The TMK flight to Bukavu was aboard a little twin prop, two rows on
one side of the aisle, one on the other, and every narrow seat full of
what were probably overfed development agency workers or plump
mineral mining executives. The young man next to me insisted on
bringing along several poorly sealed bottles of cooking oil, the
sides of the bottles already glistening with splash. I manoeuvred
my day pack so that the bottom rested on top of my shoes,
supported by the shoulder straps hung over both my knees,
thereby hoping to avoid coating the bottom of the sack, and
ultimately the back of my shirt, with pressed peanut extract.
Bukavu's airport is about an hour's drive north of the town. I'd
arranged to be met by a driver. There was another passenger, an
American Christian aid worker, who hadn't planned ahead and so
begged a lift from me. Figuring I could pump him for information as
payment, I consented.
"Oh yes," he told me, "on this very road just last week..." I stared
into the impenetrable tall grass rushing past my window and
imagined who might be out there.
"Everyone goes to Cyangugu to send mail," my passenger
continued. "Yes, they just connect their laptops to the phone line
at the hotel and call the Compuserve number in Kigali. Except for
some of the bigger development agencies, of course. They use
their sat phones."
I later spoke with one development worker. Seems her
organization spends about $3000 per month on satellite telephone
calls, which are typically billed at about $1.80 per minute. The
longer calls are mostly to upload and download electronic mail.
"Ah, but you'll need to see the fellow with the satellite email. You
know, the satellite that passes overhead one or two times a day?
It seems to work pretty well for him. And at a very low cost."
This was my first stop. I could see the strange antenna as my car
pulled into the garden. A meter of PVC pipe perched on top of a
tall aluminum pole, short bits of wire poking straight out
horizontally from the bottom, and a strange double helix of wire
wrapped around the top.
The system through VITA, an American NGO, costs only about
$45 per month, though the amount of mail one can send is
theoretically limited at perhaps 50 or so pages of plain text a day.
I suspect the practical limit is actually much less than that. The
operator in Bukavu told me that for the moment there is effectively
just one satellite, which is only accessible about 20 to 30 minutes
a day. He said there's a second satellite, but it's in roughly the
same orbit as the first, and you can only access one at a time.
All of the above is in the theoretical. The system wasn't actually
working while I was there. Something about the configuration of
software and the programming of the precise coordinates of the
satellite. And then there was a faulty antenna with some kind of
internal glue that never set properly and thus leaked out onto the
sides. The local operator showed me the green coloring on some
of the antenna's internal wiring, suggesting corrosion due to water
contact, perhaps the moisture in the glue.
These systems always sound so simple and straightforward on
paper or Web pages. Oh, yes, all you have to do is toss up an
antenna, connect the wire, and, by golly, Bob's your uncle!
I agreed to carry the antenna back to the States for analysis and
repair. In the meantime, another antenna had already arrived and
was ready for testing. I heard just before I left Bukavu that a few
mail messages did indeed get transmitted through the satellite.
Certainly there is hope. I suspect once the VITA system is
operational, it will work simply and efficiently -- I saw a similar
system in operation once some years ago in Sierra Leone. And if
it reduces costs for sending mail from $3000 per month to just $45
per month, suddenly even the smallest NGO can contemplate
joining the information superhighway -- or at least one of the side
I wonder if the old Iridium satellites could be converted for this
purpose. I don't know much about how the satellites work. Can
their software be reprogrammed?
My next stop was the local Bushnet office to send an email home.
In Bukavu (and Goma) are franchise offices of the Kampala
company that offers email via HF radio. I sent a quick message,
paid my US$0.60, and was on my way. Very simple, though the
price per message struck me as a bit high given the technology
being used. I know there's a service provider in Arusha who
reportedly offers a less expensive service.
Generally I recommend to anyone planning to use this HF
technology that they try and operate both ends of the transmission,
including their own Internet mail gateway, rather than passing
through a commercial gateway provider. That's what the World
Food Program does. I stopped by their office in Bukavu as well,
and their system operator kindly permitted me to send a message
to a colleague back at the WFP office in Kampala.
In conversation with one NGO in town, an official pulled out his
cellular telephone, which operates through the cell towers of
RwandaCell planted a few kilometers away in Cyangugu across the
border. He pointed to the data cable jack on the bottom and asked
if he could buy a cable, connect it to his laptop, and send email
My understanding, I told him, is that RwandaCell would need to
install equipment at their central office to accomodate data
transmission -- perhaps they've done so already, but given that I've
seen no one using their cell phones for data, my guess is that they
have not. I can't imagine cell phone transmission being a good
substitute for ordinary telephone dialup, at least not until the per
minute price of a cell call drops substantially.
That's about it for connectivity in Bukavu. Unlike Goma and
Kisangani, there's as yet no United Nations observer force in
Bukavu, meaning there's no UN military base and thus no big
satellite dish with voice circuits to New York. Just a few dozen
satellite phones, one lonely Low Earth Orbiting satellite mail
operator, and a couple of HF systems. And of course, just across
the border in Rwanda, plain old telephone service.
I retired with friends to the Orchid Safari Club, which as far as I can
tell is the only multi-star public facility in Bukavu. Terraced
gardens of, well, orchids I guess. Beautiful view of Lake Kivu, cold
drinks, and fabulous food, all at tourist prices of course.
The Belgian owner joined us for drinks and regaled us with stories
about how he'd survived the passage of various armies and looting
mobs. The citizens of Bukavu being a decent folk, they only looted
the homes and businesses that they felt had been abandoned.
Those that stayed behind in their homes were generally left alone.
This reminded me of an old Lebanese friend, Mingo, from the town
of Sumbuya in Southern Sierra Leone. Mingo, too, stayed behind
to protect his worldly possessions. His widow and children now
reportedly live in the Chicago area.
Jeff @ Washington
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