I also publish ramblings about my life as a Peace Corps Volunteer at: Lie's Truths.
Many of my readers -- especially the geeks -- have asked me what the technology situation was like for me in The Gambia. That question is way too broad to be effectively answered with a single webpage, but I thought I sit down and do a quickie braindump of some technology information I have, including pictures and other various stuff I've put together these past three years, and see if anyone was interested enough (or sufficiently bored) to read it. Be warned, this is long-winded, geeky, and pretty much unedited and was thrown together as an after-thought.
If you reading this and have questions, or want to know more, or want a better version, or an edited version, or whatever -- Please E-mail me. If I get any requests, I'll try to fulfill them and update this page with the new info. May take me a few months, tho, as I'm currently on vacation.
State of ICT In The Gambia (from 2008 Education PST):
Here's the long presentation I gave to the new Education Volunteers on the “state of ICT in The Gambia”, basically a general overview of everything technology-related that a typical volunteer deals with. Includes pictures of hardware and suggestions for best practices in ICT in the developing world:
|.pdf download||.odp download||.ppt download|
Power, Wiring, Batteries, and Solar
Gambia has lots of sun, zero topography, and three well-definied months of rain and then nine with rarely a cloud. Solar is a great option, but incredibly expensive. In March 2008 I did a quick solar costing for an NGO considering putting one in place in The Gambia, and the costs just for the solar panels, related hardware and wiring (not including the computers) was:
Overview of Estimated Costs for each setup:
|Download the March 2008 Solar Costing spreadsheet:||.pdf download||.ods download||.xls download|
|Download a Solar Manual put together by another Peace Corps Volunteer:||.pdf download||.odt download||.doc download|
|Here's a presentation slide that shows an "idealized" hardware setup using batteries, voltage stabilizers, UPS's, and grounding to create a safe, continuous power in situations you typically find in developing countries where you have a dirty and/or inconsistent power supplies:||.pdf download||.odp download||.ppt download|
Internet Access in The Gambia
When I arrived to The Gambia in July 2005, there
was a total
of 8MB/s of Internet bandwidth for the whole country. A large
chunk of that was reserved for government use, a piece was leased to a
couple businesses, and the rest (about 5-6 MB/s as far as I could
estimate) was given to the monopoly ISP, Gamtel (www.gamtel.gm), to
sell dial-up connections on and re-sell to the couple other ISPs in the
country, primarily Quantum.net (www.quantum.gm). Given that
this was smaller than my friend's cable modem connection in their house
in the USA, that's not a lot of bandwidth available to end-users in the
Gambia. Dial-up connections over terrible phone lines
(usually limited to a max of 34 or 28.8 Kbps because of line quality)
couldn't get more than a tiny amount of actual international bandwidth,
and they would then share that across 5 or 10 computers in an internet
cafe. It wasn't uncommon for a single yahoo mail webpage at
some cafes to take 5 to 15 minutes to load. Internet cafes
charged between 20 and 40 Dalasis (around $1-2) per hour for
connections, and slower connections weren't necessarily bad for
business. It became crucial to use a caching proxy (like
squid) at the internet gateway of any lab to save precious bandwidth
from downloading that google image a thousand times.
Many companies, especially Quantum.net, wanted to set up their own satellite connections to increase the bandwidth. Some even spent 10's of thousands of dollars on the hardware. The government wouldn't let them use them, however, wanting to (1) control the telecommunications revenue by funneling everything through the government-controlled monopoly, and (2) monitor and control the information (e.g. newspaper web sites critical of the government were being actively filtered last time I checked and it is widly assumed the government is actively reading all email over the network).
In early 2007 the government got a supposedly $120,000 donation from a US company called Global Voice Group to put in another satellite connection which I've heard conflicting reports (verifiable factual information on infrastructure there is VERY hard to get) but seems to have been around 64MBps. It's possible more has been added since, but I can tell you first-hand that there is now significantly more demand than there is bandwidth, and actual end-user dial-up connectivity was worse when I left in 2008 then it was when I arrived in 2005.
Some internet cafes are using dedicated ISDN or ADSL lines, and they generally have much faster access. The University of The Gambia had a 64kbps ISDN line when I arrived, and while I was there was upgraded to either a 256 or 512kbps ADSL line. It was pretty speedy, but I never used it for personal work.
Internet Availability for Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs)
In addition to internet cafes near the capital
(there's not really
anything reliable up-country), Peace Corps had a dedicated connection
for the main office when I arrived of something like 64 kbps (I think
ISDN), and they had 4 computers running Win 2000 that were made
available to PCVs (volunteers). They were great, especially
after-hours when the office staff was gone and the connection was
free. I could use my USB flash drive to run stuff from
portableapps.com, and could jump on a computer, put in my USB key, sync
my email in via thunderbird portable, and in less than 5 minutes leave,
letting other volunteers use the computers while I read and responded
to email at home on my laptop. A year or so ago that all
changed when the Peace Corps headquarters in Washington did a “hardware
refresh” and upgraded all the machines, and with it XP with SERIOUSLY
locked down user restrictions. Gone was all ability to run
USB-based apps, which meant that anyone wanting to check email had to
do it via a web-based system. I got particularly screwed because my
web-based email uses a non-standard port, and the machines were locked
down to only use HTTP port 80 and the SSL port. So in a
single instant, I lost the ability to download via thunderbird, and
check my email using webmail. Yahoo and Gmail still worked,
and in the end I had to get a temporary yahoo account. The
lines for the computers got longer, tho, and it was pretty standard to
have to wait an hour or more to use one. Volunteers tried to
start a policy of limiting usage to one hour, but few people want to be
that jerk that monitors how long you're on email or facebook,
especially since some people spent 4-8 weeks at a time up-country with
In the last few months, the connection speed had dropped significantly, and it was MUCH slower. Peace Corps switched over to a satellite connection through a service that all peace corps offices go through (I think, they got Gambian government approval because Peace Corps was an American organization and the Embassy asked them nice-like and promised that only peace corps employees and volunteers would use the bandwidth), and that sped things up quite a bit. It's still a hassle, and since I spent the last year up-country, I think I got to my yahoo email account on the Peace Corps machine maybe three times. Didn't help me read my kismetworldwide account, tho.
your own Internet
My geek roommate and I were the only two volunteers I knew in
years I was there who bought our own Internet access (or at least tried
to). It was purely a cash thing -- access was just too
expensive to pay out of the Peace Corps stipend (around $250 a month
for everything -- food, travel, housing, etc.) A few months
after arriving in 2005, Gamtel, the telecommunications monopoly,
started offering a CDMA-based “wireless” service that was basically a
glorified cell phone. It used a cheap box from the Chinese company
HUWAI which cost 5000 Dalasis (about US $225 at today's rates), with
the service costing 1000 Dalasis a month (~$50). NOT Cheap.
My roommate and I decided to subsidize it out of our personal savings
accounts, decided it was worth the learning experience, and splurged.
For the first week, it worked great, and I could Skype (late at night when the business users weren't using the service, but that's when I wanted to talk to the people in the US anyway), and one night of nirvana I could even network game with some guys in the UK playing Unreal Tournament 2004. That was the last weekend of Internet bliss.
There was no regulation, and no monitoring of the subscription-to-available bandwidth ratio, and within a couple weeks the service became seriously over-subscribed. Our actual throughput rates dropped dramatically, but stabilized for a few months at around 13kbps for downloads. That was good but not great, and the delays were annoying (500-5000ms round trip ping delays), but except for network gaming I didn't really care and had usable Internet for a month or two.
Then it got really, really bad and the service slowed to an absolute crawl. Pages started taking 5-15 minutes to load, I started having to load slashdot.org without images just to get the content. Downloading email via POP started taking an hour for every 15-30 messages or so, which is a big problem for someone who gets on average 50-400 spam emails a day. But it still worked, so we suffered through it.
Several months in, the service started going in and out, sometimes off for a day or more. Still, it barely worked, and was significantly less painful than going into the Peace Corps office and trying to use the shared machines.
Then I moved up-country, to a site that supposedly had CDMA support on the cell tower that was about 2 km from my house, well within the CDMA receiver's operating radius. I was excited because I knew up-country the amount of disposable income is nearly zero (many live at or below the international poverty line), so I knew there wouldn't be many people competing with the service. My first day there I hurriedly set up the system, and it connected with my username and password, and then nothing.
Didn't work despite several calls into the ISP, yet the bills kept coming and I actually paid for the first month. One day I finally got a hold of an actual technician who seemed to actually understand the problem, and he did something to the local server at the tower that made the net work. I was ecstatic. I started writing an update to post, and before I finished it, the 'net had died again. Six weeks it stayed down, the technician unable to do anything. I stopped paying.
Six months of relentless calls to the monopoly internet provider meant that my CDMA-based internet comes up for a day, then is down for three to six weeks. I'm the only subscriber for this cell tower, so it's not a priority to fix it. My email backlog is way too much for my available bandwidth to download just the list of messages, let alone any messages themselves.
The few times the connection actually went up, my bandwidth wasn't enough to sustain regular anti-virus update downloads -- when it worked, I got an average of 138 B/sec, which means it took just over five hours to download a 2.5MB virus update. Added to that is the fact that up-country, I never got more than 5 hours of electrical power from the monopoly utility at any given time.
Usually when I had five hours to devote to the internet and it was working (about 10 times total) I choose two or three pages to go to. I'm lucky if in that time I can get news.google.com and slashdot.org (always without images) to load before the ISP crashed, or the power went out.
In short: Until these past few weeks, I haven't had any usable internet in the past year.
Window Sizes on Horrible Connections
Turned out that messing with the TCP window sizes and other
default values helped a lot, by which I mean it went from unusable to
about 130 bits/second. I used a cool XP shareware program
called TweakMaster to do it, and for others who are trying to get
horrible connections to work a little bit better, I'd recommend giving
it a try. I found that a tiny window size and tiny payload
made the best results, with the window sizes seemingly mattering more,
but I ran out of patience to really try the full suite of tests to
identify what would be ideal. Somehow playing with tcp window
sizes between running outside to
Flash Memory Drives (aka USB keys)
USB key viruses mutated faster than I could get updates (or
up-country for that matter), so it became a question whether to use the
very useful flash drives, or to find some other way (CD-RW, Internet)
to transfer files. At most institutions here this is a really
big problem since rarely is anything backed up, so when one person's
flash drive gets infected, stuff gets lost forever. That
happened a lot. I stopped using USB keys all together about a
year ago, and would only burn CD-Rs or CD-RWs to transfer files off of
my computer. I'm sure I still have a lingering virus, trojan,
rootkit or some combination of all three on my XP partition.
Next step: reformat and reinstall XP (so I can play Civ 4, which plays
in Kubuntu under Wine 1.0, but it's much, much slower [I suspect the
ATI drivers for my Radeon mobility X600], so I'd rather play under
USB keys are really expensive for the average Gambian -- when
$100 a month, a $20 1 GB USB key is a huge chunk of your
income. When was the last time you paid 20% of your monthly
income for a USB key, or any storage device for that matter?
One day several months ago I uncovered a trojan I've had for
year but was just finally identified by my AVG anti-virus
software. A fresh O/S reinstall to make sure everything is
clean isn't really an option -- if I had used every bit of my available
bandwidth for the four months I had left, downloading just the windows
operating system updates wouldn't have finished before I left the
One of the last four hour connections I had the patience to try to get to work let me download a total of 6.2MB, about 1/8 of the total size of the AVG anti-virus update I was trying to download. On a dial-up account at a nearby up-and-coming internet cafe, a Yahoo page took 10 minutes to download, and it took a full hour to download slashdot.org, news.google.com, and three emails at Yahoo mail. That was using all the bandwidth on just one machine. Imagine being a user at the net cafe they were trying to set up. In addition the cafe had to pay per minute for the dial-up line, so the odds they're going to let a 2-6 MB anti-virus update download each night are pretty much zero.
Simply put, The Gambia is a computer virus' paradise, with very little protection employed, very little understanding or training in best practices, and lots of people who use USB keys as their sole storage medium because very few people own their own computers, and most work computers are shared. People buy a key, get a virus, share it with their whole office, and no one knows anything until all their word, excel, and powerpoint docs are suddenly gone.