Friday, July 31, 2009

Going global: Internet in Sahn Malen

Date: 5:00 PM, July 29, 2009

Venue: RC School, Sahn Malen

It’s official: Sahn Malen is now online.

Let me give you some context first: this is a small village in southern Sierra Leone (about 1500 people). No electricity, no running water. We have our daily group meetings by candlelight and every morning go to the nearest communal hand-pump to get water for flushing down the toilet, or taking a shower. It is connected to the big towns only by bumpy dirt tracks. And yet, here I am, sitting in a classroom full of children and teachers surfing the internet on their XOs.

It’s amazing to watch this happen.

I’ll be the first one to admit that doing so wasn’t easy but now that it’s done, I’m sure replicating it will be much easier. The first question was what connectivity option should we choose. From an ‘online-offline’ setup like KioskNet to something as sophisticated as a long-distance wi-fi link between Sahn Malen and the nearest online town- we gave some thought to quite few options. But as is usually the case, the best option turned out to be the simpler one as well: Sahn Malen gets some spotty cellular coverage. So I thought that with proper placement and an antenna with the right gain, we might be able to get a GPRS internet connection up and running. We came to Bo (the second-largest city in Sierra Leone and a 4-7 hour poda-poda drive away from Sahn Malen) and checked out the Zain office (a cellular company with the most pervasive network here). We found out the location of their towers in Sierra Leone and an employee there was kind enough to lend us his own personal modem to test the network in Sahn Malen, before we made the pricey purchase. We just needed an antenna to start the test.

There are quite a few tutorials available online which walk you through making your own cell phone antennas but none of them looked easy AND dependable at the same time. Especially not with the tools we had here. Luckily, while walking through the market in downtown Freetown, I came across cheap TV antennas that were rated up to 866 Mhz for UHF (Ultra High Frequency). Cellular networks here work on 900 Mhz and I thought the $10 investment would be worth the try. So I bought the antenna, a spare male-female pins pair for extra coaxial cable and split the modem open to get to the board, which would take an external antenna. A close look at the port showed that the port was about the same size as the port for wifi antennas in an XO. So I took a dysfunctional XO, snipped some wire off of it and hooked the modem up to the antenna with one of the spare coax pins that we had bought.

The only thing left to do now was to make sure that the antenna worked for the right frequency (i.e. 900 Mhz). A Do-It-Yourself Pringles “cantenna” tutorial gave some insight into the physics of this and I hoped that if I cut UHF receptors on the antenna down to size of a quarter wavelength of the cellular signals, we would get the right gain. The math for calculating that length looks like this:

Speed of radio waves in air = 3.0 * 10^8 m/s
Frequency = 900 Mhz = 9.0 * 10^8 Hz
Speed = Wavelength * Frequency
Wavelength = Speed/Frequency = 0.33 m
Quarter wavelength = 0.33/4 = 0.085 m = 8.5 cm

So I cut the UHF receptors down to 8.5 cm, disconnected the VHF receptors and set the antenna up in a place where we usually get the best signals. And voila, our laptop connected to the internet in a room where it doesn’t without the antenna.

I wasn’t sure if the physics of it was accurate (in fact I still am not) but in a true manner of learning constructivist style, we just had to give it a shot. And it seems to work just fine. If you think this can be done better though, we’d love to hear from you.

All that was left to do was to install the modem and get it to run automatically on the school server (which has an OLPC-customized version of Fedora server installed). With little experience with linux, I had to tinker around with a lot of things (with some great help from Reuben and the people on the server-devel list at OLPC)- all of which don’t merit a mention here. As it turns out, if all the going around in circles is cut down, the procedure for installing a GPRS modem on the XS can be reduced to a few, relatively straightforward steps:

1. Plug the modem in and run: cat /proc/bus/usb/devices

2. Find the section that lists the name of your modem (in our case HUAWEI Mobile) and take down the Vendor and ProdID. Then run modprobe usbserial vendor= xxxx product=xxxx (replace the xs with the appropriate values for your model). Then run wvdialconf to create a default dial script for your modem.

3. Edit the wvdial.conf file by running nano /etc/wvdial.conf I am listing the contents of the one we used for reference:

[Dialer Defaults]
Modem = /dev/ttyUSB0
Init1 = ATZ
Init2 = ATQ0 V1 E1 S0=0 &C1 &D2 +FCLASS=0
Init3 = AT+CGDCONT=1,"IP",""
Stupid Mode = 1
Modem Type = USB Modem
Phone = *99#
New PPPD = yes
ISDN = 0
Username = blank
Password = blank
Baud = 460800

The important values which you will need to change depending on your case are:
a. Modem = (Enter the appropriate path for your modem; can be found by running cat /proc/bus/usb/devices ; in our case, it was /dev/ttyUSB0)
b. Init3 = AT+CGDCONT = 1, “IP”, “” (change the last entry to the appropriate APN for your cellular network)
4. Change the firewall rules to take the modem as the default internet connection by running nano /etc/sysconfig/olpc-scripts/iptables.principal and nano /etc/sysconfig/olpc-scripts/iptables.principal.cache The former stores the firewall rules for when Squid is turned off and latter for when it is on. In both these files look for the entry “-A POSTROUTING –o eth0 –j MASQUERADE” and change “eth0”(could be eth1 if you switched the nic roles earlier) to “ppp0”. This should tell the firewall to redirect requests for internet to the USB modem.

5. Test the modem by running wvdial ; If it outputs primary and secondary DNS addresses, it means you’re connected to the internet. Test the connection on an XO/laptop connected to the server(in our case, it usually takes half a minute/minute after the modem has connected before the server starts accessing internet properly)

6. If the internet works on the XO, all that is left to do is create a udev rule that would automatically dial the modem when it’s plugged in, instead of someone having to run the wvdial command every time. Before you create the rule, you need some information about your modem. To find this, run udevinfo -a -p $(udevinfo -q path -n /dev/ttyUSB0) ; remember: /dev/ttyUSB0 is the path for the modem in our case; you should confirm what that path is from the cat /proc/bus/usb/devices command described in step 1. Now that you have these attributes, create a file in the udev rules folder by running nano /etc/udev/rules.d/10-usbmodem.rules , where 10-usbmodem.rules is the name of the file; you can change it as you wish. In the nano editor, enter something like this, changing the entries according to the values you found earlier from the udevinfo command:
Technologies",ATTRS{product}=="HUAWEI Mobile",RUN+="/usr/bin/wvdial"
This basically tells the system to run wvdial once it detects an interface with all
the listed attributes.

And that’s it. You’re all set to see amazing things happen.

Clem’s sister does Teach for America and he is going to try and hook some peer tutors up with her students. We have already set email addresses up for all the adult leads and some peer tutors. In fact, as I finish this post off, I am seeing emails from all the adult leads and some peer tutors sitting in my inbox. Should go read them now.

I’m really looking forward to seeing how this unfolds over the next year.

Signing out,


P.S: Many thanks to Reuben, the OLPC server-development team and Google for making this possible.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Power to the masses(of XOs)

Date: 10:15 AM, July 26th 2009

Venue: Our quarters, Sahn Malen

We knew it wouldn't be easy deploying 130 laptops(we integrated the 30 deployed in December into this deployment too), a server and three wireless access points in an off-grid village like Sahn Malen. The only electricity here is supplied by small, privately owned generators(I've seen only two in my time here) and for most people the only source of power is their battery pack in their flashlight. But the team took the challenge head-on and it's been rewarding to get things going the way they are.

Since gasoline is pretty expensive in Sierra Leone, we decided to make our power setup solar-based. OLPC gave the Corps teams the option of buying small 10W/12-14V solar panels for 25$(bulk bought from GP Solar to reduce price I assume). These are convenient because they're mobile, durable and most importantly, can plug in directly to XOs without further engineering. Apparently, with good sunlight, each panel provides enough power to keep an XOs running without charging and to charge an XO in 2-3 hours if it is turned off.

We were only able to buy 90 initially because of the limited number in stock but 30 more became available in early July as the team in Senegal didn't want theirs any more. So in all we have 120, enough to take care of the XOs(15 of the 130 users will have to share them with their siblings/parents).

That only left us with the problem of powering the server and the APs. We didn't want to buy expensive, commercially available panels to run the server and APs and so hacked our very own solar powered system into place like this:

1. With some nifty splicing, took the pins off four solar panel wire ends. A polarity test with an ammeter showed that the inside of the pin is positive and the outside negative.

2. Hooked the four panels to a regular 12V car battery through a solar charge controller. The panels are to be connected in series so that the input voltage remains the same(12) but the current increases. This charge controller is central to the whole system as it prevents the battery from deep-discharging or overcharging(and consequently exploding). They are rated in ammeter-hours but I'm not sure if that is the variable the controller uses to decide when to cut the power off. The user manual implies that it does so by voltage and that if the voltage falls below 11.4, it cuts power off. I got a 10 Ah charge controller and it's working fine for our setup, but if anyone has insight into how these things work, a comment or two would be appreciated.

3. The charge controller takes three pairs of input wires: one from the solar panels, another from the battery and one is the output. To this output, we connected a commercially available charge inverter(usually used for car sound systems). This would convert the 12V DC current to 110V AC. And finally, to this we connect a power strip which can power a server and an access point.

We found out that with the AP connected,the battery was running out too fast if there wasn't enough sunlight. I figured this might be because the DD-WRT firmware that we flashed these routers with automatically ups the throughput to 70 mW. Since the program takes place in a single school building, I decreased this to 35 mW on all the routers. That seems to have solved the problem.

This solar-based system should work fine for most of the dry season when there is ample sunlight but during the rainy season(like now), we needed backup, to make sure that the children are able to charge their XOs at least 2 hours every day. For this we bought a backup 2.7 kVA Honda generator and worked out a scheme with Alfred(described in previous posts) so that he would provide an average 2 gallons/week for the generator to be run. This, plus 30m of good copper wire, lots of PVC tape, pliers, screwdrivers, 9 power strips and an eager team of students and local leads and we have a solid setup going in Sahn Malen.

It really is rewarding to see the burst of activity in the village centered around the XOs. Just now as I write, a group of kids in the verandah nextdoors are standing in front of an XO, recording a song that Clem taught them(boom boom chang chang boom chang :D). Another kid is sitting next to me, looking up the Chelsea FC entry on Wikipedia: Amazing things to happen in an off-grid village on an average Sunday morning, wouldn't you say?

Stay safe,


Saturday, July 25, 2009

Peer tutors and the program structure

Date: July 21st 2009

Venue: Roman Catholic School, Sahn Malen

Ibrahim(one of our local friends from Sahn) lit a mosquito coil last night in the living room and I'm still reeling from its effects: sore throat, clogged sinuses, and a heavy head. The fact that right now I am sitting in a small room full of 130 kids, all hyper-excited about plugging their XOs in first doesn't help either.

I haven't posted for quite a while now, and there's a long backlog of topics that I need to talk about this week. The deployment has been coming along great since I last posted. We have moved on from training the peer tutors to working with the whole Class 5 population. This post is primarily going to be about our experience with that and about the structure of the program for this summer and beyond.

One observation from the pilot deployment in December of the 30 XOs in Sahn Malen(and I’m sure other deployments experienced the same) was that some students were much faster than teachers at becoming comfortable with and using the XO. So in addition to the regular XO usage during class, we decided to formulate an after-school program, which would be led by “peer tutors” from the secondary school and facilitated by five adult leads. We interviewed a shortlist of students, suggested by the class teachers at the secondary school, and selected a final 15(including 4 from the December deployment). Each of these selections was based on their proficiency in English and the ability to take time out after school for the program. They were assigned 8-9 children as their “tutees”, with whom they will work in groups throughout the summer and after class during the academic year, for at lea. As I already mentioned in a post, for the first two weeks, we worked solely with the peer tutors and class 5 teachers(partially because the class 5 children were having their exams until July 12th) so that they could get comfortable with the XOs before starting to work with the children. This peer-tutor approach has had several positive consequences(both intended and unintended):

  • Most class 5 children speak little or no English. Having peer tutors who can effectively communicate with us helps overcome what otherwise would have been an impossible language barrier.
  • Peer tutors have proven to be impressively fast learners; more so than the teachers and this especially suits our “flash deployment” which lasts only 10 weeks.
  • Organizationally, it has been much easier to deal with 15 groups than 130 grade five children. E.g. When we dish out the solar panels in the morning(we are still waiting for part of our consignment before we distribute them to the kids to take home), each of the peer tutors come up and get panels for their team. This saves us all an unnecessary scramble.
  • The success of the program is not dependant on only two individuals now(as would have been the case if we had only worked with each of the two class five teachers). The risk, as they say, is more spread out.
  • This approach is more anarchic and decentralized than a traditional classroom setting and the each child has more leeway in deciding what he/she wants to do.
  • Peer tutors will be able to lead the program beyond a single academic year as opposed to the teachers who teach a single grade every year.
  • Any attempts that we have made to lead training sessions with the children in a class-like manner, with us in the front, have failed miserably. I’m not sure if the children are just conditioned to tuning out when somebody stands in front of the blackboard or if the XOs are just too interesting to resist. In any case, what has worked is that we teach individual students something to do on a one-on-one basis and then it spreads like a virus throughout the group. With the peer tutors, we have 15 ready-made infecting sites, if you will, where we can inject the knowledge(sorry for the cheese, just couldn’t resist).

On the flip side though:

  • Because of focusing so much on the peer tutor program, we have not been able to pay adequate attention to the class 5 teachers, who are nevertheless expected to use the XOs as learning aides within class.
  • Most peer tutors are excellent teachers and in addition to picking up on the XOs fast, have worked extremely well with the students. However, there are a couple who are less patient with their peers. To these groups, we allocated some students from the December deployment who were doing extremely well with their XOs, in the hopes that they would be able to take lead in their groups and help the other kids too.
  • With an out-of-school program as the primary site for XO usage, it might not be very easy driving home the point that these XOs are, above anything else, educational machines.
  • Peer tutors are, in the end, secondary school students and have several other responsibilities(including studies and chores) which they may or may not prioritize over their responsibility as peer tutors. Teachers, on the other hand, are paid employees, expected by the community to work at least a certain number of hours with the children every day.

The last challenge is somewhat addressed by our scholarship program for the peer tutors, whereby we will pay the school fees for the peer tutors for a year, contingent upon their continuous participation in the program.

All in all, however, we are very happy with the way this approach has worked so far. We’re looking forward to more projects from the group so that we can gauge the effectiveness of this approach even better.

Besides the 15 peer tutors and two class 5 teachers, we have a team of five adult leads, which includes:

  • Mr. Anthony Lebbie: A teacher at the local secondary school, Mr.Lebbie will be the after-school program coordinator and the learning lead of the program. His responsibilities include coordinating daily after-school gatherings of peer-tutor groups, facilitating the peer tutors in making productive learning activities, maintaining continuous communication with us after we have left and relaying samples of activities that the children do to us by email.
  • Mr. Alfred Sulaiman: An electronics technician by profession, Mr. Sulaiman had been maintaing the generator since the December deployment(no mean feat since the machinery broke barely a month into the deployment and required maintenance before almost every startup). He will be the technical lead for the program, responsible for maintaining the generator, the solar-powered battery setup for the server and the routers, the XOs and the server. For the latter four, he received basic training from us during the last three weeks. Alfred will also use the old generator to set up a cellphone-charging business and use part of the income generated for providing fuel(2 gallons/week) and general maintenance(spark plugs, tuning etc.) for the new Honda generator, the acquisition of which Carlos so skillfully described in the last post.
In addition, Mr. Michael Brima, Mr. Mohamed Lahai and Ms. Judith Kebbie are the community volunteers who will assist Anthony and Alfred with the program.

Anthony and Alfred will receive a basic stipend to help them offset any costs they incur on behalf of the program.

Besides this, our only running cost would be the scholarship fund for the peer tutors, 10,000 Le(3$)/month for generator oil, 45,000 Le(15$)/month for internet and any XO spare parts that we decide to send to the team here.

So there's a dry but hopefully thorough attempt at documenting the structure of our deployment here in Sahn Malen. I'm off now, it's been a long day.



P.S: The posts are a bit bland without pictures I believe, but we have limited bandwidth and power and so do check back in August and I'll spruce all these posts up with relevant pictures.

Friday, July 17, 2009

A Typical Day in Sahn

Heavy rains, strong winds, lightning, thunder, the sound of crickets and frogs, normally rule night-time in Sahn Malen. What normally starts off as a decent night with almost no disturbances after the noisy generator is off will certainly turn into a mozzie carnival once our bodies dissipate heat enough to agitate them. It is not unusual to hear one or two buzzing mozzies at 3am even after a pre-slumber raid with “shell-tox”-the wonderful insect killer spray.
A silent night is normally disturbed by one or two flashlights and the sound of buckets of water aimed at the toilet. The word “flooding” has become a household phenomenon. I coined the word “flooding” to describe a condition known to medical professionals as diarrhea. With limited knowledge on the prognosis of our condition, we are yet to devise a strategy to circumvent this problem even with the intervention of our mini CVS which boasts Imodium and other anti-diarrheals. What started out with one individual has now circulated the whole camp with only two strong survivor strains failing to contract the disease. It might be time to call FEMA.
“Cokorioko”- the cock crow commences around 6am. One or two GMin members wake up and inform every other member that it is now dawn-time to wake up and get ready for the day trip to the neighboring villages. Dress up, get some food, do some packing, upload-the morning briefing- and take the road. Myself and Faaez get to stay back and enjoy the cool morning breeze, the silence after the noisy crowd departs, and maybe a few pages from “The Ascent of Money” by Naill Fergusson and “Lone Survivor” by Marcus Luttrell.
Take a few stretches, run around the house, hit the bathroom, get some more food, and walk briskly though the soccer field to the Roman Catholic and Islamic primary schools together with Faaez. Meet with stakeholders-teachers for classes four and five, and the head masters- and finalize the list for the kids getting XOs. Get back to base after the morning rounds and patiently wait for 3pm to start the peer-tutoring session. In the meanwhile, the porch will be occasionally flooded with kids screaming “fiba babu, malaria fiba babu wu wu” krio for look like a baboon, malaria looks like a baboon, boo boo: this is a famous line in the kick-out Malaria soccer tournament song composed by Sao.
Tutoring session starts about 3pm, and it becomes another problem to get the kids who are not in the program to leave the veranda. Get the generator started, fix the extensions, get the XOs charging and get the tutors to fidget them while they figure out what program they want to mess with. Steal some time and browse the internet before the malaria team gets back. Jake arrives, get soccer balls and bibs, and head-off to the soccer touch to get the games started.
The team arrives in packs of threes and fours and scramble their ways through the door just to stare at the table and cupboard in search of food. Get some food, head to the field and enjoy the soccer game of the day while some stay back to enter data or get some rest. Game finishes, everyone is home. It is now time for the pineapple. After Sam takes out his dagger and shave-off the pineapple’s skin, David can’t help but bully everyone to get the juice.
Dinner arrives, get our grub on, and get ready for download. Talk about the day’s event and plan the next day. Clem takes minutes and pastes the activity list behind the door for the eye seeing of all campers. Spray the rooms will shell-tox and get ready for bed.
Good night.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Date: 11:32 AM July 7th 2009

Venue: Our quarters, Sahn Malen

Hello again. It's another wet day here in Sahn, most of the others are away to another village to distribute the malaria nets. Carlos and I(and Clem, who isn't feeling well), have stayed behind to work on OLPC stuff.

It's been a good week for OLPC thus far. Since I last posted, we have:

.Finalized the lists of students who will receive XOs
.Recruited 12 new peer tutors(in addition to the four from the last distribution)
.Had daily, 3-hour(on an average) training sessions with the prospective peer tutors, teachers and team leaders who will carry out the project.

.Had a village meeting to introduce the project and emphasize its importance as one of the two pilot OLPC projects in Sierra Leone. (The feedback has been great. The community members we have talked to were very supportive and excited about the project.)
.Re-flashed/NAND-blasted the 100 XOs. The process worked like a charm. As I said earlier, it really is amazing what cool technology has gone behind the creation of these cuddly machines.(Nand-blasting is an OLPC technology whereby one laptop with a developer key, wirelessly relays the upgrade to any number of XOs in the immediate vicinity. It is significantly faster than plugging in a flash stick and a power cord into each XO and waiting for it to upgrade).

There are two schools in Sahn Malen: The RC School(Catholic) and the National Islamic School. We have decided to saturate Class 5 in both the schools and the numbers come down to 56 in RC and 29 in Islamic. That leaves us 15 for the peer tutors, teachers and adult team leads. The numbers in RC might go down since there was too large a discrepancy between the pass-rate for Class 4th(almost 100%) and the one for Class 5th(less than 10%). If they do go down, we will deploy the remainder at a centre in Pujehun(started by GMin member Ellie Nowak) which provides recreational space for children after school, and which, because of its location, will be a good base for publicizing the project.

The daily training sessions have been very heartening. The kids are fast learners and there have been some impressive projects we have seen in Paint, Scratch and Etoys. Also, wikipedia has been an instant hit here. The teachers, although slower and more deliberate than their students, are nevertheless engaged and happy to have the project come to their schools. In addition, we have identified four adult team leads who will help the peer tutors organize XO sessions after school and in addition, will be providing technical support to the project after we leave.

Another thing: I tried running the Linksys WRT300N routers directly from the solar panels that we got for the XOs, and it works! The only catch is that the router hangs once there isn't enough light so you need to unplug and start again once the sun comes back out. It would be great if I could get this to work because it essentially means that combined with the N-radio wireless distributed system functionality in DD-WRT, the routers could essentially be placed anywhere with enough sunlight.

Otherwise, we're looking forward to finally receiving our solar panels(which were accidentally delivered to Sao Tome) so that we can wean the project off of the expensive gas generator.

Ah! It has started pouring again. I should go get my laundry off the line(which by the way perpetually smells moldy because of the humidity).

Until next time!


Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Bakar, Mame and the last king of Snotland

This is a test post from blogger mobile. The picture is that of our
three friends from nextdoors. McSnot(title credits: Clem Wright) isn't
too happy because he just had a bath I think.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Solemn beginnings

Date: 7:15 AM June 26th 2009

Venue: Our quarters, Sahn Malen

The air last night was heavy and overbearing. It was as if everything was in the grip of an invisible hand- nothing moved. And then the wailing started. It was the cry of a bereaved mother. Hers was the third child to have passed away in the village last night. More villagers joined in, in a disturbing chorus of wails and laments.

It is morning now and the new day brings with it new promise. The weather is pleasant; the older, stagnating puddles of water have given way to newer, fresher ones and from the scarce few barren patches of soil on the main path, spring forth new shoots of grass. These will be walked over today and be trampled to death, but as inevitably as they will die, will new blades spring up the next day too.

Ah! The sun shines through the blanket of clouds in the sky and the green fields take on a brighter hue. I like this.

It seems that the experimental deployment of the 30 XOs done in December didn’t go that bad after all. David met with a couple of kids last night who have done some great work with their XOs. Anthony, the lead teacher for the project sounded very engaged and I’m confident that we will find more people who will be able to lead the project well beyond this summer. Tomorrow, we will carry out an informal survey of children who got the XOs last December to inform our new deployment this summer.

Off to breakfast now. Will upload this later, since it seems more and more plausible that we will have some internet here.



Bo town

Date: Tuesday June 23rd 2009

Venue: David’s house, Bo

Took the 6 AM bus from Freetown to Bo this morning. With our 100 XOs and bulky luggage, I am sure we made a lot of passengers unhappy today but we had little choice: all other means of transporting the XOs were proving too costly. The bus finally left at 6:40 and we left the bustling Freetown for the calm of what the Leoneans call the upline(Ishmael Beah thinks that term is pejorative but people still use it anyway). The journey was surprisingly smooth. Apparently the road between Bo and Freetown has been newly constructed and it was not nearly as bumpy as Mathias has described his journey in 2007 to be. It was otherwise uneventful except that we bought our first pineapple in Sierra Leone on the way and a man who claimed to be a qualified doctor, made a long speech on the bus in order to sell traditional medicine imported from China.
Bo is beautifully chilled out. The general consensus in the group is that we love Bo much more than Freetown. David’s mother place, where we are crashing for the night has an orchard full of all kinds of trees: mango, guava, coconut- you name it. It’s a great break from Freetown’s crazy hustle.

Since it also has relatively stable electricity, I finally got to check the routers Sam got for us. They are beautiful beings(yes, routers too can be beautiful) We got five WRT300Ns, v 1.1. That’s an overkill, as Sam aptly pointed out, but since we got them refurbished from not-a-very-reputable source(, we thought we should get one extra to hedge it. Also, we found them pretty cheap(40$ apiece if I remember correct). The v 1.1 have 8 mb of memory and the best thing is that flashing them with dd-wrt works like a charm(a custom version for the specific model is available at; just check the wiki for the article on wrt300n). DD-WRT is a linux-based firmware for routers that you can flash your routers with for added flexibility(you can increase the throughput, make a hotspot, use WDS etc.). Since your router is basically a mini computer, this nifty piece of software replaces your manufacturer’s firmware to give you full control of the hardware you own. Do however check out the wiki pages for entries on your model if you decide to use this, because it has been known to ‘brick’ routers.

Also talked to Zain(the major cellphone company here) about internet availability. Sahn doesn’t have very good coverage so we’re going to have a trial run there with a modem a guy at the Zain office in Bo lent us. I also took a picture of a map at the office that showed where all their towers are on the map so that when we use an antenna to try and extend the range, we know where to point it. To avoid any complicated hacking, we are going to try and use a standard TV antenna for extending the range of the EDGE modem. I am not sure how the physics of it work out, but I hope that we’ll get enough gain to up the signal by a couple of bars, which should be enough for getting a good EDGE connection going. Will upload details on the deployment once we get it done.
I am off to bed now- must try and digest that scrumptious meal David’s mom fixed us.

Until later,



Date: June 21th 2009

Venue: Marianella Guest House, Freetown

So we’re in Freetown. The flight here was pretty uneventful. Had a four and a half hour layover in Nairobi. Not the best airport for something like that, I assure you. The seats are hard and partitioned: nightmare for travelers like us who started their journey at 2:30 in the morning.
The later part of the 10-day workshop in Rwanda was great. I feel excited about going ahead and putting all those ideas to practice. I was impressed by the great amount of innovative and really cool technology that’s under the hood of these cute-looking green machines. It was also great getting to know all the awesome people from the other 29 teams. If any of you are reading this post, good luck with your deployment. I am looking forward to hearing more about how your it all went.

So, Freetown finally. The city is one big scenic sauna- it really is that humid. As we rolled in on the ferry that connects the Lungi airport and the main city, I couldn’t help thinking what a beautiful postcard picture the scene would make: a calm sea and gentle slopes backed by towering green hills… If only I weren’t sweating like a pig that was told it’s halal.

I had mostly packed jeans and long pants(thank you Mr. Esmann for the kind advice), but any illusions I had about wearing them were corrected the very first day. Immediately went and got some pairs of shorts from the local market. Mathias says they probably belonged to a fat German tourist before me, but I haven’t seen many of those around. And besides, they had the tags on, so I should be okay.

The XOs had already arrived at the UNICEF offices so went and checked on them yesterday. Since we’re transporting them to Sahn(which happens to be quite a journey away), we re-packaged them(in a neat assembly line that Mr. Ford would have been proud of) so that each small XO box would take three laptops instead of one. The solar panels still haven’t arrived. An extra consignment of a hundred chargers has though. We could have done equally well with some power strips though since we’ll primarily be using solar panels anyway and the original chargers that ship with individual XOs take the whole 110-240 V range for input.

Sam got five WRT300N Linksys routers. I have the firmware for them here so we just need to re-flash them. Hope that goes well(James Elkins from the Cornell team mentioned that he had some problems re-flashing the Linksys wrt54gs routers).

On Friday, we went and saw Edna Jones, who heads the Sierra Leonean UWC national committee at the Ministry of Education. We told her about the project and she introduced us to the relevant people- deputy ministers, the attaches for Kanema(for the Tulane project) and Sahn etc. The deputy ministers promised us audience this week so we can talk about the project to them. It should be good to have them on board.

Otherwise, it’s been a lot of great food(cassava leaves and peanut butter stew are lovable and ample proof that appearances can be deceiving), getting to know Freetown and other team members and chilling. Things happen at their own pace here and it’s useless to try to rush them up. You just have to go with the flow. That’s what I am going to try and do.

Signing out for now,


Kigali too

Date: June 10th 2009, 11:10 PM

Venue: Cyber café, Kigali, Rwanda

Passing through the lively streets of Kigali in the morning today, I just couldn’t help thinking what a cool music video could be made here. Like something MIA would pull off. The shops that lined the streets all had colorfully fun, painted walls- very few boards; And the light has this amazing color. The kind we usually photoshop our photos to death for. Something to do with the red soil and clean skies I think. And oh! There’s an “Obama Shop” near our hotel on Nyamirambo! How cool is that?(update: on our last day here, we noticed that the Obama had been painted over. Apparently shops here are pretty versatile with their brand identity etc.)

It’s really amazing to think that only a few years ago, this country went through the horrible experience of the Rwandan genocide; it seems to be doing exceptionally well for that. The streets are clean, most of the people we met, optimistic and the government has quite a few innovative programs going on(although one could argue that most of them are dependant on foreign aid for their survival. But hey, at least they’re putting the aid to good use). The government started KIST, the Kigali Institute of Technology(the place we had most of our training sessions at, btw) some years ago and they dub it as the MIT of Rwanda(It even has a Media Lab :P), and of course, they have a massive OLPC deployment going on too.

The workshops have been excellent so far. Comprehensive, but not too demanding. Among other things, learnt to open up and fix basic XO hardware problems, set up the school server, learn to use the basic XO programs, etc. There was ample time to get to know folks from other teams and exchange some useful ideas with them. I am looking forward to the rest of the week.