There aren’t many places in the world I more enjoy than Grace and Healing Ministry of Dodoma (GHMD) and Iringa Road Mennonite Church (IRMC), Lahash’s partners in child sponsorship. I am totally overwhelmed by the level of dedication and persistence in caring for vulnerable kids and families, using limited resources in the sort of working conditions that would tax most of our ideas of what’s pleasant. Day after day they are there, reaching out to orphans, many of whom are HIV+, and others living with hunger, AIDS, and all the other signals of deep poverty.
|Why the blank screen?|
Both Dave and I volunteer several hours a week at Free Geek, a Portland non-profit that recycles used computers. Many of the hundreds of computers turned in there are usable when rebuilt, and that’s Dave’s and my job, along with dozens of other rebuilders. Some of those rebuilt computers become grants to non-profit organizations, and several are now at GHMD, brought in the carry-on luggage of travelers. Those laptops sometimes run into trouble, as do other computers there. Our Free Geek skills—plus Dave has skills and experience from a career of working with computers and software and teaching computer skills—we thought would help us solve some of those computer problems.
We carried six more laptops with us on our trip, one of which had been returned to the U.S. for repair and three that were recent Free Geek grants. Carrying laptops requires extra effort at security checkpoints, half a dozen or more on our flight path to Dar es Salaam, but we arrived with all in good working order to be added to the collection of computers already in use at GHMD.
|Dave contemplating an issue around downloading software.|
Within an hour of our arrival at the church on the first day, we had a malfunctioning laptop in hand. This one had suffered several setbacks, including cough syrup spilled on the keyboard and a broken power supply. Right there at the beginning, we ran into a serious problem we’d face in our efforts to get computers running well. This one had a copy of Microsoft Windows 7 on it, although as a Free Geek grant, it lacked the RAM memory, the sizable hard drive, and the fast processor needed to handle a program of that complexity. Then, too, almost certainly the copy of Windows 7 (most of the other Windows products we saw there as well) used on that laptop was not authentic.
Free Geek computers always leave with a clean hard drive and a current version of Ubuntu (a version of Linux) installed. Ubuntu is an open-source operating system, available free, as are thousands of apps usable with Ubuntu, including an excellent Open Office package that’s included with the Ubuntu operating system. To Dave and me, Ubuntu seems ideal for the situation at GHMD, a virus-free system available at no cost. However, Windows is popular worldwide and available at lower prices than in the U.S. on the streets of a city like Dodoma, although of questionable quality and probably with viruses already there among its maze of bits and bytes.
Very soon after that first computer was placed in our hands, we had several others descend on us, with the usual complaint, “My computer is so slow!” On all of the Free Geek grant laptops, the original Ubuntu had disappeared, replaced by Microsoft products. On some computers, it seemed we had no choice but to completely clean the hard drive and start over, doing our best to save files the user would continue to need. With every computer, we also had to cope with network issues, given less than adequate Internet connections. The wireless system in the church, for example, covers less than half of the offices, but we were not equipped to solve that problem. We realized quite soon that our efforts to anticipate what parts and tools we should bring with us had been inadequate. One trip to a quite well-stocked computer store produced no help but confirmation that computers, accessories, and parts are very costly in Dodoma if they’re authentic, thus usually well beyond the ability of a non-profit like GHMD to pay.
To say the least, our visions of being computer saviors soon faded. We were able to do some standard fixes on several machines, and the users were happy for somewhat greater speed and dependability. Others stymied us, and perhaps we left one or two in even more precarious condition than before. Two of the computers came with us to Portland for repair at Free Geek. Our computer work took up the largest part of our time but was hardly the most enjoyable of our activities during 12 days we were in Dodoma. Even so, what motivated us was knowing we were providing a truly needed service.
Early on we were shown an attractive, new room designed to be a computer lab for teaching children and adults. That was exciting, and it appeared we would get involved in actual construction. It turned out that money needed for lumber to construct tables to hold the computers would not be available until later in March, and again the completion of the computer lab had to be postponed.
|Dave teaching a computer skills class.|
One successful venture, though, was the class Dave taught on the last day of our stay in which he gave basic guidance about how computers work and how to keep them working well, with the clear recommendation that versions of Microsoft products found on the streets of Dodoma would not ever be likely to work well. He recommended learning to use Ubuntu as a way to promote good computer function. Several who attended the class indicated their wish to make serious effort to use Ubuntu. Perhaps we might even have succeeded in promoting Ubuntu use in the new computer classroom. We’re confident GHMD will be happier in the longer run with Ubuntu, once users are competent in using it.
So, adding it all up, we can say that although frustrating work on computers wasn’t the most exotic facet of our Dodoma experience this time, it was probably a worth-while means of enhancing the hard work our good friends at GHMD.