OLPCorps Tulane University & UC Davis – Sierra Leone

Our first day with the kids and XOs by Katie McCarthy
March 9, 2010, 1:48 am
Filed under: Logistics, Teaching

If we thought the first 48 hours were crazy, we had no idea what the next three weeks would be like. Because of the delay in receiving our laptops, we crunched what we’d planned to do in 6-7 weeks into 3 weeks. And, these three weeks included Jamie leaving in the beginning of the first (we’re very happy he was able to see the computers with kids and help with the first day :)) and Katie R leaving in the middle of the third week.  At the time, we had no time to sleep, let alone post blog entries. While we planned to update the blog after arriving back in the US, as usual, life continued and we weren’t able to update it as quickly as we’d hoped. So, just in case, any of you were wondering, here’s a look at what our final three weeks looked like.


After the chaos of the past 48 hours, the time-crunched nature of our project continued with the first day with all of the kids. On Monday, Chelsea and I got to DCI at 6:30 am to finish checking and updating all the computers. We organized our materials, set up benches and chairs outside for the parents and kids, and prepped for the arrival of 95 kids with their parents. Luckily, we had tons of help, especially from some of the kids and awesome volunteers. Katie R, Jamie, and Banie joined us after appearing as special guests on a local radio station.

Mr. Banya showing off the computers

Mr. Banya showing off the computers

With more than a little apprehension, we greeted parents and families as they came in, checking in students and confirming their ages. There was some confusion when some kids tried to get computers who were not on our list. We did our best to allay the confusion and to help as many kids as we could.  Below are some pictures of the check-in process.

Katie M, Jamie and our helper, Isata

Katie M, Jamie and our helper, Isata

Signing in

Signing in

After checking in, parents and students headed outside to learn more about the program and class. Banie and Satta did an excellent job explaining, discussing the program, children’s safety, and the importance of child ownership, and Solomon showed off the computer and its functions. It was very exciting for us to see the DCI staff and volunteers in action.

Solomon, showing off the XO

Solomon, showing off the XO

Banie, talking to the parents about safety

Banie, talking to the parents about safety

We continued by distributing the laptops, having each child write his/her name of his/her XO, and asking the parents to sign their child up for a class session. We ended the session around 11am, already thoroughly exhausted.

The day continued with preparations for our first day of classes, finishing our computer updates AND (drum role please) establishing internet! Thank you Zain! Katie R, Chelsea, Jamie and I headed back to the Pastoral Centre in the late afternoon, completely exhausted but very happy with the day.

Introducing OLPC

Introducing OLPC

Our class calendar

Our class calendar

Safety and Parents' Roles

Safety and Parents' Roles

I attached our outline of the opening ceremony – we didn’t follow it exactly, but this is what we planned. It may be helpful for those planning similar projects. Opening ceremony info


48 Hours of Pure Adrenaline by Katie R
August 7, 2009, 1:11 pm
Filed under: Logistics, OLPCorps

There are a number of cliché idioms that might be used to describe the past week or so here in Kenema, and specifically the 48 hours of pure adrenaline that made up last week’s Sunday through Tuesday.  For example:

When it rains, it pours.

Time flies when you’re having fun.

Get  the ball rolling.

Absence makes the heart grow fonder

A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush.

A rolling stone gathers no moss.

Don’t count your chickens before they hatch.

When in Rome…  (“That expression doesn’t really apply to what I’m talking about.”  “I still don’t understand what it means.”  First person to name that movie gets a prize.)

After a month and a half of contemplating the futility of our roles in this program, at the brink of utter frustration and despair caused by our apparent customs-and-internet-problem-solving impotence (see XO’s Please Continued)… something happened.  Things started moving, things started going right.

Banie and Katie M with 20 boxes of XOs, transport bus in the background

Banie and Katie M with 20 boxes of XOs, transport bus in the background

On Sunday, July 26th at around 1:30 in the afternoon (start clock- 0hrs 00min), our shipment of brand new, bright green XO laptop computers finally, finally, FINALLY arrived at Defence for Children International’s Kenema office.  Well, 99% of them arrived, but that is enough for us to start the program, anyway.  We worked all afternoon to get them unpacked, numbered on the side with a Sharpie, serial numbers recorded, and NANDBlasted (software updated).  NANDBlasting went pretty well, although the copies that we made of the USB stick that Reuben gave us in Kigali did not work for whatever reason, so we made due with just the one original stick.

Though we had enough work to keep us at the DCI office until late into that night, a prior engagement brought us back to the Pastoral Center (our home away from home) on Sunday evening (clock- 3hrs 19min).  We had planned a big, huge birthday party for all the kids that live nearby and their families, to celebrate all of the birthdays that will happen in the next year when we’re not around.  We first met this group of kids around the Pastoral Center last summer, and they have proved to be not only great friends who kept tenaciously in touch with us over the past year, but also “cultural brokers” to help guide us as we stumble awkwardly through the inevitable cultural mishaps of international travel.  They are a wonderful group, curious and so smart, aged from 2 to 20.  Meeting them was one of my favorite things about coming to Sierra Leone last year, and the eagerness and potential I saw in their bright eyes was certainly one of the main inspirations in applying for the OLPCorps grant in the first place.

Pinata at the Pastoral Center birthday party, pre-riots

Pinata at the Pastoral Center birthday party, pre-riots

Having the birthday party on Sunday seemed like a good idea when we thought the laptops were going to be there Saturday, but both events on the same day was, well, hectic to say the least.  The party was certainly a success, though it started out a bit awkward with the parents and then almost turned into a riot at the end.  The party really got started with a dance competition (which was awesome), judged by the parents and separated by the youngest, middle, and oldest kids- we have some great video of that.  Next, we all went out to whack at (or flog, as the kids say) the piñata that Jamie and Chelsea had constructed out of palm fronds, cardboard, duct tape, stickers, and colorful plastic bags… which turned into an absolute, fist-throwing riot when the candy finally spilled.  It was actually kind of terrifying, and I was afraid that some kid was going to get trampled or smothered to death, or at the very least that the parents would all yell at us for endangering their children’s lives… but everyone survived and they actually all seemed to love the whole piñata ordeal.  We finished off the evening (clock- 7hrs 51min) with a veritable birthday cake, icing and sprinkles and all (it was even baked, Emily).

Eastern Radio had us as guest speakers on 2 of its hour long radio shows

Eastern Radio had us as guest speakers on 2 of its hour long radio shows

Bright and early on Monday morning, Jamie, Banie and I took a trip up Freedom Mountain to Eastern Radio 101.9 Kenema, the voice of justice and development (clock- 17hrs 07min).  We were the live guests on the hour-long morning show, which focused mainly on the long-awaited commencement of our project, telling the entire Eastern Region the benefits of these laptops for kids, and answering questions from callers.  Then we signed autographs for all the fans that lined up outside the radio studio after the show… ah, just kidding- we’re not that cool yet.  It was a pretty fun way to publicize, and the radio show host and callers had some great questions.  Check out an audio clip of the program below (sound quality isn’t too great, we’ll try and improve it when we can)… ok nevermind, internet connection is a bit slow.


Simultaneously, as the radio waves soared invisibly through town, Katie M and Chelsea headed off to the DCI office to set up for the first real day of the program- meeting with the parents and assigning computers.  We had all the kids (95!) and all their parents come to the office for a presentation on the class and responsibilities of the parents (clock- 18hrs 30min).  We had the kids sign up for class times, and then we handed out the computers (95!!) so that kids could put their names on them and decorate them with the formidable leftover sticker collection of Katie M’s childhood.  We’re keeping 5 of the computers as spares, and our own computers will go to the class teachers.  It was a bit chaotic at first- there were plenty of children who were not on DCI’s list who appeared and asked for computers.  For those who were on the list, when it came time to hand out the XOs, the message that we have a computer for each child on the list, it’s not first come first served, was drowned by the clamoring mass (kids and parents) that pushed, shoved, and scrambled to get their computers before the others.  Overall though, parents were receptive and eager, kids were thrilled, the entire region was notified, and the program was finally launched.  All by 11 am last Monday morning (clock- 22hrs 30min).

As if this wasn’t enough for one 24 hour period, Monday afternoon brought another advance in the battle against powerlessness.  We FINALLY got a successful internet connection at the DCI office- not a wireless one (yet!), but a genuine, real-life internet connection.  We had been working on this for the past month, as well, battling/getting the run-around from one piece-of-crap communications company who sold us a modem and service for a modem that just does NOT work in Kenema (it works in Freetown, yes. Kenema, no- they just don’t get it).  If any of you faithful readers are in the market for a modem that functions outside of Freetown, or at the very least a communications company that has any idea how to operate the products that it sells, I would not recommend SierraTel.

The previous week, with the finality of a very strongly worded letter delivered to the heads of the main office in Freetown, we had finally given up on SierraTel, resigned to the fact that we would probably just have to eat the money and time we wasted on their modem.  However, inspired by the working internet on our trip to Sahn Malen and not giving up on the idea of internet yet, we had another communications company, Zain, come out to the DCI office on Monday afternoon to set up their modem… and it worked.  Almost instantly.  It was amazing.  We checked email right there (clock- 26hrs 11min).

Tuesday the actual class started with the kids (more on that soon), though I didn’t get to see it because Jamie and I caught the early bus to Freetown (clock- 38hrs 13min) to drop him off for his flight home.  Not ones to waste a trip to Freetown, we walked straight from the bus station in Freetown to SierraTel with our worthless, poor excuse for a modem and copies of both our receipt and our strongly-worded letter to demand, even though it was probably hopeless, a full refund.  And it worked.  Almost instantly.  It was amazing. (Clock stop- 48hrs 00min).

Whew!  These 48 hours brought about the conclusion- in our favor- to several of the battles we’re been fighting since we arrived here.

Just to re-cap, in 48 hours:

  1. Computers arrived
  2. Unpack, number, record, NANDBlast
  3. Birthday party and piñata riot
  4. Eastern Radio
  5. Parent Meeting and XO assignment
  6. Zain modem and working internet
  7. Travel to Freetown
  8. First day of class with the kids
  9. Full Refund from SierraTel
  10. Jamie back to the U.S.

The rest of the week was still busy, but in a controlled, manageable way.  Faaez, from the other OLPCorps team in Sierra Leone, came to the rescue on Thursday like a wireless internet super hero, tights and all.  Thanks to his magic touch and the sweet Linux nothings he whispered to our server’s ear, we are now broadcasting the signal of our functioning Zain modem through the server and the wireless access points.  We have the first wireless internet spot in all of Kenema and probably the whole Eastern region.

Photo taken by one of the students on his XO in the first week of class

Photo taken by one of the students on his XO in the first week of class

The first week of class was great.  We’re still trying with our teachers to find the right balance between instruction and constructionism, but the kids are so smart and so eager, they learn so fast.  We have uploaded several pictures form the first week on our Flickr page that I would highly recommend.

“XO’s Please” Continued by Chelsea Rue
July 25, 2009, 1:46 pm
Filed under: Logistics, OLPCorps, Rants and Raves, Technology

The battle to get the laptops continues…

Inefficiency.  Lies.  Suspicions.

Do we have your attention International DHL PR staff person?  We certainly hope so.

Our laptops were freed from Customs on Wednesday (to our great relef and joy).  However, another struggle has presented itself.  Despite repeated assurances from the DHL Sierra Leone office that we would be receiving the laptops by Friday, at the latest Saturday at 1 pm, we are now sitting here at 6:40 pm posting this blog with nary an XO in sight.

Here is what we find troubling about this situation and the reasons we were given for the delay:

  1. DHL SL did not deliver on the day that they assured us (several times) that they would deliver.  This will delay the start date of our program once again, to the disappointment of 100 of the most vulnerable children in Kenema.
  2. DHL claimed that our shipment was delayed because it rained yesterday.  This is absurd.  It’s the rainy season.
  3. DHL SL is using a commercial bus to send our valuable shipment unaccompanied across the country, instead of using secure DHL vehicles.
  4. Not only did DHL SL use alternate transport for our shipment, upon our calls to DHL SL agents this morning, they were completely unaware of the shipment’s status or location.
  5. DHL SL gave several conflicting reasons why our shipment did not come as promised. First, they cannot deliver in the rain. Second, the vans had technical problems. Third, the van was full. If there was a problem with our shipment the night before, we should have been notified immediately.

    We look forward to Sunday where we will either be presented with our laptops (as most recently promised) or with ever more creative excuses.

    We welcome a response from any DHL staff who should happen across this post.

    Customs by jamesko
    July 6, 2009, 12:16 pm
    Filed under: Logistics

    The ball is rolling. And now, the waiting game…

    This post is a continuation of “XOs Please…”.

    So after my arrival, Katie R and I spent a couple of days in Freetown to try and resolve the Customs issue, as well as pick up a modem from the head SierraTel office (per the office in Kenema’s instructions). Our… “adventures” with the modem will be saved for a future blog.

    So why have we been having problems getting our laptops released?

    Although his intentions were not malicious, our in-country contact unfortunately tried to tackle the complex shipping and customs process solo, without communicating with the appropriate DCI personnel (their Logistics and Operations Manager). As a result, what he thought was a duty-waiver form, was in fact not, and what he confidently assured us was taken care of, wasn’t.

    As of a week ago, our team, customs and DCI were seeing three different situations: our team was under the impression that all appropriate paperwork had been filled out; Customs was appropriately imposing a duty fee (as we didn’t have the correct duty-waiver form); and DCI was in the dark about the whole thing.  It took hours of digging and probing the agents at the DHL and our shipment files, along with the help of the staff at the DCI headquarters office in Freetown, to bring this whole situation to light.

    Where did that leave us?

    After discovering what had gone wrong, there was still work to do. The DHL employee told us that we would need to pay Le 500,000 (about $150) to the National Revenue Association (NRA) as a duty waiver fee , and that we had to write a letter to some Commissioner (which he graciously helped us get started on) and bring them to him the following day.  So, at 9am the following morning, we showed up with our letter and money only to then be told that the Le 500,000 was the NRA fee and that the DHL agent himself would need Le 300,000 (about $90) for “documentation and acceleration”.  When we (naturally) objected to paying additional fees beyond the previous quote and pressed the DHL man for further explanation, our friend from DCI stepped in to help elucidate, succinctly and clearly, why it was necessary.  “What he is trying to say,” our DCI rep explained, “is that this is Sierra Leone…” (What we heard: The Le 300,000 was for DHL and to grease the palms of the people whose signature we would need if we want to get our laptops before the end of the summer).

    It was a classic bait and switch, but at least it was one step closer to the liberation of our laptops.

    As of Friday, our paperwork was just about complete and duty waiver almost granted.  We expect the rest to go through today, which means that the laptops will be free to go and on their way… to Freetown?  DHL has been trying to convince us on more than one occasion that, once our shipment is released, we will have to pick it up from their office in Freetown and transport it to Kenema ourselves because they only have the resources to transport small packages all the way to Kenema… even though the receiving address in the contract is in Kenema (not Freetown)… and even though DHL actually has a functioning office in Kenema… and even though there were two big painted yellow DHL vans outside the office that would have plenty of space…

    We were told we would be getting the final signature today (Monday) and receiving the laptops sometime later this week. So now we’re waiting with our fingers crossed…