Friday, August 6, 2010

Doing More, continued

OK, minor cliffhanger on the last post. A lot happened in Fort Portal, then the following Tuesday again in Fort Portal, then just yesterday, Thursday, at Rweteera. Instead of typing it all out while I had internet access up and running, I decidedto wait and post later.

SO, I was directed into this weird hidden attic above the UTL mobile shop. There, the technician was playing some CDs on his computer, surrounded by some decent electronics equipment. After waiting for the first customer to get their phone back, it was my turn to get tech support. A couple of men also came upstairs to ask me questions about where I was from and to see what sort of mobile I had. To their delight, I pulled out my RFID reader, which had no discernible purpose and the four output wires taped or soldered on by a thread. I explained what I needed to the technician and he looked it over. I pointed out my own sloppy wiring and assured him that the 4 wires could be in any position. I offered solder for the connections, but he dismissed that. A few minutes with the soldering iron, and the wires were firmly attached to the reader.

Now I wasn't sure what to do next. The technician wanted to know what the device was, and what the wires connected to. The other customers were very eager to see this, too. I was wondering how I could explain any of that. I told them that I taught science at Kasiisi Primary, that Uganda's UWA uses a similar system (I brought an RFID tag sticker for an example) to track animals, and the students
would use it to learn about uses of technology. We talked for awhile about the school, my work, and African tech, I said something or other about Apps4Africa which I had read about that morning, and I left with a photo and e-mail address of Brian, the technician. Will send him photos of the device working with my class today. On return to the US, I ought to ship him an Arduino and robot parts or something.

My co-volunteers were occupied elsewhere, so I went to the Panga river to collect a water sample. Humming to myself and ignoring the stares of the people on the bridge, I donned gloves, knelt at the riverbank, and filled my water bottle. Above me, a few high school age kids yelled that it was bad water. "I know! I know! I will test it!" I shouted back. A few stuck around to talk to me. One asked me point-blank: "can you test if my water is chlorinated or unchlorinated?" I got his name, Tsuiime Moses, and his school, Kitumba Secondary School. I didn't have extra pH paper on me, so we traded phone numbers and I promised to return in a day or two.

With the help of Professor JMK, I returned to Fort Portal that Tuesday. I'd been meaning to meet with the sysadmin of Mountains of the Moon University, since he knows HTML. I wanted to know his skill level: if he knew JavaScript, if he used DreamWeaver, that sort of thing. After making arrangements, I biked to the professor's house, joined a 4-person carpool into Fort Portal, and had him introduce me to the ICT people there. They showed me the computer labs; I showed them my programs for the XO laptop. We both were impressed by things. Mountains of the Moon is a mostly Windows school, but a non-profit called Camara (do I remember them from my Mombasa project?) gave them a whole Linux computer lab, too. If there were problems with the computers, none were discussed with me. I asked if they had heard of Ushahidi from Kenya, Appfrica in Kampala, or the Google Maps API. Strikeout. The lecturer I spoke to *did* know about Google Mapmaker and that they could edit the maps. That was a good thing. I gave him the paper from WhiteHouse.gov announcing Apps4Africa, and underlined the mention of Appfrica from Kampala. To make this long story short, we discussed their web-development certificate program, they showed me the plan for a computer science degree program starting up this August, and everyone agreed that I should return on the 17th after classes have begun. That'll probably be my last day in western Uganda for a very long time, but I agreed. They want me to do a talk, seminar, or workshop... I think I'll ask Appfrica if we can do an event for Apps4Africa, plus I'll talk about five technologies from Africa, instead of the usual "technology for Africa" boilerplate used by so many projects, to get people started. I suspect they'll be contacting me for some help getting FrontlineSMS or Ushahidi running on their computers.

Then I got a call from Moses, back at the river. I met him there, demonstrated the tests, and suggested we give the tests to his secondary school. He found a boda-boda driver and we were whisked away to this unknown place. Somehow this worked out really well. The deputy director of the school nodded politely as I explained pH and dissolved oxygen, and I was afraid he wasn't following. I paused at how to explain the usefulness of the DO test for aquatic life. He suggested "bioavailable oxygen?" and I was silent for a moment, then only able to say, "yes! exactly!" He'd also been to an AFROKAPS meeting (Kasiisi Project's alias in Uganda) just a few days before. Small country. He insisted that I direct a class on litmus paper. The school had hydrochloric acid, ammonia, and some tap water ready to go. I demonstrated the methods to a crowd of 40 or so people who weren't in exams. A few other students wanted to test their water, so I gave them some more litmus papers. I also got to see the exams going on in secondary school. There were kerosene burners and some chemicals in the science labs, stalks of grain and bushels of some plant on tables for agriculture exams, and so on. It looked like a cross between the SAT and Potions class in Harry Potter.

Thursday was my appointed day for Rweteera, if you recall my conversation with their head teacher last week. I rolled up my papers, packed my markers and pencils and stickers, and glided over there on my bicycle. I was directed to teach 7th grade, which I feared would be too many to teach. But there are only 38 kids in 7th grade out of 800 at the school. Richer kids can afford to go to other schools, while other kids start work or get pregnant before graduating the 6th grade. Even the 2nd grade class is far smaller than the 1st grade class. I'd like to have more facts and statistics about how this is.

Numbers aside, this was one of my best and easiest classes. The kids were a bit jumpy at first to have a muzungu teacher, but when we rolled out the satellite map of Rweteera, enough paper for 4 groups, pencils and markers, the whole kaboodle... we had everyone on board. The students have been taught to repeat the phrase "a map is a rep-ree-zent-tation of something from above" but now we could actually make a map. Once the student groups had drawn their way north to the river and south to the Rweteera town trading center, I revealed the farming stickers. First I had to show them how to peel off a sticker and attach it to things. A few minutes later, stickers were everywhere - maps, hands, and faces. The students remembered to include Kibale Forest, and I gave out the jungle stickers. After this third phase of mapping, I took a ton of photos, presented things to the headmaster, accepted lunch from him, talked briefly to a school assembly, and was done.
But two things bothered me. One: what is this from the Uganda exams about representing things from above? My suggestion that we go from a direct top-down roofs-only view to an angled view, at least to represent the school, was rejected. I talked about putting on-the-ground health information on points, and this type of map didn't fit into the Ugandan definition of a map, either. Two: why had two separate groups put a windmill sticker on the Rweteera tea farm?

The kids had insisted on having the windmill, placing it between the tea farm and the forest, and attached belonging to the tea farm. So I headed further south to the tea farm, where I met a woman and a young kid outside a worker dormitory. I fished around in my backpack, and she exasperatedly asked "camera?" I said no, and since I didn't have a pencil, I went for the scissors. I cut out a windmill, like the one from the sticker. By the time I had finished, an English-speaking woman had emerged. "I'm looking for a..." "a windmill" "Yes!" Fantastic. Unfortunately, they don't know of a windmill around here. Maybe there's an old, broken-down windmill on the farm, near the forest, somewhere neither of the women know about yet kids have seen it. But for now, it remains lost.

Kasiisi laptop classes are still going on. Monday, I taught P5 how to take photos and add them to a map. Wednesday, I taught P6 how to use all of the sensors we have at the moment, and demonstrated graphs of what an all-day solar energy thing would look like. They had an eclipse in January, so I used that as an example, too. Today both P5 and P6 are occupied with their exams, so I'm going to teach the RFID lesson to the younger kids who are chilling in the library - kids who may not have used the laptops at all. I'll read them a story that has sounds / onomotopeia(?) and work from there.

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