Silent night in Chichewa

Usikuwo woyerawo
Mwana adamlerayo
Akakhale Mfumuyo
Anabadwa m'kholamo,
Mfumu ya mafumo
Ndi ya anthuwo.

Mwanayo wa Mulunguyo
Andikonda inetu,
Nan'tayira chumacho
Nadzagona m'udzumo.
Ndiyamika Mbuye
Wanga Yesuyo.

Usikuwo woyerawo!
Wadzatu mtenderewo
Ife tonse anthuwo
Atitenga Mlunguyo.
Mlemekeze 'Tate,
Mwana, Mzimunso.

Christmas Yabwino!

(Thanks Soyapi!)

A practical approach for getting internet access for organizations in Malawi

My friend Jon Saints has a good writeup on his experience getting connectivity to one of the more isolated cities in Malawi.

"It was the combination of resource pooling, engineering, policy that finally made the CCAP a true market for high speed internet connectivity. The combination of these three factors all coming together at the right time are finally what will bring reliable, powerful, capable connectivity to the office of the CCAP that were once on the wrong side of the Digital Divide."

Malawian windmill

From The Daily Times:

William says after dropping out of school in 2002, because he could not raise schools fees, he had nothing to do and grew an interest in reading science books...

He says one day while reading he came across two books, Using Energy and How it Works, which are about generation of electricity using a windmill.

On a trial and error basis, he managed to make a small windmill which generated electricity enough to light his dorm. Seeing its success he planned for a bigger one so that his parents could benefit and some well-wishers gave him money to get some of the materials he needed.

"When I was making all these, some people were mocking me that I was going mad but I had confidence in what I was doing because I knew if it was written in the books then it was true and possible. When I succeeded they were impressed," explains William.

The windmill stands on a tripod of wooden polls about five metres above the ground. It consists of locally-available materials and as far as he can remember his investments were K500 for two bearings, K500 for a bicycle dynamo, K400 for a fun belt and K800 for a bicycle frame. [about $15 USD total]

link to full article (link is dead - dailytimes doesn't appreciate the value of permanent internet publishing...yet) Update - found the original story on the Internet Archive (thanks Chris!).

A mouse rollercoaster?

Hold on to your hats and glasses cuz this here's the wildest ride in Malawi...

Mouse rollercoaster.JPG

Everything tastes better when you put it on a stick!



Elephant closeup


Late night geek joke

: - ) walks into a bar and : ) says, "why the long face?"

Opportunity International Bank of Malawi in Business Week

Wow, microfinance certainly has caught the world's attention. Claudia facilitated the interview for this article in Business Week:

Proponents say the beauty of microfinance is how a small amount of money can have a ripple effect on so many lives. In capitalist terms, it's the power of leverage. In human terms, it's the story of Dorothy Njobvu Kanjautso, a 35-year-old mother of three in Malawi who was widowed eight years ago. Through Opportunity International, a nonprofit group that received the Gates Foundation's first-ever microfinance grant in late 2005, she has taken out six loans over the last three years to build a school with seven teachers and start a separate business selling frozen treats from a cart. She used her first $70 loan to buy mats and games for the children; subsequent loans let her add a primary school and expand enrollment.

Being able to employ other people in the community is one way Kanjautso's loans paid off. At home the loans have improved the nutrition and education of her children. Before their mother's business took off, Kelvin, 12, Natasha, 11, and Vanessa, 9, ate meat maybe once a month, and meals were not particularly nutritious. Now they eat meat once a week and have a more balanced diet. They go to a private school with a 30-to-1 teacher-student ratio, far better than the 70-to-1 ratio in government schools. Better education and nutrition greatly increase the odds of their being able to stay above the poverty line.


The Gates Foundation's efforts, which range from funding a trans-African network of commercial banks for the poor to a plan to bring credit unions to the poorest regions of the developing world, also support technologies that push beyond what is common in the West. In a region where banking services are often nonexistent, it has helped fund one of the more innovative approaches. A $2.2 million grant to Opportunity International in late 2005 included funds to help hand out biometric smart cards to clients of the group's microfinance institution in Malawi. The cards work much like atm cards except they use fingerprint-reading technology. That's important because most clients don't have official identification documents since they don't drive and don't travel outside the country. When Malawi entrepreneur Kanjautso uses the ATM, she says she feels like one of the wealthy travelers that she associates with ATMs: "I look like a foreigner. I'm so proud of it."

Read all about it:

Notes from my talk at ICT association of Malawi


Who I am , Where I work

Free and Open Source Software in Malawi


Practical Examples

Definition of Open Source? Forget definitions, I am going to tell you why open source is important to your life.

Open Source software = Community

Open source software is superior to other forms of software because of the communities that are available to those that use it.

I will be repeating this theme. It is about the community.

Some practical examples of Open Source software.

Firefox is a web browser. It is better than Internet Explorer. Sure it has tabbed windows, and a great search box, and a lot of other things that have already been added to the next version of internet explorer. It is free - which is great - but so is Internet Explorer. Why use it then? Community!!

Because Firefox is free, and because all of the source code is available, it is very easy to customize firefox. A huge community of software developers have come together to create extensions, which make the browser do all sorts of things the original author never dreamed of.

This means simple things like displaying the time from different cities around the world in your browser, or controlling your mp3 player from inside your browser.

But it also means powerful things. The firefox community has developed an extension called adblock and adblock updater which automatically removes advertisements from just about every web page on the interent. When bandwidth is a precious thing, like here in Malawi you do not want to be wasting your time downloading ads. Thanks to the Firefox community, web pages can load in just a fraction of the time they otherwise would have.

I saved the best extension for last. It is best because it illustrates just how accessible these communities are. Soyapi Mumba is a software developer here in Lilongwe. He developed an extension called SearchWith. With it, you can select select text on any web page and instantly send that text as a query to google, or look for an entry on wikipedia, or a number of other things as well. It was created here in Malawi, and it has been downloaded over 10,000 times. Soyapi's extension proves that you don't need to work for Microsoft, or live in Europe to create software that will change the world.

Perhaps you have wondered why anybody would create software and give it away for free? Well now you can ask Soyapi. My guess he will tell you that it was fun, he learned a lot, and he met some interesting people in the process.

I will briefly list some other software titles that you might be interested looking into:

OpenOffice. Free Office software. Does everything that MS Office does and does it better:

Mysql. Sqlite. PostgreSQL.

I haven't mentioned the L word. Well I am mentioning it now.
Ubuntu Linux is mature, easy to use, and wonderful. Try it, you will like it. At Baobab, we all use Linux, everyday for just about everything we do, and we love it.

Wordpress is an open source blogging tool. It makes it easy to create beautitful websites.

You want another definition? Open Source = opportunity.

Once upon a time there was a country. People had been using computers in that country for some time, but they were mostly something used by various companies and organizations to do business related tasks. Some people in that country used the internet, but it was mostly something used to forward jokes to their friends. One day, some very clever people realized that the internet could be used for more things than had ever been imagined. These clever people started creating websites, some good ones, some bad ones. Many of these people got very very rich.

Jayant Kumar Gandhi, a former software engineer in New Delhi, is one of hundreds of thousands around the world on Google's shadow payroll.

In his spare time, Mr. Gandhi runs a free computer help website and recently began running ads by Google on his homepage as part of Google Adsense, a program that pays website publishers for advertising space. When visitors click on the ads on Gandhi's site, Google makes a small profit from the advertiser, and in turn, pays a percentage of that profit to Gandhi.

Such clicks can translate into pennies - or dollars - a day for a Web publisher. "I had no intentions of using it for more than a week," Gandhi says. "I didn't believe the stories that Adsense paid decent money. I ignored them as a marketing gimmick."

But Gandhi's Adsense profits have exceeded his wildest dreams. He now earns about $1,000 a month from the program, the same salary he previously earned as a software engineer. His new income has allowed him to leave his job and return to school. "Today I am able to sponsor my higher studies because of Adsense," he says.

There is hardly any local content about Malawi on the internet. This is a tremendous opportunity. I lived in the United States when that country discovered there wasn't much local content available on the internet. It was an exciting time. I had friends who dropped out of university because they were already millionaires. Malawi has not yet had its internet boom, but when it does people will become overnight millionaires. I don't hear anybody thinking about how the internet can be leveraged in Malawi.

Talk about Kumbali Web Lodge website. Talk about map of Lilongwe.

For the past 5 years of my professional career I have been using open source software to make my living. Your bosses like to save money. People like to help each other. Companies will pay you to develop open source software. If one of my employees saved the company 1 million kwacha by using Linux for the company mail server, he would be the one getting a raise and a promotion. I don't doubt your business is any different.

Repeat Open Source is community.

Talk more about community. Mailing lists, IRC.


Kumbali Lodge in the news

So here in Malawi, Madonna is staying at Kumbali Lodge - the same Kumbali Lodge whose website ( I put together a few years ago! Madonna is stirring up all sorts of news with plans to adopt,
and save Malawi, yadda yadda yadda. But the big news is that the website I built, photos and all are popping up all over the net - USA Today, Hello Magazine. Not bad!

Madonna in Malawi

Madonna arrived in Malawi yesterday. In their never ending quest for purpose, celebrities (Brad, Ewan, Angelina) seem to be discovering that sex, drugs and rock and roll only take you so far. Instead a deep lasting purpose can be eked out by serving others.

Check out Madonna's Malawi web site. It has some really beautiful pictures of Malawi and the children here.

Opportunity opens a new branch in Malawi

This is exciting news about the bank that Claudia works at. From the Malawi Nation:

Opportunity Bank opens Limbe branch
by Frank Phiri, 24 July 2006 - 08:57:52

Banker of the poor—Opportunity International Bank of Malawi (OIBM)—on Friday opened its first satellite branch for the Southern Region in Janoo House in Limbe opposite the Metro Shop.

OIBM Head of Banking Operations Steve Mgwadira said in an interview soon after opening the branch that it has been established to cater for the largely unbanked low-income but economically active groups.

Mgwadira said Limbe is a strategic point that will service customers from satellite areas such as Thondwe, Namadzi, Mayaka, Thyolo, Chiradzulu, Mulanje, Mwanza, Chikwawa and Phalombe.

“Limbe is an ideal catchment area for many low-income groups who are into small and medium scale business. They all come and meet here to transact and we wanted to give them a chance to access financial services,” he said.

Mgwadira said the OIBM satellite branch is offering Savings Accounts and various loan products for business people as well as medium-income earning workers. It also offers auto-teller machine (ATM) services branded Quick Cash

He said OIBM attracts a minimum book deposit of K500 and has credit lines providing up to K2 million and more depending on the profile of the customer. The loan products are tailored for vendors, individual customers, small and medium enterprises (SMEs) and salaried employees.
Many people were seen streaming into the new branch to open new accounts.

One of them, Anne Kamanga said she could not resist to come and open an account after hearing that OIBM has assisted many start-up entrepreneurs in Lilongwe and surrounding areas.

“I have a friend in Lilongwe who started very small two years ago, but today she is transacting in millions of kwacha,” she said.

Another new customer, Angela Nazombe, said she decided to open an account at OIBM because it offers her the flexibility and convenience she looks for in a bank.

“When I go to these so-called big banks, I get frustrated even before any process starts. But OIBM is user-friendly,” she said.
OIBM is a branch of the global Christian network called Opportunity International. In Malawi, the financial institution has garnered a reputation as a “no-frills” bank among the urban and semi poor.
The Bankers Association of Malawi estimates that 40 percent of all financial transactions in the country do not see a bank.


You can't make a basket out radio waves

>From Ethan Zuckerman's blog:

Throughout the continent, fixed network operators are reporting
significant losses from “vandalism� to their cables, both those buried
beneath the ground and those hanging from poles. Thieves cut sections of
cable to sell for the copper it contains - oddly enough, one of the
worst affected companies is Zamtel, which reports lots of theft in the
“copper belt� region of the country. In Nairobi, thieves have damaged
the fiberoptic trunks, believing (incorrectly) that those cables had
resale value. (I’m waiting for an art movement based on baskets of fiber
that glow…)

Wireless makes sense in so many ways. You can't build one of these with
a pile of radio waves, eh?


Star Wars in a telnet session

It is crazy where google leads us. I was looking for a way to make a
linux screensaver display a webpage. I thought this would be a good way
to distribute information in hospitals. At any rate, completely
unrelated to that quest (which has not yet been completed, lazyweb?),
but discovered along the journey was this:


Go ahead try it. On windows you do start->run and then type in the
above. Linux people already know how to telnet.

Under the hood of the hundred dollar laptop

One of my favorite bloggers, Ethan Zuckerman wrote an in-depth review of the new one laptop per child. Frequent readers of my blog, know that I have an infinite appetite for information about ultra cheap world changing computing devices.

There is some interesting geeky stuff in here about flash disk file systems, power consumption, hinge design, and perhaps my favorite, the subversive power of the wiki:

Wikis are important to the architecture of the software for another reason - they’re part of the subversive strategy behind the machine. The OLPC team won’t have control over what content is loaded onto the laptop in different countries - that’s the decision of individual education ministries. But by using wikis as a content management system - rather than, say, a PDF viewer - the team manages to sneak in the idea of user-generated content into schools. Perhaps most textbook pages will be protected in a wiki structure - wiki features like discussion pages will still exist, opening new possibilities for how kids interact with schoolbooks.


Web development extension - Firebug

The Web Development Toolbar, and the DOM Inspector are
two Firefox plugins that I always considered to be must haves for any
type of website development. Recently, however I discovered Firebug. It
also lets you browse the DOM of a page, and view the source as it is
currently rendered by the browser, but it also has a full on javascript
debugger that can set break points. Amazing! Every day I seem to
discover a new hoop it can jump through. Highly recommend it:

Running windows under Ubuntu

Installing Windows (XP, 2000 whatever) under Ubuntu:

Install vmplayer:
sudo apt-get install vmware-player

Make a directory for windows and change into it:
mkdir windows;cd windows

Create an empty vmplayer disk image:
qemu-img create -f vmdk windows.vmdk 2G Formatting 'windows.vmdk',
fmt=vmdk, size=2097152 kB

Put a vmplayer configuration file in the directory. Get mine by running
this command:

Put your windows CD in the cdrom drive. (See configuration file for
dealing with iso files instead of CDs)
Run it:
vmplayer Windows.vmx

Some people are having trouble finding vmplayer in their repositories. I think I know why. After I installed Dapper, I edited my sources.list file and made sure restricted, universe, mulitverse were enabled by uncommenting the entries that were helpfully placed there. But it wasn't until I used the GUI (Synaptic Package Manager->Settings->Repositories) and edited the first Ubuntu entry to include main, restricted, universe and multiverse that I was able to get everything I was supposed to be able to get. This caused the first line in sources.list to look like this:

deb dapper main restricted universe multiverse

So if you are getting "Couldn't find package vmplayer" or anything else that you think belongs in one of the Dapper repositories - try changing to the above.
updated update
Looks like I just had the package name wrong. It is vmware-player not vmplayer!


Guest blog! My mother-in-law wrote the following poem after visiting her daughter in Nicaragua, and I thought it worth sharing:


Esperanza, standing in front of her hut in Nicaragua,
teacher of many,
mother of two,
two daughters, Lucia and Maria,
18 and 20 years old,
strong and proud like their mother.

Esperanza, how can you let them go?
“How can I not let them go?
no work, no money,
their future here -
a husband with no work,
many children,
no money for shoes,
no way to walk to school.�

I love them - I have to let them go

Esperanza - where are they going?
“To the U.S.
to work, to save, to learn, to build a future.
They will go to a place
where they know people,
people from here,
people who will help them.�

I love them - I have to let them go.

Esperanza - in the U.S. - they are not welcome!
“I know - but they only want
what everybody else wants -
they want to work.
My girls will work day and night
to make some dollars,
to save money to come home or
perhaps to stay
and make a life there.
What’s wrong with that -
wanting to work?
no handouts - no never,
just work.�

I love them - I have to let them go

Esperanza - when are they going?
“Saturday morning, early dusk
secretly, nobody knows in the village.
I’ll walk with them to the river
and then we will part and I’ll wave.
My heart will break, but I will not cry,
I’ll stand and smile
and I’ll say - “you’ll make it.
I am proud of you.
I am with you all the way.�

I love them - I have to let them go.

Esperanza - how will they get there?�
“They will walk to the next town and from there they will hitch a ride
to Honduras and to Mexico.
We have saved for a long time,
wherever they go,
they will pay bribes
to policemen and coyotes -
coyotes will take them through the desert
and I’ll pray.�

I love them - I have to let them go.

Esperanza - are you afraid?
“Afraid, no! Horrified, yes!
Day and night,
I see them lying in the desert,
no water to drink,
no way to survive in the heat,
snakes and wild animals around them
and I am helpless,
helpless here�.

I love them - I have to let them go

Esperanza - what will you do?
“I have my land,
my goats,
I’ll teach children,
and I’ll wait,
wait to hear from my daughters,
hear that they are safe
and that they do what they had planned -
to make a life for themselves -
this is my hope.�

I love them - I have to let them go.

Wireless toolbox for Africa

There are a lot of great resources for wireless networking in Africa
like the VSAT Buyers Guide, Wireless Networking for the Developing World and many others. I just found this one - which looks excellent:

The Wireless Toolbox:
A Guide To Using Low-Cost Radio Communication Systems for
Telecommunication in Developing Countries - An African Perspective


The importance of skateboarding

I miss my skateboard. I had a Powell Peralta deck, with Bones wheels and
Tracker trucks. Everything but the deck I got for Christmas when I was
9. My Dad promised to help me build a deck. So we bought some plywood,
and erected an elaborate scheme of clamps, counterweights, and a hose
out of which flowed endless boiling water from Nevada's angry depths.
The wood bent, and a tail was formed, so I drew a shape and we cut the
deck. My Dad was (is?) kind of into fiberglass, so we fiberglassed it. I
grip taped some bear claw designs into the top and wore by high top
vans. But, well sorry Dad - the deck pretty much sucked, it was too
heavy - but it didn't matter much anyways, our sidewalkless street
seemed to be paved upside down and the wheels yearned for something
smooth. Somehow it didn't stop Mark across-the-street though. Mark
needed skateboarding more than I ever did.

Skateboards were not allowed at school. But Mark bought a gigantic bag
and put his books in it and sometimes his skateboard too. This pissed
the principal off to no end - I remember him, Vince Ames, marching out
to the bus line and demanding to search Mark's bag. Didn't he have
better things to do? Mark, a feisty 5th grader, resisted but principals
have power and he opened Mark's bag - sorry dude no skateboard here! It
was great. Sadly, Mark killed himself 5 years later.

I resurrected my love for skating in college. I found my 3rd grade
trucks and wheels and bolted them onto a new old school deck I bought.
Skating the smooth sidewalks under the hazy glow of LA County midnight
made me feel in control despite everything else spinning crazily into a
world much larger, harder, complex and wonderful than I had ever imagined.

A few years later we regularly managed to find someone to drive a dozen
(sometimes just 3) of us up past Snoop Dogg's house and drop us in the
hilly frontier of Los Angeles a few miles away from school. The
steepness, the smoothness, the utter emptiness at 2am was perfection.
There was 1 stop light for every mile or so of the about 3 mile course,
and if you hit the lights right you never had to kick once. We slalomed,
we street luged on our stomachs, we rode with our pants around our
ankles and peed as the world whizzed by at fifteen miles per hour.

It was in those days when I reached the ultimate for any skater of any
generation. I landed myself in Thrasher Magazine - the very same that I
used to read with Mark before we flung ourselves off his backyard ramp
into the hard dirt. That's me, Trevor, Charles, Josh, Dan and don't
forget Justin behind the camera.

Poser of the month, Thrasher Magazine

A few weeks ago I was out running and some Malawian kids had a crappy
old board (probably a Nash). I jumped on, and was still able to slide
around a 180 even if I was unable to ollie. Next time I am in the US I
think I need to find a shop with some old school gear.

Cool hunting work on the web

I haven't posted much lately due to the recent lost ability to control
my own priorities. I guess real jobs are like that. Anyways, I have been
trolling the ITMalawi mailing list, and I thought I would paste a few of
my posts here.

Someone (lets call him Chingoni to protect the innocent) wrote the
following - my response is below.

> Developing sites Using Wiki's, Plone and (CM'S) its not a Bad idea, > but Removes a certain excitement of one being called a Web > Designer/Developer , I would rather use Dreamweaver than this tools > Because you in control and secondly your imagination and creativity > are not limited.

> Using the Wiki's, Plone (CM'S) Etc your limited, you are not in
> control, you don't have to touch PhotoShop or Fireworks to design
> those Graphics you like, Neither Flash to create those animations you
> like. One day we will woke up having our Websites looking alike,same
> concepts and having all features similar And all of us being called
> Customiser's not Developers/Designers.

Recall the first time you wrote:

Hello World

Loading that in Netscape Navigator was pretty exciting! But it wasn't
particularly exciting to change "Hello World" to "I am a web designer".
Along comes dream weaver, and you double click the screen and type
"Hello World" and that seems even less exciting, but at least you didn't
spend much energy doing it. Sure, you can add some cool effects, in fact
Dreamweaver makes creating a web site feel like creating a painting. Add
in some flash, and things are exciting. So you launch your site, and
everybody sees it and and is like "wow that is cool", and excitement
reigns. You get recommended to make another site, and you basically
develop the whole whizz bang thing again, and the client is happy, but
you are not feeling particularly excited, rather a little bit bored in
fact. Then the first client calls you and asks you to update their
prices, and you are double clicking dreamweaver to edit content and
re-upload the site. BORING!

Its at this point that you realize that whizz bang dreamweaver flash
sites look great, but are like a pretty girl with no personality: not
something you want to devote your life to.

The internet has realized this, and the internet has adapted. Content is
king. Content needs to be changing, well-written, thought provoking, it
should lead you to make decisions or perhaps to another piece of
content. Content is not something that a small group of web developers
should create. Content needs to come from the people who care about the
content. Most of these people would not find joy in creating "Hello
World" either in raw html or dreaweaver. They need to be able to update
their site everyday, and it needs to be as easy email (email has been
called the ultimate killer application - ponder why that is).

If the content is changing, interesting, and relevant then visitors will
come back - even if the website has been done with the default drupal
theme. They might even want to subscribe ("Wow, Steve Jobs is
interesting, I want to know the next time he announces something at
Apple computer" or "OIBM has some interesting products, I want to be the
first to know about them" or "This ICT Malawi group is really thinking
about important issues, I want to join the discussion"). Getting people
to your website once is important, getting them to come back every week
is invaluable.

It is the content of a website that will make it valuable. I am not
saying that making it look nice isn't important, but I am saying it is
not as important.

So what is left for us geeks - those of us that love dealing with the
technology - who get turned on by writing "Hello World" in Ruby?
Installing Drupal 100 times is as boring as installing MS Word 100 times.

Well, there is still plenty of interesting stuff to geek out with. CMS
systems are styled with cascading style sheets. A bit of CSS can utterly
transform a site without touching the content. Check out, and click on a couple of different styles and be
amazed at what is possible. Understand CSS and your ability to express
yourself visually will be limitless, even within the confines of a CMS.

But there is more! AJAX is all the rage right now. AJAX is basically
using javascript to do amazing things with content. AJAX makes websites
as responsive and dynamic as any client side application. This is how
gmail works. Perform searches, display new content, etc all instantly
without refreshing the page. I recommend using the prototype.js library.

Javascript is replacing flash (thank goodness!). Check out the
scriptaculous library and you will see why. This is exciting stuff, and
it can be used in CMSs.

A web developer needs to be on the cutting edge of the living,
breathing, changing internet if they want to stay relevant, and I think
that is the most exciting thing of all.

Install a CMS, show stakeholders how to manage the content, then dive
into this brave new world. Alternatively, use dreamweaver to make a nice
design, ask marketing to send you something in a word document and then
manually hack that into dreamweaver, upload it, and never touch it again.

The new web is all about content, at its leading edge are technologies
like tagging and AJAX, with concepts like collaboration, flashmobs,
virtual worlds, and blogging.

Go ahead, convince me that dreamweaver is more exciting than this.

How to paste in rxvt cygwin

I have been looking for this for ages. It used to be that if I didn't
have my mouse plugged into my laptop I couldn't paste to a cygwin
terminal (where I spend most of my time). By middle clicking the mouse I
got a paste - but on laptop, there are only two buttons on the trackpad.
But I found the solution - shift + left-click pastes! Hooray!
Shift-insert seems to work as well. Discovered it here:

Cygwin Tips

VSAT buyer's guide

Wow this looks like just what I have been looking for. Every other day
someone in Malawi asks me about getting a VSAT internet connection. Now
I have a resource to point them towards (and hopefully a resource to
help me find an affordable VSAT!)

The VSAT Buyer's Guide

What steps do organisations and individuals take when faced with the
prospect of buying a VSAT- a parabolic dish and associated electronic
equipment used to send and receive information via a satellite? How do
they select VSAT equipment and service options and arrive at the final
choice? What factors should be considered in buying VSAT equipment and
services and what should be avoided? What should one do after
installation and when the VSAT system is not performing as anticipated?

There are many books on satellite communications, VSAT systems and
procurement strategies, but none that specifically address how to
efficiently acquire VSAT systems and the issues to consider in the
complex decision making process leading to the acquisition in a
non-technical way.

Having experienced this unsettling situation first hand, as a direct
result, and with the support of IDRC’s Connectivity Africa Program
staff, this Guide was developed.

Bandwidth for East Africa

Thanks to the ITMalawi
mailing list
(which I have been trolling quite a bit lately)
I came across this excellent website that is capturing all of the
information and advocating for getting a fiber connection to Africa:

Fibre for Africa

Africa currently has to pay for some of the most expensive bandwidth in the
world. The region currently only has one major international fibre
cable (SAT3) that connects countries in West and Southern Africa but
East Africa has no fibre connection. Fibre connections usually mean
cheaper prices than satellite for volume traffic but because of the
monopoly structure of the SAT3 consortium, its operators have kept
prices high.

All this will change if the proposed East African Submarine Cable
System (EASSy) cable is built as it will connect countries on the
eastern side of the continent and if this new capacity is offered in a
way that maximises use and lowers price.

To help make this possible, APC is launching a new website
“Fibre-for-Africa” and on March 10 will hold a consultation with more
than 80 key stakeholders from all over Eastern and Southern Africa to
ensure that access to EASSy -which will serve eight coastal and eleven
land-locked countries- is ‘easy’, affordable and open.


Malawi pictures in People magazine

From People

A Village of Hope In the African nation of Malawi, families toil in
fields as malaria, tuberculosis and other diseases go untreated. But
hope is within reach: The Millennium Promise, a philanthropy run by Dr.
Jeffrey Sachs and supported by Angelina Jolie, is working with 60
villages (so far) to make them healthily self-sufficient through such
simple tools as schools, seeds and clean drinking water. Here is what
PEOPLE reporter Mary Green saw in the village of Mwandana.

Click on this link
to see some of the pictures. Apparently the hardcopy has even better
pictures - maybe someone could pick this up for me and set it aside?

Thanks to Geeta for the

Robin explains how Google will take over the world

Robin Mayfield, aka BlogDog and I
used to work together at href="">DecisionSoft (DerisionSoft for
disgruntled ex-employees of which I am not) in Oxford. We both
commiserated and then wept in joyous rapture as we were forced to learn
vim and fully embrace using Linux for everything. At any rate, I enjoyed
Robin's post today and as a google shareholder look forward to owning a
small piece of everyone:
New Ah Who Cares

Why's poignant guide to Ruby

I am taking a hard look at Ruby, since I think we are going to standardize around Ruby for future versions of the Baobab system. So far I am very impressed. I think it will be powerful, fun, and easy to learn. I have read two different presentations on Ruby for Perlers - and they have been fine. But then I started reading Why's (poignant) guide to Ruby. I have been involved in two different software programming books thanks to Jeff Rafter (Beginning XML and Practical XML for the Web). Jeff's chapters were great of course (what do you expect from a brilliant computer programmer training to be a professional poet?). The poignant guide is something completely different. It is absolutely crazy crazy crazy.

It is the most absurd programming book I have ever read. It is full of (what can only be drug induced) stories and comics, and I thought they would be annoying, but they keep drawing me further into the book. In fact I can't wait to finish the book (I am more than halfway through after a couple of hours
here and there).

A better mousetrap

I love the simplicity of this:

More info here

Cheap broadband for Africa happening in Rwanda

Very interesting and exciting article about an American who came to
Africa (Rwanda) to teach, and ended up building a nationwide fiber based
internet backbone. I know this is possible in Malawi too, and could
really transform the country:

Not too long ago, a high-speed internet connection in Rwanda cost close
to $1,000 per month. A whopping 22 customers could afford to buy this
service from the national telco - RwandaTel. Then, Terracom arrived.
Terracom started laying fiber throughout Rwanda, bought RwandaTel for
$20m and dropped the price for a combination high-speed internet
connection and phone line down to $80 per month. Greg Wyler - the
American entrepreneur cum do-gooder behind Terracom - sees affordable
internet service as a key step to establishing Rwanda as an African IT
hub. And that may well mark the first time Rwanda and IT hub have
appeared in the same sentence.


AIDS orphans learn how to fix cars

Great article about a mechanic training school for AIDS orphans:

Now his wife, many of his friends, and his businesses are gone. But
amid the loss, Mr. Mbuka has found a new way to function. In the shell
of his old garage a few weeks ago he opened a car-mechanic school for
orphans - for kids who, like more than 12 million African children, have
lost their parents to AIDS.


Adding RSS feeds to Thunderbird from Firefox

I recently offered a 50006000 kwacha (about 35 USD) bounty for a Malawian to
solve my problem of easily adding RSS feeds found by Firefox to Thunderbird and Soyapi Mumba solved it.

All of the pieces were already there. The Livelines
offers control over how Firefox handles detected RSS
feeds, and Thunderbird is a pretty decent feed reader. But for some
reason they weren't connected to each other properly. Soyapi
investigated and found some bugs both on the Thunderbird side and the
Livelines side. Basically neither tool is handling the feed:// protocol
properly, so Soyapi hacked Livelines to make the feed:// string
acceptable by Thunderbird. And it works - rejoice! Download the hacked official version
of Livelines (with Soyapi's patch) here

So that was cool, but probably the best part of this whole experience is
that Soyapi, myself and Boster another Malawian programmer, met for
lunch after he solved the problem. I paid up (and he paid for lunch!),
but then he walked me through his solution. In doing so, I learned about
the architecture of Firefox and Thunderbird extensions, and how the XUL and Javascript sourcecode for
Firefox and Thunderbird are already on my machine and begging to be
hacked. I knew XUL was cool, but had never spent any time learning it.
With Soyapi walking me through it, it now makes perfect sense. For
client side GUI applications that can't be done in a browser, XUL just
might be the way forward.

So I am thinking that software development via bounty just might be a
great way forward, especially for the developing world. Perhaps it is a
new chapter in software engineering as a whole? I have some more ideas
to make Thunderbird's handling of RSS feeds really great (caching
images, more uniform handling of different feed types, overall better
offline functionality) so perhaps I will setup more bounties and maybe
even facilitate bounties for individuals or groups from abroad. Stay tuned!

An experiment in open source development

I just sent the following to the main mailing list for software
developers in Malawi
. We'll see what happens:

I thought I would put my money where my mouth is and offer cold hard
cash for open source development. So this little offer/challenge is open
to any developer (or group of developers) in Malawi.

I currently have setup Thunderbird to be the default handler for RSS
Feeds. (Options->General)

I have also setup Firefox (via the LiveLines extension) to pass any
feed:// url that it comes across to my system's default feed handler
(which is Thunderbird).

Despite being the default handler, Thunderbird doesn't seem to do
anything when a feed:// is passed to it.

I want it to automatically add the feed URL as a new subscription to my
News & Blogs account (basic functionality). I would be really impressed
if it could scan through my existing subscriptions and open the
corresponding folder if I already had subscribed to the feed that was
passed to it(extended functionality).

So here is what I am offering:

If you can give me a working extension (even if it is buggy) that can do
the basic functionality as outlined above working by Monday morning
(9am) I will pay you 6000 MWK. If it also does the extended
functionality I will make it 7000 MWK.

If you can deliver the basic functionality by next Friday morning (9am),
I will pay 4000. The extended functionality pays 500 MWK anytime after
Monday morning.

Here are some links about the feed format:


But you don't really need to know anything about the protocol. You just
take feed:// drop the feed:// part to get part and add that as a subscription.


Bounty won and solved!

Not lovemaking area

We walked through the really nice Lilongwe Nature Sanctuary this
weekend. It is full of monkeys, antelope, crocodiles, hyenas, spitting
cobras and it is all right in the middle of town. We saw a few monkeys
and enjoyed walking in the cool forest. The sign below greets you after
you enter.


ARVs bringing hope to Zomba

These kind of articles make really excited about the HIV work I am
starting at the lighthouse clinic...

These are not good times in Malawi, a country facing an almost
certain famine, deep in the grip of the AIDS pandemic. There isn't a
great deal to be cheerful about.

But in the small Tisungane Clinic in Zomba Central Hospital, people
positively beam. When they spot a visitor, they rush forward and hold
out a waylaying hand.

"Oh, you should have seen me, I was very suffering!" says Rev. MacPhary
Kamwedo, a 45-year-old pastor with the local Baptist church, who will
not let erratic English hinder his story.

"I had skin cancer, gastro(enteritis), fever _ now I have good power. I
am even pedaling my bicycle."

Kamwedo has AIDS. But he has been on antiretroviral (ARV) drugs for the
past six weeks, and he is awestruck at the change in that short time.

AIDS miracle

Venezuela and open source

I have very mixed feelings about Huge Chavez, but none about open
source. These two worlds collide in Venezuela which is arguably leading
the world in a nation-embrace of open source software. I was reading
about it on worldchanging, when I came across this:

Sabotage of the state oil company's Microsoft-based computer systems by
the former managers in 2002 very nearly derailed the Chavez revolution;
local computer hackers managed to break through the security of the
systems, and restore control to the new government. This experience was
the direct catalyst for Venezuela's decision to move aggressively to an
open source environment -- never again will proprietary code be used to
lock out the government (and, it occurs to me, never again would hackers
so easily break the systems' security...).

So basically the highest profile company in Venezuela got hacked and
almost took down the government. They no longer trust windows, so the
whole country is forced to switch to Linux. Interesting.

Web 2.0 in a web 1.0 world

It has been an interesting week of hacking.

These days it is rare to even have to think about efficient code. Memory
and processing power are seemingly limitless, except when they are not.
And this week they are not.

First off, I have been writing perl code to match similarly but not
exactly named items in a database. The database is not small, with
around 100,000 rows in the various tables. Essentially I have written a
search engine in perl which ranks words based on uniqueness within the
set and uses other little hacks to try and make the best match. But with
tens of thousands of SQL lookups it takes about a second per match, so
my laptop has been running very hard and very hot for hours. It has been
fun to find a little optimization here or there and watch things double
in speed, but it isn't the sort of instantaneous computing we have all
become accustomed to.

Secondly, and more interestingly is the touchscreen data collection for
the HIV treatment center. The touchscreen machines are based on the
i-opener, which is a relic from the dot-com days, but now available
secondhand for pretty cheap. It was designed as a "web appliance" so you
can check email and surf the web on your kitchen counter. It is a nice
compact machine, with a decent LCD screen, about 200Mhz of pentium power
and thanks to the director's innovation, it has been upgraded to 32mb of
memory, can now handle USB devices as well as external flash cards, and
perhaps most importantly is fitted with a touchscreen device.

So that is the hardware. Previous versions of the Baobab software have
all been based on either Visual Basic or Real basic. So the i-opener
boots into windows 98 lite, and runs the basic application in full
screen mode. I have proposed and worked up a proof of concept that will
use Firefox running in full screen mode to do all of the same functions.
The prototype even uses Ajax to perform various database lookups. Click
"w" then "a" on the onscreen keyboard and an AJAX request will be sent
to a bit of PHP that returns all the warts you can imagine without
needing a refresh the page. Simple web 2.0 stuff, and it works great on
my machine. Unfortunately, when it gets to the i-opener, what was an
instant wart retrieval system is now 5 seconds of anticipation. All of
this web 2.0 goodness requires extra power. I am not sure if it is the
Javascript that is slow, or if Firefox is taking a long time to
negotiate the TCP/IP connections. Most likely it is a combination of both.

So the challenge is for us to figure out how to make this happen faster.
We have tried K-Meleon a lightweight version of Firefox, but it didn't
make much of a difference. Optimizing Firebox (using about:config),
optimizing the javascript, and investigating connection bottlenecks is
our short term approach to solving this. In the long run though, we
would like to have a 100% open source solution, which means getting
Linux running on the i-opener. I am positive that a Linux installation
with everything optimally compiled for the i-opener will result in
everything being much much faster. But creating a custom Linux
distribution requires more knowledge than simply installing Debian on a
laptop. There are some Linux distributions already created for the
i-opener like Midori Linux and Jailbait Linux. But neither of these work
out of the box (or out of sourceforge actually) and the developers seem
to have disappeared. So we will hack on, but if anybody has any
suggestions please get in touch - children with HIV need our help!

(Isn't blogging great? After writing the above, I realized I don't need
to do tens of thousands of SQL searches. Instead I stuffed all the
relevant entries (most of the database) into a gigantic strategically
structured hash table. It takes longer to startup and uses 70MB of
memory to run, but it is an order of magnitude faster - yippee! Now
about those i-openers...)

Riot in Lilongwe

Here's a classic SMS that I received today:

Tear gas right outside the bank

Apparently the government has recently decided that vendors have to sell their wares in the market. This means vendors who have previously sold from the street (they sell all sorts of things: pieces of metal, recycled rubber from tires, DVDs, plastic bags, radios, etc) now have to move into the market, and they are not very happy about it.

The site is bad, we have been dumped to a place where not many people are interested to visit and our business may suffer.

What worries me is that the officials cite Zimbabwe as the model for how to do this. (Zimbabwe is led by probably the worst dictator in Africa, he is running his country into the ground, and causing a lot of suffering - one of his recent moves was to bulldoze squatter villages in the name of cleaning up)

Here is a classic Malawian official quote:

We are just acting on humanitarian grounds. We are negotiating with them to move out so when they ask for some favours we need to listen to them because we are not forcing them out. We are working with them to improve the faces of our towns because in the whole Sadc region Malawi has the dirtiest towns and cities but so far the process has gone smoothly and the vendors are very cooperative.

But things aren't going so smoothly and today vendors were rioting. The friendly American embassy sent me an email about "unrest", but despite the teargas Claudia assured me that everything was fine at her office.

Article about the relocations.

It's not about charity, it's about justice

Africa makes a fool of our idea of justice; it makes a farce of our idea of equality. It mocks our pieties, it doubts our concern, it questions our commitment.

Did you catch Bono's talk given at a recent Washington prayer breakfast? People often argue whether a rock star like Bono has any place amid the complexities of international development. After reading the transcript from his talk, I am convinced that Bono has a God given role to play. It is a must read for people tired of Christian hypocrisy, for people interested in Africa, for Christians themselves, and for people who love to see George Bush challenged (he was there) on issues of social justice.

God is with the vulnerable and poor.

God is in the slums, in the cardboard boxes where the poor play house… God is in the silence of a mother who has infected her child with a virus that will end both their lives… God is in the cries heard under the rubble of war… God is in the debris of wasted opportunity and lives, and God is with us if we are with them.
There's no way we can look at what's happening in Africa and, if we're honest, conclude that deep down, we really accept that Africans are equal to us. Anywhere else in the world, we wouldn't accept it.
There is a continent—Africa—being consumed by flames.

Bono does a good job of illuminating some of the the injustice in Africa, but what I like most about the speech is that it is hopeful. The reason that it is hopeful is because it is practical. He talks about injustices that can be righted, and calls on the president to step up and fight the injustice - he offers a plan.

Bush's response is available as well. It is not a must read. It is an uncontroversial, USA-praising, dumb-joke filled time filler couched in Christian-speak. Okay maybe it isn't that bad. I really do despise the man, but just to prove that I am open minded, I will share a good quote from Bush's response:

In prayer, we open ourselves to God's priority, especially His charge to feed the hungry, to reach out to the poor, to bring aid to the widow or the orphan. By surrendering our will to God's will, we learn to serve His eternal purposes. Through prayer, our faith is strengthened, our hearts are humbled and our lives are transformed. Prayer encourages us to go out into the world and serve.

See what I mean? Perhaps Bono can even get POTUS on the right track.

HIV/AIDS and children

This has been a really busy week for me. I have been in meetings galore, running all over town, and hacking out code as fast as possible. It has been a lot of interesting stuff most of which deserves a post on my blog.

I think we will start with the most exciting first though. I met the founder of Baobab Health Partnership about a year ago and was very impressed. He has managed to take his experience of working on military helicopters (think robust, practical, usable) and apply it to the health care situation in Malawi. Essentially Baobab has created an inexpensive touchscreen system to guide clinicians and track patient data. In a country where there are virtually no doctors and lots of sick people, a system like this has a dramatic impact.

I have been asked to help create a similar system that will focus on children with HIV/AIDS. I spent a morning in the clinic this week to get my head around the challenges and was absolutely cut to the heart. One girl was a strong 13 year old, whose parents had died of aids a while ago. Just a few years ago, she had barely been strong enough to walk, but with the free ARVs provided by the Lighthouse clinic she is now doing great. I also saw a 10 year old girl who had been raped that morning. The doctor had to write a letter convincing the police that this assailant needed to be tested for HIV. He could treat the girl with ARVs and probably keep her from getting HIV, but the side effects can be extreme. It was a painful reminder that whatever computer system we offered would merely be one tool of the many needed to help these broken situations.

I am really excited to get started on this project.

Coincidentally everyone's favorite Jedi, Ewan McGregor, was in Malawi last year and has just published part of his journal. I think he is a UNICEF representative - so he visited a lot of children suffering from HIV/AIDs. His journal gives a glimpse into the situation that we are battling here:

Suddenly I was standing inches away from this woman who was being counselled on what will happen if her test is positive. The nurse talked to her in the local dialect for quite a long time. There was no reaction on the lady's face. Then the nurse explained to us what was going on, she said that this test was positive, and I realised this woman had just been told she carried the HIV virus and I was gob-smacked. I stood in the doorway staring at this woman, trying to see what her reaction was, and kind of projecting what I assume my reaction would be on to her.
Then we went to what I think was the saddest part of the day in many ways. We went to visit a girl in her tiny little mud house on a hill top, who was dying of Aids, and she was maybe 22 years old.
She came out to meet us and sat down on the mat outside the house, and her child lay with her head on her mummy's lap. She was terribly weak and spoke very slowly about how difficult life was for her, that she couldn't do anything because she was so weak.
I couldn't help but look at the two of them and see how the little girl needed her mum, and how obvious it was that her mum wasn't going to be around for very much longer.

Read the full article here:
My brain can�t take any more pain and suffering

Aids is not witchcraft


Besides the interesting and obvious issue of AIDS being associated with witchcraft, I think this sign is interesting on another level. The western eye would immediately see this as targeting gay men. But I don't think it is. In Malawi (and many other countries) it is very common for straight men to hold hands in public. Just this weekend Claudia and I saw a very tough, macho looking guy holding hands with a friend walking down the street. I don't think a Malawian looking at a picture like this would associate the two men as being gay. Yet the more I look at the picture, the less certain I am of the artist's intent. The eyes, the posture, the message - I just don't know!

Gluttony Night

Just saw this article on BoingBoing about eating a 100 patty In-N-Out Burger.

Check out the picture:

This brought back fond memories of "Gluttony Night" - when a bunch of guys from my dorm decided to do an eating marathon of our favorite junk food dives. Let me see if I remember:

6 Inches of Subway sub
3 Tacos from Tacos Mexicos
1 Chili Cheese Burger from Tommy's
1 Chili Cheese Fries from Tommy's
1 Gigantic Cinnamon Roll from Donut Man
1 Double double from In-N-Out

Boys - you know who you are - am I missing anything? I remember lying in bed that night feeling heat pouring off of my body as it tried to cope with all of the calories. Those were the days...

Also, I think BoingBoing doesn't give proper respect to In-N-Out. In-N-Out deserves a lot of praise for always using fresh ingredients, paying their workers a living wage, and for making cool t-shirts.


Looks like I was wrong. Despite many In-N-Out adventures, and even a birthday party where the "cake" was an In-N-Out 4x4 with candles, In-N-Out played no role in Gluttony night. Thanks to Adam and the Juice for clearing this up. Instead we had chili cheese fries along with our chili cheese burgers at Tommy's - what was I thinking you don't visit Tommy's without getting the chili cheese fries!

Wireless Networking in the Developing World

Rob Flickenger - Wireless Networking Uber Guru and some friends have
just released a book that I can't wait to read.

Wireless Networking in the Developing World

I think this book was written for me!

I have read other Flickenger titles, and found his work incredibly
practical and very motivating. Look out Malawi...

Download it here.

Some excerpts from the press release:

London, England-- Imagine trying to piece together a wireless network with no manuals, sporadic and slow access to the Internet, inadequate tools, a shortage of supplies, and in the most inclement weather. The authors of a recently published book, "Wireless Networking in the Developing World" don't need to imagine. They have been doing so for years.

In almost every village, town, or city in the developing world, there are people who can build just about anything. With the right know-how, this can include wireless networks that connect their community to the Internet. The book addresses what Rob Flickenger, the book's editor and lead author, calls a chicken-and-egg problem: "While much information about building wireless networks can be found on-line, that presents a problem for people in areas with little or no connectivity", said Flickenger from his workshop in Seattle. The book covers topics from basic radio physics and network design to equipment and troubleshooting. It is intended to be a comprehensive resource for technologists in the developing world, providing the critical information that they need to build networks. This includes specific examples, diagrams and calculations, which are intended to help building wireless networks without requiring access to the Internet.

In the developing world, one book can often be a library, and to a techie this book may well be a bible. Access to books is difficult where there are few libraries or book stores, and there is often little money to pay for them. "Our book will be released under a Creative Commons license, so everybody can copy and distribute it free of charge....

The book has been released under a Creative Commons license, meaning that it is free to download, print and modify, even for a profit, as long as proper credit is given and any modifications or copies made are shared under the same terms. For Flickenger, who has already published several successful books, publishing a book for free has been an interesting endeavor. He explains, "the Book Sprint team felt that the need for a freely available collection of practical information greatly outweighed any short term profit." ...

The authors also hope that by releasing the book into the "Creative Commons" that it can be improved, expanded, corrected and translated.

Those aren't berries!

This past weekend we were driving down the highway and I saw some people selling berries. We had bought some really nice raspberries on previous excursions so I was happy to see another opportunity for it.


But as we stopped the car and the boy brought over his bowl, I realized that those weren't berries he was selling - they were bugs! They look like fried flying termites, but I don't know for sure. It would have been fun to try them, but somehow my brain was on berry mode, and not ready to switch to insect eating mode.


I am told that fried insects are actually quite tasty and a critical source of protein when crops fail. Unfortunately, many Malawians starve instead of eating them. What would you do?

January Issue of Wired

I love Wired. Most of the articles eventually come out online, but there is something special about the glossy over size pages full of glitzy geekporn. Gadgets, graphics and games all meant to entice geeks to upgrade. One of my favorite computer science professors at UCLA told us that Wired should be required reading for every IT professional. He went on to say that the writing was pretty much useless, but by flipping through the advertisements in Wired you had your finger on the pulse of the new economy. I subscribed for a number of years, but have really missed getting it while living abroad for the past 5+ years. Despite, what my professor said I find most of the writing top notch.

Recently one of the OIBM board members was visiting from the US and brought me the most recent issue of Wired. I have finished reading it cover to cover (the back cover has an oddly sexy advertisement for a toilet) and wanted to offer it up to someone else in Lilongwe. First commenter can claim it!

Practical strategies for breaking the cycle of food insecurity

A while back I included a guest post from Stacia and Kristof Nordin called Man should not live on Nsima alone. They just included me on another one of their excellent editorials. The ideas put forward give me much hope for Malawi, but they are just as applicable in Los Angeles as Lilongwe. Anyways, enjoy - and thanks Stacia and Kristof.

"In New Year messages, East African leaders warn that millions of people in the region face hunger because poor rains have affected vital crops and pasture."

"In an ironic twist of fate, the drought-ravaged Nsanje district in southern Malawi experienced its worst flooding in almost half a century. At least 2,000 people were displaced as the river Ruo burst its banks to flood six villages."

"In the northern region, rainfall distribution has been uneven and erratic. There are also reports of a windstorm in Nkhata Bay with people displaced and seeking shelter in churches and schools."

Once again the news media are reporting about the 'food' crisis in Sub-Saharan Africa, this year worse than the other years' crises, but all the same, another annual crisis. We hear about rationing of food aid, the need for hundreds of metric tones of maize, and the potential for thousands of people to starve. The list of culprits includes drought, floods, poverty, not enough seed and synthetic fertilizer inputs, lack of government action, or the effects of HIV. Unfortunately, this is a pattern that continues year after year, with the exception that each year it gets worse. It seems like our development and relief structures have at least succeeded in creating a sustainable food crisis.

With the chronic pattern of food insecurity in Sub-Saharan Africa, are we really rethinking our strategies toward reversing this trend? Are we learning lessons from these patterns? It doesn't seem like the majority are. Instead of re-thinking the solutions, programs are continuing with the same activities but just spending more money and time on them - it is like yelling the same message again, but louder, to a person who doesn't speak your language; it won't help, you just lose more energy in the process and confuse and possibly irritate the other person. Instead you need to learn the other person's language.

Much to the glee of industrialized nations' subsidized farmers who produce too much and need to move it out and to the companies who make synthetic fertilizers, programmes continue to handout food aid, seed, and synthetic fertilizer to address the food crisis and its list of contributing problems. There are thousands of people spending millions of dollars and expending massive amounts of energy and time on the wrong things.

People often blame the Weather:

Granted, climates are changing, but the floods and droughts aren't solely the weather's fault. Low rainfall doesn't always cause a drought nor does heavy rainfall always cause a flood. It depends on the conditions on the ground as much as how much rain falls. Much of Sub-Saharan Africa is naturally a low rain climate - and it can be sporadically dry followed by a heavy rain, then dry and heavy rain again - that's the weather's pattern at our time in history and we should be planning for it.

I recently had an e-mail conversation with a group of people who make the maps of the rainfall in Malawi. They had sent me the map showing that almost the whole of Malawi, except for the Southern tip, had a normal rainfall pattern this last growing season. I asked them if there was a mistake, saying that I thought there was low rainfall as the media had reported 'drought'. They replied that the map only shows the rain for the whole season, it doesn't take into account the timing of the rain - the pattern of heavy rain followed by dry spells pattern. So I replied again saying "Then the problem was not the amount of rain we received; the problem was what we did with the rain when we got it."

So what are we doing with the scattered rain that we receive? Unfortunately, our shift in agriculture and life styles has drastically altered our environment, damaged our soil, and removed the diversity of plants and animals that used to help us cope with high and low amounts of rain. Areas that used to soak up rain and allow it to sink into the ground water, cleaning it and filtering it through the earth's layers, are gone. Areas are now cleared of plants, trees and animals and ploughed every year, or paved with roads, or covered with buildings, or as is popular around Sub-Saharan Africa, swept and burned rock hard. In these conditions when there is only a little rain, the soil, plants, and tress become dry very quickly resulting in drought, and when there is a lot of rain, the soil can't soak it up fast enough and the plants and trees aren't there to help, resulting in flooding.

Last year at our house, which is also a demonstration plot for sustainable agriculture and other sustainable living systems, there was drought on all the pieces of land around us, but our land had no drought. Instead, it grew into a jungle of a wide variety of different foods, medicines, and building supplies. Our harvests were abundant when our neighbors suffered. We also spent less money, time and energy on our farm. Why? What was the difference between what we did and what our neighbors did?

The solutions are (1) to take care of our soil and (2) to create systems that can withstand the natural pattern of weather - and this is true for all areas around the world, the only difference is in the designs; each design will match its own local conditions. The soil must eat a wide variety of foods for it to be healthy - just like we need to eat a wide variety of foods for us to be healthy - and this cannot be achieved with synthetic chemical fertilizers or mono-cropped agriculture! Synthetic fertilizers are similar to a multivitamin pill or medication - they treat the plant only, but do not feed the soil; if the plant, tree or animal is left in a deficient environment, it will become unhealthy again. Mono-cropped agriculture provides us with a very limited nutrient base for our bodies and our soil, so each year both are depleted.

The key concepts we need for designing our areas are:

* Conserving the soil by covering it with organic matter (alive or dead) and reducing any disturbance to the soil structure, such as digging;
* Feeding the soil by having a wide variety of plants, trees, animals and insects living on it then returning to the soil at the end of their lives;
* Avoiding any synthetic poisons or chemicals that will disturb the things living on or in the soil;
* Choose a wide variety of plants, trees, and animals that are appropriate to the weather patterns in the area and to provide us with a wide variety of useful products (foods, medicines, clothing, etc.)

The solutions are all around us wherever we are. Start looking more closely at the environment around you, starting at your own home and moving outwards. There is a lot of waste that we send down the sewer, into drains or into trash piles that could be re-designed to be a resource to help buffer low and heavy rainfall. There are a lot of ways that we can design our living areas, such as:

* Using a variety of different useful trees lining the roadsides, instead of just ornamental species;
* Creating road designs that harvest water along the edges instead of pushing it downhill to accumulate at the bottom and eroding as it goes;
* Planting parks full of useful species where people can pick fruits as they enjoy the park;
* Filling agricultural fields with many different species including inter-cropping with trees and other permanent species;
* Reducing the digging of soil by inter-planting with species that dig deep (trees for example) or wide (yams for example), species that dig to different depths in the soil, and by using mulching;
* Designing office complexes, schools, homes and other buildings to harvest water and to reuse water as many times as possible;
* Reducing and eventually eliminating the use of synthetic poisons and chemicals and instead using improved designs to prevent disease and insect damage and to boost harvests;
* Converting decorative flower gardens and patches of grass into decorative edible landscapes;
* Working with your community to harvest all the organic waste at the open market, the supermarket, restaurants and other food selling and eating places;
* Instead of sweeping the dirt, design walkways and use the dirt to make gardens appropriate to your area;
* Share writings like this with your colleagues along with a personal note from yourself;
* Try a new local food once a week (maybe you will like it so much that it will continue to be part of your diet!);
* Add a local seed variety, along with education, to the packets that you provide to farmers / gardeners.

The ideas are endless and they are feasible! You can add new ideas in small steps to your own life and then start sharing the ideas and results with others. If you are tired of the sustainable food crisis, join us in redesigning our plants, trees, and animals to achieve health and wealth.

Stacia & Kristof Nordin,
Post Dot Net X124 Crossroads, Lilongwe, Malawi (Africa)
+265 (0) 1-707-213 or 9-333-073 or 9-926-153

Not the only guy from Reno in subsaharan Africa

I have been to a number of countries and on the road you always run into people with whom you share some sort of connection: "Oh, my inlaws are from Stuttgart... I went to UCLA too... We lived in Oxford for over three years" and so on. But it is quite rare to meet someone from Reno, let alone Nevada. I think there is less propensity for international travel there, especially off the beaten path sort of travel - which is the best kind of course. So I was surprised to hear that two people who graduated from my small high school (Bishop Manogue) are working next door in Mozambique:

Manogue graduates teaching, learning in Mozambique

Wireless Mesh Networking in the news

It sounds like some companies are trying to capitalize on the wireless mesh networking. The idea is pretty simple - let neighbors with broadband connections join them together to increase the total bandwidth that is available to them. The situation in Malawi is different of course, because hardly anyone has a broadband connection. For us wireless mesh networks are virtually the only way to get a decent internet connection. The trouble is you still need someone to have a connection - and that is what is so expensive.

Last week I was fed up with internet and just decided I would pay the money to get a slow, always on point to point wireless connection. I called three different companies. The cheapest price I found was through Skyband which charges $1100 for the setup cost, then $350 per month to get a 64kbps connection. I have therefore relented on my plan. I do know of some neighbors with one of these point to point connections though - so I am hoping to convince them to allow me to setup a mesh network and share it (including costs) with me.

Anyways, here are the articles about wireless mesh networking that Jesse pointed out to me:

Malawi Blogger Brai

It has been over a month since our first Malawi Blogger get together, so I think it is time to do it again. This Friday evening, will be Malawi's first ever Blogger Brai held at my house. It is a strictly BYOB event. This means you must bring a blogger if you want to burn beef on the BBQ. We'll get going around seven. Post a comment below if you are planning on coming to give me an idea about numbers.

Directions to my house:

From the Capital Hotel drive up Capital Hill and turn right on Chayamba then left on Blantyre. Turn right about half a kilometer after the four way stop (there will be sign for Kuka lodge). Our house will be on the right side 43/2/223.
(Click here for a map with a blue pointer over my house)

Perhaps you don't have plans for Friday night, but are not yet a blogger. No problem - just go to Blogger and set up a free blog and write your first post. Then come to the brai and tell us about your experience.

My favorite Martin Luther King quotes

Happy Martin Luther King day. Here are a few quotes from one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century.

"Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

"If a man hasn't discovered something that he will die for, he isn't fit to live."

"Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter."

"When you are right you cannot be too radical; when you are wrong, you cannot be too conservative."

"I submit that an individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law."

"Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that. "

I can't recommend highly enough reading Let the Trumpet Sound a great biography of Martin Luther King.

You might also be interested to know that today is a public holiday in honor of John Chilembwe in Malawi. Read more about him on wikipedia, but basically he was an American educated Malawian who led a small violent revolt against colonial injustice 50 years before Malawi gained independence. (Jesse has a much better post about John Chilembwe .

Malawian Art

I just bought some hand painted cards in town and I wanted to share them. I think they are a beautiful example of Malawian artwork.



The first one was created by Gilbert D. Mpakule from Zomba, Malawi. He has an email address - if you like what you see let him know: As for the second I can only tell you that it is signed by "Chambers" - I bet Gilbert could pass on any messages though.

Managing the Geekery

Jesse (of LoungeChicken fame
and also my partner in Lilongwe website consulting) and I were recently
discussing the best way to track important technology trends. It is
difficult in Malawi, because for us internet time is a premium and there
is so much exciting stuff to try and stay up on. Without question you
need to use an RSS reader (see yesterday's post). My blogroll (on the
side of my blog) is not a helpful indicator because it is far too long.
Rather here would be my top picks for any nerd's Geekery:
I have been reading slashdot for almost a decade. It was a blog before
the word existed. It feels like it has lost its focus a bit lately, but
perhaps that is just relative to the new kids on the block. Any big
technology issue (and a lot of other good and bad stuff) will hit Slashdot.
BoingBoing is not a technology blog, its more pop culture for the
technology set. BoingBoing makes geeks cool.
Digg is sort of like slashdot but with more mayhem and a lot more
stories. If you want to know how to do cool JavaScript hacks or be the
first to hear about Google's new beta mind reading application tune in
here. Sadly, I only get to it every week or so.

Honorable mentions would have to include the following (not necessarily
geek chic) blogs: - Hacking the world for justice and beauty - Africa news and blogging inspiration - Rare but crazy gems

Consumption and creation of blogs for newbies

A number of my readers are new to the world of blogs and blogging, so I thought I would post a few tips to help them get up to speed.

Reading blogs is fun - but subscribing to blogs is even better. Perhaps you have your favorite blogs bookmarked and from time to time you click through your bookmarks and look for new posts. There is a better way.

You can subscribe to all of the blogs that you follow in one place. As soon as new content is posted to any of the blogs that you have subscribed to it will be collected and ready for you to read. That way you never miss a post and you don't waste time loading a blog that hasn't been updated.

In order to subscribe to blogs you need an RSS Reader. I use which is a web based RSS Reader. With a free account on bloglines you can subscribe to an unlimited number of blogs. Then to see what new blog posts you have to read you just go to one place - bloglines. Since it is online you can check from any computer - it is similar to checking your email on a website. Another good option is to use Thunderbird to subscribe to blogs. In case you aren't already using Thunderbird for email, let me just say that it has all of the features of Outlook Express but is much better.

Once you have your RSS reader setup, you just need to find out the address of the RSS feed for the blog you want to subscribe to. Most blogs have a link in the menu or at the bottom. Mine is on the side - the link looks like this:

You can paste that link into your feed reader (For bloglines you do that here). Bloglines also has some special forms that help you find feeds if you are having trouble.

Once you start reading blogs you might want to start writing them as well. Start by adding some comments to the ones that you are already reading - authors love feedback. Almost all blogs let you post comments. Then go to and get your own blog. Its easy, looks great and completely free - thanks to Google.

The MW top level domain

Recently, on the IT Malawi mailing list there has been some discussion about domain names in Malawi, and how organizations are using long and ugly .com domains instead of .mw addresses. Here are my thoughts:

The mw domain is totally underused. But there is a very
simple reason for this:


Registrant agrees to pay a registration fee of One Hundred United States
Dollars (US$100) as consideration for the registration of each new
domain name or Fifty United States Dollars (US$50) to renew an existing
registration. The payment must be made payable directly to "Malawi

The Malawi Sustainable Development Network Programme has a monopoly on selling mw domains, and they sell them at more than five times the market price for domain names. What makes this even more sad is the fact that SDNP is a United Nations funded program.

I have built a number of websites for Malawi based businesses, and
everyone has wanted a .mw domain but nobody is willing to pay $50 per
year for a .mw name when they can get a .com or .org for $8 from (but only if you have a credit card which Malawians do not).

Perhaps there is justification for these outrageous prices, if so I look forward to seeing some SDNP comments below. Otherwise, reduce the prices, or even better allow professional companies to resell the mw domain.

Region free DVD player

This is just a quick post to help those of us who buy or borrow DVDs from different parts of the world. People are always asking me how I manage to watch my American DVDs and the British ones that the video store rents without using up all of my laptop's region switches. The simple answer is download VLC - Video Lan Client. VLC is an open source media player that can play just about any video format you would ever want to play including DVDs. The best part though, is that it can play DVDs from any region without requiring you to change the region set on your hardware (which is usually limited to a fixed number of changes). Since it is open source there are ports to most operating systems including Windows, OSX and Linux. Happy DVD watching.

Alternative travel destinations in Malawi

Thanks to and its ability to customize what news is displayed - I just read this strange but interesting article:
Malawi My Country First in which the author suggests creative things for Malawians to do in Malawi on their holidays.

I thought it would be interesting because we rarely see Malawians at any of the standard tourist destinations like the national parks or forest lodges. It was more interesting and much more confusing than I imagined - but offers some very alternative ideas with destinations not even mentioned in Lonely Planet or Bradt.

In my mind, I can picture myself doing lots of things really, like taking a basic bus ride, all the way to Livingstonia (drop off at Chitimba) and hoof or hitchhike to my favourite place, Vunguvungu, at the crossroads soon after the picturesque 21-hair-pin bend Gorodi Road before climbing to the Dr Laws Plateau. There I would sit under the grass-thatched shack and bang the cheap mkontho hard with the friendly and warm village folks, the hard-working and educated Phokas that I know!
We would hammer the brew hard, sing our way into early evening, and they would escort me as I wobble my way up the plateau to the Guest House, where I would find some ripe bananas waiting for me, supplied by some old, well-meaning friends who would know that I (“Nyasulu”, as they corrupted my name) am in the vicinity.

If you have other alternative destinations add them to the comments below!

Images for Web 2.0

I expect a lot of useful things to emerge from the hype surrounding "web 2.0". Among other things the web will become editable, semantically searchable, and just plain cooler. My contribution to the coolness category is a way to zoom in on images using just a bit of javascript. I think there are plenty of applications for this, but first an explanation.

The javascript to do this is just under 100 lines, but most of that is an attempt to handle any sort of image thrown at the script. The concept itself is pretty simple.
* Create a div the same size as the image, put the image inside it
* Hide any content that is larger than the div (overflow:hidden)
* Scale and move the image when clicked

Figuring out the calculation for moving the image was the hardest. I worked it out on paper, but had apparently forgotten most of the transformation logic of 9th grade geometry. (twice the coordinate clicked minus half the width of the div if you are curious)

Download the javascript file for zooming images.

To use it, you just add an onLoad event to your image that calls makeImageZoomable:

<img onLoad="makeImageZoomable(this)" src="GreenMarketSquare.jpg"/>

Cool eh? But zooming in on an image that is already at its native resolution isn't that useful. Instead it would be great if you could have a zoomable high resolution image scaled down to fit your page requirements. Then when the user zooms in more detail is revealed. Just add a style tag of your desired width or height and this script will take care of the rest:

<img style="width:500px" onLoad="makeImageZoomable(this)" src="GreenMarketSquare.jpg"/>

If your image is saved as a progressive jpg things are even better as the user will see a decent version of the image before the entire image has completed the download.

Here is an example that shows it in action. (It isn't going to work in IE because buttons are handled differently in IE and I didn't feel like fighting IE's incompatibilities - bug me enough and I will do it)

I am also working on a GreaseMonkey script that will allow you to zoom any image on the web - stay tuned.

Chicken revenge

This Calvin and Hobbes is just too classic - and even funnier after you see live chickens in bags, hanging from handlebars or strapped to the roof of a minibus.

A visit to Cape Town

In December we decided we needed a break that would allow us to indulge
ourselves in some of the things that Malawi doesn't have. We originally
planned a weekend in Johannesburg, but then heard that the Drakensberg
mountains (near Joburg) are even more beautiful than the Alps and the Rockies so we added a day and changed our itinerary. But then Claudia managed to get a few more days off, and for only marginally more airfare we could go all the way to Cape Town. It was at this point that people started telling us about Cape Town. The way people described the restaurants, the scenery, the wine - they were all superlatives. Multiple well-traveled people told me it was their favorite city on the planet. But after not having left Malawi or Zambia for one year I couldn't even imagine a movie theatre in subsaharan Africa. Therefore my expectations were high even if my imagination wasn't able to keep up.

Cape Town delivered. Our highlight was probably the food. We ate really
really well. Most of the time we chowed down at Pan-Asian restaurants,
but there was also a great German restaurant (Paulaner Brauerie), and plenty of outdoor cafes in decidedly non-Malawian environments (skyscrapers, live music, strolling shoppers). We have never been into sushi before, but it was such a novelty and so tasty that we had it three times. Our favorite meal was at Haiku, a restaurant with 4 different kitchens for each of their Asian specialties. The food was unique and the atmosphere was uber cool. We also visited beautiful wineries including Waterford, which had a wine and chocolate experience - wonderful!


We also drove to the Cape of Good Hope, watched a movie (Lion the Witch and the Wardrobe), and enjoyed a Latino concert in beautiful gardens with the spectacular Table Mountain as a backdrop.


The strange thing about Cape Town is the absence of black Africans. It was really weird. Despite the struggle against apartheid, or more likely as the result of decades of successful apartheid, Cape Town feels like a very non-black town. There are a large number of mixed race people (called coloureds) but they are significantly poorer than the white people. It was common to be in a restaurant with all white people being served by white waiters, cooked food by coloured or asian chefs and having our dishes washed by black workers.

I have read Mandela's biography, A Long Walk to Freedom, and we visited the desolate island prison where he spent 30 years of his life preparing himself and training others in the miraculous and relatively peaceful revolution that ended apartheid in South Africa. But after seeing Cape Town (and even the airport in Joburg), I think it will be a while longer before equality reigns let alone true reconciliation. Then again, I suppose this is a struggle that the whole world is experiencing.