Nadia and I started our Excel training this Monday at ICEC, a microfinance institution we work with. There are about 15 people in the class, including the director, the credit agent, the collection agent, the accountant, the cashiers, the tontine liaison, and a handful of tontine collection agents. Between the organization's computers, my laptop, and the director's laptop, we had seven computers, so we didn't have more than two people per workstation. Several ladies had never used a computer before and we had a lot of trouble getting the whole hand-eye mouse coordination thing down. I wish I'd been able to start these ladies with a basic intro to computers class first, but I actually didn't know they were even coming to the training. We thought we were only training the office staff. Anyway, we tried to pair up less experienced students with more experienced students, and we dedicated a good chunk of the first lesson to basic computer usage (open & close programs, save & open files, etc.). Anyway, the students seemed to enjoy the first class. Nadia presented most of the material and did a great job.
Our French tutor is still not returning our calls. I hope he's all right.
I spent Tuesday night working with the teacher of an adult English class. Someone gave him some language training cd-roms that he wanted to check out. He doesn't have a computer, and even though he could take them to a cyber café, I offered to look at the software with him on my laptop. It turned out to be useless, but instead we spent an hour or so looking through the lesson plans he'd written up for the class. He knows his stuff. Maybe if our current French tutor doesn't continue classes, we can use this guy.
Happy Valentine's Day!
The director of the microfinance institution ICEC asked me to sit in on a demo for a microfinance software package. The product was a bit rudimentary in design, but it appeared to be fairly functional. A few key features were missing, though the company assured us that they could be customized and added in... for a price. It supposedly uses a proprietary database system, so I'm a little worried about maintenance and future conversions. They tried to convince ICEC that they need to purchase a new set of computers to use the software, which is a standard sales pitch, though I think I talked ICEC out of it. All in all, the price tag was a little too high. ICEC really can't afford to purchase the software, and I honestly believe that they would be better off with a set of well designed spreadsheets in lieu of a dedicated software suite.
I convinced ICEC to hold off on their decision about whether or not to purchase the software until the end of May. I told them that I would throw together a prototype data entry system using Access and Excel. If they like my system, they'll get it for free and I would train them how to maintain and extend it themselves. If it doesn't meet their needs, they can look into buying a dedicated software solution. They seemed open to this, though I don't know if I gave myself enough time. I've still sort of been collecting system requirements. I think this will be a good opportunity to get my rear into gear and get this computerization project off the ground. I threw together a basic set of weekly milestones, including time for customer review and revision. I'm not convinced I can meet the milestones with all the training events coming in the next few weeks, but I'm going to give it my all.
I've been a bit frustrated with my work with CIFAID, my homologue's cyber café, as of late. I was going to ask my homologue flat out if he still needs my help. I was going to talk about the three needs we originally identified for the business when I arrived in September: 1.) poor internet connection, 2.) virus problem, 3.) start web site creation service. I obviously couldn't personally improve the internet connection, though new high speed connection options are slowly becoming available in Togo. Regarding the virus problem, my homologue had recently uninstalled all the antivirus software I'd installed and replaced it with unregistered versions of Panda Antivirus, which are unable to download updates and are therefore useless. Also, the staff seemed apathetic when I presented a system for automatically downloading updates on one machine and sharing the updates with all other machines. Regarding the web site creation service, the two students in the web design class couldn't seem to make time for class sessions.
I was going to say that they don't appear to really want or need my help, so I should spend less time at CIFAID and focus on other projects. As soon as I got to the cyber café, though, he asked me to help with a problem with Panda Antivirus clashing with Windows Internet Connection Sharing. I showed him how to disable Panda AV's firewall, which has issues respecting ICS, and I took the opportunity to ask why he removed the antivirus stuff I'd installed. Apparently AVG did not detect a particular virus on a client's USB key. My homologue scanned the key with Panda, and it removed the virus. Unfortunately, Panda misses quite a few viruses itself. I can sort of understand why he swapped out the software, but I wish he'd talked to me about it first.
Anyway, I gathered a varied collection of virus files and saved them in a zip file. Then I tried scanning the file with AVG, Norton Antivirus, Panda Antivirus, Avast, McAfee and a few other antivirus solutions. No single software package caught every virus. I did some research and it sounds like installing multiple AV packages is a bad idea. So I'm not really sure what to suggest. We could lock down all the permissions on the computers to disallow installation of spyware and certain viruses, but I think that would drive away clients. This experience is giving me a new level of respect for the system administration profession.
We ended the week with a Valentine's Day party at our house. About ten or twelve volunteers from the region came over and we cooked up some amazing Mexican food. We also watched a few episodes of Battlestar Galactica Season 3 (this was the true motive behind the party). I loves me some BSG. :)
Oh, I almost forgot... It turns out our French tutor is alive and healthy; he just decided to stop coming to class and to stop accepting our phone calls. We arranged a meeting through a mutual acquaintance in the community to try to figure out the problem. Obviously there was some sort of break down in communication. Without going into any details, he was rude and insulting in the meeting and we mutually agreed not to work together anymore. It was very unfortunate, though, because Nadia was really excited about starting the English club with the tutor this month. That will no longer be happening.
I agreed to take over teaching Nadia's Excel class on Mondays. Nadia will still be there to help give assistance, but I'll be doing all the class preparation and presentation. It's kind of nice because I was starting to get a little down because of lack of progress with other projects.
I sat in on another demo for a microfinance software suite. This software package was amazing. The user interface is beautiful, the security rights are complete and configurable, the export options are flexible, and the reports are clear and concise. Overall, it was a fantastically full-featured package. Sadly, I'm confident that the package comes with a price tag that's far above ICEC's budget allowances. At least the demo gave me some good ideas for the mini-system I'm prototyping for them.
Progress is a little slow on the ICEC software development project. The database is already created, but the UI is taking a while. I could just build the forms VB-style, but I'm trying to familiarize myself with a lot of Access's macro capabilities, since I think that will be easier for the staff to maintain. I keep backing out cool features that I think will be too difficult for them to maintain. It's tough, though, because I don't want to dumb down the design so much that the system is clunky and hard to use. More and more, I think the database should only be used to track transactions at the cashier counter. I think reports and other data manipulation should be done in Excel with exported data. We'll see. I wish we could start with the Access training, but we're only halfway through the Excel class, and I think we're going to have a basic computer keyboarding course in the summer... Du courage pour moi...
On Thursday I did a bit of computer forensics that made me quite proud of myself. I was helping my homologue reinstall a machine with a corrupted file system, but we forgot to backup some important documents before reformatting the hard drive. I was going to try to search the raw data with a hex editor to find file system entries for Word documents. I did something similar a few years ago when I jacked up my Xbox hard drive. In the end, though, I found some handy dandy data recovery tools that did all the work for me. A program called EasyRecovery (www.ontrack.com/easyrecoveryprofessional) was especially helpful. Hooray for progress.
I gave my first test in the Excel class on Monday. I created a sample worksheet, and then gave a list of 17 steps for the students to follow. The class did alright overall. A few students did very well, a few students did atrocious, and few got about halfway through the test before time ran out. I think I several folks accidentally cleared some cells and wasted a lot of time trying to undo their mistakes. I suppose we'll spend the next class going over the test. I'm really enjoying this class, and the students seem to be enjoying it as well.
I'm the contact volunteer for our cluster, so on Tuesday I headed up to the PC training center in Pagala for the Contact Volunteer Conference. It was only a day long (plus a day to get there and a day to get back) and I was expecting it to be a complete waste of time, but it turned out to be a blast. We learned a lot about how Peace Corps responds to emergency situations. We planned out emergency evacuation paths. We discussed political and security situations for other countries in the region. We studied situations involving PCV disappearances in other countries, and we even heard some interesting stories about security risks in Togo from past years. The safety and security staff did a great job presenting the material in an interesting and applicable manner.
We spent Saturday and Sunday in Notse. The business volunteer there has a beautiful porch and a huge courtyard. Parts of Notse were very nicely developed. Other parts were really dirty and smelly. Overall, I wasn't a huge fan. The health volunteer in Notse has a nice house, but like 25 people living in the compound. Waaaaay too crowded for me. And bats, lots of bats. I can relate to that, though, since the population of giant lizards living above our ceiling grows more and more each day. I don't really mind lizards, but they make lots of noise running around on the wooden ceiling all night. Anyway, we bought four pentods (guinea fowl) on Saturday, and cooked them up on Sunday. I killed one of the birds myself (hooray for me) and we barbequed them on a makeshift grill. They were quite tasty.
Then we went up to Glei, just north of Notse, to visit the business volunteer there. I really liked Glei. Everyone was very chill and relaxed. I didn't get "yovo"-ed too much, and people were really nice. The volunteer also had the cleanest well water I've ever seen! We topped off the visit with a few episodes from season 1 of The Office. Great stuff.
On Tuesday we headed back to Pagala for our In Service Training (IST). Following this trip's trend of uncharacteristically easy transportation, some volunteers in Notse rented a taxi bus and picked us up on the side of the Route National in Glei. No muss, no fuss, plenty of room and no haggling over price.
The Natural Resource Management (NRM) volunteers were having their Project Design Management (PDM) training at the same time as our IST, so we had quite a few volunteers and homologues at the training center. Apparently the NRM volunteers caught wind of our little dance competition from our PDM, and they challenged us to a dance off. Nadia jumped at the challenge, and before we knew what happened, she'd already established the time, location, and rules for the competition. It was a three-round event: choreographed group dance, couples interpretative dance, and Soul Train dance-off. The business volunteers dominated the choreographed event, the NRM folks destroyed us in the interpretative dance, but Nadia and another business volunteer pulled out all the stops to win the Soul Train dance-off. Let me tell you, my wife can shake it like no one else.
The IST itself was not quite as dull as I expected it to be. We covered a lot of the same material that we'd covered during pre-service training and during the PDM, but most of the material was geared toward the homologues anyway. Maurice wasn't able to come, so instead Nadia and I brought the director of Café Kuma and the collection agent from ICEC. We used the training as a platform to discuss current and future projects with their organizations. We talked about the computerization effort at ICEC and the tax registration issues that Café Kuma is facing. The discussions led to some very useful input from other Togolese business people. All in all, it was a productive training event.
Our IST ended on Friday, which is the day the All Volunteer Conference (All-Vol) started. This is when all the Peace Corps volunteers in Togo gather to elect newsletter editors, committee representatives, transit house managers, etc. There's also a talent show and an auction whose proceeds go towards a girls' scholarship fund. Nadia and I (along with half the folks from our training group) already had our fill of PCV camaraderie in Pagala, so we decided to skip out on the festivities. We spent Friday night with a volunteer in Atakpamé, and then headed down to Lomé on Saturday for a dinner party with the US ambassador. The party was meant only for Spanish speakers, since the ambassador's wife speaks Spanish, but I was able to tag along with Nadia. I spent most of the night nodding and mumbling, "si, no, mucho gusto, gracias, lo siento", but the food was great and the company was even better. We headed back to Kpalimé on Sunday, glad for our travels, but ready to be home.
We're having a small gathering for Good Friday. Easter is a big deal here in southern Togo. Schools are closed all this week, and many businesses are closed on Friday and Monday. Anyway, we wanted to have a small party, but since most volunteers want to be in village for the Easter Sunday festivities, we decided to do the Good Friday thing. We're going to cook up some southern cooking tomorrow- fried okra, glazed carrots, cornbread, mashed potatoes, corn fritters, sweet tea... I'm excited.
My homologue asked if we could resume our web design classes. I had essentially given up on doing real "work" with his cyber café. I'm happy to go in for a couple of hours to help fix computers and use the internet (when it works) for free. I've been meaning to go around to other computer centers in town to find a venue for a larger web design class. It's hard to find a computer center whose owner/manager doesn't live in Lomé, though. Also, I'm a little hesitant about over committing myself with another weekly class while I'm working on ICEC's new information system. Anyway, I'm going to try out the Microsoft Unlimited Potential training materials for the mini-training class with my homologue. If it goes over well, maybe I'll try it with a larger audience.