Hebrides get last mile www access

We’ve been back on Mull at the beginning of the month to join friends for a week’s break on this wonderful wild island. The weather was great, the sun shone and gentle winds encouraged lazy days and relaxation. Even a rain soaked walk up Loch Ba provided us with some stunning views of white tipped sea eagles with their 6 feet wide wingspan.

We can never resist a visit to Tobermory with its shops, distillery and ‘Fish Cafe’ restaurant, voted the finest in Scotland. What we’d not anticipated though was participating in a historic moment in the country’s quest for digital recognition on the world wide web.

As we walked down the sea front, out from the low waters of the harbour and onto the muddy strand came a wading figure in thigh length boots, white helmet and dark grey waterproofs. He was making for a large JCB digger surrounded by a crowd of technicians, where a recently excavated narrow channel could be seen revealing a 50 mm cable.

“What’s all this for?” I asked a French engineer talking vigorously with a colleague involved on the project. “There’s a multi national team working on this and we’re just reaching the end of a big project. Once the cable out there is joined up with this one on Mull, the fibre link to the whole of the Hebrides islands will be completed.” More details of the project can be found here.

This is great for those who live and work on these remote western islands of Scotland and will mean that subscribers can easily be provided with internet speeds of 100 Mbs. I had heard the new SNP leader, Nicola Sturgeon talking about this project at an IT conference in Edinburgh two years ago and never thought I would be a witness to its final completion!

Can it help to revive the fortunes of such far flung communities, where the long term trend has been of moving back to the mainland? Islanders, planners and politicians will be watching the impact of this major project with interest and bated breath.

A new kind of Cargo cult?

Remember the talk of cargo cults in the 1960s in Melanesia? People in some of the least developed countries believed they were seeing a god-like revelation, when planes carrying items from the industrialised world arrived in their lands from the skies. It was a clash of cultures, a disjunction that pointed up some of the inequalities across our world.

I got an inverted sense of this kind of thinking on flying recently to the UK from impoverished Nepal via the oil rich gulf states. Here a ‘reverse cargo’ cult was developing, but now the cargo is human. The vast majority of the 250 passengers climbing aboard the plane (see photo) in Katmandu were young Nepali men, returning or looking for work in the huge construction projects being developed in centres like Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

This is the world of the remittance economy, where young men earn money abroad to send back for supporting their families and children at home. They make real the dreams of the oil sheikhs, dreams of soaring office blocks and World Cup 2022 football in Qatar.

Nepal and India are heavily involved in this, but things are often not what they seem. The young man beside me on the plane talked about his experience in night security work – long hours, bad living conditions and low wages, with the security companies taking the lion’s share of the contract monies.

The construction work is often dangerous and in some cases workers have been forcibly prevented from returning to their own countries. Many have died on the work.

In an interesting article, “Oil-Led Development: Social, Political, and Economic Consequences”, Terry Lynn Carl from Stanford University describes the impact that this model of oil-led economic growth – with the importing of cheap labour – has on the receiving countries, creating slower growth, a lack of incentives, high unemployment, poverty, poor government and corruption. This ‘paradox of plenty’ or the ‘resource curse’ has harmful repercussions for the dominant resource-rich countries too.

A stoop stones story

Ok so what’s so interesting about the two pictures below? Just a couple of stones and a pretty young Nepali girl? What’s the story?

One cold January morning five years ago I remember carrying the large stoop stone on the left of the picture up the bank at The Larches with four other friends to where we planned to erect it beside the breakfast terrace. I had found it in a neighbouring farmer’s field and the owner kindly allowed me to take it for our garden.

It fascinated me because of its age and construction. Made of a huge piece of Lakeland slate, it weighed well over 2 cwt and had six beautifully crafted square holes. This stoop stone, one of a pair, was designed – in the days before hinged gates – for holding cattle in enclosed fields and keeping other animals out. It was probably 200 to 300 years old. It became evident from my research that similar ones could be found in Cumbria, but otherwise they were not widely known or found.

The stoop stone system allows a farmer to place bars in the holes at either side of the opening and remove them again when access was required. One of the stoop stones has square holes to prevent rotation of the pole and the other has round ones to facilitate opening and shutting of the gateway.

I had definitely not thought that this kind of stoop stone gate was found outside the UK, until last month, when I walked through a narrow cobbled pathway in a small village in Nepal near Pokhara. On the track that was leading up towards the Annapurna Sanctuary I was approached by this young girl, who was happy to be photographed beside this lovely old three holed stoop stone.

Is this an example of quite independent technological development in two different countries, or adoption of a practice as a result of travellers or others spreading information and promoting the idea? If you can tell me of other countries, where you’ve seen similar old stoop stones, I’d be really interested! Better still, send me a photo of it!

Laptops for Nepali schools

We’ve recently returned from a fascinating visit to Nepal, where we were bringing some laptops from America via Manchester. These had been supplied by the internet travel company, Orbitz Worldwide. The aim is to support schools in the mountainous Helambu area, which are keen to encourage their students to learn computer and IT skills. This Kids on the Grid project is supported by the Helambu Education and Livelihood Project (HELP), which is backed by a UK based charity, The Mondo Challenge Foundation.
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It’s 21 years since we last visited the area, when our daughter Chloe was a volunteer teacher there and important developments have taken place. The construction of rough roads mean that we didn’t need to trek for 10 hours to reach one particular school, but travel to the different schools by jeep still remained slow with the road in places, turning into deep mud or made simply of rough stone and rocks. The photo above shows well the mountainous terrain in which the schools are set.

HELP and the schools have made great strides in building 78 new classrooms over the last three years and these improvements have certainly helped to push up attendance at the schools. Jimmy Lama, Director of HELP is keen to use the laptops to introduce the children to the new world of technology and the Internet.

This is no easy task since the 25 schools can be far apart and are at heights of up to 2,500 meters. For effective Internet connections, they need satellite technology (very expensive) or line of sight connected antennae (expensive). Our report on our visit, which included 2 days of teacher training, highlighted the need for staff themselves to develop more computer skills and this is now being planned.

The photos below show the presentation of computers to staff at one of the schools, with some of the children looking on; and a woman with her young child beside one of the new classrooms at another school which we visited. By the time her daughter is 7, we hope she’ll be able to make a start on finding out what a computer can do!
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Himalayan danger zones

Lindsay and I have just got back from working on a two week long teacher training and computer support programme for schools in the Helambu area of Nepal. We’d anticipated difficulties in travel and coordinating activities in this mountainous Himalayan area, where roads are poor, minor landslides are common and children can have to walk up to 5 hours daily to attend school.

We hadn’t though expected to be confronted so directly with the power of nature. First was the massive avalanche on the Khumbu icefall, 60 miles to the east of us, burying 16 Sherpa guides the day before our arrival. This has thrown up huge questions about safety on the shrinking glaciers, about the role and remuneration of the Sherpas and about the commercialisation of climbing Everest.

Then came the horrific mudslide last week at Aab Bareek in the remote north of Afghanistan, which buried over 300 people and left hundreds of families without food or shelter. For a detailed account of this see the BBC 4 May website article, with a short video sequence from David Loyn. The Guardian article of 3 May reported that the mudflow was so fast that no one had a chance of survival.

If you are looking to make a contribution to a supporting fund for the families at Aab Bareek, you can contact Dr Ramazan Bashardost, a 2009 Afghan presidential candidate and former Minister of Planning, whose Foundation has set up an account with the Afghanistan International Bank. Details can be found here.