Every year I have come out here I have traveled to Lamu island which is off the far north east coast of Kenya. Stonetown, the main village on the island, is a world heritage site and is so for good reason. The narrow streets, the lack of vehicles, the use of donkeys to carry people and merchandise captures a way of life that has long since vanished from the West. Even though life is tough here and even though it takes considerable effort to get to the island from Mombasa it is a real privilege to spend a few days here. Every school on the island now has a Camara computer lab and the community here are amazingly supportive and keen to keep improving the program. Its a great example of how even an isolated community with limited resources can participate in the information age.
This year I met a local councillor for the entire region who, coincidentally, was one of the first people Camara worked with when establishing a base in Kenya. He had only just got elected and he explained that since he was actually born in the area he was really committed to trying to improve life for the people up here. He suggested that we visit Pate island (his birthplace) to get an idea of what he was up against.
Pate island is about 4 hours slow boat journey from Lamu. Its right up on the Somalia border and is part of a small archipelago of islands separated by mangrove forests and narrow channels. The islands have no electricity, no roads and get drinking water from rain catchment tanks. There is one vehicle on the islands (which he had access to) and there were 12 schools serving a population of about twenty thousand people plus.
I was honestly reluctant to travel to the islands given the challenging boat journey but he told me there was a quicker way to get there.
If you look at a map of the region (check google maps) it suggests that you need to go around a large headland between Lamu and Pate to go from one island to another. It turns out that the headland is actually an island joined to the mainland by a huge mangrove forest and that it was possible to navigate through this forest on a speedboat which literally halved the journey time.
I agreed to give it a go….
The following day at about 6.00am I checked my email via my phone. A friend of mine had sent me a quote from St Francis of Assisi which went something like:
‘When you are faced with the impossible, start with what is realistic, then with what is possible and soon you will be doing the impossible’
At 6.00am, myself, the councillor, and 4 Camara colleagues (all local) got into a 12 foot speedboat with a 40HP engine and we heading off. The trip through the mangrove forest was incredible and I was glad that we had some light to navigate as there were reefs, rocks and roots everywhere. Our captain was very experienced and assured me that all was fine and that he knew the way. When we hit the open sea on the far side I realised just how big the distance to the island was – all fifty miles of it! The Captain opened up the engine and we literally flew across the sea which thankfully was not too rough. Some of my colleagues had never been in a speedboat before and they were delighted with the bumps and bouncing of the tiny craft. I could not switch my engineering brain off which was calculating the stresses on the fibre glass hull….
Anyway, we arrived safely and docked at a beautiful beach where local workmen were building a small peer.
I got off the boat and quite literally stepped into another world….
…it turned out that there was actually a second vehicle on the island at this time. The workmen at the peer had acquired an old, very orange, battered tractor that they were using to carry materials for the peer.
There was a school about a mile away and the councillor suggested that we use the tractor to drive to the school in advance of his vehicle arriving (it was late having to get fuel from somewhere!). So one of the workmen told me to sit behind him on the trailer with the councillor and a camara colleague and off we went. If I was my son Osian, I would have enjoyed the experience – it was a 13 year olds dream trip. Unfortunately I found the trip terrifying being unable to take my eyes off the heavily rusting machinery carrying my now delicate 42 year old anatomy.
We arrived at the school with me ducking just in time to avoid whacking a large low hanging branch (much to the hilarity of the locals out to greet us). It was also a dreadfully undignified lunge from the vehicle that marked my exit, my palpable relief at touching solid ground visible all over my face.
I was soon surrounded by curious children all gaping up at me with huge brown eyes and beaming toothy smiles that would break your heart.
We walked through the village made up of wooden houses with thatched roofs, all filled with farm animals and smoking fires and then onto the school.
I was amazed to find that the school, unlike the houses in the village, was built from stone and was quite modern looking. I found out that it was built by the Americans in the army base directly across the water on the mainland. The Americans had a base there because of the trouble in Somalia.
However, once inside the school I realised the school had absolutely nothing. They were short of even the most basic equipment like chalk, pencils and copybooks. One of the classrooms was even outdoors.
The teachers did their best but the odds they faced were incredible.
And then they asked me could they get computers.
What do you say at times like this?
I told them the basic infrastructure they would need to get a computer lab up and running. As I listened to myself talking I felt ashamed that I was effectively leading them on. At the heart of my rhetoric was a sense of hopelessness….
I then found myself remembering the quote from St Francis that I had read in the morning and looked around suddenly noticing that one of the teachers was carrying a mobile phone.
‘How do you charge that?’ I asked.
I was led away to a tower in the middle of the village which we climbed. On top of the tower was a 75W solar panel which was charging a car battery.
Connected to the battery was a 12V to 220V inverter out of which was connected a Nokia charger for a phone. There were a couple of phones in the village and they shared the charger on a rotation basis.
They were even able to run an old 14″ television for about 30 minutes when the battery was fully charged.
And then it occurred to me (and forgive me if it is obvious to you) that laptops and a couple of solar panels could work out really well here.
As I was leaving the school I asked a village elder that I if were to make a small donation to the village what would he buy. He immediately said that they would like another voltage invertor as a community resource so that mobile phones could be charged. He said communication with the mainland was crucial for local enterprise.
Later that evening I was able to check email again and discover that a very well known tech company was willing to donate a large number of state of the art laptops to Camara if a suitable home could be found for them…..
More from Pate island later….