Thursday, October 07, 2010

So why DID we come to Cameroon?

Computers.  And by Computers I mean the most powerful tool known to the common man...when they work!

We've had our challenges but the volunteers and HINT have managed to provide 5 schools and an orphanage with computer centers.  Although Kristi and I are the only volunteers left and there is plenty yet to be done, we appreciate all the work done by our brothers now scattered across the globe and wish they could be here to see the culmination of our efforts.

If you don't remember - what is 2 months a long time between blog posts? - there were 6 other volunteers: 3 college students from The States, 2 university students from the UK, and 1 well traveled Chilean.  We all lived in the same house which led our neighbor to coin the place The Big Brother House.  After contemplating how amusing it was to be explained American TV from a Cameroonian, I went to ensure there were indeed no cameras in my room.

Not everyone contributed to the Schools PC Project and we will have another post explaining the other social issues HINT is taking on.  Everyone did contribute to making our experience here unforgettable and will be missed.  We currently fill the relative silence in the house by telling college stories in Spanish with a British accent.

HINT Board and Team

The Project

Before a student could sit down and use the computer for the first time, there was some work to be done.

First we had to recruit schools in the greater Buea area.

Have we got a deal for you!

How many meters before we're supposed to turn?  And what's a meter?

Getting down to business

Most of the time the Principal and/or PTAs were excited to begin a relationship with HINT.  The proposal involved supplying and installing the computers at the schools for a 60% discount, which includes installing any needed electrical infrastructure.  Upon the school taking interest, a Needs Assessment is taken.  This involves verifying the security of the computer room, creating a layout for the position of the computers, and designing an electrical circuit for the room.  A budget is then formed based on the Needs Assessment.

Excelling at Excel

Once enough budgets were agreed upon and contracts signed, it’s off to get supplies at the economic capital of Cameroon, Douala.  A 1.5 hour car ride from Buea yields access to wholesale stores where we can buy in bulk and haggle in French.

Here is a market in Douala but not containing hardware supplies because I'm still waiting on those pics from another volunteer (you know who you are! ;) )

At the same time The Container begins its internal transformation into organized stacks for each school.

THE Container

Working in THE Container

Testing hundreds of pieces of hardware was quite the undertaking but when you add good company and some laptop speakers, the time flies by.

"The Mouse cord's connected to the...PS/2 Port!"

Our bedroom sleeps 2 people and how many computers?  African present for the first to get the correct number!

Modern day The Thinker, in my opinion

One of the first projects I took on was to get The Container wired so testing could be done without having to lug hardware in and out.

I wasn't aware electricians had to be so flexible

Head Lamp == $ Well Spent

This helped me become familiar with the electrical system here in Cameroon as well as befriend our neighbor, Jerry, who was to be instrumental in helping wire the school computer labs.

Show us how it's done, Jerry

And another school is wired up!
Jerry taught me well!

Not sure what hurts more, hammer meets thumb or body meets 240 Volts

It's the 240 Volts

Next was to turn the computers from boxy plastic door stops to a portal for education.  That is, install the software.  This includes installing 2 operating systems, Windows XP and OpenSUSE Linux in a dual boot configuration, which just means when the computer starts up, there is a menu allowing you to choose which you want to use.  Linux was chosen and is recommended to the schools as the operating system of choice due to its stability, security, and protection from viruses.  It also allows the students to access a recently released operating system with all its modern features as new versions of windows will not run on this older hardware.

OpenSUSE Linux

OpenSUSE Linux also has a package of educational software with applications for all ages.  The computers include Cyber Café software as well to allow the schools to open their computer lab to the community as a fee service to help make the lab sustainable.  Hope to get another post out with much more technical data for all my fellow geeks out there.

After a little apprehension on letting our babies into the world, it was time for them to be transported to the schools.

How high can she go?

"You sure you don't want to make 2 trips?"

We're not worried at all, honest!

A quick count to verify none jumped ship and onto the final setup.

First powered on PC inside a school from the HINT Schools PC Project!

Making Ethernet cables

Kristi prevents herself from electrocution this time by unplugging before opening the computer

From Left to Right: First Linux PC in the schools, L3 Shoutout
They found Zuma faster than I can find the Start button

We ran into the inevitable problems with room configuration, hardware, and software failures.  At times the frustration set in…

But you were just working!?!

We've come a short way in computer case design

 ...but it was rewarding to finally see it all come together, culminating in a hand over event for each school.  This involved Genesis and I putting on a short computer lesson for the a group of students who get to be the first of their school to use the computers.

The event does not mark the end of HINT’s relationship with the schools as there is still more software to be added and training for the teachers and maintenance personnel.

At the same time all this was happening we were also teaching 2 classes a day on basic computer skills to mostly children and some young adults.  They took place at the HINT Cyber Center during what would be called Summer Holiday in The States.  It was great to see it wasn’t hard to recruit kids who wanted to sacrifice 2 hours a day to learn during their break.

One of the other volunteers, Brandon, has been doing this in The States and was great at guiding the lessons.  I taught one class from each session and the other volunteers would assist in managing 12 students who are touching the computer for the first time.

They loved playing games but as time went on I learned how to make my lessons engaging enough for them to be excited to learn Word, Powerpoint, and the Internet.  The pull of one particular game here is quite strong and it is everywhere.  That game is Zuma, and its playful sound of “Zooooomah!” can be heard all over Cameroon as was confirmed by an ICT Peace Corps teacher I met.

Of course The Internet is a huge hit.  It is quite exciting to elicit oohs and ahhs when confronting them with websites like Wikipedia when it dawns on them the wealth of knowledge that is now at their finger tips.  I hope all the schools are able to get access to The Internet, but if it proves cost prohibitive, Kristi is helping HINT work with The University of Iowa on a program named WiderNet as an alternative.  This program would allow the schools to gain access to a large hard drive of which part of the internet is downloaded; mainly the educational sections.

Here are some observations from the classes as I went through the growing pains of teaching children from a different culture who have never used a computer before:
  • A few students on hearing “Double Click” would click both the right and left mouse buttons at the same time.
  • Triggered a google security feature when registering everyone with a gmail account at the same time (I'm sure the fact it was coming from Cameroon didn't help).  This caused us to have to use our phones to activate the accounts.
    • The students would enter into google the question they want answered as opposed to a short description. For example: 
      • Typing out "What was the first match of the 1990 World Cup and who won?" instead of something like "1990 World Cup Schedule".
      • One of the more interesting examples occurred on a young girl's first ever search who I asked to tell the class what she had searched and what results she saw.  Her search, “Who is the Antichrist?”, resulted in…every single result being about Obama…not cool America.  Don’t ask me why that was her first search.  I suppose Dan Brown’s reach is strong and wide…hmmm, may I suggest another possible antichrist?
    • Proof as to why teachers are supposed to dry run their lesson plans, especially when using the internet:
      • In showcasing the google feature where, as you type, it tries to guess what you want to search for by popping up a list of suggestions, I started typing “How to make”.  We use a projector so everything on my screen can be seen in large print on the wall.  Google's first suggestion in its list proposed adding “love well” to complete my search.  A quick selection of "Chocolate" farther down the list helped save face and next time I would be using a different search fragment.
    • Some students' very first google searches:
      • "Who is the world's fattest person?"
      • "What are the symptoms of malaria?"
      • "How to be a good wife"
      • "How to make friends"
      • "Who is the world's best football player?"
      • "What is the airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow?"
      • "Cameroon"
      • "Farming Pesticides"
    Thanks again to everyone who helped make this possible.  HINT is still looking for support to continue the project as the goal is to have another container of computers in a few months.  Also if you haven't heard, HINT is still recovering from a burglary at its headquarters.  If you'd like to donate please visit our fund raising site at


    At 4:51 PM, October 07, 2010, Blogger Pablio said...

    11 computers in the room. Had to answer before any other guesses. back to reading the great post.

    At 5:22 PM, October 07, 2010, Anonymous DBulls said...

    Eric and Kristi--amazing work! I thoroughly enjoyed your post and certainly can't wait for the next one. You guys are doing an amazing work and are going about it with smiles on your faces. I just imagined one day, if I ever visit Cameroon, I'll walk up to someone and ask if they know Eric and Kristi Zan and they'll say YES!!!! We know who's getting the glory! Keep it up!!! Hugs and prayers- Derald and Lesa

    At 5:30 PM, October 07, 2010, Anonymous Tracy Ostrewich said...

    I think there are 13 computers. I request that my prize not be a perishable food item. ;)

    Thanks for the great post! We don't mind waiting two months when they are very detailed and peppered with good pics.

    At 9:39 AM, October 08, 2010, Blogger Lindsey Z said...

    15 computers is my guess! Great post. I'm so proud of you two. Ray Ray says he can't wait to see you guys but is loving the California lifestyle!

    At 1:09 PM, October 09, 2010, Blogger Brent said...

    Were they asking about African or European swallows?

    At 7:05 AM, October 16, 2010, Blogger Mike said...

    Interesting blog. Reminds me of the two weeks I spent with HINT while my daughter Heather was volunteering. Life in so different in Cameroon.

    At 7:52 PM, October 17, 2010, Anonymous Ambers said...

    Love it!! You guys are rockstars for staying on to finish the job!! I completly forgot about all the google search stuff! That definetly made for a good laugh! Miss you guys tons!! Talk to you again soon!!

    At 12:39 PM, October 18, 2010, Blogger Beth said...

    Fabulous work, fabulous blog, so great to see what you have accomplished and the example you have set for the next group of volunteers.

    At 8:05 PM, October 21, 2010, Anonymous Melissa :) said...

    That...was...AWESOME!!!! LOVE this post - thank you for sharing! As much as I miss you guys (and it is a LOT), I'm so proud to know you for the amazing work you are doing there - they are blessed to have you for sure. Keep up the great work and stay safe! Hugs, Mel


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