Archive for January, 2010

Nigeria

January 24, 2010

As you may be aware there has been some significant trouble recently in and around the city of Jos in Nigeria.

Although thankfully it seems that peace is being restored stories like this show that the cost in lives is still being counted.

This was of particular concern and interest to me as I know that some of my VSO colleagues are based in the country.

Cicely who is a VSO blogger based in the neighbouring city of Kafanchan has written a powerful and poignant post about the rioting and how it has affected her friends in Jos.

When you are in such a peaceful country as Namibia it is easy to forget that there are other countries where this cannot simply be taken for granted.

I’m sure the thoughts of the entire VSO community are with Cicely, her colleagues and her friends and wishing for a swift return to peace and normality.

For a list of some other VSO Nigeria bloggers see either the unofficial VSO Journals site or the official VSO blog directory.

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A Week in the Life of an IT Specialist

January 22, 2010

VSO are currently doing a recruitment drive for IT volunteers (full details here). Although my blog is more of a useless collection of incoherent mutterings rather than anything useful I thought I would post about my working week to give any IT people out there an idea of what I do.

First off (and I know it’s a cliché but it is true) there isn’t really anything like a “normal” week and each week is usually very different from the last.

Secondly it’s worth pointing out that generally VSO recruit people to either a “IT Trainer” or “IT Specialist” role. I am an “IT Specialist” (how people laugh) and so in theory am concentrating more on the technical side rather than training but just to mix things up spend quite a bit of time training as well (as I’m sure the trainers spend time “specialising”).

Monday

As I am the only VSO IT person for, well, the entire of Namibia at the moment I sometimes get called to assist other ministries and NGOs around the place. On the Sunday I had driven down to Khorixas (about 400km south of Opuwo) to assist the Ministry of Education (the Ministry of Health were more than happy to let me go – worryingly happy to get rid of me for a few days).

The main reason for me to be at the MoE was to fix their internet connection. Their network was setup by a previous VSO volunteer and I had been to their site once before to find the problem was the Telecom engineer had come and deleted all their firewall settings.

This time their ADSL modem had blown up and (after 12 weeks) telecom had replaced it but their network was still not working.

So in no particular order on Monday I;

  • Plugged the cables in correctly that telecom (even with the aid of the excellent documentation the previous vol had put in place) had managed to mess up
  • Tested the Kerio WinRoute setup, resolved a WGA issue on their server/router/proxy PC (it was actually genuine with a sticker and all)
  • Made sure the server would now survive a reboot and all the services would start (WGA previously knackering that)
  • Went around many many clients fixing their internet settings (which the users had changed at random hoping to fix their internet link)
  • Reset numerous proxy passwords for users who had forgotten theirs
  • Reconnected a PC that had moved from one side of the office to the other
  • Created a firewall user and rule so that services on the server/proxy system (such as logmein and dyndns updates) would work without authentication (they used to in the past but don’t now, weird)
  • Created some new users for new members of staff and instructed them on how to access the internet
  • Installed the OpenDNS dynamic IP updater on the server
  • Removed various viruses from PCs and identified one that was “proper creamed” (technical term) with all sorts of nasties

Monday night two VSO friends, a Peace Corps lady and me went out for a drink at the Khorixas Rest Camp which was nice and only slightly interrupted by my friend being called back to the hospital because some inconsiderate tourist had a heart attack (all was well in the end).

Tuesday

Still in Khorixas and back at the Ministry of Education I;

  • Setup port-forwarding for RDP (to allow remote assistance as well as logmein to hopefully avoid unnecessary trips for simple jobs in future). This is actually no easy task on the Huawei router (well it’s simple once you figure out what the options are talking about). Tested this via GPRS.
  • Reinstalled a Windows machine (the “creamed” one from Monday)
  • Removed some other viruses from machines
  • Had a couple of meetings to explain what I did to fix the internet (there was a theory around that someone had broken into the server room which had caused the problems, I was able to explain it was a “cable in wrong port” issue instead) and also to see about some cabling work
  • Found the CAT5 cable, network sockets and patch cables required for additional network points. Also checked the patch panel to find the room
  • Discovered that the only person with a Krone/punch tool had gone back to China (like an idiot that was about the only tool I didn’t bring from Opuwo not knowing cabling would be required)
  • Had another meeting discussing future plans for cabling and also the outlying offices (this I knew about but ADSL is still not provisioned)
  • Visited the Teachers Resource Centre (TRC) which has an amazing computer lab to check for cabling options (all good). Fixed a couple of minor little problems there
  • Agreed I could come back soon to do the cabling
  • Wandered around ensuring the last few PCs were working properly

Then went to the hospital to see about an internet problem reported on the Health Information System (HIS) computer. Found that the phone/modem cable (RJ11) was plugged into the LAN (RJ45) socket. Fixed.

Had a discussion with the HIS nurse who I know quite well about issues they’d been having with people using the HIS computer for general internet use (tying it up and also infecting it with viruses). Password protected the PC.

Went back to the Ministry of Education as they wanted me to take a “few small items” back to Opuwo. Turned out to be 200 desktops (wooden desktops, not PC desktops) amongst other stuff which a couple of us loaded in the sweltering heat into the bakkie.

By this time it was gone 4.30pm and I decided to stay in Khorixas for the night rather than drive in the dark so back to my friends for some Tafel lager and a film.

Wednesday

After wandering around sorting myself out in the morning (and finding a scorpion under my shorts – which I chased and squashed with only a bit of shrieking) I dropped back into the hospital offices to have a look at a laptop and do a bit of software installing and anti-virus updating.

Wishing a fond farewell to Khorixas I was on the road back to Opuwo by mid-morning.

After a leisurely drive listening to Radio 4 podcasts and contesting with only a few newly created streams crossing the road (thanks rainy season) I was back in Opuwo by 2pm and back in the office (having handed back the Ministry of Education car along with the six tonnes of wood in the back) by 2.30.

While I had been away the Minister of Health and Prime Minister had been in Opuwo to support us during the ongoing measles outbreak. They were now off touring the north with most of our senior management so the office was quite quiet.

For some reason we’ve had double-NAT (ADSL NAT router to DSL/Cable NAT WiFi router to LAN) since I’ve been in Opuwo which I was happy enough to leave alone while it worked ok (I had some vague plans to setup a DMZ for remote access at a later stage) but the D-Link WiFi router has been playing up on a few occasions recently so I took the opportunity to turn it into an access point on the LAN so that if it has problems only WiFi clients are affected.

One of the staff at an NGO I help to support (Medicos del Mundo) then dropped in for some assistance with an Excel problem so I spent the remainder of the afternoon playing with IFSUMS formulas in Excel 2007 and managed to get his calculations working (a rare occurrence given my Excel skills you can be sure).

Apparently there was to be a press conference at 6pm which I was invited to but having missed all of the previous fun and feeling more than a bit knackered I went home instead.

Thursday

In the morning I had the fun job of soldering a power cable into a laptop. This is a re-repair of a job done by someone else after the laptop had been dropped. Though they had soldered the power connections in they were free to touch and had done so resulting in sparks and smoke coming out the back.

The job had been outstanding for five weeks or so whilst we hunted high and low for a soldering iron which was eventually borrowed from a Telecom engineer (thanks!). Managed to remove the old connections and solder new contacts only burning myself once in the process (a personal best).

I then returned the soldering iron. Wandering into the back of the telecom shop (where the engineers work) I found it totally deserted and ended up in the main distribution frame (MDF) room which was just open (none of BT’s paranoia here). Eventually I found a security guard who, seeing the soldering iron, said I should just feel free to get on with whatever work I needed to do as the engineers were out.

Turning him down on his kind offer to re-route the Opuwo phone system I left the soldering iron and my thanks with him.

After than I went over the Red Cross office (another NGO I sort of support) and spent a happy hour pulling LAN cables and playing with printer DHCP settings. Whilst there I also moved some RAM from a broken PC into a working one and failed to move a PCI WiFi card (the destination PC only had two types of PCI Express slots, the horror).

Thursday afternoon found me doing a little training with one of the more promising “I want to be a PC engineer” students. Previously we had covered IP addresses (with my insistence on showing him how binary worked so he understood the “dotted quad” and netmasks) and are now on to some PC/Windows repair stuff.

I spent quite a bit of time trying and failing to restore a Dell laptop which wouldn’t start (get the startup error menu; startup repair loops straight back and normal start hangs as does safe mode). According to Dell there should be a restore option in the repair options (I mean seriously put the repair windows option in a windows menu why don’t you, what could go wrong with that?). It’s not there. I think because the “windows failed startup” flag is set so only showing the repair startup options rather than the general ones. Pmpf.

Setup a new laptop with Office, AV and switched the keyboard from or to (I forget which) US layout.

Friday

Woo! Friday! The office was still quiet.

Spent the morning doing a few pottering jobs; another locale setting, more Dell research (to no avail), prodding the WiFi router a bit and trying to get CentOS 5.4 to install on a PC older than I am (and failing).

At 10am I went along to my first meeting of the week (this is unusual and only because I was away early on and then everyone else was away later on – normally I would have clocked up three to five non-IT meetings by this time) which was to be a feedback session from the national level people regarding their investigations into border crossings (and the associated disease crossings).

At 10 I was in the conference room, alone. By 10.15 other people from my office had joined me, we were all having a chat and I was catching up on the goings on. Eventually by 10.30 it was realised that nobody was coming to present (we think a miscommunication about the times) so we wandered away in dribs and drabs.

After a trip to the bank and lunch I popped down to the Ministry of Youth, Sport and Culture (I think that’s what it’s called anyway) to see a Peace Corps friend of mine (also IT) and exchange some software and other bits and bobs.

The rest of the afternoon was spent starting to write up my report to the Ministry of Education about what I did and what we need to do next as well as trying to help create an Access database for Condom distribution (turns out 2007 is very different from previous versions especially with table relationships – or at least so it seems to me). Ended up saying I would have to have a decent play with Access over the weekend and see what I could come up with.

Gave up and went home at about 5.30.

At home I read up on ICMP packets and played around with some code to make my network tester hopefully handle errors more gracefully. Oh the glamour and intrigue.

There You Go

So there it is – in unnecessary detail my week at work.

Maybe coming soon: why I did VSO (wanted to go somewhere hot), why you should consider VSO (don’t you want to go somewhere hot?) and a diatribe about service delivery versus capacity building and how one can in fact be the other in the IT field (what?).

In the meantime if you are an IT bod considering VSO then you might like to check out these (infinitely superior) blogs as well:

VSO Journals Growth

January 22, 2010

As you may have noticed a while back I threw together a quick-and-dirty project called VSO Journals as an attempt to have a central directory of VSO blogs indexed by country and take a feed of the latest posts.

Since then I’ve had a few contacts with VSO head office about it and they have also been working on a similar directory (though no doubt using proper coding techniques, good web design and with a planned outcome – unlike my site).

Their site (of which I was lucky enough to get a sneak peek at pre-launch) is now live at: http://www.vsointernational.org/life-changing-stories/blogs.asp

They have also kindly let me take an XML feed of their directory which allows me to integrate their “master list” into VSO Journals. As a result VSO Journals now has over 180 blogs listed.

In addition you can now get an RSS feed from the site either globally or by country (thus completing the web-RSS-web-RSS circle). This allows people to see latest posts in a “feed reader” or even display them automatically on their own blogs (like I have on the right).

My hope is that one day I can take the VSO Journals site outside and end it’s suffering humanely just pointing visitors to the official VSO resource but until that day any suggestions or comments on the Journals site are much appreciated (and may even get implemented – all things are possible).

VSO Ireland Teacher Recruitment

January 21, 2010

Funny advertisement video from VSO Ireland looking for teachers to recruit. I saw this a week or so back on some other vol’s blog but can’t find their post to link to now (so sorry unnamed blogger, but thanks).

I Can Explain

January 18, 2010

What’s worse than having someone walk into the office when you’re testing a content filter to see a great big “This site is blocked for adult content” banner on the screen?

Simple; having someone walk into the office when you’re doing a test and the content filter has failed to work.

Cor What a Scorcher

January 15, 2010

This being Southern Africa (sub-equatorial) the winter in the Northern Hemisphere is actually our summer. So while vast swaithes of the US and Europe are under several feet of snow here we are more likely to just spontaniously combust.

Yes, it’s hot. I mean HOT. Seriously hot.

This is a picture of my dashboard temperature thingy after the car had been parked (in dappled shade) for a few hours in the morning. Inside was like a furnace but still I didn’t believe the reading, until I touched the dashboard and nearly lost the skin on my hand.

Daytime Temperature

Temperature at 1pm in my car

Yes – almost 60 degrees celsius. Slightly warm to say the least.

But actually the daytime temperatures don’t bother me so much. Of course it’s hot hot hot and you sweat sweat sweat but the sun is blazing down so you expect it.

At night is the worst. Bizzarely it feels even hotter (though it’s not) and even with a range of fans the hot air just seems to get hotter.

Nighttime temperature

Over 30 degrees at night

Temperature shown bottom-right of pic: 30.3 degrees C. So half the daytime temperature but at night? I mean, seriously, come on.

This is the sort of heat that, was I not already there through profound personality disorders and Mefloquine, would be enough to drive you insane. Dribble.

But at least now the rains have started and not only can you stand in a rain shower to cool off but afterward the world is cooler for a good five minutes.

Christmas and New Year in Namibia

January 14, 2010

Firstly a belated Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to both my avid readers.

For Christmas this year a multinational group (3 British, 2 American, 1 Philippino, 1 Malaysian and 1 Namibian) went on a trip organised by yours truly to a place called Torra Bay on the Skeleton Coast. The Skeleton Coast is the harsh unforgiving bit of the Namib Desert that meets the harsh unforgiving waters of the South Atlantic and regularly (even today) lures unwary mariners to wreck their ships and if they survive leaves them in one of the most desolate places on Earth. A good choice for festivities.

On the first night (23rd) two groups met up at a wonderful campsite called OppiKlippe just outside Outjo (my favourite in Namibia). As people took stock of the glorious surroundings, went for walks in the hills and found the showers carved into the rockface they started to relax and think that maybe, just maybe, I had managed not to totally mess up the organisation. Little did they know.

On Christmas Eve we left OppiKlippe and stopping by the Ok in Outjo to stock up on novelty Santas and food (the busiest I’ve ever seen it and with canned carol music over the speakers – it was almost like home) we forged East. Once at Khorixas the last member of our expedition joined up and now in a three vehicle convoy we left tarmac behind and burned (or rather “dusted”) down the gravel for the coast.

Once we had negotiated the park entrance gates and waited for convoy stragglers to turn up it was a short trip to Torra Bay. The Skeleton Coast national park is like the surface of Mars but with less chance of finding life. A wonderfully bleak and empty expanse of rocks and sand stretching seemingly forever into the distance.

Having crossed through this wilderness of nothing we came over a hill and there before us was Torra Bay in all its glory. I had visited previously in September for two minutes and it had been totally deserted. Not now. Covering a couple of square miles was a massive array of windbreaks, tents the size of cathedrals (with smaller tents inside), caravans, trailers, 4x4s and throbbing over it all the sound of a couple of hundred throaty generators roaring away.

Oh.

We found two adjacent pitches and set up. Whereas at OppiKlippe our seven tents looked like a big organised camp here, set against the background of the canvas cities, they looked small and feeble.

It turns out that Torra Bay is basically for hardcore fisherpeople. They bring everything with them (one lot even had their own donut trailer), build a replica of Johannesberg with canvas, setup their generators and then race off with massive fishing poles to go and fight sharks or something. There are no brai (BBQ) pits, seats or tables. The toilets (which thankfully there were) are of the “drop” model which is fair enough but without water to wash afterwards. Water is available for 50c per litre and showers are $2 a go (though there is hot water for your $2).

Naturally we had no generator, oil drum or other brai equipment, table, windbreak, tent to go over our tents and only one chair.

What little hope any of the party had that I had organised well following on from OppiKlippe rapidly disappeared from faces as tents were setup and a fire pit dug by hand under the drumming of generators.

Christmas Eve night we stayed up until gone midnight around the fire trading stories such as “where I would rather be for Christmas”. It was all rather jolly.

Christmas morning began with a festive game of Cricket in which, once we had convinced our colonial brethren to hold the bat straight, some fun was had.

Afterwards we drove up the coast to Terrace Bay hoping to see some of the many shipwrecks the tour guides and internet searches promised were lurking just along the coast. Alas, no.

Terrace Bay is a more substantial place than Torra Bay with actual permanent buildings, holiday cottages and a clinic. It also had mobile phone network which was good for those who had brought their phones and worthless for those that had left them at the camp (such as me).

Enquiries at the tourist centre (yes I know – proper civilisation) revealed the only shipwreck was a further 80km of bumpy road further North and we would need special permission to visit it. Unfortunately nobody was answering the phone at wherever it was so the permission wasn’t forthcoming.

We dropped by the clinic to say hi as most of us were Ministry of Health people (and also to fill up some water for free – sssh) when one of the party, boredly reading our permit noticed a set of handwritten rules on the top including “1. Don’t go to Terrace Bay“. Oh. Too late.

We decided against simply deleting don’t from the rule and instead just beat a hasty retreat back to Torra Bay. Not hasty enough. Barely out of the town and a Minitry of the Environment bakkie appeared and flagged us down demanding to see our permit. The one that explicitly forbade us from going to Terrace Bay.

That an official was working at all on Christmas Day let alone actually out and enforcing permit restrictions speaks volumes either for the selfless dedication of the staff or the ingrained bitterness they feel having spent years stuck at the very end of the earth fostering hatred against the tourist-scum that are the reason they’re there in the first place. I am not sure which it is.

Luckily as he was pulling his official fine book out and counting heads whilst grinning with mirth one of our member was able to implore upon him to let us off as we are just a bunch of penniless volunteers who apologise unreservedly, accept our stupidity in not reading fully the permit and will never, ever, do it again. He relented. This meant my plan of running into the dunes and living wild within the park didn’t have to come into effect.

Safely back at Torra Bay with the comforting phut-phut of generators all around a mighty and excellent effort was made to produce Christmas dinner. Potatoes were roasted in foil, chicken cooked, garlic bread prepared and many other wonders brought forth. Naturally I had nothing to do with it.

It was excellent. Doubly so considering the lack of, well, just about anything to aid preparations.

Afterwards the wind built and built and built and built. In the end most of us were sitting in my car.

At some point one of the tents collapsed totally. Obviously this is not at all funny. In the slightest. Apart from it being the funniest thing I had ever seen that is. Luckily no lives or property was lost and she slept ok in the back of her car.

Various groups of Afrikaners who had been treating our camp as some pitiable leper colony to be avoided whilst they went into their dinner tents with full tables and chairs to be waited upon by the staff they had brought with them (seriously) now came from far and wide to gawp then snigger at the collapsed tent.

That night my tent just about bent double though other than being repeatedly smothered by polyester I suffered no ills and it was still standing in the morning.

On Boxing Day we decided against trying to get another night at Torra Bay and headed back inland. Arriving at the gate we discovered that the permit was missing and had to deploy charm and people-skills to get out of the park. A quick wheel change on one of the cars later and we were off again. Two of the party headed to Khorixas and the rest of us up through Sesfontein.

That night we stayed at a campsite called Warmquelle which had been recommended. It was a nice spot by a babbling brook with a lagoon. The only slight issue was driving down a steep sheer-drop-sided road and then through a river to get to our sites.

The next day we watched in horror as several “big” 4x4s stalled or otherwise had problems getting through the river and back up. Obviously like the kind of hardened trekkers we now are both our cars (“little” 4×4 RAV4 and 2×4 Condor) made it through and up with no drama.

From there back to Opuwo through a mountain pass and various dried up riverbeds.

Strangely it seems that most of the party are already making plans for next Christmas and only two of us are up for the “even more remote than Torra” plan. Finding somewhere that meets this criterion is proving a bit of a challenge but the middle of the Kalahari is the current front runner.

For New Year I organised yet another hell-trip, this time to Ruacana up in the far north. The falls were off as usual (though agreed by all to be theoretically impressive were they on).

Then it rained. And rained. And rained.

Obviously being from the UK I seldom go anywhere without full wet weather gear and was the envy of everyone when I pulled a cagool and waterproof trousers out.

At midnight the dam sounded the “we’re opening the floodgates” siren but nothing else happened.

The big change since I was last at Hippo Pool is the addition of hand-drawn signs of a satisfied looking crocodile with the words “Don’t Swim” above. This is following a most unfortunate incident where a German tourist got eaten.

Didn’t seem to put the locals off swimming but I didn’t fancy it much.