Computers in schools in Gabon
I visited Gabon for the last two weeks of May 2009 by invitation of Yoan Anguilet, who has a business and NGO there promoting ICT and Science literacy in schools. We had met previously when setting up AUST, a new University on Nigeria. Yoan had invited me to set up a similar system at two schools in Gabon, as a precursor to a larger effort later in the year.
Our flight was delayed for 2 hours, circling over Libreville, as we had the misfortune of arriving at the same time as the body of the recently-deceased First Lady, Edith Lucie Bongo. Edith featured prominently in the next few days, as most of Libreville was closed and there was blanket TV coverage of the state funeral. In fact, we were asked to come to pay respects to the First Lady on the first evening at the presidential palace - my luggage had not arrived, so I was in my travelling clothes..
I stayed in a small hotel next door to Yoan's mother, who made me breakfast every morning - what a pleasure. Libreville is Gabon's capital city, with the presidential palace large and prominent and next to the equally large French army base in the centre of town. Gabon also has a very prominent military presence - and late at night cars are invariably stopped on the streets by a checkpoint manned by soldiers. They ask for papers, and then they ask for a small donation - soldiers do not belong on civilian streets.
The school we were working at was on the main boulevard - and we witnessed the funeral cortege passing along it. The school was closed, and the entire student body of 6000 odd lined the streets to watch it. Travelling first was the motorcycle outrider with the TV cameraman to capture it all for live TV. The TV coverage verged on brainwashing - how many things can you say on three channels over four days about a lady who has been in hospital abroad for the last year ?
The setup at the school before I arrived was 35 individually-installed Ubuntu computers - so the software was familiar to the students - but the maintenance requirements were high, and students had individual accounts on each computer, and there files were only accessible from that computer. The system I installed uses Ubuntu Linux, in a thick client setup with central authentication and a central file server. Thus the client computers run the software, but all important information is stored at the server.
I used SystemImager, which allowed me to network boot the client computers in order to perform a client install, or re-install. It makes it very easy to add clients to the lab, or to fix client problems.
I tasked a couple of Rwandan students - refugees I believe - to set up a Golden Client as a reference desktop - with as much French customisation as they could manage, and I then modified it for the network boot install. We were finished in about a week - we needed to buy some extra equipment, and put RAID on the computer acting as the server.
I then took a snapshot of that image, and we flew to Port Gentil - Gabon's second largest city. Port Gentil is the centre of the country's oil industry, and hosts Elf - the French Oil giant. It is essentially an island - the mainland at that point is virgin forest. Access to Port-Gentil is by plane or boat. There are many foreigners on contract to the oil industry there, and thus there are high-priced nightclubs and restaurants there too. We ate mainly middle-class - fish being the main menu item. But we were offered 'Singe' - Monkey - as well.. You will notice in the picture the ubiquitous satellite dish - for Internet and TV. The purple stalls all sell airtime for the Zain cellphone network.
The school in Port Gentil was even larger than the school in Libreville - around 10,000 students. Whew. We set up the lab from scratch - there was furniture and the network cabling had been done, but we had to terminate everything in the server room and pull all the computers out of boxes.
The software setup was comparatively simple - I just copied over the Libreville server image and we were away. However, the school did not have an internet connection. We saw some of the nightlife of Libreville while we were there, and took a little tour around all the places where Yoan grew up, including his schools.
We took a trip about 30Km out of Libreville - the road deteriorates fast as you leave town. We visited another school - also huge - built on a place cut out of the virgin forest. This school was sponsored by the head of the Constitutional Court - Marie-Madeleine Mborantsuo. No expense had been spared - the buildings were beautiful. They had paid for electricity, but not Internet, to be brought to the school. We looked around the classrooms, but had no time to install anything. We met the principal - whom I was very impressed with. He had a house on the property backing up against the forest. It must be really hot there in the summer. They have cleared a large sports field, and they plan on having a small zoo! Students will mostly be private students from Libreville.
Less than three months after the death of his wife, the President of Gabon, Omar Bongo died after 41 years in power. Gabon practically stopped when Edith died - I imagine they will have a few weeks off for this one. Bongo was heavily entrenched in Gabon - to the extent that his wife and daughter could buy Maybach cars with cheques drawn on the state treasury. Millions of dollars have been salted away over the years in offshore bank accounts. I imaging there will be a scramble for the next president, though a son from his first wife Alain Bernard Bongo seems tipped as the favourite. Gabon prides itself on its history of peaceful existence - it certainly seemed safe to me. Most security arrangements - locks on gates, etc., would be entirely inadequate in South Africa. Let us hope the succession passes peacefully - and the new leader opens up the government to more transparency.