iSTEP Tanzania

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So let me start by saying that I’m a mechanical engineer doing ICT research. Not exactly a cat in water, but still, not exactly what I’m trained for.

While the work is exciting, and definitely challenging, there are times during my stay here when I have been frustrated that I don’t have a computer science background. I know from experience that a multidisciplinary team is important, and so I never questioned whether my skills as an engineer would be useful for the team, but there were times when I thought, “I wonder if a CS major would be better at my job than I am…”

Well, luckily today my skills as an engineer came in handy in a way that reinforces the need for multidisciplinary teams. Hatem had the unfortunate luck of having his power cord fray at the connection from the charger to the computer. This is actually a really common problem, because that part of the cord undergoes a lot of wear and tear. The problem is so common that I had this very same problem with my charger about 2 months ago.

So, Hatem is a very unhappy camper at this point. Picture Hatem, no hot shower, no coffee, and now, no computer. Basically as unhappy as a Hatem can be. Without his computer, his project is in trouble. He needs to code, and his battery can last him around 2 hours. Also, his computer is an IBM, which is very difficult to find parts for outside of the United States.

So, Hatem and I headed down the College of Engineering and Technology to try our luck at finding the right tools to fix his charger. Luckily, our new friend Kate was with us. She’s living with us, and taking advanced Kiswahili, so she acted as our interim translator. We wandered down to the Electrical Training Workshop and asked around. We were directed to a woman who ran the shop, and we were able to ask her for some basic supplies (soldering iron, solder, wire cutters) in order to fix his broken cable. She was very nice, and lent us all the tools. It was definitely easier having someone who spoke Kiswahili well enough to properly communicate with others who were were, why we were here, and what we were asking for. Besides, we looked pretty strange wandering in, and had some even stranger requests, so it helped to speak the language.

In no time at all, I had Hatem’s snapped wire bypassed, and now his charger is working just fine. It felt good to get behind a lab bench after so long, and it made me remember how much I love engineering, and working with my hands.

So, I’m no longer worried that I don’t have the best background for this job, and the Literacy Games project is back up and running with Hatem at the lead! Go team iSTEP!



Quick updates:

Today I got to visit Uhuru school and meet with the headmaster for the blind section. Bea and I interviewed him about needs, desires, strengths and areas for improvement for the blind school. We learned a lot, and are really excited for where we can go with this project. Uhuru is very different from the Mathru school, and as a result the Braille Tutor will play a different function within this school, but that’s the challenging and exciting part: thinking of something new. The best part was having the headmaster play with the tutor. He laughed, and really enjoyed it. It’s great to have his enthusiasm to feed off, and he’s been a fun guy to work with.

Bea and Timi have been working really hard this week, traveling basically every day, but the information they’re getting is going to guide the tech progress through the next few weeks. I think we’ll be seeing a lot more tech work in the coming weeks. I know I have a lot of work coming up, so hopefully Bea and Timi can get a break while the tech leads and floaters gear up for more.

It’s Dan’s birthday on sunday. We were planning to go to Zanzibar, but we’re pushing that off for one more week. Instead we’re going to have a cookout and then hit the beach!

My complaint is that the Lariam (anti-malaria pills) I’m taking has been giving me some side effects. I’ve been having a hard time sleeping, and when I do sleep, I wake up often from strangely vivid dreams. It’s tolerable, but not fun. Still, as Dan has pointed out, it’s better than malaria, so I’m gonna keep taking the pills.

Lastly, as requested, pictures of my haircuts. Thanks to Timi, who did a fantastic job. I actually had two, first a real haircut, and then because it was still too long, a buzz cut. Shortest I think I’ve ever had my hair.

Shaggy, and very warm

Shaggy, and very warm

Much cleaner.

Much cleaner.

It may not look fantastic, but it is incredibly practical. My head is about 10 degrees cooler now.

It may not look fantastic, but it is incedibly practical. My head is about 10 degrees cooler now.

So this weekend we got a change to relax. Friday night we had some intentions of exploring, but I think we were all a little too tired, plus we had a meeting Saturday day to prepare for. However Saturday afternoon and Sunday we finally got to go out and do some exploring in the Dar es Salaam area. My first destination was to the market in Mwenge, which is not far from University of Dar es Salaam.

Being new to living abroad and Tanzania specifically, I was both excited and cautious of the open air markets. They were crowded and busy, and I had been warned against theft and that some vendors would follow me because I was pretty obviously American. I was apprehensive especially about the last part, but the excitement of seeing what the markets were like, what they sold, and how they traded goods overcame that initial fear. What I found was worth it.

Mwenge was huge, we were there for about an hour, and we only saw half of it. They sold everything: fresh fruits, shoes, bicycles, kitchen supplies, clothes, backpacks, furniture, industrial supplies. Previously we had done all of our shopping at the local mall, but it was clear that we were missing some other options, as well as the experience of interaction with local culture. The other surprising part was the people were very friendly and did not bother us much. A lot of them were helpful as well. Take for example the barker for daladalas. He wants us to get on his bus, but when we say the stop we want to go to, he just as gladly points us to the proper bus. I think that interaction is indicative of Tanzanian culture. Friendly and laid back, this experience taught me there was a lot less to fear than I had been told.

Of course, I still travel with healthy precautions, but definitely not as much fear as I came in with.

The next day we traveled to Kipepeo beach, which is about a 2 hour trip from where we live. We walked for 20 minutes to the bus stop, caught a bus to Mwenge, then transferred busses and went to Posta, which is downtown. From there it was a 15 minute walk to the ferry, which took us literally across the inlet to the bay (a 5 minute ride, which we could have swam across if necessary), and then finally a Bajaj ride to the beach. For those of you who have never been on one, a Bajaj is like an enclosed three wheel motorcycle which acts as one step down from a taxi. It’s a fairly cheap and convenient way to travel short distances.

We had some interesting interactions when we got off at Posta on the way to the ferry. Posta is the old bus station, which is right in the center of downtown. It’s also close to the ferry to Zanzibar, so tourists are common there. As such, the scalpers selling tickets to Zanzibar zeroed in on us and Rotimi in particular. Our favorite line (and Rotimi’s least favorite) was “Sista! Sista! Why do you ignore your brotha?”

Downtown was bustling, and definitely an interesting sight. There’s a mix of old churches, new business centers, fancy hotels, and old colonial style administration buildings. It’s definitely a place we’ll be exploring more in the future.

On the way we rode in the Bajaj with a man from Jordan. We were sad that Hatem wasn’t with us, because when we got there we found that there was a whole group of Jordanians, which would have made him feel right at home. They said they come here every weekend, so he’ll get a chance to meet them.

When we finally got to the beach, it was beautiful. The sand was white and the water was clear and warm. It was our first time in the Indian Ocean, and it felt great. How it works in Dar es Salaam is that you go to a beach resort (our entrance was Kipepeo Village) and you pay an entrance fee. There they give you back your fee as a voucher at their bar. From there, you are free to wander up and down the beach as you please. There were people swimming, playing soccer, flying kites, going on fishing day trips, and even a camel ride up and down the beach.

The beach had a lot of foreigners, some Dutch, some Jordanian, and us Americans. It was strange to see the division of class that price and privilege creates so prominently, as we went from the daladalas to the resorts. However the people there were very nice; we talked to a man from South Africa and saw a group of Dutch men gearing up to ride dirt bikes on the dunes. We did end up eating there, and the food was fantastic, though a bit pricey. I paid 9,500 tsh or roughly $7 for BBQ Kingfish, but it was one of the best meals I’ve had since I came here.

I think we’ll go back to that beach, as it was very relaxing. However, part of this experience is to learn from the local culture and people, who tend not to spend their winters at expensive beaches. With that in mind, our next adventure will likely be downtown, or to the cultural district. Thanks for reading!


One of the few clowdy days in Dar is the day we go to the beach. I still got burned.

The view from the 2nd level of the ferry as we headed back downtown. The large tower on the right is the port authority for the bay.

Not a bad job for a camel.

Camel ride on the beach anyone?

View of the Mwenge Market from a daladala

View of the Mwenge Market from a daladala

We had the opportunity to talk to the headmaster from our partner school for the blind as well as the headmaster for the blind section of that school. I was really excited to see where and with who we’d be working, and the meeting went really well. They are excited to be working with us, and we set up another meeting to talk with teachers and get an initial needs assesement.

We’ve got the Braille Tutors running on the code from the Mathru school and I’m starting to learn braille! I’m pretty bad, and even worse when I try to do it with my eyes closed. I’m beginning to really understand why there is a need for an adaptive braille tutor.

Also stopped by the primary school for a little bit, and I got happy but strange looks. The little kids would walk up and say “good morning” to me, and one pinched Bea, though we’re not too sure why. I like working with the kids in the school, they’re really excited, even if they think I look funny.

Next steps: begin translation into kiswahili, get the code compilied into a esay to install format, and meet with teachers at the school for the blind!


We had our final meeting today before some of us leave for Tanzania tomorrow morning. We discussed four main  topics: Travel, Health and Safety; Research; Logistics; and Partner Updates. We had the opportunity to see where we will be staying, got some additional information about our partners in Tanzania, as well as received some great guidelines and advice from our advisers.

There’s still a lot that we don’t know, but I feel very well prepared to be traveling. The past few months have been a whirlwind; trying to get logistics in place, understand our topics of study, contact everyone possible, and even try to learn some greetings and basic phrases. I plan on booting up the braille tutor on the plane and trying to learn what braille I can. The ride from New York to Dubai is 14 hours, so I’m hoping to learn my ABCs at least. Bernadine commented that we’ve grown a lot fromo when we started our class, and I think that’s true.

So it looks like everything is in place. We’re all doing a little bit of last minute shopping and packing, making sure we have everything we need and trying to find additional room for supplies while staying under the 50lb limit for checked bags. Myself, Bea, Timi and Dan leave from Pittsburgh at 6am tomorrow morning and then we meet up with Hatem in Dubai, and then it’s down to Dar es Salaam! We’re incredibly excited, and are looking forward to a fantastic 10 weeks.

We want to thank everyone who helped us prepare for this trip: Dr. Bernadine Dias, Sarah Belousov, Ermine Teves, Freddie Dias, special thanks to Eric Beda (we look forward to meeting you in person!), Karumina Kaijage, our many academic advisors, and our friends and family who have and continue to support us!

We’d also like to thank the following organizations: Carnegie Mellon University, University of Dar es Salaamm, TechBridgeWorld, The Unversity Computing Center (UCC), CMU-Q Student Affairs, IRB, Legal, Finance, Health Services, Office of International Education, International Security,  Risk Management, and many more who have helped us prepare!

Tanzania, here we come!

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July 2018
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