Monday in Freetown

After disembarking at Freetown’s airport, one of the first questions you’re asked is ‘Are you traveling by helicopter?’ And, if you’re like most foreign visitors, the answer is probably ‘yes.’

There’s a Soviet-era Mi-8 helicopter that ferries passengers between the airport, which is situated on the other side of a wide river bay, and Freetown’s downtown. The helicopter is even piloted by Russians. And as if that wasn’t cool enough, they left most of the porthole windows open to keep cool in the hot, sticky heat.

Today I’m in the offices of the Sierra e-Riders in Freetown, Sierra Leone, practicing installations of Ubuntu Linux and helping them to get ready to install it in other places, to troubleshoot potential problems, and to lay the groundwork to install our LiveSupport software in community radio stations around the country.

It’s important to get an idea of the amount of complications such a task can face in a place like Freetown. Doing anything becomes pretty complicated. For one thing, there’s no electricity grid to speak of, so everything that needs electric power needs its own generator. I found this out because in the middle of partitioning disks, our generator ran out of gas. We were out of commission until a neighborhood boy, Salia, maybe 10 years old, could run to the local petrol station with a full 5-gallon can. He returned, the generator started, and luckily the disks weren’t wrecked in the process.

There is a cacophony outside the office’s window: The drone of the generator, the screams of an angry woman, a crying baby, a hundred discussions in the neighboring tin sheds, and floating above it all, the call to prayer from the nearby mosque.

We’re in the rainy season now, and the downpours are strong. When they happen, the red dirt road in front of the e-Riders’ office turns to mud, and it would get tracked into the office if another neighborhood boy wasn’t hired to periodically sweep and mop the floor.

It’s the next morning and it’s raining again. The generator isn’t running, and the UPS unit is beeping insistently like an EKG. We’re going to continue our work with Linux installs today, getting more familiar with the terminal environment and working our way up to a LiveSupport installation. The boy with the diesel canister just came in, so I guess that means we’ll be starting up again.

3 thoughts on “Monday in Freetown

  1. By Jove, I’m so glad I live in Central Europe (though it’s raining over here as well right now)! I realize how little I really know about Africa and that giving each of these kids a laptop of their own is going to be an extremely tough and long-term process…

  2. Actually, Johanka, I think the One Laptop Per Child has tremendous promise for not only Africa but worldwide. Anything that gets this kind of technology out into peoples’ hands is going to have knock-on effects.

    The situation with generators is a good example: Instead of living with – and complaining about – a failed infrastructure, Sierra Leonians have made do with an alternate method of getting power: everybody (well lots of people) have generators.

    It’s important to note that instead of despairing over their situation, people here are simply moving on, and managing to live their lives in spite of all the things they’re facing. And that gives me a lot of hope for the future.

  3. Wow! Doug – what great pictures and narrative into what life is like there! Santa Barbara and Prague it’s not – but very interesting just the same. And, as you said, they seem to be getting on with things – just the way they are – and making them work! Thanks …

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