Window to the world

Ted Pethick

The war in northern Uganda has driven thousands of people from their homes to live in camps. Now, after a lot of trial an error, BOSCO Uganda has brought the internet and low-cost phone calls to the camps, giving the people a chance to tell their own story.

When an old friend of mine returned from Uganda and told me about the conflict in the north of the country, I have to say, I only paid scant attention. I was well-educated and an avid news junkie, but I couldn’t identify with anything he was telling me. The rebels, the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), were fighting a classic insurgency which defied military solution. Local people in the area, the Acholi, were living in government camps, mainly to prevent their children being taken in the night to fight for the LRA. But the camps had very few supplies. The UN and other organizations supplied the basic needs of food and shelter, but could do little else.

My friend, Gus Zuehlke, travelled to Uganda in the spring of 2006. Against the strenuous objections of his hosts who were concerned for his safety, he went to the northern town of Gulu and visited the Pagak camp for internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the heart of the war zone. The elders, from the local Acholi people, living in the camp told him that they wanted the world to know what was going on in their homeland. But they weren’t able to get the story out themselves as they had no means to communicate with journalists either in their own country or abroad.

Their courage and determination inspired Gus to tell their story when he returned to the United States. His own enthusiasm stirred many people who then offered to help. I had previously worked with Gus and got involved when he asked me if using satellite phones would help the Acholi get their story out. I looked into it, but quickly saw that such a system would be prohibitively expensive. We needed a more affordable solution that would work in the difficult local conditions. Before long, I began researching and designing a project to help connect the people living in the camps with the wider world. The cease-fire agreement reached in July 2006 gave us an opportunity to install a system, but it also fuelled our sense of urgency in case fighting broke out again.

Ideas

Cellular phone services in northern Uganda are erratic, unreliable and very expensive. Most northerners cannot afford even a long-distance call inside the country. Using mobile phones would therefore not be an option. I looked into the possibility of sending up balloons mounted with Wi-Fi routers to provide a cellular service and internet access. At a certain altitude the balloons jettison their hardware, which then float to the ground with parachutes. The system had worked successfully in the USA, but in northern Uganda the rough terrain, ongoing hostilities, worries about wildlife and the harsh climate meant that recovering the equipment later would too difficult, dangerous and too expensive to be practical.

We briefly considered using low-cost plastic laptops and generators, but these were either unavailable or too expensive. After some time, we realized that the best solution would be a rather typical Wi-Fi local area network (WLAN), but we would still have to adapt it to Uganda’s unreliable and often unavailable power supplies. And again, the cost of modifying the WLAN would be well beyond our reach.
Eventually, we saw that to be considered worthwhile, any solution would have to serve all five of the following functions:

  • provide internal emergency communications – between the IDP camps and the rest of Uganda;
  • provide external emergency communications – between foreign and Ugandan officials and technical personnel;
  • provide educational opportunities through the internet and in schools;
  • enable the people in the camps to speak for themselves, and do their own advocacy campaigns via the internet; and
  • allow users to use images, video and voice to focus the attention of the international media on the plight of what, until now, has been an invisible tragedy.

Of these, we regarded the last point as the most crucial because, without international recognition of the problem, no solution would be truly beneficial to the people affected by the war.

Durability

In the end, we decided to call our project Battery Operated Systems for Community Outreach, or BOSCO. In March 2007, a group of us travelled to northern Uganda to install an internet service for the residents of the IDP camps. The team consisted of myself, Gus, a technical consultant, and technicians from Inveneo, an organization that specializes in supplying communications equipment to rural areas in developing countries, and who also has experience working in Uganda. Together, we set up a local area network using long-range Wi-Fi networking devices, ultra low-power computers, and a VoIP (voice over internet protocol) telephone system. The network is powered by solar panels which charge a system of batteries. The lack of reliable electricity supplies in the area meant that an alternative power source was necessary.

We used the existing infrastructure provided by the church that serves the seven IDP camps, as they had buildings and offices in each camp which gave us the security we needed for the equipment. Two archdiocesan offices in the town of Gulu are connected to the internet via satellite and from there the long-distance Wi-Fi transmitters carry the internet signal out to the IDP camps, the furthest of which is 70 kilometres away. The system uses very little power (only 12 volts) which vastly reduces the amount of expensive solar power needed. Serving the seven camps is seen as a pilot stage of the project. The system has been designed to so that it can be easily extended to reach the Acholi villages once people return after the war.

The components of the network are resistant to heat, humidity and dust, which means they can still operate in harsh environments. The system is easy to use, both for users and administrators who are new to technology. Such simplicity allows our team, headed by our local administrators Philipp Glaser and Stefan Bock, to serve the IDP camps more efficiently and provides them with the means to communicate immediately both with other offices in the camps and with funding organizations in the United States and Europe.

Elementary

We have approximately 30 desktop computers in the network. They are situated in church facilities in the IDP camps at Pabbo, Pagak, Coope, Unyama, Lacor, Jen’Geri and at our hub site in the compound of Caritas, the relief organization, in Gulu. We also supply the network infrastructure and internet access to link up other computers already in use throughout the region, including those in the offices of the Archbishop of Gulu.

These computers lack fancy applications. They cannot play DVDs or 3D games. But they have colour screens, flash memory, can run Microsoft Office applications, and users can explore the web via the broadband link to Gulu. Each computer uses 6–8 watts of power, very low when compared with the 100 watts used by the average computer. The VoIP phone service has been set up with a United States area code, so that international calls are charged at the cheaper US rate. Calls from site to site within Uganda are free as they operate on a separate server and are treated as internal calls. The VoIP provider, VoX Communications, based in Florida, decided to help the project by providing their services at a reduced rate.

The network is flexible and expandable, and is extremely low cost due to the use of 12 volt DC equipment, which uses power over ethernet (PoE) technology. This technology supplies power and data to remote devices in a network via standard, inexpensive cables. Thus the routers, VoIP telephones and even computers don’t need their own separate power supply, reducing the power usage of the whole system and, therefore, a major part of the operating costs.

We believe the project has the potential to provide a communications system that can transform daily activities in the camps, where previously there were few phones and no power. This first phase of the project now connects eight church offices, two clinics and 17 schools within the camps. The network is available for all types of communication needs, including logistics, emergency notifications, teacher training, consultations between clinics and doctors, communicating with US and European donors, and getting out critical information on the LRA’s human rights violations.

With further donations, the existing installation will be extended in two additional phases. The full system will serve approximately 1 million displaced people in a region covering around one third of Uganda. This area extends well beyond the current camps, so as peace spreads across the north of the country, the people there will continue to benefit from the communications and information exchange. We plan to extend the project to 60 of the 104 IDP camps in northern Uganda within the next three years. Once the conflict ends and the people are able to return to their homes, these 60 camps will revert to their original functions as cultural or trading centres

Unique

Some people might ask: why provide internet services when those in the camps have a greater need for need a well? The answer, says Gus Zuehlke, is that if you’ve got internet access you can ask for a well. There are some other obvious benefits too. The people living in the IDP camps now have a communications system that will work in emergency situations, plus they have the chance to contact international humanitarian organizations and the media to inform them of their plight.

But there are many other important applications that will help to improve the lives of people in the area. Tackling illiteracy is one example. Our team provides training for both adults and children in how to use a computer and the internet, how to create and save documents, and how to type. We hold weekly classes in all of these subjects in the camps and at our hub site, and schoolchildren can use the internet to assist them in their studies. Our local administrator has also set up an internal website so that people can practise reading and writing, access tutorials, search the internet and post messages for each other.

As a result of our efforts and the long-term work of other organizations in the area, the level of literacy among the local people has noticeably improved. Farmers are able to access information about improved farming techniques, which has enabled them to increase crop yields, and to market their produce. The internet has also brought access to the latest medical information and counselling, so there is now far greater awareness of HIV/AIDS and methods of prevention. The system also provides communication links between the IDP camps and the various rural hospitals so that people have better access to prompt medical attention.

Some of the people living in the IDP camps are now also making use of web 2.0 technologies. A group of residents in the Pagak camp, for example, have formulated detailed proposals to attract funding for educational and farming projects, and have posted them on the BOSCO website wiki.

There have been other, more substantial benefits as well. The people of the north had been separated not only by distance from Kampala, the country’s administrative centre, but also by the lack of information. In many remote areas newspapers were not available, and there was no phone service. But now, as Fr Joseph Okumo, an Acholi himself and the director of the project in Gulu, says, ‘BOSCO has brought the people closer to their brothers in the south, closer to their government and closer to their parliament. It has brought the schools together and brought us information about our country’.

The BOSCO project is off to a successful start. We have also received inquiries about the possibility of applying it in other parts of the world. The system has been thoroughly tested in Uganda, in as remote an area as anyone could imagine. If it works here, it can work almost anywhere. Funding has remained elusive, however. Numerous foundations have expressed their interest, and money from several international endowments and trusts are in the pipeline. For now though, we are doing our best to provide immediate and effective help on the ground, to encourage the people in the IDP camps to speak for themselves rather than to rely on other people to advocate for them. We promote education and help focus world attention on this urgent situation. We try, in our own small way, to help.

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Ted Pethick is technical director/webmaster, and Gus A. Zuehlke is president of BOSCO Uganda Relief Project

04 June 2008

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