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What Do ICT Technicians And Usain Bolt Have In Common?

Somalia is one of the toughest places to work for a humanitarian worker. Security considerations affect everything – even getting an email system set up. Amos Mwea describes the challenges he faces installing a satellite dish at Mogadishu’s seaport.

NAIROBI -- Compass, check.  Spectrum analyzer, check. Incilinometre, check. These are just a few of the tools that Amos Mwea from ICT in the Somalia country office needed to take to Mogadishu seaport where he has been installing WFP’s VSAT.  To those of us who turn on our computers and expect to log straight into our email system - and to those of us who pick up a phone and presume to reach our colleagues via VSAT - perhaps we should spare a thought for people like Amos.

Waiting for a convoy

With the necessary security clearance in place, Amos arrived in Mogadishu mid-September.  The main obstacle he faced was one common to WFP international staff working here...waiting until an AMISOM (African Union  Mission in Somalia) convoy is available to get you to where you need to be.

So in the meantime, working out of the ‘new office’, a portacabin in the guesthouse where some staff are staying, Amos logged onto Google Earth to get the coordinates of the place where the VSAT was to be installed to ensure they would work with the chosen satellite. He checked the coverage area and was satisfied with the signal strength.

Four days later, a convoy was successfully arranged. Amos put on his body armour, clamboured aboard the Casspir armoured vehicle and made the 20-minute journey through the bumpy streets of Mogadishu.

“I have the feeling that anything can happen here", says Amos.  "I was looking out of the vehicle checking that no one was pointing a gun or an RPG at us, but I felt OK, I felt protected.”

The foundation of the VSAT

Once safely arrived, Amos put his various gadgets to work in the allotted four-hour timeframe.  After checking the dish’s ‘line of sight’, the instruction was given to local labourers to lay the foundation.  

“I found the Somalis hard working", says Amos. "I asked them to do something, gave them a drawing because I don’t speak their language, and they did it.”

The foundation was an oil drum filled with cement which could support 250 kg of equipment and - if necessary - be moved (you never know in Mogadishu).

Back in the office, Amos spread out his boxes and tools and spent the next three days analysing the network diagram, programming the modem and twiddling bits and pieces that looked like a professional Meccano toy.

 But then more days came and went without convoys to the port. After six days another convoy was secured and Amos once again donned his flak jacket and helmet, climbed aboard the amoured vehicle and headed back to the port.

Too many trips back and forth

It took four people to erect the heavy dish mast, holding it in place while Amos checked that it was straight.  Then it was bolted into position and the giant saucer was placed on top. Time was up and the convoy came back to collect him.

The next convoy opportunity came four days later. This time Amos laid the cable to the office and placed the modem, router and power switches in the offices.

Three days afterwards, Amos returned to the seaport and finished attaching the contraption that sends and receives the signal - it looks like a ray gun from a 1960’s sci-fi movie - then finished the cabling and made adjustments to the dish.

That was a Thursday. The next opportunity for Amos to get to the port was the following Monday, convoy permitting. So, at the time of writing, Amos’ work is still unfinished. He has yet to connect the dish, align it to that large useful lump of metal in the sky, fine tune the modem, connect the modem to the network for the computers and the phones, and make sure that all the software is working.

A job that should take five days to complete has already spanned 13 days and will take another two trips to the seaport to complete. But frustration is not something that shows on Amos’ face.

“You have to be like Bolt"

“You have to be like Usain Bolt", he says. "You have to go as fast as you can when get the chance. It’s a race against time.”

But it’s a race worth running.  When finished, all of the WFP staff in Mogadishu, wherever their offices, will have secure network access and will be able to use the software they didn’t have before.