Sunday, August 16, 2009

Want to see Lions? Come to Kenya..

Just a quick note so people don't think I got eaten by a chimp in Rwanda. After a quick visit to Lake Kivu (beautiful!), Nell and I tried to catch a flight to Nairobi yesterday. Sadly Kenya Airways was on strike, so after much waiting and complaining, we got put up in a hotel and hopefully will be flying out in a few hours.

The plan is to find a three day safari in Kenya to see our share of lions (and tigers?). Then, time permitting go check out the coast at Mombasa before we split ways, Nell off to tramp around Africa for another month, me to fly home with a pit stop in Dubai to get some skiing in.

We'll see what the interwebz situation is like in Kenya, but don't expect many updates in the next week.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Son of First Lecture

This afternoon I gave the second part of my lecture on Web technologies. This time introducing PHP and dynamic websites as well as doing a fly-by on databases and MySQL. Covering that much information in four hours was a real challenge and although I think quite a few students got it, more time to let them play hands on would have been really helpful.

By far the biggest challenge with these two lectures was allowing the students to try things out. Although we were in a computer lab, each computer required a 'token' to log in every 30 minutes and even then the connection was flaky. Additionally I was trying to enable them via a free webhost which although excellent, caused problems because of their security systems and all the students coming from the same IP. This made it difficult to really get the students building their own sites, which was the whole goal.

It is clear that the ULK could use a server of its own with student accounts. That combined with a policy allowing all CS students unlimited access to the computer lab seems like a requirement to me. I told the Dean of the department as much when leaving, stressing the importance of actually working with these systems as opposed to book learning. I think he took some of it to heart, but it is clear there is some cultural resistance at work as well.

But all in all, I think the two lectures were super successful. Even more students showed up today compared to yesterday, and I set the ICT club up with a website of their own that they have taken over. Most exciting of all however was that a dozen students went home after yesterday's lecture and set up their own websites, something they had never done before. Hopefully they share their knowledge with the other students as they all get more comfortable.

The whole experience was so rewarding that it really gives me pause. Teaching was so much fun, just seeing the students get excited, making jokes, explaining things to them, just really satisfied me in a way I haven't been in a long time. Perhaps it will pass, but it does make me reconsider my life plans a bit..

In other news I've had some much better traction this week talking to various people about building mobile based systems for health, education and commerce. I talked at length with the Rwandan representative of Voxiva, a DC based company that is very big in such systems in Africa. From that conversation it became clear that the set of problems is HUGE, as is the opportunity to both help and build a business. The other big lesson is that trying to give away services is actually pretty hard. The governments are understandably suspicious of such things because they doubt their long term viability. They are therefore more on the lookout for companies to provide these solutions, bound by a contract to support and maintain the product.

That isn't to say smaller scale systems can't be built independently as I first imagined, but they are less likely to be adopted nationally, and certainly unlikely to get institutional support. I've talked to a couple doctors while here which both see potential uses on their local level where you can figure out what can and will work. So that side of my trip here will likely be a longer term journey, as I hear from those doctors and hear what might be useful to them.

Last week we showed the the student made films at the US embassy, and from that came a dinner 'date' with the ambassador on Tuesday. Sadly I wasn't able to attend as I was preparing for the Wednesday lecture, but apparently he is really excited about using mobile technology to coordinate coffee farmers here in Rwanda in some way. So that is one last opportunity I am trying to chase down, to get a meeting with him to talk further, but not surprisingly he is a hard person to get a hold of.

I leave Rwanda on Sunday to go explore other parts of East Africa for a week. The plan is to do a Safari in Kenya, then hit the coast for a few days. Should be fun.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

My First Lecture

One of the opportunities that has turned out to be really rewarding here in Rwanda has been the chance to give a few lectures at one of the local universities. I first made contact with Emile Bniz back in the states via SMSMedia, where he is working on an interesting project involving cotton ginners in Tanzania. Only after arriving in Kigali did I find out he was also a professor of computer science at the Kigali Independent University. After talking a bit, he asked if I might be willing to give a lecture or two, as there is a dearth of experienced software engineers in the country from which to learn from. I immediately jumped at the chance, as I love teaching and doing so here sounded like a lot of fun.

After talking to Emile and some of the students, we agreed that doing a very practical lecture on web technologies would be the most valuable. Although the students have taken courses on HTML, they have never really built a site and put those skills to practical use. Even without the financial barrier of getting a host for a website, nobody has credit cards so getting one is difficult. We decided that showing the students how to get a free host, then walking them through uploading files and editing the content would be a great enabler for them.

I am happy to report that the first lecture today was met with very positive reviews. It was a lot of fun working with the students and seeing them get excited over how they too could build their own websites. Although there were some technical issues with the computer lab the university, we covered a ton of material over five hours and they seemed engaged throughout. Personally it was something I got a real kick out of, both because I could be my usual goof ball to entertain people and because I could speak intelligently to their questions and felt like I was really giving them an opportunity to learn from someone who had done it.

But I really have to give all the credit to Emile. He is a shining example of the type of person that Rwanda seems full of, people that are motivated to make a difference and who are taking positive steps in bringing the country to the next level. He did all the legwork to get permission to do the lecture, organized the students, found a good topic and of course wrangled me into doing it. All this for no benefit to himself, just his students. He has a great attitude about him and it has been inspiring working with him, hearing his ideas and seeing him interact with the students. He cares deeply about his country and its future, that much is clear.

I'm giving a second lecture tomorrow to the same students, this time on a bit more advanced topics, and although I still have to put together 60 slides for it, I just can't wait.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Two Weeks In

The internet connection at the hotel has been down for the past few days, but I thought I'd write a quick post as to the current state of affairs after two weeks.

One part of the overall project was running a two week film making camp for a bunch of Rwandan youth. This was led by Nell and Mark, both experienced film makers that spent the first week on a film making crash course of sorts and the second out filming and editing a 10 minute documentary. The youth, part of the group "Never Again Rwanda", both made films about the local Gacaca court system, drawing a contrast between that system of justice and that of the ICTR, which the project as a whole has been focusing more on. Although I haven't really been involved with this part of the project, it has been really fun to see the enthusiasm from the kids and the excellent films they put out, as well as learning more about the Gacaca and how it has been the real path to peace for Rwanda.

The other part of the project was to be the dissemination of the ICTR interviews which were made last September. On this front we have had a bit more limited success, in no small part because the Rwandese have very mixed feelings about the ICTR and because of the natural sensitivities surrounding genocide as a topic. One original low hanging fruit was to install said interview clips in the ICTR information centers, libraries of sorts with computers connected to the internet. Although that will still likely happen, the commenting and discussion features we originally wanted to include are just too prone to abuse to implement without manual moderation. And as independent Kinyarwandan speakers are few and far between those features will have to be dropped for the time being.

On my own front of finding some volunteer opportunities wholly separate from the project I have had some luck but nothing concrete yet. The SMS to voice callback system works great here and I've demoed it quite a bit, always to a very enthusiastic response, the local SMS company actually thought it would make a great new product offering of theirs actually. But it is a solution looking for a problem, and finding the right person who understands both the technology and who has relevant problem has been difficult. I have a few leads and at least one person enthusiastic to use it, but that opportunity is a little ways off still.

One good thing is that Rwanda as a whole is investing heavily in information technologies and views it as their path to the future. The government has a '2020 plan' which everyone in Rwanda constantly refers to and which is as ambitious as it is detailed. With that has come a huge flood of new students in IT and CS. I have become pretty good friends with Emile, a professor at one of the independent schools, and through that discovered that at the moment their drive is greater than their resources. They have many students in CS courses, but the teachers tend not to have any practical experience and their teaching methods are not as effective as they could be. (teaching an entire course on Java only on blackboard, pen and paper for example) As such I might help him put together a practical lecture on simple web development, perhaps turning it into a full blown course over time that he could then take over. Time will tell but I hope it works out as I think it would be a fun experience.

Emile is also working on a project for the Tanzanian government using cell phones and the web to coordinate cotton farmers and ginners, so that might be another avenue that will be interesting to participate in.

So overall the trip has been good if a bit frustrating at times. It is hard for me to cold call organizations and offer my services in a coherent way, but I do feel like some connections are being made and perhaps something natural will fall out of them. Who thought giving away my time would be so hard?

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Huye and surrounds

A bunch of us decided to get out Kigali for a few days to check out some of the other areas of Rwanda. Although Park Volcan is the main attraction in Rwanda with its promise of getting up close and personal with gorillas, the $500 entry fee is a bit steep for us so we decided to instead check out the Nungwe Park in the southwestern corner of the country.

From our hotel we grabbed the ubiquitous moto to the bus depot, where after a little poking around we found ourselves on a Volcan bus heading to Huye (also known as Butare). The vast majority of Rwandans do not have cars, so regional buses leave regularly from all the major towns and are quite reasonable, we paid about $4 for a two hour ride, which came complete with a small child throwing up on me. (note, not all bus rides are guaranteed to include such close contact with the locals) Huye is considered the 'intellectual capitol' of Rwanda, sporting the national museum and a few universities but probably draws most of its tourism from its proximity to Nungwe national park and to the Murambi genocide memorial.

A few in the group had already been to the memorial before and didn't have the stomach for it once more, so the rest of us went on alone. Murambi was a technical school under construction, really about to be opened, at the time of the genocide. Tutsis gathered there for safety under advice from the local clergy and under the impression that the French troups stationed there would protect them from the slaughter. However, soon after the 50,000 refuges settled in the troops left, leaving them to be killed over the next days. Mirambi is unique in that many of the bodies haven't been buried there. Instead in a series of rooms the corpses were laid out on low tables and covered in lyme. There are some that still deny that the genocide happened, that the numbers were exaggerated, and it is for those naysayers that the bodies were left intact, to offer irrefutable proof. It only took one room for me to decide I had seen enough, it was both overwhelming and also to me at least, felt inappropriate to be there, certainly to continue on after seeing some. Seeing mothers and their children lying side by side drives the point home, and again one has to marvel that the country seems to function as well as it does only 15 years after such atrocities.

On a lighter note, on the way back I ran into yet another Project Rwanda bicycles. I've probably seen a dozen or so of them while here, they are cargo bikes being built and sold to the local coffee farmers to help them more quickly transport their crops to the washers. They are provided at cost (amazingly, $120 according to their blog) via a microloan, which the farmer then has to repay over three years. The program came out of a buyer for Stumptown coffee out of Portland, and apparently the earlier delivery of the beans will mean that the farmer will get a higher price for them, up to $100 more per year for a typical farmer who owns a few hundred trees. I will admit to being a bit skeptical of the program, as I thought the bikes were far more expensive than that and the locals seem to be perfectly content loading on hundreds of pounds on their normal bikes, but on finding out more about the program it really is neat, both well thought out and seemingly sustainable. Kudos to them.

The next day after much haggling with a throng of taxi drivers, we headed out to Nungwe national park to see us some monkeys. The couple hour drive out to the park entrance was absolutely beautiful. Rwanda is just covered in tall rolling hills and the patch work of terracing and crop plantings makes for an amazing backdrop. The park is home to thousands of monkeys of different varieties but they also take care to only allow visitors to track certain family groupings, keeping the exposure to humans at a minimum. And tracking it was, although we started first on a well maintained trail, our guide soon veered off and started bushwacking through the brush, machete swinging as he cut our way to the present location of the monkey family. While we were limited to a crawling pace through the thick vegetation the monkeys were constantly moving quickly through the canopy, flying from one tree to another only occasionally stopping to groom each other for a bit. It made for a fun experience, but all in all we never got closer than a hundred feet or so due to the height of the canopy.

Back in Huye I noticed a couple funny names for stores. One being the 'Google' paper store, the other a tour company. The internet has spread far and wide, even here in the middle of Africa. Most medium sized towns have internet cafes with reasonable rates and all of the studentts in the film program also have Facebook accounts. It does make one wonder just how powerful having a 'google' or 'yahoo' name brand is though.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Kigali Genocide Memorial Center

Yesterday I spent a few hours visiting the Kigali Genocide Memorial Center. Opened in 2004, the center sits high on a hill on the outskirts of Kigali and also serves as the burial ground for some 250,000 victims of the genocide.

The primary exhibit is of course about the Rwandan genocide of 1994. Any summary I give would be inadequate, the issues at hand are complex and the history long, but the Wikipedia pages on Rwanda and the Rwanda Genocide seem to echo the museum's. It is clear that there is much deserved resentment on the role of both Belgium and France in the genocide. Belgium in creating the tensions between the Hutus and Tutsis and France for it's role immediately before and during the genocide in aiding the Hutus.

I will admit to that being an odd feeling, having grown up in France I obviously identify myself with it in many ways and it is hard to comprehend what was going through the government's mind as they lent aid and protection to the killers during the genocide. It certainly explains why Rwanda as a country is moving away as quickly as possible from it's French history and traditions. Rwanda recently changed it's national language from French to English and everywhere it is clear they no longer want to associate with France. I wonder how long it will be before the Rwanda Franc is renamed as well.

Another part of the center covers some of the other genocides across the world. This was an eye opening exhibit as well, some were completely unknown to me and it drives home the point that genocide in the modern age is not a problem just in Africa but across the world.

But the most moving part of the center by far were the various memorials. Rooms filled with personal pictures of the victims of the genocide really brought it all home for me. For whatever reason it is harder for me to identify with pictures from WWII, black and white, they seem of a distant age, removed, a tragedy, but history. Here were rooms filled with color pictures of men and women alike, not in dresses of the 40's but in modern clothes, in modern settings, living lives just as we do today. Somehow that just made the experience that much harder for me and I found myself incredibly moved. This wasn't just some tragedy of the distant past, but of the present age.

Yet another exhibit took this to another level. Filled with pictures of children of the genocide and how they died it made you wonder how humanity could sink so low. An entire generation lost in a way, children that will never see adulthood. Here I think the other exhibit on genocide really helped to temper the feeling that this not an African or Rwandan problem, but a problem of our race as a whole. The reaction is so strong, so guttural upon seeing these images that the psyche wants to escape from any possibility of responsibility, involvement or our own potential for similar atrocities. But the reality is that all races and cultures have done similar things and accepting that fact and coming to terms with our horrible potentials for systematic killing is the best way to prevent its repeat.

The gardens around the center, despite being the burial ground of a quarter million victims, provide a respite, some time for reflecting upon the center's contents. I found the center to be really amazingly put together, it is tactful in its presentation and thought provoking, bringing you closer to the facts of the tragedy and the challenges we all face as a shared humanity.

Friday, July 31, 2009

Getting around Kigali

Kigali is a pretty large city, spread across many hills, the path between two points is rarely a straight line but rather a winding path down then back up the primary boulevards running through the city. As we often travel in a group, we usually hire private taxis to get from one place to another. These are licensed, but unmarked and in private vehicles of varying degrees of upkeep. The drivers generally speak some French or English so it makes getting around a bit easier for us muzungus. There are some drawbacks though, they are far harder to wave down on the road, being unmarked and fairly rare it can take a while to find one and it generally involves making a fool of yourself as you wave at solo drivers who aren't taxis at all. Not surprisingly, they are also rather expensive. Never less than 3,000 francs (~$6) and up to 5,000 (~$10) for a ten minute ride it adds up pretty quickly, of course the price depends largely on how much you want to haggle with the driver who insists that the rate is twice what you paid this morning.

The far more common option, and what seems to be the locals choice in most cases is riding a moto-taxi. These are small 250cc motorcycles always running about looking for fares, their green helmets making it clear they are for hire and licensed. The odds of finding a driver who speaks English is far less than with the taxis but for the trouble you are rewarded with an exciting ride and a far cheaper fare. Most rides come in under 500 francs (~$1) and the trip is usually quicker than a car as the motos liberally lane split, pass and pay only passing attention to traffic laws.

They are an amazingly efficient mode of getting around, perfect really, as you are often alone and just trying to travel a few miles. It can seem a bit chaotic but it does work, thousands of motos spreading about delivering their passengers to their destinations quickly and without fuss.

Of course Kigali also sports the ubiquitous mini-buses, but as in Peru I've yet to really figure out the routes or be brave enough to hop on one just to see where it goes. The language barrier (and cultural barrier, though less so) is still extremely high and I don't want to be responsible for holding anyone up, but I'm sure the fares there are far cheaper still than the moto taxis.

Some of us might go explore one of the national parks this weekend and this brings up one of the other oddities of Africa, that car rentals are really non-existent. Perhaps because credit cards are completely useless here, or perhaps just because there isn't enough need, it doesn't seem that one can reasonably rent a vehicle for a few days at a time. The only real options are either taking a long distance bus, at a low cost but considerable time penalty, or the common option for tourists, to hire a private cab for the day (or two) to take you. We'll see which we end up with.