Workshop challenges in Bulawayo

In late May, Amy & I went down to Bulawayo to run a hands-on Freedom Fone training workshop for 11 participants based in Zimbabwe's City of Skies. The workshop was hosted there by a vibrant community radio station called Radio Dialogue. That will sound like a contradiction in terms as Zimbabwe has yet to award a broadcast licence to any community radio station in the country. But vibrant it is nonetheless, as staff and volunteers busy themselves with alternate communication strategies.

With the promise of 10 computers - all of which we had permission to overwrite with our system replacement installer - I expected an easy time of it. Talk about naïve! We expected to have to modify a few things like boot device sequence but otherwise thought the installation would be as straight forward as we'd recently experienced at our own office in Harare. It turned out there was a lot more to deal with.

  1. Keyboard blues

First out we hit two keyboards with faulty 'u' keys - not helpful when the username and password are lupinus. Happily there were plenty of other keyboards available but it felt like an inauspicious start.

  1. Motherboard/Screen display problems

We didn't recognize our second challenge for the menace it was. The computers were newish and sported widescreen LCD monitors. All looked lovely until the first welcome screen for the installation procedure displayed. It was almost unreadable, as the content displayed in jagged lines.

No problem we thought, we've done this often enough to almost do it blind. We expected to deal with the display problem after the installation completed and we had a chance to adjust the screen resolution. No such luck!

We tried to troubleshoot  by swapping the posh monitor for an older 15" screen;
restarting the system with no monitor connected and then adding one or other of these two screens.

No joy.

Add to this the fact that Sean the network administrator had disappeared for lunch and only reappeared some hours later and you'll understand that we were starting to sweat. With 11 participants arriving at 8.30am the next morning things were looking bleak.

So what was the problem? According to the network administrator, he recalled Ubuntu v8.04 giving this problem with the motherboard in eight or so of the computers he had assigned to us for our workshop. For the informed, the info I could extract from the motherboard included these markings:  MSI P4M900M3, MS 7387v1.0, Chipset VIA VT8237S.

His only remedy in the past had been to upgrade to a newer version of Ubuntu. This was not an option for us as Freedom Fone v1.5.2 is tightly integrated with Ubuntu 8.04.4. Our next version is around the corner, but v1.6 is also based on Ubuntu 8.04.4 LTS. We intend to migrate to Ubuntu 10.04 LTS with v1.6.5 due for release in September/October 2010.

Thankfully Sean was able to rustle up a variety of other CPUs and over the next 3 hours we cobbled together 5 computers that would display the Freedom Fone GUI and talk to 1 MobiGater each.

  1. Other hardware challenges we encountered with legacy equipment
  • Not all computers had a DVD drive for the installation DVD.
  • BIOS settings on some computers disabled internet connection or mouse or USB ports.
  • A couple of computers had inadequate or faulty RAM.
  • Failed to communicate with MobiGaters on some computers
  1. Sim card hassles

Some of the local sim cards we used refused to send SMS messages. In time we realised that although these pre-paid cards had plenty of airtime, they were out of SMS credit. We'd never hit this before with Econet Buddie lines and still need to get to the bottom of this problem.

  1. Logistical challenges

Even though we had a fabulous training room to work with, we encountered problems that need to be anticipated in advance.

  • Insufficient power points to power CPU, monitor and MobiGater for each computer.
  • Cable ties that had to be cut off to release power, keyboard, monitor, mouse cables!
  • Inaccessible USB ports at the back of CPUs.
  1. Lessons learnt

Life teaches us some of our most valuable lessons when things go wrong instead of right. Here are important additions to our Packing list for workshops:

  • Extension strip for each computer
  • Pair of scissors or box cutter
  • External DVD drive
  • USB extension cables for each computer
  • Many more spare mobile hand sets for testing voice menus and sms polls
  • Troubleshooting guide (Command line stuff for dealing with DTMF problems, MobiGater issues etc)
  • Compelling gift for the network administrator... he or she will be working hard for the duration of the workshop!