Tuesday, December 24, 2013

2013 Community Activities Catchup

In addition to working on the business and hosting weddings during our blog hiatus, we continued to work on some community projects, with the help of our guests.  What we think was the most important of these was helping to get the Community Internet Center set up in the Village of 7 Miles.  The village had received a grant for the purchase and set up of a Hughesnet satellite system and the solar system necessary to run the satellite, some computers, and lights in the building in a village without electricity.  The village then had to provide a suitable space, the computers, and the monthly internet subscription.

Front view of old library before internet center started

Old library collection of books before internet center started
When the project started, Julio was still the chairman of the village, so we were fully aware of the obstacles and difficulties in getting this project moving, even with the generous donation of the satellite and solar.  Julio and the village council decided to use half of the existing library for the internet center.  However, before the organization donating the satellite and solar would start installing any of the equipment, they wanted the building to be secure.  This happened right around this time last year, and we were explaining the difficulty to our guests, a family from California.  After they left, we were surprised by a very generous check arriving in the mail, with the funds earmarked for security bars for the windows.  We turned the check over to the town, who ordered the bars, which were made to order fairly quickly.  The bars were picked up and installed, and the satellite and solar equipment were delivered and installed in the spring.
Inside old library, back wall before cleanup
The public still couldn't use the internet center because the town did not have the funds to purchase computers.  The specs for the computers ended up being fairly specific; laptops were needed rather than desktops because of the power issues with the solar system, but tablets wouldn't work because the machines needed to be connected via cables rather than wifi because limited bandwidth made wifi impractical because use needs to be strictly controlled in the center.  Again, we shared these frustrations with a couple of our guests, and in fairly short order after the guests went home, they contacted us and asked if they could donate old laptops.  The answer they received was of course an enthusiastic "Yes!" and we arranged the logistics of getting the laptops to Belize, which involved having guests we hadn't even met yet take delivery in the US and carry them to Belize when they arrived on their vacations.  Hooray for our guests!

Inside view of side door of old library before cleanup

Inside view of front door of old library before cleanup
Julio and Tom built tables and desks for the center, then Tom cleaned up the laptops and collected a couple of others, one of our old ones and one some friends who left Belize had left with us in case we found anybody who could use it, and the internet center had four laptops.  The next hurdle was to get the Hughesnet service turned on, which turned out to be more complicated than expected.  The monthly fee offered by the company who had installed everything was considerably higher than what we pay for the same plan at Moonracer Farm, so Tom did some investigating and found that not only are the new plans more expensive, but they are based on newer equipment, and what was installed in the Internet Center is the older equipment, the same as what we have at Moonracer.  Tom then discovered that current subscriptions could be transferred, and with the help of Harry from the Computer Ranch, we were able to transfer the subscription of a customer in Belmopan who was changing to BTL's DSL.  The plan matched the equipment, and  was about $40US a month less than the original proposed plan.

The next step was to make sure everything worked together, and open the center.  Although this doesn't sound tremendously complicated, consider that this internet center was being opened in a village that doesn't even have electricity, so very few people have any computer experience, or experience in running this type of business, which, although it is a service for the village, still needs to be run like a business to make enough money each month to pay Hughesnet and do maintenance.  And, because of how long it had taken to get all the pieces put together, the opening wasn't happening until summer when the kids were out of school, and students were supposed to be the major customers.  Tom went to lots of meetings to figure out how to manage and staff the center, mostly because he has the experience to help get this sort of effort up and running, but also because the Hughesnet monthly bill has to be paid with a US credit card...which we have, unlike the Belizean citizens of the village, so it behooved us to make sure the center at least made enough money to pay the monthly bill.

Inside El Progresso Internet Center

While I would like to say that the internet center opened and the villagers flocked in to use it, that hasn't been the case.  The people who are using it love it, and it is giving villagers who didn't have access to computers an opportunity to use and learn about computers and the internet.  When school started again in September, students found it useful.  However, it has been difficult to find enough qualified people willing to staff it, so opening hours have been limited, and many villagers gave up trying to figure out when it was open and when it was closed, and didn't even try to go.  Then something happened with the electrical system and blew out the inverter, and it took time to get that fixed, and whatever momentum it had thudded to a stop.  We're now in the middle of the Christmas holiday break for students, so they don't need it for their schoolwork, so it is getting very little use.  The monthly bill is still being paid from village funds, but neither the village nor we have unlimited funds to continue to pay for something that isn't being used, so at this point it's possible that it will just be shut down if business doesn't pick up when the students are back in school.

Front view of El Progresso Internet Center
We find this very discouraging on a number of levels.  Many individuals and organizations contributed a lot of both effort and money to get this project off the ground.  And, the village needs it, both for the students and to give everybody an opportunity to improve their computer skills.  We don't understand why qualified people in the village don't step up and volunteer to staff it, since it would get more use if it was open more than three evenings a week...if the staff shows up on the posted opening hours.  We understand that people are busy, and many are intimidated by the technology, and that although we see this as a very beneficial thing for the village, many of the villagers understandably just don't see the value; they've never needed it before, so why is it a "need" now?  Perhaps the most discouraging thing is that we can't figure out how to get the project moving since the village has to want it, and it appears that most people just don't see it as a priority.  Perhaps, this is just another case of our first world values not applying in a developing country...but how can the country develop if the people can't or won't use the tools given to them to advance?

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