ET phone home

I like this blog post on the Crossroads website: Home for Christmas.

ET phone home.

ich bin ein star

Growing up in Malawi, I probably don’t share the same level of contemplative Christmas (“besinnliche Weihnachten”) memories that my fellow German compatriots may have experienced. It’s difficult to emulate some Christmas traditions when it’s over 30 degrees warm.

merry christmas

My mom remembers how I had to learn a lot of english carols in my first year of primary school, many of which she had never heard of. Like Good King Wenceslas. Or God rest ye merry gentlemen. Or Away in a manger. I faintly remember walking to St. Paul’s Anglican Church in Blantyre for carol service rehearsals.

merry christmas

Christmas was a very special celebration for my grandfather. My mom told me about a lot about the Christmas parties he organized for his family despite being very poor.

And many years later, I remember my first Christmas at German uni where everybody in class said they’re travelling home to be with their family. Even the tough-looking punk with dyed red hair and rings in his nose was travelling home to celebrate Christmas with his mom. I was truly fascinated.

last minute

I am thankful for this Christian holiday. And I like some of the traditions associated with Christmas. I just dislike and still rebel against the commercialization.

shop window

I’m planning to attend the Christmas Eve service at Crossroads Basel. If you want to join me, here are the details.

Christmas card...

Online dictionary for Chichewa

I am really excited about this online Chichewa/Chinyanja dictionary, which I just heard about on Twitter (hat tip @kristungati).

Try entering Mchenga.

Select Chichewa/Chinyanja to English

Click Translate

mchenga 1.sand; maziko ena onse npamchenga = all other foundations are on sand (see: hymn 362, Nyimbo za Mulungu); expression: walemba pamchenga (lit.: you have written in the sand) = you’ve wasted your time; expression: kugwetserana mu mchenga (lit.: throwing one another on the sand) = reconciliation;


Read more at Clement Nyirenda’s blog

Pirates and Poverty

Like in a Hollywood movie, a U.S. captain was freed from Somali pirates. I’ve been browsing the web, reading articles.

Some observations:

For one, I’m wondering how the navy seals managed to target the pirates. I thought the life boat was an enclosed boat, similar to the one shown here.

Secondly, it seems that the person to call if your ship has been kidnapped is Andrew Mwangura.

The German TV station, ARD lists a quote by him linking piracy and poverty:

Piraten wie die, die bei Phillips Befreiung ums Leben kamen, seien zudem die FuàŸsoldaten im Millionengeschäft mit der Piraterie. Vor allem Jugendliche, die nach 18 Jahren Bürgerkrieg in Somalia jede Perspektive verloren hätten. Auch deshalb ist Mwangura überzeugt, dass die Piraterie vor Somalias Küste weitergehen wird. “Jemanden, der hungrig ist, kannst Du nicht aufhalten. Ein hungriger Mann ist ein wütender Mann. Er wird tun was immer er kann, um ein bisschen Geld zu verdienen, und er wird Risiken eingehen, denn er hat nichts zu verlieren,” ist Mwangura überzeugt.

Sounds like a plausible explanation.

In a BBC article Mwangura explains:

Andrew Mwangura, who runs the Kenyan Seafarers’ Association in Mombasa, thinks that piracy has become a way of life for many young Somali men, as they simply do not know any better.

“All my life, I don’t know what life is, so if someone gives me a gun and tells me to go and make a living, they go and do that,” he said.

Many young men have no education and no understanding of the rule of law.

Somalia has no navy, so many militia groups have taken it on themselves to deal with the problem of illegal fishing.

“Illegal fishing costs Somalia $6m annually and around 800 vessels from around the world are involved,” says Mr Mwangura.

Pirate fisherman provide cheap fish for home markets, Somali pirates support their towns and villages. That raises a key question: is helping your own people good or bad?

Sounds noble. Like Robin Hood.

I think blaming poverty is a way of over-simplifying the situation. As Mwangura states the true beneficiaries of the ransoms are to be found elsewhere, probably in some air-conditioned building, lining their already well-stocked pockets. The pirates are just the foot soldiers. And they don’t know anything different.

Thirdly, the Somali pirates show how vulnerable the shipping business is. And how much our economic systems build on mutual trust.

And finally, this news item reminds me of Proverbs 30:

give me neither poverty nor riches,
but give me only my daily bread.

Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you
and say, ‘Who is the LORD ‘
Or I may become poor and steal,
and so dishonor the name of my God.

This text sprung to mind. I heard it first in a remote village somewhere in Malawi many years ago.

Better Connectivity for Africa

Under Sea Cable Arrives in Africa - Appfrica

I really wish this would become reality:

“For me it is so good,” says Sondoto Kobia of Kenya. “I went to sleep yesterday barely being able to get out my emails, but this morning I uploaded a two-hour video of my sons graduation to You Tube in only 10 minutes! I’ve also heard from a number of family members who moved all over the world to places like Spain, France and Washington D.C. The phone is ringing, that’s probably one of them now!”

If only this were real…

How to Resize Photos

My family’s email account in Blantyre was blocked twice in the past week, due to well-meaning but over-sized Christmas and New Year email greetings. Attachments with over 2 MBs. The family is still on a phone line with a very slow connection rate. And downloading emails with a large attachment takes forever and a day. Luckily I can access their account via the web and move the large emails out of the way. But I thought I’d raise some awareness.

And point you to some resources describing how to resize photos.

Using MS Paint

How to resize your photograph by exact dimensions

  1. Right click on the image and select ‘Edit’. (This should bring up Windows Paint).
  2. On the menu bar at the top, select Image -> Attributes…
  3. If the image is a portrait layout, use a width of 640 and a height of 480. If it’s a landscape layout, use a width of 480 and a height of 640.
  4. Save the file. (You may want to ‘Save As’ to a different file so you don’t overwrite the original).

How to resize your photograph by percent

  1. Right click on the image and select ‘Edit’. (This should bring up Windows Paint).
  2. On the menu bar at the top, select Image -> Stretch/Skew…
  3. Change the percentages in the Stretch box for both Vertical and Horizontal. Make them both the same or else the picture will not be proportionate.
  4. Save the file (you may want to ‘Save As’ to a different file so you don’t overwrite the original).

Using Picasa

Resize by exporting

Exporting lets you resize your photos while controlling the JPEG compression (image quality) introduced by your applied photo edits. The result is newly resized copies of your photos, saved to any location on your hard drive. During the export process, you can adjust both the ‘Image Size Options’ and the ‘Image Quality’ settings in the ‘Export to Folder’ screen.

  • Under ‘Image Size Options,’ select the ‘Resize to’ option and adjust the size slider. The number of pixels you select with this slider determines the length or height of your photo (whichever is longer). The other dimension is determined automatically to maintain the aspect ratio of the photo.
  • Select the desired image quality for your photo using the ‘Image Quality’ drop-down menu:
    • Automatic: Preserves the original image quality
    • Normal: Balances quality and size
    • Maximum: Preserves fine detail for large file sizes
    • Minimum: Yields some quality loss for small file sizes
    • Custom: Enables you to select your own value

Resize by emailing

If you’re sending photos by email, you may want to resize then in order to get under the attachment size limitation. To change the size of the photos you email from Picasa, please follow these steps:

  1. Click the Tools menu.
  2. Select Options.
  3. Click the Email tab.
  4. Under ‘Output Options,’ use the slider to set your desired pixel size when emailing multiple photos. Use the radio buttons to set the desired pixel size for emailing single photos.
  5. Click OK.

Lazy workaround via Flickr

I sometimes use Flickr as a lazy workaround.

  1. Upload or email photo to the Flickr stream.
  2. Go to the photo page and select All Sizes.
  3. Select Small or Medium and click Download the Small (or Medium) Size.

File format:
Always use JPEG.

There are tonnes of other ways to resize photos with free software, such as IrfanView or The Gimp.

Within MS Word:
Don’t change the viewable size within Word (e.g. dragging the corners of the photo). Word will store the image in its original size. Resize the photo before inserting it into Word.

Adobe PDF:
Check the conversion settings.

Check the sizes of all files (Word, pdf, .jpeg) before sending them.

Be considerate and don’t send photos in their original size. Especially if you don’t know what type of connection the recipient is using.

It’s five minutes for you versus 30 minutes of expensive download time on a plain old telephone connection for them.

Text Snippets Circling Around

Pêle-mêle off the top of my head:

Learnt yesterday:
The number of English-speaking Internet users is decreasing, currently at about 35% of total number of Internet users.

Shared yesterday:
Who writes about African technology developments? From the list, I follow White African, Afrigadget, and sometimes Google Alert points me to IT News Africa.

Photo processing software for Ubuntu:
I’m currently MacBook-less (there are plans to change this very soon), but in the meantime I’ve installed Ubuntu 8.04 on an Acer Aspire 5920. I tried upgrading to Intrepid Ibex, but I couldn’t get my LAN connection to work. Something to do with the MTU count. And I encountered 2 bugs during the install:

  • package update-manager 1:0.93.32 failed to install/upgrade: ErrorMessage: SystemError in cache.commit(): E:Sub-process /usr/bin/dpkg returned an error code (1), E:Sub-process /usr/bin/dpkg returned an error code (1)
  • package ubuntustudio-menu 0.9 failed to install/upgrade: there is no script in the new version

So I went back to Hardy Heron. Cost: most of my Saturday. Learning effect: priceless.

I’ve been scanning the Internet for Linux photo processing software, besides Gimp, Picasa and F-Spot. ‘Cos so far Canon’s DPP has not been ported to Linux. I guess I could use it via Wine. But between you and me, I’m just looking for a good excuse to get a new MacBook. Beyond that DPP (still) lacks a good straightening tool.

I tried BlueMarine ‘cos it sounded promising, but I quickly gave up. Not usable.

There are a couple of commercial tools to consider:

  • LightZone Linux
  • Bibble

In the end I tried Raw Therapee and downloaded Qtpfsgui for HDRs. Both of which are free and look promising at this stage.


BTW, this blog post is good example how I can trick myself into writing a longer text. Initially, I just wanted to write a few Tweet-like text snippets, a summary of various small items circling around in my head. Pêle-mêle off the top of my head.

Please feel free to comment. I would be very grateful for any Ubuntu tips and tricks, etc.

Appfrica Interview on MTN Uganda

Just a quick note to point to an interesting interview with an official of MTN Uganda at:

Appfrica: Interview With MTN’s Erik van Veen – Part 1

These points caught my eye:

(…) revenues per user, are very low in Africa by international standards, and require a low cost operating model if the Operator is to be profitable. If you look at East Africa, new customers joining the mobile category spend about $4 per month ”“ that is not a lot!

(…) I see Asian, especially operators from the sub-continent, playing a bigger role in Africa as they have been able to survive in cut-throat, highly competitive, low tariff environments in their home markets.

(…) And then you have to deal with the cost of doing business in Africa. Infrastructure and productivity remain major hurdles that add costs to the P&L. Our own success, relative to other companies in most African economies, has backfired on mobile operators in Africa, where governments see these as an easy source of tax income. In East Africa, excise tax (read luxury tax) has been institutionalized within the mindset of financial ministerial policy on tax. Uganda has the 2nd highest tax burden on mobile services in the world, Tanzania 3rd. Just think about it ”“ in Uganda we hand over nearly a third of the cost of every call to the government. What a shame!

It is a short sighted initiative that is impeding growth of the ICT industry.

Very interesting read!

Quick side notes:
There was a recent article that Malawi is considering to add (or has already added) a 10% tax on all airtime. I can’t find the Daily Times article online any more (note to myself: make a screenshot next time) See this Daily Times article. (Unfortunately this link is broken in the meantime.)

There’s also White African’s catch phrase to keep in mind.


I am learning a lot from the African blogs I am reading…

App+frica recently wrote about useful web applications for bloggers in developing countries.

In his list he mentions Zemanta:

Zemanta, which just scored a new round of funding from Union Square Ventures, is a huge time saving tool. It’s a browser-side plug-in that scans the context of your blog posts (even as you’re writing it) and offers up a ton of time saving shortcuts like related links, photos, wikipedia articles, blogposts and suggested tags. With the click of a few buttons it can help you format your post in a way that normally takes hours! For instance, if you’re writing an article about Google, Zemanta will find recent articles about Google from other blogs, photos, logos and more.

It works with all the major blog platforms including WordPress, Livetype, Blogger, Drupal and more. When I had an abundance of time (and internet) I would usually just do all those things myself but Zemanta speeds up that process significantly.

Zemanta analyzes your text and then searches the web to suggest related articles, photos, tags. For some texts, the results still need tweaking. But this is a cool tool and a sign of what’s coming.

Thanks App+frica for sharing. I hadn’t heard of it before. And I live in a so-called developed country.

My BlogCamp Switzerland Talk

As announced on Twitter, I presented a talk on mobile technology in Malawi at today’s BlogCamp in Zurich to share what I’m learning from the African blogs and tweets that I follow on a regular basis.

I started my talk with a short intro on Chiperoni (I am a bridge blogger somewhere between Basel and Blantyre) and why I blog. How much I appreciated Alex Antener’s news stream published on a Polytechnic server during the last Malawi general election. Then pointing to White African’s blog post discussing Twitter’s decision to discontinue its SMS service to the rest of the world. I tried to point out the potential a “Twitter to SMS” service could have for Malawi, where most of the population does not have access to the internet or even a plain old fixed telephone line.

Soyapi Mumba's Blog: The Potential of Twitter in Africa

I described the current situation. And how this is changing with mobile technology. I pointed to Mike McKay’s blog post about a rural area in northern Malawi where villagers climb an ant hill to get a better signal.

In Switzerland we take a lot of things such as the excellent infrastructure we have for granted.

I shared some of my observations from my recent holiday in Blantyre, some data on the pricing models and how public wifi is being introduced in urban areas.

tnm || always with you

Zain Malawi - SMS text messages - Prices

I was a little shaky on the stats side of things, telecommunication regulations, as well as who owns the major cell phone service companies, TNM and Zain. I’ll need to do more research here. I might have got some of my facts mixed up.

I did refer to the new airtime tax that is being introduced.

Examples referred to:

This talk was inspired by White African’s and Soyapi Mumba’s tweet streams. Zikomo kwambiri. Keep on tweeting.

Flickr credits: White African, Hackerfriendly, all other photos are my own.

Big zikomo to Persillie and Mlle A. for reviewing my slides!

I enjoyed presenting very much (note to myself).

Oh and I forgot to mention my chat with a Limbe internet cafe manager during the talk…

Limbe Internet Cafe

Mobile Communication for Rural Health Project

I stumbled across this blog by Josh Nesbit discussing the use of FrontlineSMS, a tool to set up a text-based communications network, in a rural health project in Namitete, Malawi.

Here’s a 7 minute long interview with one of the community health worker. At about 3:00 she starts discussing the advantage of having a cell phone:

And here’s an interview with Alexander Ngalande, a nurse at St. Gabriel’s Hospital in Namitete, regarding his experience with FrontlineSMS:

He now uses SMS to communicate with the community health workers to coordinate his medical visits to remote villages. Previously he required a motorbike to send a message when he would be in attendance.

Examples of text messages being sent:

– A man missed his appointment with a TB officer. A CHW was texted, who reported the man had gone to Zambia for a funeral. The hospital will be notified upon his return.

– An HIV support group met, and decided on new member guidelines. Via SMS, the group leader asked the hospital to print copies for the lot.

– A CHW asked about ferrous sulfate dosages, so he could administer the proper amount to an anemic child.

We take this type of communication between medical staff and patient for granted.

See also this BBC article.

Twitter, SMS and Africa

This recent Twitter announcement is disappointing on a personal level, but also on a more global level as White African discusses:

Twitter represents a change in communication. By acting as a global gateway for updates via SMS (or the web), that then updates all of your followers, Twitter succeeded in breaking ground in one-to-many messaging. There have been a couple times over the past year where Twitter was used in Africa to get news out that wasn’t possible in any other format.

And in the comment thread he explains:

What’s missing for it to work in Africa is not just the sending of updates, but the receiving of your contacts updates. That really is what created the network effect for Twitter, and why it can’t succeed where it’s not available.

In Africa, not having SMS is a deal killer. Though there would undoubtedly be users who access it through the web – as is true throughout the rest of the world, true penetration in Africa can only come through services that can be fully operational using only SMS. Why I think this is particularly disappointing is that those third generation Twitter services that could really serve the needs of both ordinary Africans and humanitarians globally will not be built now.

The really interesting thing to me, so that Twitter doesn’t have to shoulder the load by itself, is the opportunity to build services that are separate and independent, but also equal. I guess the closest analogy I have would be to Jabber in this case – where anyone can run a server and that makes the whole greater than the sum of it’s parts.

A very interesting thread, which I’d like to recommend here.

My observations in Blantyre:

  • Despite the relative high cost, nearly everybody has a cell phone.
  • The top present to get for your girlfriend is a cell phone (!).
  • Most people use prepaid cards. See the current tariff plans at Zain (previously Celtel) and tnm.
  • Cell phones are helping to connect remote places, that never had a telephone connection. Villagers can hear more often and directly from family members that have moved to the cities or emigrated to SA, the USA and other countries. Farmers can compare market prices, receive weather updates. See Cy’s video.
  • Internet services are relatively expensive. Out of reach for personal use. Connecting via fixed line is slow and error prone. The way forward is wifi. Despite these encouraging developments, Internet will remain out of reach for most people for many years to come.


The Coca-Cola Index

Recommended read (via White African):

AFRICANS buy 36 billion bottles of Coke a year. Because the price is set so low—around 20-30 American cents, less than the price of the average newspaper—and because sales are so minutely analysed by Coca-Cola, the Coke bottle may be one of the continent’s best trackers of stability and prosperity.

The article is right about the distribution network. Coca-Cola is available in every remote village.

Hong Kong Restaurant in Blantyre, Malawi

Hong Kong Restaurant in Blantyre

Chinese restaurant in downtown Blantyre in Malawi.

(BTW, this is a Internet Marketing experiment….

If you read this blog post and then end up going to eat at this BT restaurant, please tell the owners where you first heard about it…)

CNN Report on Malawi Doctor Shortage

There’s a CNN TV report on the shortage of qualified medical personnel in Malawi. I zapped into it yesterday. It shows the dire situation at Mulanje District Hospital and in a rural dispensary. They interviewed a volunteer doctor from Uganda, a midwife who works in rural villages, a couple of Malawian doctors that are working in Manchester, UK:

Part 1

Part 2

According to the report, at one point in time there were more Malawian doctors in Manchester than in the whole of Malawi.

I’ve seen some hospital wards and I agree that the task is daunting. The wards are overfull. Patients and their guardians often lie on the floor in the corridors, under the beds.

Regular readers of Chiperoni know that I’ve been pointing to various blogs and articles on this topic from time to time. The dire conditions described in the report are realistic.

How to stop the brain drain? This is not an easy topic, cos every employee will – and needs – to look at their personal situation. Although this is not only about money, the salary plays an important role. Cos one salary needs to supports a lot of dependents. As one of the UK-based doctors says in the report, he can support more relatives with the better UK pay. I read somewhere that the amount of money transferred by Western Union back to Africa exceeds the foreign aid provided by the US and the EU (cf Africa: Sending Money Home) and is probably a lot more effective.

I’m against policies that bar qualified Malawians from working in the US or in Europe as suggested in the report. That’s not the way to go forward on this. The better way is to improve the work conditions in Malawi. I believe that many Malawians would consider returning if some of the surrounding conditions would improve. Cos all is not golden in Europe.

In the 70s and 80s, most of Malawi’s doctors were trained in the US and in Europe. They had a hard time adjusting to the conditions they found when they returned back home. Many stayed in the West. In the 90s, medical schools were set up to educate doctors within the country.

Factors that influence a personal decision to emigrate:

  • Salary
  • Work conditions (i.e. availability of modern equipment, labs and tests, qualification and number of co-workers, quality of management, further training, work load, working hours, holidays)
  • Political situation
  • Corruption within the workplace and outside
  • Merit-based promotion
  • Economic situation within the country
  • Infrastructure (e.g. frequent power cuts, water supply shortages, very bad roads, no or very expensive telecommunication services)
  • Crime rate (e.g. clever guys that steal telephone cables as they are installed and sell them for much less than they are worth, increase in burglary, armed robbery and mugging)
  • Availability of good schooling for your children esp. in remote hospitals
  • Changes in Malawi family tradition (e.g. the rules that quasi-dictate how and when you need to take of your family relatives encourage some to search for kms of distance)

I studied at the Malawi College of Accountancy in Blantyre and we often discussed the greener pastures of Botswana and beyond.

Some figures I found from 2005:

There are only 100 doctors and 2,000 nurses for Malawi’s 12 million people because many health care workers trained in the country now practice in developed countries, which pay higher salaries. Rich countries also provide better working conditions for doctors, as the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa has added a “heavy burden” to health care on the continent, the Times reports. In addition, many health care workers in Malawi have become sick with HIV/AIDS or have died. Nearly 15% of Malawi’s adult population is HIV-positive. Some hospitals in Malawi have resorted to hiring retired medical workers to fill the gaps, according to the Times. Atta Gbary, the World Health Organization’s Africa adviser on human resources and health, said the shortage of medical workers in Malawi means that when donors offer funds “it is impossible to use them because the people are simply not there to work anymore.” According to Gbary, 23,000 medical workers leave Africa annually and there are only 800,000 medical workers working on the continent currently. Malawian Health Minister Hetherwick Ntaba said the country should require its medical workers to serve several years in the country after completing their training. He also said that foreign governments that employ medical workers from Malawi should compensate the country for the cost of training new doctors and nurses. The United Nations estimates that it costs $100,000 to train a specialist doctor in Africa.

And from May 2007:

A shortage of health workers in Southern African countries is undermining access to antiretroviral drugs in the region, according to a Medecins Sans Frontieres report released on Thursday, the AP/Houston Chronicle reports. According to the AP/Chronicle, the report focused on the conditions in South Africa, Malawi, Mozambique and Lesotho.

The report found that South Africa has 393 nurses and 74 physicians per 100,000 people; Lesotho has 63 nurses and five physicians per 100,000 people; Mozambique has 20 nurses and three physicians per 100,000 people; and Malawi has 56 nurses and two physicians per 100,000 people. According to the report, Africa has increased access to antiretroviral drugs among people living with HIV/AIDS from 100,000 people in 2003 to 1.3 million in 2006. However, the shortage of health workers is preventing further expansion of drug access programs, the report found.

As Victor rightly points out, the CNN report is very one-sided, esp. regarding the images and the way the sick are portrayed. There are many Malawi doctors and nurses that serve their country conscientiously against all odds.

Kenyan blogs

Cedric of writes

Das es inzwischen eine aktive afrikanische Blogosphäre gibt, ist nicht erst seit dem Chaos um den Wahlbetrug in Kenya bekannt. Aber genau jetzt wird deutlich wie gut und wertvoll es ist verschiedene Sichtweisen über die Massenmedien hinaus einzufangen.

See the full post here: Bürger-Journalismus in Kenya

White African has a roundup of blogs. And there’s a mashup called Ushahidi to document and report violence.

Swamp cottage, a long time blogger based in Nairobi, offers further links to news articles and lists several Africa blogs in his blog roll.

And Insight Kenya is posting photos from Nairobi.