 13 from registering — which is most of our campers. Oh, and when we finally worked around all those issues and started registering campers, Yahoo blocked our IP from new registrations, probably suspicious of a bunch of new registrations from a singular, African IP address. Augh. And all of this is with web pages with load times that make modem access in the US look like broadband on steroids. 🙁 I just wanted to cry, especially when we ran across campers that were having trouble registering for Yahoo Mail because they couldn’t even read the word “cat”. literally. 🙁 Clara pointed out that it’s possible that things
like email are just a little too advanced for some of these campers. I guess I do have very high expectations for these kids; I have a general philosophy that people will rise to the hopes and expectations you have of them, but in some cases, she may be right. I am pushing these kids pretty hard, even while trying to be as fun and goofy as possible.

Ah, such highs and lows! It’s great to see the excitement that these kids have for computers, how cheap everything is, and the passion the adults and government have for getting technology into the kids’ hands. But Internet connections that regularly drop, power that is not at 100%, and 1500ms ping times make life on the Net very difficult here in Ghana. I think some software would have been written differently if it were to better accomodate connections like these; a great example is DNS, which has a 2 second timeout by default. But if the server takes more than 500ms with a request from a connection with a 1500ms RTT, it’ll count as a no-answer. So many websites are actually wholly inaccessible from Ghana, crazily enough – DNS simply doesn’t allow their names to be resolved. I’ve gotta go – time to eat a quick lunch and prep for the afternoon session. Wish us luck!

Ghana Update IV

I just got done teaching the morning session; with two classes a
session and two sessions a day, I have to lecture the same material
four times, all while trying to keep the kids excited and engaged. My
first tack was to try and give them a brisk walk-through of the
entirety of computing, but this proved a little much – simply giving
them some time in front of the word processor was one of the most
valuable things that I could do. So I decided to keep my lecture short
and sweet and get kids hacking as soon as was reasonably
expedient.

This place still cracks me up – the large painted signs
indicating “DO NOT URINATE HERE” give me the giggles. People show up
an hour late to things – or more – the minister of Education was
supposed to meet us at noon, but it’s 1:45pm and there’s still no sign
of the minister. Ah, well. And we ordered too much food and not enough
drinks; we can adjust for that tomorrow.

Last night we realized that
the relatively low cost of Internet access at BusyInternet meant that
we could possibly hand out “five hour” cards to all of our pupils for
pretty cheap. The total cost for this would be around US$500, but we
might be able to do that with our leftover “lunch money” from the bank
and if that could be enough to make the difference in the program’s
long-term impact, it would be well worth it. (thinking like a drug
dealer here: first five hours are free, kid – then they’re
hooked).

The quality of the Internet connection here bothers me,
though. Not only are web pages slow (and some are altogether
inacessible due to the way their servers are configured), but IM will
suddenly drop off every few minutes, making teaching IM to teachers a
frustrating task. We got cut off several times in the middle of saying
“So IM is much easier to use than email!” Oy. Thankfully, the IT
center pulled a surprise out of its hat with a huge, high-quality,
modern projector. It’s been very useful in helping our teaching. I
gotta go; second session’s coming in. See ya! 🙂

Ghana Update III

Busy Internet strikes again. Internet here is 12,000 cedis per hour. The exchange rate is (very roughly) 10,000 cedis per dollar. (It’s actually more like 9k and change) So that’s around $1.25/hour, which isn’t so bad and certinaly doesn’t seem so punishing that it’s keeping locals away – this place is busy and provides Internet, so no false advertising there. The bills start at 1000 cedis, or about ten cents; this means that when you get a $20 changed for a stack of 5000-cedi bills you feel RICH, which is fun; I’ll be kinda sad to not walking around with a huge fistful of money. 🙂

We start the camp tomorrow; I’m excited. We’ve finally got the basics of our curriculum picked out and we grabbed some more volunteers from church (yeah, I was the only non-black person attending), so we’re up to around 20 volunteers for 100 kids. Pravda and BoingBoing have posted our press release, and we’ve got interest from several other news organizations – more press will definitely help us out with fundraising and finding volunteers for next year.

I definitely get the sense that Ghana is a very entrepreneurial country – there are almost more startups than in Silicon Valley! Everyone has a little hut-business. The cultural intermix here is pretty funny, too. Korean trucks driving by Indian restaurants blasting American hiphop – and trashy English-redubbed Spanish soap operas are all the rage, despite the fact that there are basically no hispanics here. If there are one or two, they’re good at hiding.

Had goat for lunch; I guess I can check off another animal. My favorite is still moosemeat, which I had in Quebec; tasty stuff, that. It’s odd, because the smells from the cooking are actually not that pleasant, but I find the meals quite tasty.

Driving, or being driven, is basically an exercise in your faith in God. Everyone drives very quickly, doesn’t pay attention to vagaries such as “the correct side of the road” or “stop signs” and the roads themselves are full of fun surprises like giant potholes. Only the most major of roads are paved and street addresses basically don’t mean anything – people use PO Boxes for everything.

Getting out the camera was very funny; a crew of soccer players getting out from practice spotted me riding in the back of a truck with my camera and started cheering and posing when they saw me taking pictures of them. It was getting dark, though, so I’m not sure the picture came out.

Anyhow, all is well, I’m off to prep the last parts of the lesson plan for tomorrow. Please wish me luck! Hugs to all!

Ghana Update II

I’m at “Busy Internet” in Accra right now. We’ve been calling the people who did and didn’t manage to make the program. It seems that instead of taking 50 kids, we’re going to try and take 100 kids, doing two sessions a day. Clara had indicated that we’d be “totally fried” trying to do just 50 kids, so God only knows how intense this upcoming week will be. It sounds like I’m going to be doing the technology teaching, so I have to prep for doing four presentations a day (!) for Monday-Friday. Thankfully, we did manage to find a local sponsor for our lunch money, so the kids will be able to eat.

One thing that really amazes me here is that even though most of the streets are dirt
(and all are unlit) and everything’s a hodge-podge insanity, a full THIRD of the local businesses are computer-related; either offering IT classes, Internet access, computer repairs, computer sales, etc. These people are clearly stoked for computing, which is a tremendous boon. Teaching people who want to learn is a bajillion times easier than trying to persuade folks that they want to learn.

The food is really good; I was honestly a little worried, since I had never sampled Ghanaian fare, but the sauces, plantains, etc, are all very yummy. It’s pretty funny being the only white guy around. I think everyone should go somewhere where they’re a stranger – it helps give you perspective on strangers in your own land.

Everyone has cell phones and TVs. As might be expected, labor and food are much cheaper than the US; gas is about the same price in $US and electronics are considerably more expensive. Taxis, surprisingly, are *everywhere* and are at least as common as cars. The taxis are uniformly in just-about-to-fall-apart condition, with seats tipping as you sit
down, doors mostly-closing, and the exteriors having clearly endured more than a few dozen knockups. It seems that everyone is selling everything by the streets – coffins appropriately intermix with motorcylces on roadside displays, and throngs of men and women approach the car to knock on the glass and present everything from the daily paper to hubcaps to chewing gum to yams. Some of the more entreprising streetsalesmen tape their product to themselves; one man approached our car with a tie freshly fronted by taped-on Gillette razor blades. There are a wide variety of streetside stalls hastily erected wherever a wide-enough sidewalk permits. Measuring about three or four feet per side, you can buy phone cards, questionably fresh fish, cooked meals, or even haircuts in these little huts. Several have dire warnings spraypainted on by the police about when the huts must be removed.

I’m very happy to be here and I hope we can make a difference. These people want to learn about technology and we want to teach it, so it feels like a match. 🙂 Keep your fingers crossed for us (or pray, if you do that). We need it.

I’m In Ghana

So I’m writing this from a computer lab in Accra; it’s nicely modern, with about 50 pentium 4-2000 machines, but it’s about 1500ms to anything really interesting on the Internet backbone and the speed’s not that fabulous. But it works! And while we were hoping to have 50 students for the camp, it looks like we actually got more like 150 applicants; so we’re actually having to select which student we’ll take, which is bittersweet. The plane flights over were pretty brutal; a 10 hour flight from SFO to Amsterdam and a six and a half hour to Accra. I woke up this morning at four AM local time (having gone to bed at midnight) and was *wide* awake. Now it’s 11am local and I’m feeling like I need to sleep some more. It’s kind of wacky. We’ll be working on setting up the camp’s curriculum and so forth; the camp starts Monday! Keep your fingers crossed for us. People are friendly,
the city is insane with traffic and potholes and vendors and goats (more on that later; the sounds, colors, vistas, and smells are a real symphony of the senses. It’s an intense experience. I’m taking pictures – can’t upload them yet but I’ll post as soon as I can.