Jonathan Field - Maker of Random Stuff

I should have brought my camera today, but for some reason I didn’t. Picked up Zenzo just a little after 7:30 and headed to the warehouse where we were to meet Alan and Donna. I more or less found the way myself; I’m slowly learning the streets. On the way while at a stop light, Thabani walked in front of us. We waved. I’m starting to feel like a local.

We loaded up a our two cars with as many Performa 575′s as we could. These are monstorous 15″ all in one machines. They’re kind of hideous but they work well enough. We were only able to fit in seven between the two cars, including all the other stuff we had. First school on the list is Nordenfeld.

So we drove off, down the same road we use to get to Ncome, but about 2/3 of the way there we pull off to the right and up to a little rural school. I say rural a lot. The other schools are rural too. But this one was even more rural. There were some beautifully colored chickens and their little chicks wandering the yard and scratching for food. The lot was not a dusty one, like so many schools here, but a grass field. The spot was set against a hillside dotted with trees, and was quite picturesque. The buildings here are in rougher shape than other schools, they don’t all match and several have broken windows.

We meet the principal, a sweet middle aged lady whose husband was killed in a car accident just a few months ago. I recall Alan telling me at some point that South Africa has the highest per-capita automobile fatalities in the world. It also has the world’s largest AIDS population. It is also the second highest per-capita violent crime rate (Columbia wins the honor of #1). Yet at the same time it has more infrastructure and a stronger economy than most African countries. It is a place of great contrast.

Donna and Alan hug the principal and give her their condolences. She invites us in to chat. The school has seen a dropoff in enrollment; it used to have 190 students and it’s down to just 94 now. She says the main reason is that people are just not staying out here by the farms any more. The school is isolated, many of the kids walk 15 or 20 kilometers to come, and that’s over hills and through fields, not along roads. Alan wonders aloud to me what kind of homes they might have out there. But the gist of it is that people are not staying in this area, so the school population is dwindling down.

She still has five teachers, but she knows that soon they will be pulling two of them since she’s over quota. They are pretty strict about paying only for one teacher per 32 kids.

An important roadblock for our planned day’s work: the school is currently without electricity. She tells us it was dead when they came in this morning and it has been out all day. So we won’t be able to power up, test, or repair any machines. Still, we do have the physical lab layout we can work on, so we’ll just do that.

We go over to the lab, it is half black and white SE’s and half color LC IIs. Alan’s goal here was to get them all on color. He is impressed that the school has moved the lab to a new room, and went to the trouble of adding security grating to the windows and doors. They hooked everything up properly too. The principal here seems like a good leader.

The floor of the lab is bare concrete, and it has eroded in some parts to include sizable potholes that are a few inches deep. There are roaches scurrying around occasionally, but I’m used to that from Las Vegas. Alan mentions that he once opened a computer here and found wasps had just started building a nest inside. They had chosen to build it on the fan, oddly enough. Had Alan turned it on they would have had their nest spun up like a centrifuge. I wonder how they would have felt about that.

Alan, Zenzo, and I completely disassemble the lab and lay out all the parts on the floor. Then we figure out the best table and computer layout we can with the iffy selection of desks. We come up with a decent layout that gives the kids a little more room to work. We put the black & whites in the car and bring in the color replacements, the beastly Performa 575s.

Alan has to make some modifications to the extention cords; splicing in a few more outlets. He does one while Zenzo and I watch. Then Zenzo does the next one. It’s his first time doing electrical wiring work, he says, but he does great. He leaves the room, and I mention to Alan we should pay the kid something. Alan agrees. We are doing this on our own dime, our only reward is the the warmth of helping others. But being payed in good feelings is a luxury that is much easier for us privileged folks to accept. Zenzo deserves some money. We agree to figure out some type of payment later tonight.

One of the educators comes by with a tray: a bottle of cold apple juice, slices of pound cake, slices of swiss roll, and shortbread cookies. We thank her and enjoy the snack before we go. We promise to stop by again when the power comes back on.

We head over to another nearby school; Mzemella. To get there we drive through a eucalyptus grove. I like the smell, even though I find it slightly reminscent of body odor. Eucalyptus are not welcome here: they are invasive exotics. But then again, so am I.

We also cross a small river; driving right through the water. Then we arrive at the school. This school is one that Alan and Donna would like to put on the plate which Zenzo and I have been sharing. Mzemella, Ncome, and Nordenfeld are all pretty close, and all could use our assistance. The principal sounds glad to have the help, so we agree to talk after the upcoming school break.

Since we’re near Ncome, we drop by to see if they’ve made any progress with the power. An amazing thing: the kids seem to recognize Zenzo and I now, since a sizeable percentage of them have been in classes with us. So as we get out of the cars they swarm around us cheering and talking. We’re celebrities to them; fun and exciting folks who bring them computery goodness. Alan stands by his car watching and smiling.

The principal says the electrician is coming tomorrow morning. We decide to give it a look again. It’s somehow got even worse since we were last here; the entire school is down now, and the main breaker won’t stay on at all. We play with it a bit and isolate the problem to a particular area, but it’s beyond our ability to fix it. We do come across an interesting and rather unsafe hack: the wire connecting the main breaker to the sub breaker box is an extention cord. But not just any extention cord, it is an extention cord with plugs at both ends. Not a plug at one end and an outlet at the other like every extention cord you’ve ever seen: both ends are like the end you plug into the wall. The upshot is that when one end is unplugged, the metal prongs are electrified. So if you bump them, which is very easy to do, you’d get a 220VAC buzz. Luckily we noticed this before handling the plug.

Unable to fix it, we agree to call back later. The four of us drive a ways on the dirt road back to the main street, but we pull over to have a nice lunch alongside the field. Donna provides an excellent bean salad, and we watch birds hovering nearly motionless overhead as they scan the grass for goodies to swoop down on.

Last school of the day — our fourth! Enyuneni, one of Alan’s favorites. We’re going in today primarily to back up everything. This place uses the computers like nobody’s business. The principal, Matthew, is an albino Zulu man. We meet him: he wears a soft brimmed denim hat that droops around his head, and he has poor eyesight so he wears thick glasses.

Alan tells us that running this school is Matthew’s passion. It’s not just a job to him, and it shows. It is one of the best put together schools around here, even though it is poor, too. Alan has a lot of respect and affection for this place.

We go into Matthew’s office and begin the backup process; we have a loose hard drive and enough cables and power cords to hook it up as an external. Then we copy the files over. Matthew has almost 7000 files in his personal folders covering the past several years. His wife, who works with him (though she is ill at the moment) has nearly 4000. Like I said, they really use this stuff. Some of the schools you wonder how much they’re really doing, but here you don’t.

At this point an absolutely massive downpour starts. This is the first real rain I’ve seen in Africa. It is intense: loud both from the pounding rain and the rolling thunder, and everything is soaked within seconds. It is time for the kids to go home, but they all gather under the overhangs to avoid getting soaked. Walking ten feet would drench you to the bone, and most of these kids have miles to walk. Some of them run off anyways, but others wait for the rain to die down a bit. They wait a long time.

I continue to backup all the machines in the staff room; they are also used heavily. In fact two of the machines have nearly filled their hard drives and need to be cleaned up. After doing some teaching, Donna takes care of that.

Meanwhile Zenzo and Alan do more wiring: they run a homemade extention cord from one room to the lab so that they can support more machines. The one circuit in the lab currently can’t support them all. To do this they take some used wire that was pulled off one of the other buildings here last week and thread it through a hole punched between the window sill and the bricks that make up the wall. By the time I come by to check they’ve got things nearly done.

It’s still raining, though lightly, by the time we leave. Matthew the principal, and his sister who also works here, need a ride to Glencoe so they hop in with me and Zenzo. Alan and Donna head home.

But for some reason as we pass Dundee center, Matthew and his sister ask to be left here. They say they have some things to do. But perhaps they just didn’t trust my driving. To show them, I nearly hit one of the taxis as I pull over to the curb to let them out.

I drop off Zenzo, hit the backpackers for a few to read and write, and then head over to the trailer for dinner.

When I get there I am told that one of the bats flew inside the trailer and they have captured it. Since I didn’t do any pictures today, I’ll have to put this blurry one up, which I did get: a cute little bat in a clear plastic container. That’s Alan’s hand in the background to give a sense of scale. They’re tiny little things. Cute and fuzzy. I wish the picture came out better. Here’s another that’s clearer but not as good of a pose. It didn’t seem to like the light and we didn’t want to torment it any more, so I let off the pictures. Alan put him out on the porch and after stretching his wings for a few seconds, he took off and went right back to doing circles over the yard.

Donna prepares a lovely veggie curry that includes squash that Matthew the principal gave her. It is delicious and spicy and goes great with the beer she offers cold from the fridge.

After dinner we listen to a little radio show, it’s a serial and so I don’t have much context, but it’s about the coal mining and difficulties that were going on here just over 100 years ago.

I come home and can’t get into the backpackers — no matter how I turn my key the door won’t open. Just before I give up and go bother Evan, a young black lady opens the door. She had put the extra safety on from the inside because she didn’t know anyone else was coming tonight. She’s staying at the backpackers just for the night.

I get to bed and do my writing and posting. I find I have the option of a busy day (like today) without much thinking, or a more leisurely day where I think a lot. Variety is good.

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