So a new year begins. It’s been a while since I have written anything, largely down to Adrian being here, being extremely busy, and having much less time to sit down and think about what has happened to me recently. It won’t surprise anyone who knows me here to find out that I’m sat in the coffee shop in Moshi, with my laptop, as per a usual Saturday afternoon, contemplating what is happening and beginning my future plans for the rest of my life.
Seems crazy that just a year ago I was fresh off the plane and scared out of my mind as to what was going to happen to me here. On a daily basis I was confronted with things that were very difficult to deal with both socially and mentally, given the crazy departure from Bristol in December, and the onslaught of Christmas in Amsterdam that followed. Now suntanned, fairly proficient in Swahili, and in the know as to how things work here and what is expected of me, I am feeling a lot more comfortable and definitely at home in my surroundings. Being the only mzungu (ok not quite the only mzungu but certainly the only person in my particular demographic) is beginning to play less of a part in my daily life, as I become part of the village and cement my intention to commit to Mshiri, commit to Kilimanjaro, and commit to Tanzania.
My girlfriend Nengai, who is a Maasai woman from Nemanga near the border with Kenya, is the most beautiful and well-rounded woman I have met anywhere in the world for a long time, and gives me huge amounts of support and positivity for the future. Not only is she a firm and stable part of my life right now, but unlike nearly every other Tanzanian girl I have met, she has her own goals and ambitions that line up with my own, and not wanting to jinx our relationship, I believe we have a future together. How long that lasts, and what it all entails depends mostly on the decisions I make in the next few months with regard to my living conditions, my working relationships and my achievements going forward.
Now fully working again and pretty busy compared with this time last year, the computer centre has undergone a few changes, for the good, and I hope that this will continue and I will be able to firmly consider my efforts worthwhile and a success. This is in stark contrast to my feelings towards my work at the end of my recent stint in Bristol. I felt very proud to have accomplished something in such a short period of time, but nevertheless felt my work was a little wishy-washy and shallow given the scope of my abilities. Coming back here, and seeing Jasen’s medical centre in full swing made me feel even more so, but it is not purely what you do, but how you do it that is so important in places like this, and on that level I feel I have done something that on the face of it would seem quite difficult, but in reality has been the only way I could have done this: I have made Tanzania my home. Sure if my computer centre was in the centre of a city like Bristol then we would have had income from the word go; I would never have had to deal with half of the challenges I’ve faced whilst being here; but then that is exactly why I chose this place, and this line of work in the first place. I need life to be difficult. I need to be faced with adversity in everything I do, and despite my moaning and whining about various aspects of life here and back in the UK, I think I am right in thinking that without these challenges I would have gone back by now, and certainly wouldn’t be planning what lies ahead.
For my work to be a full success, and in that I mean worthwhile and profitable, it needs to work without me here. On that front, Adrian and I have developed a plan that I feel will give the computer centre a longer life and more sustainability without a huge outlay from the charity, or any real input from anyone else other than me. The three-storey building that houses my office, classroom and public computer room is known by all and sundry in the Marangu area, yet we still only have four or five visitors each day. Should this continue unabated then it will have to close at some point, rendering a lovely big building completely useless, and another failed attempt by wazungu visitors to achieve the impossible. I am determined to turn this around. First off is a rethink of the internal layout and daily function of the building, timed with the arrival of new computers and hardware that I believe can move us forward and begin profitability. It works on several fronts: each day we have visitors who are mostly interested in viewing their emails, getting in contact with external ex-clients of theirs who have promised some sponsorship money or help after coming here as a tourist and climbing the mountain; then there are the few interested teenagers who have very little to do other than tend to their families plots and look after the animals and try not to get into trouble; and finally the out of work women who really don’t realise that there is a future for them outside of default marriage and motherhood. To break these down even further, requires looking at the various things these people do when they are not coming to visit the centre, and try to provide something that fits in with their lifestyle, opens opportunities for them, but at the same time is not just some outsider’s view of what they need. Sustainability is paramount, and without a real plan of how we are going to keep all of these people interested in what we do and get them involved, there is little chance of much more success than that which we have already accomplished. Will it continue as-is or find some new use that has yet to be found? A meeting with Erwin Groenveld of Viafrica (link) provided me with some excellent ideas as to how we can co-operate in our work, and I hope that by offering a more state of the art facility, coupled with the accommodation on the top floor, there is plenty of scope for the centre to live on as something wholly different to what it is now.
Second to overcome are the technical challenges of what I am about to propose. Luckily, I am good at these things, renowned for getting something out of nothing, and committed to finishing what I have started (even if this is possibly the first time I can say that of my life and work). Using what we have and what is on its way to best effect is what consumes my idle thinking.
So enough of this arbitrary banter, and on to the nitty-gritty!!
As you walk through the doors at the main entrance, currently there is only one way to go, and that is left, directly into the room that most of the time has Doreen sitting there fairly blankly waiting for something to happen. This is going to be my teaching room. The benches that are now all around the edge of the room are to be improved with the addition of new benches from the classroom that will then hold eight desktop PC’s all facing towards the whiteboard which will double up as projector screen. The network switch, server and other network hardware, including the as-yet un-built ESXi server with my AD domain and TS server cluster virtualised within will also be in the room, and be accessible for workshops and advanced network analysis and training sessions. Something I think that Erwin will be helping me achieve. This room has to serve several functions, so at its core will be a range of diversity in what can be offered technically. Each machine will be based on Ubuntu 11.10, having recently rediscovered the distribution and found it incredibly simple and effective, especially on the older hardware we have available. This can be supplanted by each one being Windows XP dual boot, taking up very little disk space, and finally the piece de resistance is that each one will have a legal and bound Terminal Services license meaning I can manage and rollout a full domain-controlled Windows Server 2008 R2 environment with Windows 7 desktops on each computer. This range of different environments means we can teach, train and work with nearly all the various technologies used by corporations and institutions worldwide, and I really hope it helps us to bring the computer centre into full profitability in the very near future. Moving round the corridor and into what is now my classroom will be a store room and workshop. Here we can keep the unused hardware, peripherals and spare parts, as well as having an area for builds and rebuilds that currently have to happen in full view of the customers. In line with what I’ll lay out below, this room will also house a small fridge and food/drink making facilities and storage for sundries and consumables.
Upstairs is where the exciting stuff really begins. Right now it is merely a small office tucked away in the corner for Katy, Dilly and George, and a bright and airy empty space that is used just once a week by the local Vicoba (village community banking) group for just a few hours. It is huge, with a floor area over twice the size of the now-computer room and soon-to-be classroom, and is a perfect space to introduce something new to the village. We plan to bring in a pool table, a book shelf, fix some laptops to the desks and also put some sofas around the outside, to effectively create a youth centre that offers a real alternative for young people to come and spend time and do something positive. The concert we put on last year proved that there are a huge number of young and able people in the village who crave something exciting to do, and giving them somewhere to go, offering basic amenities like coffee, tea and light bites, and all for very little cost, should encourage some of these bright youngsters to sit and play computer games, watch movies, read books and stay away from the bars and mbege holes that are sapping their enthusiasm for anything other than getting drunk in their free time. It’s a big project to undertake, and not without its technical challenges like the other parts of the proposal: this needs to work whether power is supplied by Tanesco or not. It needs to be cheap, if not wholly free, for most people to come and spend time, and above all, it needs to appear and be run like it was always here and is meant for all people of Mshiri to come and utilise.
So am I busy? The hours I spend at nights watching movies and enjoying walking Zawadi around the village would invite anyone to assume that this is a jolly and a big expenses paid holiday, but the truth could not be farther from it. I am developing an IT strategy and curriculum that takes the needs of the average Tanzanian to heart and also actively thinking about my impact on the community and my place within it. This is far from over, and far from being exactly how I want it, and for that reason, I am here to stay. My girlfriend Nengai agrees with me, that Tanzania needs things like this to happen, but my aim is not to give give give, but to implement, provide support and then step back. This centre, when finished and operational, will be the centre of the village, the centre of the surrounding villages, and an iconic vision of what is possible if you put your mind to it. Give me more time, and you will see for yourselves what is possible with a little less selfishness, a little less haste, and a strong sense of direction.
Watch this space in the coming months, and as soon as my camera battery charger arrives, I will share with you the development of this project, and hope to welcome some of you as visitors in the future. Karibu sana!