Thursday, August 23, 2007

Setting up an Internet Café for a Ghanaian School

I had already been involved in a project getting computers to Kenyan schools for a number of years. When I was visiting Ghana for the first time, my friend Marlene and I went to see the Akosombo dam, which is holding back the Volta river to create the largest man made lake in Africa, and the second largest globally - as I was told. On our way back we were looking for a hotel to spend the night. When we came through the fishermen’s village of Anloga at the coast of Ghana towards Togo, we noticed a large and clean looking building in Western style among all the fishermen’s houses in native style. Our curiosity aroused, we came to the “Pin Drop Inn”, a neat little hotel. Quite unexpectedly, each of the rooms was up to Western standards, offering its own bathroom – with shower, toilet, and running water, air conditioning, and satellite TV. And most surprisingly, everything worked! I then started talking with Jerry, the owner of the hotel. His bright 11-year-old son offered to take me through a tour of the village. When I got back, Jerry’s daughter joined our discussion. The three of them were asking all sorts of questions about computers and the Internet. It soon became clear that their biggest dream was to get an Internet café to Anloga. When I left the Pin Drop Inn the next morning, I promised Jerry to help him set up an Internet café for the secondary school of Anloga.

Back in Switzerland and the US I asked around for used computers. One of my Swiss friends, the CIO of Elektro-Material AG, a large electronics parts wholesaler, offered to donate a dozen used but still usable computers, fully equipped. He even agreed, together with some colleagues, to install Windows XP and Office on the computers so we would only have to plug them in in Anloga. Microsoft had also generously agreed to provide us with free Windows and Office licenses for our school Internet café project. The only thing left to do now was to pack the computers up and ship them to Ghana. I found a shipper who specializes in moving stuff to Africa. He promised to ship the computers to Ghana to be there around July 8th such that they would be ready for us when we would get to Accra on July 24th. I was therefore not too pleased when he called me a few days after I had paid his bill to tell me that the computers had been lost on the way from Zurich to Antwerp, and that the ship therefore had left without our computers. He would put them on the next ship which was scheduled to arrive at the Ghanaian port of Tema July 24th. Timing started to get quite tight now. To get the computers out at the port in Tema I again contacted the Ghanaian Embassy in Berne. This time, the Embassy was very helpful, and – within 2 days – wrote and faxed me back a confirmation letter, also asking the customs authorities in Tema to forego import duties, as the computers were destined to go to a school.

However, getting the computers to Ghana was the easy part. Connecting them to the Internet, once they were in Anloga, proved to be a harder nut to crack. When I was visiting Anloga for the first time more than a year ago, the closest phone land line was still dozens of kilometers away, so the only viable option seemed to be to get Internet through satellite connection - using a so-called VSAT connection. I was told that setting up the station would cost about $10,000, while monthly access fees would amount to at least $800. As this seemed quite excessive to me, I started asking around. Through a friend at the MIT Computer Science and AI Lab (CSAIL) I was referred to Jack Constanza, CSAIL’s infrastructure director. Jack told me about Don, a professor at the University of Maryland, who was involved with similar projects. Don knew Erik Osiakwan, an Internet journalist in Ghana, who in turn referred me to Kwaku Boadu, owner of Ghanaian Internet access provider arrownetworks. Kwaku told me that he might be able to get me Internet access at lower cost than through setting up a vsat connection myself in Anloga. He had an access point in the nearby border town of Afloa, and my location in Anloga might be close enough to get a terrestrial point to point connection. For that, however, I would need the GPS coordinates of Jerry’s Pin Drop Inn. When I called my friend Marlene in Ghana, her husband knew of a surveyor working for the Ghanaian state who might be able to give us the GPS coordinates, but it would be quite expensive because he would have to drive to Anloga, to get a GPS reading right at the Pin Drop Inn. It then occurred to me, that using Google Earth, and locating the Pin Drop Inn that way might be an easier way to get the GPS coordinates.

So, when, I and my children finally arrived in Ghana on July 25th, it was one of my first activites to ask Jerry to come to Accra, and locate the Pin Drop Inn on Google Earth, which I had loaded and cached on my laptop. Jerry was indeed able to spot the Pin Drop Inn on Google Earth, and when I called Kwaku to tell him the coordinates, I got back the good news that we would be capable of getting a terrestrial signal from Kwaku’s access point in Afloa to Anloga. But we still might have to set up a 30-meter high pole to capture the signal directly from the access point in Afloa.

In the meantime, I also tried to get the computers out at the port in Tema. I asked Jerry to look into this. When he contacted the port, he was told that, while the ship had indeed arrived on time, unloading it was backed up by a week, and the earliest time the ship could be unloaded and the computers be obtained would be one week later, on Monday August 6. My children and I therefore decided to do our sightseeing in Ghana during the first week of our stay, and set the computers up during the second week. I arranged with Jerry that he and I would meet again August 6 at the port to get the computers. When I called Jerry on Sunday August 5 to arrange for the computers to be unloaded, he told me that to obtain the computers within the next few days I would not only have to pay customs, but also a handling agent, and a substantial release fee for the local representative of the shipping company which had shipped the computers from Antwerp to Tema. I was also told that while I could indeed claim an exemption from customs for the computers, this would take a few weeks to be approved by the ministry. Also, if I would try to deal with the complexities of clearing goods at the port of Tema myself, this would further slow me down. As I learned I had not only to pay customs duties, but also the so-called documentation fee of the handling agent who would be walking me through the release process at the port, and the release fee of the local agent of the shipping company. I agreed with Jerry that he would come Monday August 6 morning to the house of my friends to pick me up, and we would then go to the port of Tema together.

Unfortunately, Monday morning no Jerry showed up, and when I finally called him around noon, he told me that he would only be able to come Monday afternoon. We then agreed to meet Tuesday morning. I was pleasantly surprised when on Tuesday morning Jerry was only one hour late for the meeting at our house. We then went to the port of Tema, where it turned out that Nick, the handling agent at the port, was a relative of Jerry – and a former customs officer. Nick generously agreed to manage the clearance process of the computers for a reduced fee of $100 (he originally wanted $150). Nick then promised that I would get the computers the same day, but first I would have to come with him to the various offices to pay my dues to the different parties asking for money in return for the promise to release the computers. Off we went in his glitzy new Nissan Infinity SUV, first to the local representative of the shipping line. There, the lady initially requested the equivalent of 247 dollars, but after same bartering accepted 207 dollars. After I had also handed the $180 for customs to Nick, I was sent home, but was promised that next day I would get the computers.

When I came to Nick’s office the next morning – it was now Wednesday, and our return tickets to Zurich were for Friday evening – nobody was there. After a half hour wait Nick showed up. First, he took me to the bank, where he had me wait outside and went inside to pay the customs duties. Afterwards, we drove to the port, where I was handed over to Edward. Edward was one of the young clearing agents who do the actual legwork for Nick. Edward now took me on a tour criss-crossing the port of Tema from one office to the other. After the first four stops I lost track of where we were, I just noticed that one of the stops was with the lady who had wanted to pay me the 247 dollars, and another one was at the customs office, to show our receipt that we had actually paid customs duty. In the evening, with sore legs and totally exhausted from a day walking around at the port with Edward, I was sent home again with the promise that finally, on Thursday, I would get the computers.

Thursday morning, after my mandatory wait for Jerry at Nick’s office, Jerry appeared in a Trotro, that is a Ghanaian taxicab. Jerry had rented this Trotro, a Mazda minivan, including driver and driver’s mate (the fare collector), to shuttle our computers to Anloga. Jerry also told me that the Trotro would cost me about 60 dollars. The three of us, Jerry, Trotro driver, and driver’s mate, went to the port, where Edward was waiting for us. After some more waiting, and after paying an entry fee of one dollar for each of us at the port, we were finally allowed to go to see the container with the computers.

After the customs officer had checked that the lading bill and the contents of the container matched, we were then allowed to load our 12 computers including accessories into the Trotro. I never thought that all the equipment would fit into the Trotro, but in the end Jerry and the Trotro driver succeeded in squeezing everything into our little bus, even the driver’s mate, who could only sit sideways on top of some monitors.

On our drive to Anloga, we had to stop a few times at police barriers, which were supposed to check the safety of the vehicles passing through. Paying a “small gift” at each roadblock ensured that the policemen waved our fully loaded mini bus through.

Two hours later, it was now Thursday at 5pm, we arrived at Jerry’s house, where a group of about half a dozen children was eagerly waiting for the computers. In no time had we unloaded the computers, and set them up.

I was amazed how the kids, who had only seen computers a few times in an Internet café, succeeded, by observing me, to assemble the computers. About half an hour later all the computers were set up, and the kids were already starting to experiment with Microsoft Office.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

How to force the swarm to do the “right thing”

Usually I get along really well with the Ghanaians. Most of the time they are friendly people who are helpful and go out of their way to make guests feel at home. Occasionally, however, there seem to be clashes of cultures. I am still trying to make sense out of two tumultuous encounters with Ghanaian authorities where I only got what I needed after serious yelling, screaming, and threat of force. The first one occurred when I was applying for my visa for Ghana, the second one happened when we tried to check in for our flights back from Accra to Zurich.

When I applied in June for a visa for my two children and me with the Ghanaian embassy in Berne, Switzerland, I was expecting a smooth process. After all, I had done the same thing last year, and had gotten back my passport with the visa stamp three days after I had sent it in. This time, however, things were different. I got the first warning, when, ten days after having sent in the passports, I got back a form asking for missing information instead of the passports. I immediately called back and provided the missing information. I also told the consular officer that I would be grateful if he could process my visas in the next few days, because I would be leaving for the US the following Tuesday. When I still had not gotten back my passports on Saturday, I got really nervous. I checked with the Swiss post, and they told me that no registered letter was underway. I then decided to drive to Berne on Monday – my flight from Zurich to Boston was on Tuesday. I was at the Ghanaian embassy when it opened at 9 in the morning. No consular officer was there, but the friendly lady at the reception checked for me on the desk of the consular officer, and told me that our three passports were indeed on the pile of visas to be processed. At 11, the consular officer finally arrived, and I was promised to get my visas signed by the consul first thing in the afternoon. When I came back in the afternoon, there was only the friendly lady informing me that my passport could not be processed. I now freaked out, and yelled at everybody that I would camp out at the reception and only leave the building with my three passports – and indeed, after another 45 minutes, I got my three passports with the visa stamps for Ghana.

After this tumultuous beginning of my second trip to Ghana, things inside Ghana went mostly fine, except for the few glitches described elsewhere in this blog. The flight back from Accra to Zurich, however, was an altogether different story.

At the end of our stay in Ghana, when we tried to check in at the airport in Accra for our Lufthansa flight back to Zurich by way of Lagos, we were expecting smooth check in. But after I had handed over our tickets to the agent at the check in counter, she continued typing at the keyboard and staring at the monitor, looking more and more worried. In the end she asked us to drag our heavy suitcases off the carrier belt, and move to another counter. There, the same process was repeated, and then we were sent to a third counter. There, the agent told us that she could not check us in because we had two bookings, an e-booking and a paper ticket. I told her that we had traveled to Accra with Alitalia without any check in problems – and the only problem, if there even was one, was that each of us had two bookings, an electronic one and a paper ticket. She then tried to call the Lufthansa head office, which told her to go ahead and check us in. The agent, however, still refused to check us in. I then started yelling at her, in turn she generously agreed to check in our baggage for Zurich, and to give us stand-by boarding cards, but only to Frankfurt. Some more yelling on my side brought her to “informally” promise us three seats together, which she would hold for us at the gate, but for now we could only get in with stand-by boarding passes for Frankfurt. She also proclaimed to be unable to check us through to Zurich. As this seemed to be the best deal for us to be obtained for now, the three of us rushed through security and customs, as we had already spent well over an hour fighting with the different Lufthansa check in agents at Accra airport. When we were at the gate, the agent there took away our stand-by boarding passes, and told us to be patient and wait for our boarding passes. After waiting for another half hour, it was now close to scheduled departure time, we still had not gotten any boarding passes. I now exploded, and started screaming for our boarding passes. Only after me having thrown around a few chairs in the check-in area to show that I was serious, another agent came to the gate, and after unsuccessfully trying to print the boarding passes with the electronic check-in system, manually wrote the seat numbers on our boarding passes and allowed us to board the plane.
Needless to say that in Frankfurt we had no problems to get the follow-on boarding passes from Lufthansa for the final leg of our trip to Zurich.

Obviously, in the end in both instances we got what we wanted – and what was due to us. But I am really wondering if we would also have gotten it without all my screaming and yelling in the very last minute. I have to point out that in both instances, for getting back the passports at the embassy, and to get checked in for our return flight, I had waited until the very last minute until I escalated the process and started making troubles.

So my suspicion is that sometimes the swarm only does the right thing if one makes it more trouble for the swarm not to do the right thing.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

What happens when the light goes out – made in China

The state-run Ghanaian electricity company is periodically turning off electricity because of power shortages. One night we had no electricity in the house of my friends in Accra. As a precaution they had recently bought two Chinese-made lamps with battery chargers, each giving light bright enough to light a room for reading. That night, unfortunately, one of the freshly charged lamps went out after 5 minutes. I opened the lamp, and fiddled with the electrical contacts between bulb and battery. The light went on again. My friend then decided to go to bed and took the working lamp with her. My children and I were left with the temperamental lamp, which went out again after 3 minutes. Opening up the lamp cover under the weak light of another flashlight and fiddling with the contacts got the lights back on for another 3 minutes. After having repeated this process 4 times, my kids and I decided to give up on reading and went to bed. Next morning both lamps worked fine again, as did the electrical power grid.
Lights made in China can be quite fickle – even more so in Ghana.

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

There are different types of snakes in Ghana

Yesterday morning our houseboy killed a poisonous snake in our garden. The property of my friend is not that big, it has a small, but well-tended garden. The garden is fenced in, and the fence is lined by overgrowing flower bushes. When the houseboy was cutting the bushes, he suddenly got really exited and called us to show us a pretty large snake, about 1.2 meters long, with dark green and yellow stripes. The snake was resting high up in the bushes, right within the flower bush which had overgrown the side door where all the visitors were passing through. It was a pretty eerie feeling that we might have come and gone for some days right underneath a poisonous snake. The fix of the houseboy to this problem was as radical as it was short and brutal. He called another man from the neighborhood for help. With a long stick the houseboy threw the snake out of the bush on the street, and then the other man shattered the snake’s head with a large stone – Risk management by eliminating the risks.

Later in the day the children and I decided to go to downtown Accra. My friend agreed to lend us her car. First thing was to fill up the tank at the filling station. After pumping gas, the guy at the station asked for 57 new cedies (about 57 dollars). The meter at the pump station only read 52 cedies. The guy explained that he had first pumped gas for 5 cedies, and then incidentally reset the meter by returning the nozzle into the holder. As this story sounded really fishy to me, I refused to pay. We got into a little argument, the manager of the station also came, and in the end I paid what the meter read, 52 cedies. The 5 cedies the guy at the pumping station was trying to extract from me would have been about one week of wages for him, at least.
There are different types of snakes in Ghana.

Saturday, August 11, 2007

Sharing with the swarm can lead to bruises

While the driver and I were standing outside the car and waiting to have our inflated tire repaired (see previous post), my children inside the car were eating candy. When they saw a few kids approaching, they threw them out some of the shrink-wrapped candy. First, the kids did not know what to do with the little square pieces wrapped into glittering aluminum foil, but once the first one had unwrapped the candy and put it into her little mouth, a delighted smile lighted up all over her face. More children started flocking to the car, and then even some half-grown-ups joined them. My children were busy throwing candy out the car window. But then things started getting out of control. The swarm of kids became more aggressive, banging at the car door, so I started getting worried for my friend’s car. I took the bag of candies and stepped away from the car. Now the entire swarm, about 20 children, aged from probably three to sixteen years, was surrounding me. I could not get out the candies fast enough for them. Hands were reaching out and touching me everywhere. And now even some adults were joining in. In the end a tall guy, probably half a head larger than I – and I am over six feet – wrestled the torn bag out of my hand. The rest of the candy fell on the ground. Now the swarm started fighting on the floor. Thirty seconds later all the candies were gone, and another few seconds later the swarm had dissolved. The only thing remaining was some dispersed candy paper lying on the floor.
Some times the swarm can get out of control – in particular if the protocol of sharing with the swarm has not been previously established.

Fixing a flat tire in Ghana

At the end of our beach holidays we drove back from Axim to Accra. Our friends had sent their SUV with a driver to pick us up at the beach resort. Suddenly, we were near the old capital of Ghana Cape Coast, our driver pulled the car in a filling station, telling us that he had noticed a strange sound. I then walked around the car, and noticed that one of the tires was flat. At the filling station, however, they told us that they were only equipped to pump gas and could not exchange our spare tire. Suddenly, and without comment, our driver disappeared, taking the car keys with him. We could do nothing but wait in the hot sun and make sure that our belongings left in the unlocked car stayed where they were. We were very relieved when 15 minutes later our driver came back, bringing with him a powerfully built young man in a mechanic’s overall. The young man then searched for our car jack, which, as it turned out, was not working. The young man disappeared again, and 20 minutes later, came back with an old car jack, and ten minutes later our spare tire was put properly in place, and we could resume our trip.

I then asked our driver if it would be possible to have our flat tire fixed immediately. He assured me that this would be no problem, and another ten minutes later pulled over at what appeared to me to be a tiny shack in the midst of a large collection of small market stands along the road. Our particular stand had four broken tires heaped in front of it. It turned out the wiry little man in the shack was operating a bustling flat tire fixing business. Only using the most primitive tools, it took him no time to plug the hole in our tire and put the tire back on the rim. Then, with the one sophisticated piece of equipment he had, a fuel-operated compressor, he put the air back into our inflated tire. It’s amazing how the swarm can fix things.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Getting immersed into the swarm is a learning experience

Yesterday we went to the small town of Axim. Axim is an old town with a similarly old historic slave castle. My children and I walked around in the small town, looking at the slave castle and the street vendors and their stalls lining the sides of the street. While I was quite fascinated by the bustling street live, I was surprised to learn that my kids were less than taken with the colorful scenery. They found the streets and houses very dirty, and the smell coming from the open sewage canals disgusting. While the kids were right in that the red dust was indeed everywhere because the streets are mostly unpaved, and the canals indeed, well, stank, I found the scenery so full of life that I could have watched it for a long time. Not so my kids. After a ten-minute walk, and after quickly drinking a cold coke from one of the street vendors, they insisted to take a taxi and get back to the hotel as quickly as possible.

It seems that becoming immersed into a new swarm is a long learning experience.

Different swarms have different rules – getting the right ice cream in Axim

I frequently noticed in Ghana that while my opposite was trying to do the best for me, his failure to explain me his reasoning converted the result into the opposite. Sometime this can go to some extremes where the motivations on both sides are not really clear. Our experiences in the beach restaurant at the romantic Axim beach resort set an excellent example.

It is no easy thing to get ice cream in Ghana. Electricity breaks down all the time, and frequently it is turned off for half a day which means that it is hard to keep ice cream in its icy state for extended periods of time. The more pleasant our surprise, when the menu of our beach hotel in Axim offered ice cream. When we ordered our ice cream, the three of us chose chocolate and strawberry from the waiter. We were slightly surprised when the restaurant manager himself proudly brought us mixed strawberry and vanilla ice. When we informed him that we had ordered strawberry and chocolate, he deeply apologized and promised to bring us what we had ordered. We saw him throw away the strawberry and vanilla ice and head back to the restaurant kitchen. But a few seconds later he was back, even more apologetic, telling us that the chocolate ice had melted in the hot Ghanaian climate, and that strawberry and vanilla ice was all that was still available. The chef had decided on his own that substituting chocolate ice with vanilla ice was what we wanted. Of course the chef had guessed right – we were starving to get some cold ice cream – but the chef had not bothered to inform the manager about our order and the changes the chef had made without asking us. In the end we gladly accepted a new vanilla and strawberry ice, but the wasted ice cream was a heavy price to pay in a country where ice cream is a highly valued rare treat.

In the same restaurant we experienced a second communication breakdown and misunderstanding of cultures. One day I told the waiter I wanted a chef’s salad as a starter for the three of us – my two kids and I would share one salad as we were not that hungry and would also have a second dish each for lunch. And indeed I got a large heaped plate of salad as the first course of our lunch. The not-so-pleasant surprise came afterwards, when the waiter doubled the price of the salad – explaining that I had asked for a “big” salad. He claimed he had only tried to follow my wishes, and could not understand that I refused to pay the double price.

A trip with Alitalia – locating surplus bags in Lagos

Our adventures started well before boarding our flight for Accra. Seven days before we were supposed to get on the Lufthansa plane from Zurich to Accra – I was still in Boston at that time – I got a phone call in the middle of the night from the travel agent, telling me that the flight to Accra had been cancelled by Lufthansa. He could not explain why. I then started calling around, and in the end the travel agent was able to book a flight for the three of us one day later than planned from Alitalia, through Milan instead of Frankfurt.

The reason Lufthansa could not fly was that it had started a squabble with the Ghanaian government about landing rights. As it was flying from Frankfurt to Accra with a stop in Lagos on behalf of Air Ghana, the Ghanaian government wanted compensation for these flights, which Lufthansa refused to pay. After a week of squabbling, the two parties came to agreement, and our flight back to Zurich should now happen with Lufthansa as planned.

Our flight with Alitalia from Milan to Accra was quite an adventure. It already started in Milan, when we noticed an excitedly gesticulating lady of seemingly Ghanaian descent. It turned out she had four pieces of hand luggage she wanted to take with her into the plane, and refused to let the flight attendants check in the surplus bags. In the end the surplus bags were checked in under police protection, and an obviously very unhappy lady boarded the plane. Everything went well until our stop in Lagos. The plane stayed on the ground for an extended period of time, and in the end the captain informed us that we were short of three passengers – meaning that in Milan three passengers had their baggage checked in, but did not board the plane. It seems this went undetected in Milan, and was only noticed by the Nigerian authorities. In stern words the Alitalia captain now requested the passengers to identify their luggage manually. At this time the already aggravated Ghanaian lady shot up, and asked for more dignified treatment of passengers. The Italian captain came running back through the plane, reinforced by a few male flight attendants. A shouting match followed, and things started getting really ugly. Tempers only cooled down after some Nigerian police officers (they also might have been customs officers, I could not tell the difference) also joined the fray. In the end the Ghanaian lady and some other unruly passengers were forcefully convinced to take their seats again. In the subsequent two hours passengers had to leave the plane in small groups to manually identify their pieces of luggage which were spread out widely on the tarmac of the airport, once this task was completed, they were let back into the plane. With 3 hours delay the plane finally took off for the last 40 minute hop to Accra.

Overall this was a surprisingly eventful trip to Ghana, free entertainment provided thanks to an explosive mix of Lufthansa’s mishandled negotiation with Ghana airline authorities, Alitalia’s mishandling of the passenger count and rough treatment of passengers, and the explosive temper of same passengers.

New impressions from Ghana - Aug 2008

This summer we (my son, 14, and my daughter, 15 years old, and I) are spending our holidays in Ghana. The “official” purpose of our trip is to install 12 computers and set up an Internet cafe for the secondary school of Anloga, a fishermen’s village at the coast of Ghana close to the border to Togo. Unofficially, we are also visiting friends in Accra and spending sunny days at the long Ghanaian beaches.