Archive for the 'work' Category

“I will totally destroy you.”

Monday, December 8th, 2008

Hey kids,

Just a small shout-out to say that I’m still doing well. Work is going well; I’ve been given the leeway to pursue my ideas for the improvement of Educational Statistics in Namibia, and I think my teammates and I will really be making a difference in our terms here. Basically our goal is to expand the capacity and functions of the current Educational Statistics department in the Ministry of Education. Right now, they collect a lot of data and put the results in a book and distribute that at the end of each year, one book to each school. That book inevitably disappears into the principal’s office, and most people I’ve talked to have no idea that Namibia even has an Educational Statistics department. So first, we’re going to make examination results for schools available online, and we’re going to add to that some analysis, including resources available at schools, teachers’ qualifications (in an aggregated form), and learners’ living situations. And we’re going to make it easy to compare two schools, overall and by subject. My personal goal is for village people to compare two neighborhood schools, realize that their children are going to the school producing learners with lower grades, and then apply pressure to the principal. This might not happen for five years, but it’s a nice dream.

One great thing that happened over the last week is that I found a great town house to rent for the next year at least. (This means that I don’t need to bike around town all weekend looking for places any more, or call housing agents who say “That place is already taken”.) The place is beyond anything I hoped I could afford (I took an 80% salary cut upon taking this job), and I am very happy to have found it. It’s got three bedrooms, 2½ bathrooms, kitchen, living room, and a dining room. There’s a balcony upstairs available from 2 of the bedrooms, and a patio outside in the backyard.

This is quite a step up from what I’m currently living in, and indeed what I even want to live in. By living in such a nice place, it’s obviously in a good neighborhood, and so the people who I could really enjoy sharing time and culture with are not living around there. Most people in this nice neighborhood tend to stick to themselves. It actually was a very difficult decision to make; but the size of the place won me over. Why? 2 reasons: 1. YOU can stay with me, comfortably and not on the floor, when you come to visit! 2. Ping-pong table in the dining room? Yes.

Which brings us to the most important point of this post. At my previous job at WeBuildPages, I played ping-pong almost daily. It developed friendships, it got the blood flowing in the middle of a brain-crunching muscle-atrophying computer programming day, and it provided for excitement and friendly competion. So since I’ve been back in Namibia, I’ve been suffering from ping-pong withdrawal. I have been asking many people if they know where I can play, and most people don’t even know what it is. Some people know what it is, but have no idea where it can be played. Finally I’ve found some fellow ping-pong players who play in a league, but unfortunately the league doesn’t start up again until after the New Year, and somehow the ping-pong tables “aren’t available” until that time. So I’ve been dreaming of just going and buying a table, but until I found this large apartment, I’ve had no place to put it.

You can imagine my surprise, then, after telling my boss that I’ve been really missing ping-pong, and that I’m going to buy a table, and asking him if he knew what it was, that the first thing he said was “I will totally destroy you.” Turns out he played a heck of a lot of ping-pong during his years studying in Australia (the land of the speed-cameras… be careful!), and he’s got the talk to match. I’m totally pumped to get this town house and table ready for service! But I’ll bet he’s never faced a serve like mine!

To wrap things up, I wanted to show you some pics of the food I’ve been cooking for myself, using the professional guidance I’ve received while studying under the Browns for a wonderful year.

Eggplant Lasagna!

Hickory Burger!

Salmon, greenbeans & bacon, mashed potatoes!

Christmas comes to Namibia too!

Third week, third gear

Wednesday, November 26th, 2008

Hey kids,

Here’s another long-delayed post. This one will have pictures of my office, pictures of my flat, tell you what I’ve been up to since I’ve been here, and give you a better idea of my job.

(Click the photo for more inner-office photos.)

But I’d like to start out with what the several people have commented on from the previous post–that being my desire to paint my office walls. It was the thing most people responded on. I’ve been told to drop it, wash the walls, and I’ve been described as potentially “presumptuous.” I wasn’t being totally serious about needing it painted, but would you really want to be in that dirty office for two years? I had to empty it, I had to remove a year of dust which had settled on everything – even inside the cupboards, so I kind of have a desire to start fresh from square one. I guess I didn’t clarify the reasons for painting those walls, so let me take this opportunity to do so now:
1. The walls need painting. Sticky tack has been left on the walls for years, and I had to pry it off with a knife. There are black dots all over the place where a few bulletin boards could have gone. Imagine you move in to a new apartment and the previous tenant had a bike which seemed to be used to ride up and down the walls. Shouldn’t’ve the landlord scrubbed that crap off for you?
2. That being said, why not change the color? Why not yellow? If every office is painted baby-blue-gray, a little should brighten it up!

(Click the photo for more flat photos.)

Now onto the flat I’m currently in. I moved in here because the landlord didn’t need a long-term contract signed and it was about half-price as backpackers in the area. The flat has three bedrooms, each with it’s own bathroom. We three share a kitchen. It’s a nice place with nice people, but I need something bigger in the long run. On top of that, the landlord has presented me with a 12 month contract, using language from three languages, which clearly outlines that she can do no wrong, and I can have no recourse if she does things in a “reasonable” amount of time. Riiight. So I have yet to sign that. Oops, one of the clauses in that contract is that I’m not allowed to talk about it, unless you’re my lawyer. So today, please be my lawyer. Anyway, I am looking for a bigger place, so this contract isn’t something to worry about (or sign).

Work is still somehow. The boss is still out more than he is in, and my talents aren’t being utilized. Either my value hasn’t been made clear, or nobody really cares – both of which are possible! I don’t see enough for two years here. Actually, the project I was supposed to be working on was completed last year without anyone telling me. And the boss has said for additional programming projects “as long as there is a donor to fund a project, we’ll just subcontract the work out.” So what the hell am I for then? Well currently we have 20 people from various regions entering in data from databooks that were filled in by principals from Namibia’s ~1700 schools. Every databook has several mistakes, requiring phone calls to principals to correct them before they can be completed entered into the computer. As you can imagine, this is a slow process. And to add Namibia’s humor factor, each government employee who has a telephone is limited to a certain maximum phone bill each month. And after a few days, I’ve reached my maximum. So I can’t do any calling until next month (December). Maybe that’s why people sleep during the day.

Click for more photos of our most recent Hash

Finally, I’d like to report on my activities every Sunday starting at 15:30. I participate in a “hash,” which is an international group of people who get together to do something. We hike. Well, it’s a drinking club with a hiking problem as they like to say. Anyway, it’s a bunch of foreigners and a bit of cool locals that make a nice mix and good times. We hike a trail, a different one every week, and each hike is followed by formalities which cannot really be explained, just accepted. Everyone gets a chance to drink their drink from a baby toilet. Please no questions now-I have no idea. Check out the pictures.

OK, this post has been long overdue! Sorry for that.

The simple life

The important things

First day, first gear; second day, second gear

Thursday, November 6th, 2008

(Click the photo for more office photos.)

Here’s a long-overdue update on my new job in the Ministry of Education in Namibia. I started on Monday, arriving at 8 o’clock. My boss, well actually I now have 4 bosses, so to be more specific my second boss up the chain, the one who will be doing most of the directing, is in Botswana for the week. Botswana, for those who don’t know, is a different country, and so that make giving directions a little difficult. Orders were left with a co-worker (we don’t use that word here, we much prefer “colleague”) to give introductions get me started. Apparently those orders didn’t reach him, and quite soon it was clear that there was nothing really to do.

I was assigned an office the week previous, so I spent two hours collecting the 3 cabinets full of paper and transporting them into a store room because the person who previously occupied this office didn’t move his stuff out. The next 6 hours were pretty boring. Government work, as I am learning, actually really matches what you hear – inefficient, bureaucratic, and wasteful at times.

The second day, my job was to choose furniture to put in the office. Furniture is ordered from the Government Store, which is then back-ordered to the companies which produce it, and with luck, 6 months later your furniture will arrive. Is there any way to speed this up? Well, if you bike the 2km down to the Government Store Warehouse and only choose items that are there waiting to be chosen, the back-order doesn’t need to happen and you get the furniture fairly quickly–provided your supervisor, his/her supervisor, and his/her supervisor all agree that you need/can purchase said furniture with Ministry money.

Failing to find the furniture you want at the Government Store is not the end of the world, but it then does imply you’ve got a lot of leg-work to do. You are allowed to find a particular item at three different stores, get quotations, and then the Ministry will issue a purchase order for that item (provided all the signatures can be obtained), and then you can go get it. You might already see the problem coming if you remember that after my first 2 years in Namibia, it took me a full month to visit the grocery store because of all that darned selection. Those choices! What I mean is this: when you want into a store in Namibia looking for an item, that store typically doesn’t have much of a selection. If you want a desk, they’ve got desk. If you want a computer, they’ve got computer. Oh, but wait, you wanted the computer with this option and this other special thing? No, we’ve got computer, but it doesn’t have that extra stuff. You want a desk with 4 drawers down the right side? No, our desk doesn’t have that. OK, so in the country capital, Windhoek, it’s really not as bad as I make it out to be. But there really are 3 office furniture stores in the country, and the chances they all carry the same item that I want (in order to get the 3 quotations) is pretty slim… So you eventually learn to break it down by function, not stock number. For example, on the quote form, you’d write: “desk: N$5,600.25,” not “IKEA desk: Svën: N$4025.28.” So it’s manageable, just a lot of leg-work.

Day three was spent actually doing some work. The colleague who was given authority to get me started was traveling to “The North” (an area of relatively high population occupied by one “tribe”, where my Peace Corps service was) to give a presentation of the educational status of the schools in that region (think “state”). So I helped extract slides from a slideshow that were relevant to his presentation and put them in a new one. Hey, they don’t call me a computer expert for nothin’. I earn this, people. Anyway, 11:00 came around and he left for the 7 hour drive. So that left me with 6 hours to kill. I started to work on my work permit application form (which takes between 1-3 months to approve, so you’ve got to have a work visa to cover you while you wait for the work permit to get approved.) At the end of the day, I revisited the Government Store in order to verify the numbers I had corresponded to the furniture I desired, and I also checked out the smaller things, like waste baskets, desk-top files, scissors, bostik/prestik/sticky-tak or whatever-you-call-it.

The big uproar at work is that the new guy wants to paint the office. The new guy is me, and the office is dirty and needs painting. In order to do this, I needed permission from 3 people: my Directorate Director, the Maintenance Deputy Director, and the Maintenance Control Works Inspector. Then we needed to fill out some paperwork and send it over to the Ministry of Works, who could quite possibly take several months to come over and paint this small room. OK, so I’ll do it myself, right? OK, but we still need all that permission. And heaven forbid if I want to change the color… (which I do).

Can’t say too much about the actual work I’ll be doing, because I really have no idea. Here is my official job description:

Post: Programmer/Application Developer
Supervisor: Senior Database Administrator – EMIS [Education Management Information Systems]

The EMIS Division serves management and planning in the Ministry by providing information to support the effective and efficient operation of the Ministry. The Division provides analytical information on the operations of the Ministry, which is required by various components of the Ministry and external organizations and individuals. It supports the Ministry in respect of monitoring and evaluation of its activities.

The Database Management and Administration Subdivision is an Information Communication Technology arm of the EMIS division and is tasked to take a complete care of the EMIS database, with its general functions outlined below. He or she will assist the DBA [DataBase Administrator] in the following general functions:


  • Physical Design and Creation of the Database
  • Production Support
  • Performance Tuning
  • Access Privileges
  • Backup/Recovery
  • Programming Guidelines
  • Upgrades


  • Ensure that all tuning of applications are accomplished as expected
  • Assign user roles and provide security for applications
  • Develop and review programming guidelines to allow the most efficient development of applications
  • Create and maintain production, test and development database environments for EMIS
  • Provide advice to application programmers in the effective use of database languages
  • Provide training to beginners and advanced users and other key personnel
  • Work on routine assignments applicable to the system
  • Attend and participate in seminars or workshops to remain current with information technology and especially those pertaining to education
  • Develop data capturing programs
  • Design alternative databases for capturing, storage and processing of information to be acquired (ad hoc surveys)
  • Maintain and update the EMIS software and hardware systems
  • Develop the electronic information distribution systems and ways to maintain them
  • Update the policy frameworks with the latest data by manipulating the database
  • Constantly review and update the data capturing programs
  • Assist in maintaining the servers and the server room
  • Train regional officers on minor database administration issues
  • Decentralization of EMIS activites to the regions to enable speedy data capturing and reports
  • Maintain a web-based system to enable the decentralization function to take off the ground and monitor its growth and enable data capturing at the lowest possible point in Education
  • Set up dedicated EMIS service in the regional offices to enable the regional staff to do data entry, cleaning and report building, yet connected to the main server in the head office.

Back to Africa

Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

It took a bit more than a year, but the job I’ve been hoping to get for quite a while is finally happening. After 20 hours of flying and a night in Jo’burg, I arrived in Windhoek, Namibia, being greeted by a fellow ex-Peace Corps Volunteer and two friends. It was a warm welcome back.

Image credits: the CIA World Factbook and myself.

The job, which will begin after a work visa is issued and a contract is signed, is firstly a web programming/database designer post and secondly a sharing post. Statistics about the Namibian education system are collected in an “Annual Education Census” from each school principal and sent to the central office in Windhoek for entry into a database. Our primary goal is to decentralize this data collection, letting the 13 Namibian regions (think somewhere between states and counties) input the data into the database themselves. This will require a web interface for data entry that sanity-checks all inputs and is easy to use by an entry-level computer user. We’ll also be creating simpler ways for Governments, NGO’s and other organizations which require statistics about the education system to obtain them.

I’ve been away from home for 5 days now and I have to say it’s been tough. A lot of stuff has happened in the last month, including my last grandparent dying. Our family came together and friends came to support us, and it was really very nice. Of course it also showed me what I was walking away from to take the job in Namibia, and that was the hardest part. I’m also going through some cultural adjustment, despite being in the fairly cosmopolitan capital, and in general just trying to be at peace with my place in this city. But looking forward, I’m happy to be here and I’m sure the work will be very rewarding.

The ex-Peace Corps Volunteer who greeted me at the airport has taken me on two hiking/walking/running events where locals or ex-pats get together and do some kind of activity. The first was a “hash,” which was a mountainous hike with primarily ex-pats and loaded with ceremony, sexual innuendoes, and at the end, a wonderful cookout. The second was a 5K suburban run/walk with a bunch of locals and ended with a few drinks to share. Both helped to get my mind off the people I’m missing from home and also helped warm me up to the people I might be seeing every week.

I have a temporary cell phone number: 011-264-81-405-3722. Phone cards exist for around $0.25/minute, AT&T is near $1/minute. Namibia is currently 6 hours ahead of Eastern Daylight time, so don’t wake me up!

I’m thinking to go the 6 hours to the North of Namibia to visit my local family and friends for couple days before returning to Windhoek and starting the job. I’ve found an apartment which is coming available next month which isn’t ideal, but it is cheaper than the backpacker where I’m staying, and will be a good place to base myself out of while I’m looking for a more permanent place. The goal would be a safe/peaceful location with enough space for visitors who wouldn’t have to sleep on the floor…. (hint hint – this would be your cue to check plane fairs to Windhoek [airport code: WDH], and remember to clear your cookies each time you check the same fare, because they raise it each successive time, those bastards!)


Friday, June 29th, 2007

Still here, still struggling. The lack of updates is indicative of the lack of major steps forward in the pursuit of finding a job.

Here’s what’s good: That job I found before at the Ministry of Education is still a good job, and the boss still thinks I’m a good candidate. I’ve also found another job that will provide a work visa immediately. It’s at SchoolNet, an organization that puts computers into rural schools and provides tech support when needed via an 800 number (which is pretty-much unheard of in Namibia).

Here’s what’s new: I met with an American who was in similar circumstances when he finished his Peace Corps service – that being “How do I stay in Namibia and legally get work?” He outlined the process of what needs to happen in order for me to get that position. First, my boss-to-be needs to check with the Permanent Secretary if the position needs to be re-advertised. This is because it has been advertised for the last three years, but not during 2007. If it does need to be re-advertised, all Namibians applying will need to be interviewed and if anyone meets the qualifications, they win. If everyone applying doesn’t meet the qualifications, or if the position doesn’t need to be re-advertised, then I can be interviewed. If that goes well, my boss-to-be checks with his boss if he can hire a foreigner. If she is amenable, then she checks with her boss, the Permanent Secretary. If he is also amenable, then he’ll write a letter to the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs (the work permit/visa people) and plead to give me a work permit for a year (the maximum duration for a work permit). And finally, if the work permit is issued, then I win.

Let’s say I win – I get the work permit, and I start work. Doing my job well means training people I work with to do what I do – that being working with databases – and therefore I’ll have worked myself out of a job, because now there are qualified Namibians for the post. Excellent! So if I want to stay around next year, I’ll have to go through the process all over again. That’s not all that bad, because I’ll never get board at work if the location keeps changing!

Here’s what’s ugly: As you’ve probably guessed, all that stuff takes time. We might be looking at three months. Or six months! Who really knows. Also, that other job that can hire me right now, which is good because I’ll get a work visa right now, will pay me zero, feed me nothing, and house me nowhere. But I probably will have to do that for a few months just to stay legally in the country while I’m waiting for a paying job to come through.

So in the last month, all that’s really happened is that I’ve met a bunch of interesting and helpful people, and I’ve become more acquainted with how government works. I’m pretty sure that such procedures would even be true for US government jobs as well, so it’s good to know that the Namibian Government is going through the proper procedures.

Job Hunting

Wednesday, June 6th, 2007

I finally had a meeting today with Raimo Dengeinge, head of the Planning and Statistics division of the Ministry of Basic Education, Sport, and Culture. I introduced myself and my proposal of additional statistics to collect and how they could be related to school and learner performance, thereby indicating which factors are important and which factors aren’t.

I handed him a copy of the proposal, he looked it over briefly, and said that several questions I posed had been provisioned to be answered in the educational census for this year, but his team would look it over and add anything they found useful. Feeling like the meeting was about to come to an end, I handed him a copy of my resume, told him my story, that I wanted to stay in Namibia for a couple more years, and if there were any projects he thought needed work, he could give me a call. As I was about to stand up, he told me about a post he’s been trying to fill for three years now – it’s for a computer scientist with a teaching background. He said that several teachers had applied for it, but not one could properly execute an SQL “SELECT” statement. How about that – a computer scientist with a teaching background. Hard to find in Namibia for sure. Have I found the perfect-fitting job? He scolded me for not being around last year when they contracted out a job to a private company, which made me smile.

We’ll see how it goes. Can’t get the expectations up, because as I’ve learned the hard way, that’s how you feel really bad when things don’t work out. But I’m pumped anyway!

Pounding the Windhoek streets

Saturday, June 2nd, 2007

A foreigner looking for a job in Namibia has a difficult task. It’s actually very easy to find a job, but to start legally working (i.e. getting paid for it) you’ve got to get a work visa. To get a work visa, you’ve got to somehow prove or explain why the job you want can’t be done by any Namibian, or for some reason no Namibian wants that job. Sometimes this can involve advertising the job in the newspaper and allowing 6 months for Namibians to respond to it.

Now, TIA (this is Africa), so of course there are other ways of getting a work visa, which (thank God that Namibia is pretty civilized) usually involves knowing the right person rather than bribing someone. But still you’ve got to almost follow all the rules. Math, IT, and science are fields that are pretty open to foreigners right now because there’s a shortage of well-trained Namibians. So the chances are that I could probably find a job in one of those fields legally, but if I wanted to be a cashier at Shop Rite, probably not.

In my last week of pounding the pavement in Windhoek and throwing out the network, I’ve met some really interesting people and places. BEN (Bicycling Empowerment Network Namibia) is an organization which collected donated bicycles from all over the world, fixes them up, and sells them at about half the local retail price. They’ve currently got an American volunteer who has been developing a bicycle ambulance project. The idea is that you attach a sort of wheeled stretcher (complete with awning) to your bicycle like a trailer, an injured person can be placed on that stretcher, and you peddle them out of the village to a place where better transport to a hospital or a clinic can be found.

There’s also SchoolNet Namibia, which has taken upon itself a huge set of tasks. Their primary goal is to empower rural schools and community centers with computers and internet access. Previous to a redundant-yet-stagnant government effort, they had been giving out labs of around 6 computers in a well-polished fashion, complete with tables and UPS’s. They even negociated great internet rates with the local telecom company (~ US$42 for an always on modem connection, which is 10% of one teacher’s monthly takehome salary) which the school can obviously divide up amongst the people who use it. SchoolNet has even made it possible for very rural schools to get on the internet. They’ve installed 23 completely solar-powered computer labs at schools where electricity isn’t available, and for those schools which are close enough to towns, radio modems rather than telephone modems. They are also the country’s stronghold for spreading the goodness of open-source software.

I also walked into a solar electricity store, as I had heard the prices on solar electricity have come down. Previously, I had spec’d and priced out a system according to what my local brother had told me about his system. I wanted to be able to use my computer at my village house (no electricity grid) for about 12 hours a day. Since it’s a laptop, I thought something like that should be small enough to keep costs down. I had priced the required elements of the system to something around US$500. When I walked into the store, I knew I was in the right place. They have everything related to solar electricity, and knew exactly how to put together a system to meet my electricity usage needs. Tremendously knowledgable and ready to put your request together on the spot. The only problem was that when they were finished, they handed me a quote for US$2400. I just sort of looked at it, and them, and wondered how they could possibly have any customers. For such a small system, certainly no Namibian, at least the village people I had lived with for 2 years, would ever think of paying that much for electricity! They tried to tell me that many villagers had purchased systems costing them US$900 which would be just enough to power two lightbulbs for about 4 hours a night, and I promptly informed them that their claim was preposterous. If my village house was on the grid, a monthly electricity bill for my computer usage would go for about US$14.50, which means their US$2400 system would be the equivalent of paying upfront for 165 months of electricity (more than 13 years). And they’re trying to tell me that people do it all the time. They later confessed that convincing people of the price is the hardest part. Consider the “village light” system for US$900. A candle in Namibia, which can be used for about two nights, sells for around US$0.145. Let’s say you use two of them to light up your house at night. That means your nightly cost of light is US$0.145 (because each candle lasts two nights). The cost of candles would catch up to the solar system in 6206 days, or 17 years. And they are trying to tell me that villagers are willing to pay for 17 years of electricity upfront. Ha!

Lastly, I’ve been pushing a proposal for the Ministry of Education. I’ve got an idea to analyze factors of learner’s home situations, teacher demographics, and school resources to see how they impact a school’s performance. It’s moving forward, and I’ve got the name of the right person to meet, but he’s been out of town all this week. So, next week, we’ll see if I can get an appointment with him and his stat team.

Settling down?

Saturday, May 19th, 2007

For the last month I’ve been travelling around Namibia visiting old friends and meeting new ones. I’ve reconnected with a lot of friends and met new Peace Corps volunteers. Namibia is a beautiful country with good people, and it has caught my attention again – I’m looking into staying around for a while.

The family where I stayed during Peace Corps service has welcomed me to stay with them again, and I’m finishing a room in an unfinished group of rooms in which to stay. This time it won’t be too Peace Corps-esque – I’m going to tile the floor, get a nice work desk, and install a solar system including panel, regulator, battery, inverter and lights. It’ll be all I need to get a solid 8 hours of internet work done every day. Of course, we can’t go too overboard – bathing will still be done with a bucket, washing by hand, bathroom by hole, and food of the traditional nature. But it’ll be enough.

I’ve also reconnected with my old girlfriend Helena. We’re currently visiting the capital, as previous to this trip she hadn’t been outside of 150 km from her house before. So the world of buildings with multiple floors, elevators, escalators, and movie theaters is all brand new for her, and thats made it a really fun week.

I’ll be looking for a job in Windhoek soon – and I am currently working on a proposal for the Ministry of Basic Educadtion to do statistical analysis of the current state of the education system – from learner’s grades to school, learner, family and teacher demographics. The results will tell what is working in the education system, and what isn’t. It’ll also be able to show where more money needs to be invested, and where some can be pulled from.

In terms of internet access, Namibia has it, but it’s comparatively expensive. You pay for the amount of information transferred, not for the time connected (except at internet cafés, of course). One thing it does have is 3G. 3G is internet via your mobile phone through which I’ve seen a max burst throughput of 46KB/s, with a commly sustained connection at 15KB/s (compared to 7KB/s and 5.5KB/s on GPRS). Needless to say, that is sufficient for my purposes, though I won’t be downloading any episodes of Lost 🙁 any time soon. Currently, 3G is available only in big towns, but they say by the end of May (which means in about 6 months) it’ll be available everywhere your mobile works.

Life goes on! If anyone wants to visit over here, you’re more than welcome. It’s peaceful and beautiful!