It's now been exactly a year since I arrived in northern Ethiopia with Voluntary Service Overseas to start a placement at Mekelle University. Based in the Computer Science department, I'm developing and training staff in e-learning and advising on general IT policy and strategy. Throughout the last year the university has been undergoing a period of huge change - with rapid expansion in student numbers, restructuring of the colleges and departments, and an ambitious plan to modernise and develop overall.
A computer lab in Mekelle University, Ethiopia.
Work and life is very different to living in Northampton and working at The Open University. It's certainly taken time to adjust to the new organisation, culture and way of working. After arriving with high expectations and a keenness to get moving with the job, work felt slow in the first few months and I didn't feel like I was getting anywhere. However, everything has fallen into place recently. Now I have built up relationships and got to know the working practices, things have really started moving – and the time spent getting to know my colleagues, in particular, is really paying off. Their support and assistance has been vital; without them guiding me through, it would have been extremely difficult to achieve anything.
It also takes a while to get used to the network and power interruptions. The university is fortunate to have a 2Mb broadband connection, which, I believe, is one of the fastest connections in this part of Ethiopia – but we do have to share this between over a thousand staff. We're currently on a “power-sharing” schedule, where, during the working week, the power is off every other day. As you can imagine, this makes conducting IT training difficult. With scheduled powers cuts, you can work around this, but there are also other times when the power will go off for several hours without notice. Recently, some areas of the university have been supplied by backup generators, so this helps greatly, providing you are using the right computer labs. We're hoping this situation will improve once the rainy season is over and the hydroelectric dams are full.
The university has recently started a partnership with Alcala University in Spain to work with the Engineering and Health Sciences colleges, writing an e-learning training programme for selected tutors to attend over the coming semester. During the course, tutors will develop online activities for their students to take part in. Since student access to computers can be very limited, we're building two new computer labs - one for each college - so the students can participate in these activities. As this is pilot project, we're testing out installing thin client labs and using open source software. This is a huge contrast to the usual computer lab setup here, which consists of desktop PCs running Windows. At any given time up to three-quarters of the PCs may be out of action for a number of reasons, commonly due to virus infection, but also hardware failure. The labs then take a small army of IT technicians trying to keep as many PCs up and running as possible. We're hoping that the architecture of the thin client labs will vastly reduce the amount of support time needed, as well as being a more scalable solution, with the added bonus that it will be cheaper to increase the number of terminals.
Although most of my current work is involved in coordinating and managing these new labs and assisting with writing the training course material, I also have a few side projects to maintain. One of these involves showing staff from the Health Sciences college how to use GPSs to map the community health centres and health workers in the rural areas. The college has a number of projects in these areas measuring the impact of government schemes such as the Health Extension Programme - which gives healthcare training to local people so they can better support their communities.
Despite, or perhaps because of the problems, the sense of achievement is much greater than my work back in the UK. Knowing that you are making a real, though perhaps small, difference makes dealing with the life here all the more worthwhile. The Ethiopian people are very friendly, generous and appreciative, making it a highly rewarding and enjoyable experience.
How you can get involved
In my opinion, simply supplying more computers and hardware doesn't really help get to the core of the problem of IT development here: although more hardware will never be refused, IT training and staff development plays a greater role in development. Many staff - not only in the university but also teacher training colleges - lack the IT skills to maintain and make best use of the equipment available to them. Even computer science students arrive having hardly used a computer so a lot of time is spent developing basic skills, including how to operate word processors and spreadsheet packages. As has been reported elsewhere, viruses are a huge problem, damaging the tools that could help Ethiopia to develop. Training staff in how to install and, crucially, update their anti-virus software therefore has a significant impact.
My volunteering here is something I wish I’d done sooner. As a software developer by background, I'd often put off applying as I was unsure I had the skills needed to work in a developing country. It is a big commitment to give up a well-paid, comfortable job in the UK, but I haven't looked back. Not only have I been sharing my existing IT skills, but I have also developed new ones in terms of training, hardware and network maintenance. I'd definitely recommend other IT professionals to come and experience living and working in a developing country.