OLPCorps Tulane University & UC Davis – Sierra Leone

The Most Productive One-Day Trip EVER by Katie McCarthy
August 6, 2009, 9:49 am
Filed under: OLPCorps, Technology

In an attempt to catch our faithful readers up with our continually chaotic lives post-XOs, here is a blog about our life pre-XOs.

You know when you are waiting for an important call – a call from the doctor, or from a job interview, or from Cox Communications – and you have been waiting all day? And, after waiting hours next to the phone, you decide to run to the bathroom because you have been waiting all day next to the phone. And, just when you sit down on the toilet, the phone rings. That’s what our trip to Sahn Malen was like.

As you know, we had been waiting weeks for customs to release our laptops. Being incredibly bored and not having anything else to do until our laptops arrived, we decided it was the perfect time to go visit the other SL OLPC team. Katie and I met two of their teammates when we were in Rwanda and they were pretty awesome. Although the morning started out with bad luck for me (freezing cold showers with no electricity and the water running out do not bode well for the start of the trip), the trip was uneventful. Upon leaving Kenema, we first took a taxi to Bo (the 4 of us with 6 of our closest friends – we were in a 5 passenger car – about an hour away). Once in Bo, we found another taxi to take us to Pujehun town. The road to Pujehun is about 30 miles paved and 12 miles unpaved – about 2 hours. We shared the taxi with our closest 9 friends (again, 5 passenger). When we arrived in Pujehun, we found that most of the motor bikers had been arrested the day before because they did not have licenses. We had planned on taking a motor bike to Sahn Malen… we finally found two bikers and ended up riding 3 to a bike with several backpacks. I’m still sore from trying to hold onto the bike with my legs and trying to keep my back straight (and not fall off the bike) with my stomach muscles. Excellent workout! It took us about 30 minutes by bike to get to Sahn Malen. The Hondas knew exactly where to take us because our friends were the only poo-mwis there. In fact, people in Bo even knew who we were going to visit (one of the Sahn Malen team members has dread locks, an unusual hairstyle for men in Sierra Leone, so they know who he is).

Thomas, our Honda driver

Thomas, our Honda driver

The village, Sahn Malen, is really rural and the team has one of the few generators in town. They get many of their supplies from Bo (which is 2-4 hours away, depending on the type of transportation). We got there in the mid-afternoon and went to see the other team’s set-up (very low tech but good). They power the laptops with the combination of a generator, individual solar panels, and a battery (powered by solar panels). They were building off of a previous deployment in December, working with peer educators and two local schools to provide XOs to all children in Class 5 (roughly, fifth grade). After observing their setup, we headed out to a “nearby” village (1 hour’s walk away) with another team member who was following up on mosquito net distribution project.

Scenic view along the way to Sahn Malen

Scenic view along the way to Sahn Malen

On our walk, however, Chelsea kept getting flashed on her cell phone by two of our DCI colleagues. (BTW, the term “flashing” refers to when people call your cell phone quickly, so you know they called, but not so you have enough time to actually pick up the phone. Because most people pay for their cell phones by the minute, calling people, especially when they have a different provider, can be expensive.) They kept calling but, of course, we had no signal because we’re in the middle of nowhere – literally. We were between two extremely isolated villages. We finally found a place where there were two bars but we had no units. So, we flashed them back. See the pictures below for a visual representation of how the call went.

Jamie, receiving the fateful call

Jamie, receiving the fateful call

Taking a picture of what might be a photo-worthy call

Taking a picture of what might be a photo-worthy call

Do we have laptops? Thumbs up? Thumbs down?

Do we have laptops? Thumbs up? Thumbs down?

Looks like a thumbs up... :)

Looks like a thumbs up... 🙂

Yay!! We got our laptops!!

Yay!! We got our laptops!!

Luckily our DCI friends called back to tell us our laptops had been freed from customs! Unfortunately, DHL was saying they couldn’t bring them to Kenema. (This was after we were assured by two reps in Freetown and 3 reps from the international office that they would be brought to Kenema.) After frantically returning to Sahn Malen, buying units and finding the best spot to make calls (stradling a gutter, interestingly enough), we called the OLPC rep in Boston and Emily, our amazing team member in Buffalo. We left a voice message for the OLPC rep (I think, a barely coherent message) and talked to Emily, who kept calling us back on Skype when we lost signal. I sat in a crouching position for about 15 minutes and in the middle of a puddle while we spoke. Then we called the DHL Freetown rep, who told us he would call back once he figured out the additional fee to transport the laptops toKenema (because they hadn’t figured that out before… ?). We thought they were trying to get more money out of us, but it turns out not to be so. Or at least, the charges were somewhat legit.

”]Katie, Katie, Jamie and Carlos [making a coconut whistle]
Captured Bush Baby

Captured Bush Baby

Back to Sahn Malen – we spent the rest of the evening eating pineapple and coconut, hanging out with Carlos and Faaez, meeting their team, setting up internet, and seeing what we later determined was a bush baby (thank you Wikipedia).

We stayed the night in Sahn Malen and departed early in the morning to head back to Kenema and get our laptops. We spent less than 24 hours in Sahn Malen, and it was the first day we had all been out of Kenema since we arrived. Too bad we didn’t leave earlier – we may have received our laptops earlier!


“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.

    Getting a modem to work… by jamesko
    July 6, 2009, 12:19 pm
    Filed under: Technology

    One of the goals of this project is to provide internet access for the XOs. However, trying to get it has thus far been quite an adventure. When the team first arrived, they spoke with the telecommunications company SierraTel, and they told us that they could provide a modem and internet no problem, but that we would have to wait because it would take them a day or two to get the modem. While we were waiting, tragically, one of their employees died. The staff told us that they would be mourning for the next few days and that we should return on Thursday. When we went back on Thursday, they informed us that they were still mourning and that we should check back the following day to see if they are still mourning or not. So we did. And they were.

    The following week we spoke with them again and they told us that they would be unable to get the modem for us and that we needed to get it from Freetown ourselves (but that they could help with any difficulties we might have while setting it up). Fortunately, this was at the same time I was flying into Sierra Leone and Katie and I could pick up the modem when she came to get me. We went to SierraTel and got the modem fine. However, when we went back to the guesthouse, set up the modem and tried it, it didn’t work. We went back to SierraTel and Natasha, our agent, fixed it (it was a simple fix, changing the network type from EVDO to CDMA). Apparently, in Freetown EVDO should be used but while in Kenema we would need to use CDMA.

    Since we got to Kemema one of two things has happened while trying to connect to the internet. (1) the modem gets no signal, or (2) we get a signal, but when we try to connect, we get an error message that says that “the remote computer is not responding”.

    Last Friday we spent several hours at the SierraTel office here in Kenema on the phone with “tech support” from Freetown. Our efforts were fruitless. The man in charge in Kenema, Ellis, told us that on Monday a man named Christopher would be back and he was the expert who could fix our problem.

    Today is Monday. This morning we got a call from Ellis and he informed us that Christopher will not be coming back until Friday. Damn…

    So here is where we need some help from all you tech savvy readers out there. As we wait for Christopher, we are trying to answer the following two questions:

    (1) SierraTel personnel tell us that only 3 or so computers can get internet at once on the modem that we are using; while in Rwanda for the training, our team was told that due to the server and access points we would be able to provide internet to all of the computers no problem. Who is right?

    (2) This is not really a question, and we will know more once we get the modem to work, but does anyone have any advice or comments for us as we prepare to connect the modem to the server? Has anyone tried using this modem before (modem details below)? The setup will be different from the one that our team has done before (in Rwanda, the modem was plugged into the wall, where as our modem here is plugged in using a USB connection.)

    For anyone who thinks that they may be able to help us, we would really appreciate your input. Details of the modem that we bought are as follows and photos are below:

    4th of July and Beyond 083


    Huawei Technologies CO., Ltd.

    EC266  USB Modem

    CDMA2000 1x

    EV-DO Rev. A

    Key Features

    High speed wireless access with CDMA2000 1xEV-DO Rev. A

    Send and receive E-mails with large attachments

    Compatible with laptop and pc

    Plug and play

    Receive diversity


    Microsoft Windows 2000, Windows XP or Windows VISTA

    128 MB RAM or above

    100MB available hard disk space

    USB interface


    CDMA2000 1xRTT 800/1900MHz

    CDMA2000 1xEV-DO Rev. 0 800/1900MHz

    CDMA2000 1xEV-DO Rev. A 800/1900MHz

    Routers, and adapters, and transformers oh my! by jamesko
    June 15, 2009, 2:00 am
    Filed under: Technology

    Ok, so what equipment will we need to bring to make this whole thing work?

    That was the question that was placed before us. In the chats and the seemingly hundreds of e-mails that were sent amongst the group, we were told that the equipment we would need to bring consisted of routers (2, maybe 3?), CAT5 cabling (site specific), USB sticks (number up to us),  power strips, and maybe a switch/hub (what is that anyways?)…

    Alrighty, not too bad, some ambiguity understandably but we can handle that.

    And after much debate, and conversations with people who actually know something about setting up computer networks, and questions still going unanswered, our equipment list now consists of the following.

    1) 3 Linksys wireless routers, model WRT54G, loaded with custom firmware (specifics undetermined). We are not planning on using a switch, but instead using one of the routers as the “mama” router, and then setting the other two as access points. The newer WRT54G model that you buy today is more energy efficient than its previous releases and comes with a power cord that accepts universal voltages, which is great, and will only need UK plug adapters. For the one older router that we already have, we will also be bringing with us a 50-watt transformer (specifics below)

    2) CAT5 cable (or networking wire, or ethernet wire, all pretty much one and the same). We still haven’t determined the exact amount. But, since I will be joining the rest of the team a week or two into the project, we actually have the advantage of being able to have me bring last minute items. We would have our organization on the other end do some measurements, but our internet setup is at this point undetermined and communication difficult.

    3) 5 UK plug adapters with built in surge protection. These nifty little guys will serve our personal computers, the server, and the “mama” router.

    4) 10 UK plug adapters with no surge protection. These are for our personal XO laptops and tools etc…

    5) 2 50-Watt voltage converts. These voltage converters can handle up to 50 watts, but should only be used continuously with a power draw of 25 watts or less. We ran into an issue of deciding whether or not our access points will draw more than that. Our most recent calculations say they can’t handle it, but Reuben (our technical leader) assures us that they are sufficient (because when voltage goes up – as it will for us going from 110V to 220V – the current, or amps, goes down), which is something we did not consider. I guess we’ll just have to wait and see…

    6)2 1875-watt voltage converts. For bigger items.

    7) We are currently bringing 8 USB drives – probably gonna get more.

    8) Fun stuff like t-shirts, certificates, buttons, gold stars, Sharpies to decorate the laptops with, etc…

    9) Stuff for a tool kit. In one of the documents that was provided to us there was a long list of tool kit items that we should bring. We will be bringing what we can of the following items, but most of it can probably be bought over there as well, (anti-static wrist strap, #0 & #1 phillips head screwdrivers, flathead screwdrivers, headphones,  microphone, scre holders/sorters, multimeter, side cutters, needle-nose pliers, tweezers, tape measure, soldering station, a recorder, component storage, USB/TTL-Serial adapter, hot glue gun, loupe (magnifying glass), Anti-static bags, printable shipping labels for shipping parts, packing tape, cushioning packing material

    So there it is. From 5 items to many, many more.

    We have to give a special shout out to Fry’s electronics where we spent the better part of a day but got a lot of great stuff. Also, to Yes Press for donating our awesome t-shirts, and the Davis Computer Doctor for donating a router.