By: Caleb Garling
Somalilandsun – “Twelve tabs with Justin Bieber videos screw over the whole school. I still get a hard time about it,” Dan Hastings says. He’s defending his decision, as the IT guy, to block YouTube at the high school where he worked, in one of the most barren reaches of populated Africa.
This was at Abaarso School in Somaliland, the northern portion of the Horn of Africa. For most western schools, a dozen YouTube clips would barely register on an IT dashboard, but Abaarso is “literally is in the middle of nowhere,” a dozen or so miles to the east of Hargeisa, the small capital. The landscape is red rocks and the occasional swaths of underbrush.
Somaliland is an autonomous northern region of Somalia, which has yearned, unsuccessfully, to be recognized as an independent nation. Fighting clans and pirates on the coasts (mostly in the south of Somalia, however) deter all but the bravest travelers and aide workers.
“Africa in general is a crazy place,” Hastings says. “But it doesn’t compare to Somaliland. It reminds me of Mad Max.” Though he says there was not a single violent incident while he was there. For a staff of 16 and a student body around 160, Abaarso School keeps 15-20 armed guards at a time.
Many believe that the connectivity of the Internet will enable and catalyze education in the regions of the world that need it most. Abaarso was started by Horn of Africa Education Development Fund as a school for the most promising students in the area. Hastings found his position as Abaarso’s computer skills teacher (eventually becoming IT guy was a byproduct) through Idealist.org, after working in San Francisco for Americorps VISTA, teaching Bay Area non-profits the newest technologies.
When Hastings arrived perhaps the most important part of teaching computer skills was, for practical purposes, missing. Somaliland is one of the few remaining areas of Africa not to have fiber optic Internet access, according to the UbuntuNet Alliance. Most Africas get on the web via basic mobile phones. During Hastings’s tenure he’d be paid via ZAAD, a company that does SMS transactions, which is how a lot of developing Africa deals with money. Somaliland gets onto the Internet via microwaves sent over from Djibouti, Hastings says, and there are only two main providers Somtel and Telesom.
This made speeds glacial and often non-existent. Hastings would call and complain to a technician at Somtel so often they became friends, and often the technician-friend would say the Internet was actually out across the entire country. When it was up, Hastings fought for better bandwidth the old fashioned way: by driving into Hargeisa and marching into Somtel’s offices. Finally, after enough badgering and finally presenting a spreadsheet of the school’s upload and download speeds over time, did he get an uptick in juice.
“I don’t think they’d ever had that from someone before,” he says. “Most the NGOs just accept that the Internet stinks.”
The average download speed per connection — loosely meaning per computer — in the United States is around eight megabits per second. The “increase” Hastings got bumped Abaarso to around three Mbps across the entire school.
Due to the climate, Abaarso’s ethernet cables had started to degrade. Hastings found a distributor in Dubai that sold wiring, but the box was confiscated at airport customs. So Hastings, who knew a guy at the airlines, had to drive into town, wait a day and finally pay $20 to get the cables released.
The ordeal certainly puts Amazon Prime into perspective. “It was well worth it though,” Hastings says.
Then there was the matter of wattage to keep the hard drives spinning. “Every time we had computer class I had to go to the generator and turn the power up.” But the generator would run out of gas (there was also a broken wind turbine) and the fuel was so dirty that they’d go through filters like hot cakes. So the generator would die unexpectedly and kids would lose their work. “A stronghold of patience is pretty big.”
Filesharing was still important internally. He wanted students to email him homework and keep their work in soft copy. So this still required an intranet. Rather than using Dropbox, Hastings used a local storage service called ownCloud. Files were still shared via a browser but were stored on local servers — an intranet via the internet, if you will.
So he needed to bolster the signal between machines. Using skills he learned at City College of San Francisco, Hastings ended up setting up a “mesh network”, where each node is both a receiver and a router (peer to peer) for the data coming in from the rest of the Internet. Like breaking one strand inside a spider web won’t destroy the whole structure, this helps keep the network going should one of the points fail. This sort of routing needs clever software and luckily for the budget strapped, The Open Technology Institute developed an open version called Commotion.
As his tenure at Abaarso wound down this past fall, Hastings took care to ensure if something in the IT network broke there would be enough documentation that the staff or students could handle the problem. And no sooner did he leave did he receive an email from a fellow Western staffer: someone accidentally poured water into the generator, which had caused a shock to the network and all Internet was down.
Hastings responded frantically with questions, trying to resolve the problem remotely and save everyone’s hard work.
Shortly he got a response: “It’s fine. Ahmed and Abdi-Rahiim fixed everything.”
(Caleb Garling) firstname.lastname@example.org