There are 18,000 refugees currently living in the Mwange refugee camp. Apart from a library, schools, a clinic run by the Zambian Red Cross and several community activities, the camp offers a computer centre with 10 laptops. Francis Numbi, who works full-time as the co-ordinator and trainer at the lab, names lack of Internet access at the Mwange refugee camp as the biggest gap at the computer lab, called the Laboratoire Informatique Safari (LISa). LISa is run by FORGE, a US-based non-profit organisation that works with displaced communities in Africa. They invest in individuals affected by war to pursue education, economic self-sufficiency and local development solutions.
Francis Numbi said that the camp also faces a lot of difficulty in accessing mobile phone networks, which could also be used with the laptops to access the Internet as the camp is situated out of network coverage area.
The camp inhabitants were forced to use the facilities in Mporokoso, which is 35 km from the Mwange refugee camp. He, however, was quick to point out that they sometimes find mobile networks at what they call the Mobile Centre, which is located near the Mobile Court in the camp.
LISa currently provides 10 Toughbook laptop computers, a printer and a scanner using solar energy to give power to the laptops. Since the main source of power for the much-needed equipment – a range of six-volt batteries – was struck by lightning and as the generator was also out of service and reported to have undergone repairs in Lusaka, an alternative source for electricity had to be found quickly.
The shortage of infrastructure fell hard on them as 630 refugees and 30 Zambians have undergone training and have been introduced to the computer basics, such as using Excel, Windows and how to print and scan documents.
Numbi explained that during a training session, the people shared laptop computers among two people and that learning was done after connecting the computers through the wireless connection to make a very large computer, forming an Intranet that is used as a training environment.
“Learners use the Intranet for its white board and also for sharing documents, transferring huge files and sharing programs”, he explains. “The wireless interconnection of the computers has helped me in delivering the training sessions. I mainly use my laptop computer to teach 18 students sharing 9 laptop computers. When the wireless connection is slow we conduct lessons on a computer basis.”
Numbi, who is learning programming, has since created LISa programs such as the LISa Intercom Watcher, LISa Mail and said that he was in the process of creating LISa Chat. “LISa Mail” is an e-mail program that allows users at Mwange refugee camp to wirelessly e-mail back and forth within the camp whereas LISa Chat will be used for discussions and chats.
With the LISa Intercom Watcher program, Numbi is able to monitor the learners’ activities online as he has named the computers “Cyborg” and numbered them one to ten.
He explained that the Toughbook laptop computers are equipped with Intel Centrino processor technology for optimum WLAN transfer and have a battery life of up to six hours.
According to Numbi, it was important for refugees to have computer skills as most of them use the skills after they are returned to their home communities. “I have received much feedback in the form of letters and phone calls from the refugees who have repatriated and who really appreciated the training at Mwange”, he said.
At the camp, people are enthusiastic about the opportunity to learn at the LISa lab. A teacher at one of the five primary schools of the camp, Ireen Kusile Kalonda, said she was happy to learn to write on the computer. She also said that it was important for her to help the community as she would love to teach computers to her students some day.
Zawadi Ndabagaya, who is a librarian at the camp library, said that having learnt how to use the computer has helped him to communicate with his relatives because he can use it to write letters on the computer which he then sends home. Secondary school teacher Kaliwabo Justine said he was happy to have learnt how to add in Excel. He pointed out that investing in individuals affected by war to pursue computer education was a good thing and was enabling them to become self-sustaining.
Meanwhile, Francis explained that the 10 Toughbook laptop computers were rugged and have maximum protection and that they were even safe for war conditions. He explained that the Toughbooks were ideal for outdoor mobile computing as a magnesium-thickened casing offered maximum protection for the most sensitive components such as the display.
He pointed out that hard drives were secured against impact and shock. A fall from a height of 90 cm does not affect functionality in any way and a special protective coating provides dust and water resistance.
He added that the Toughbooks were waterproof and had proved recently to be bulletproof. “A soldier carrying a Toughbook laptop did not realise that he was shot until he reached base and he removed a bullet from the laptop, which was not destroyed”, he explained smilingly.
By Brenda Zulu
Brenda Zulu is a freelance journalist and blogger based in Zambia. She is also a correspondent for Highway Africa News Agency (HANA).