Mission Hekima: A story of heart, faith and connection problems

Article
August 31, 2018
The street is full of girls in bright green robes. They are singing and dancing and clap their hands to the rhythm. The atmosphere is celebratory. In their faces, you can see a mix of excitement and curiosity. What looks like a parade or a terrific prelude to a special event, is actually a welcoming ceremony for the Axis team, who have just arrived in Bukoba town in Tanzania with the mission to equip Hekima Girls’ School with proper computers and to help set up a working internet connection.

It all started back in 2014, when Axis initiated a voluntary project with the purpose of improving opportunities for computer-based education. The project grew out of the annual exchange program between the Swedish St. Petri school in Malmö and the Hekima Girls’ school in Tanzania.

The results of the Hekima project are impressive – especially when looking at all the challenges the Axis team faced. Despite the difficulties Axis installed a new PC lab with 10 computers as well as a projector and speakers. They paved the way to a better educational experience for the girls at Hekima.

 

A student exchange and an idea

Teaching the school teachers how the computor works
Ken Granqvist, giving the school teachers some computer training

 “The idea to start a project like this has been on our agenda for a while. We wanted to make a change and support the people in this country. The partnership gave us the connections to locals as well as the opportunity to talk to them about the current situation at the Hekima school. They could give us an insight into the challenges they were facing. Suddenly we had a specific approach how we could help and we thought: Why not start here.”, explains Dan Eriksson, Partner Program Manager at Axis Communication and the project coordinator for the Hekima project.

With the planned changes and future adjustments, the students will have a more inclusive and interesting learning experience. They are less dependent on their teachers and get the chance to develop a new level of self-reliance. Another goal is that the technical improvements will have a positive impact on the students’ grades as well as on the school’s reputation and the number of enrolments.

 

A rocky road into the unknown

When the Axis team, consisting of Dan Eriksson as well as the IT support Manager Ken Granqvist and Senior Software Engineer Marcus Prebble, arrived at the Hekima school, they had a clear vision and an idea of the improvements that could be made, once they were on-site. The plan was for example to upgrade the infrastructure, secure a reliable Internet service provider company and install a new computer lab. But it would be quite a rocky road for the team to achieve the goals they had set.

We didn’t really know what to expect when we arrived. We had to adjust to the circumstances, such as having to stop work once the sun went down because there were no street lights and power cuts were a daily occurrence. During nighttime, it’s pitch black and all you can see are the stars. And I remember one of our first nights: It was so silent. No cars, no noises and suddenly the girls from the school came together and started singing. A beautiful moment and an eye opener in terms of national and cultural differences.”, says Dan.

 

The Tech-graveyards 

the_recycle_room_1700px.jpg
The lack of a functioning recycling system turned storage rooms into tech graveyards.

Donated technology equipment is rarely of high quality in Tanzania and new technology is especially hard to find in educational institutions. Although well intended, donations cause more issues down the line, especially when it comes to the disposal of equipment. The lack of a functioning recycling system in Tanzania turns the outdated equipment into an environmental issue. Without a way of recycling old electronic devices, local communities end up having to keep them in old storage areas creating “Tech-graveyards” around the village. In the case of the Hekima school it was a whole room full of old or broken computers. Most of the electronic equipment, such as computers, printers and power cords that were already on-site were between 20 and 25 years old and couldn’t really serve the purpose of improving the current situation. They were unsuitable for the project. The first step was therefore to replace all the computers with equipment that not only worked for the project but also had a long lifespan to reduce wastage. “We decided to purchase the equipment new from the local markets, even though it was a little more expensive. We wanted to support local distributors and companies”, says Marcus.

 

The struggle with the Internet

Working on the barely existing Internet connection
Working on the barely existing Internet connection

Every good story needs a villain and the Axis team had to fight with a special one: the barely existing Internet connection.

One problem was the equipment hadn’t been installed correctly. They also hadn’t used a grounding or installed lightning arresters which led to the weather related problems: The Hekima school receives its Internet via three towers - one in Bukoba (where the ISP is situated) and two “repeaters”, one at Katoma and one at the school.

One week before the Axis team was going to arrive in Tanzania, the area around Bukoba was hit by a thunder storm. Unfortunately, one of the “repeater” towers got struck by lightning which destroyed all the electronics inside. Due to the height of the tower, and the geographic area the school is situated in, they were often exposed to lightning strikes. The consequence was that the electronic equipment was partially damaged and suffered internal damage. This didn’t lead to a complete malfunction but instead to a very unreliable service that would work one moment but not the next, which was quite frustrating for the team. And as if that wasn’t challenging enough, the bad weather conditions and damages led to repeating replacements the team had to deal with.

But it was not only the technical side: The team also had to face the lack of proper expertise in relation to the right choice of provider and the right budget. “It’s an essential goal for the future to train some of the locals so that they will be able to take care of the maintenance and repairs if necessary. Local experts in the tech field are hard to find in Tanzania. We even considered getting help from qualified people in Uganda because we also need people who can train the teachers”, states Marcus.

 

The first step of the journey towards bigger change

Despite the issues, the team achieved some great results. They cleaned up the old computers and were able to install useful software such as an “offline” version of Wikipedia, which does not require an internet connection to use. To keep the database up-to-date, teachers and students received basic training on how to use the new equipment and Dan raised an inventory of all the equipment at the school. The future plans include another visit to the Hekima school to make the existing IT structure more robust.

The ultimate goal will be to ensure the “self-sufficiency” of the school in terms of IT. One step towards this goal is deepening the IT skills of the students (and teachers), which is why Axis is planning to offer them extended training. It will take some time to achieve this goal but everyone involved is very enthusiastic – Axis contributors as well as the people at the Hekima school.

This project was an affair of the heart and everyone involved is very passionate about it. “The students and the teachers at Hekima were incredibly happy. People in Bukoba don’t have many possessions, so the only thing they can give in return, is their heart, faith and thankfulness. It was a very special and heart-warming experience for us.”, says Dan, “And the amazing lunch they prepared for us every day, was the cherry on top.” he adds laughing.

Overall, the Hekima project has been a success and the ongoing involvement of Axis is an important step towards a bigger change, especially in terms of a global connection and enhancing quality education.

The Axis team, together with all the students and teachers at the Hekima Girls' School

 

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