The i-ACT team spent the last day in camp Goz Amer working on multiple projects that will improve education and connect students from around the world.
Some snapshots from the day:
The code is written and tested, all our servers are upgraded, the picture and video upload is up and running! I slap my laptop closed and sit back with a sigh and a smile. It’s 2am.
I hear you thinking “Ah, of course, these geeky software people, they work all night and never see the light of day!” But we have good excuses: our teammates are in Chad, with an 8-hour time difference with where we live, California. Scheduling a meeting is…complicated.
Our teammates are Sudanese refugees from Darfur. Right now, in the refugee camps of Chad, it’s rainy season: the mud and thatch huts are constantly flooded, flies and locusts are all over the food, people, animals, houses. Our teammates don’t have running water or power outlets, but they do have a computer, and a satellite modem, batteries, solar panels, cameras, and determination.
To get to our online meeting, I only had to sit on my living room couch and switch on my little white Macbook. Abdulaziz had to carry his little white Macbook, along with his 6-pound satellite modem, to his neighbor who has a gas-powered generator. (In rainy season, recharging the batteries with the solar panel takes days.) It’s noisy and costly, so they only turn it on at 8am. Abdulaziz had to wait, and so did we: midnight PT it is!
Djabal camp’s students had been sending regular posts on Commkit, our home-made social networking site, but no pictures or videos. On the phone, school teacher Abdulaziz had said that “we can not send pictures, we follow the instructions but it doesn’t work.” A little cryptic, but then again, from a user who had never seen a computer 6 months ago, pretty good troubleshooting already.
12:06am: Djabal is online! I call Abdulaziz’s cell phone, and the Chadian phone network being in a good mood today, I get him on the third try. After the inescapable african-style greetings (“How are you? How are your students? How are things in the camp? How is your family?”) I explain today’s plan: Abdulaziz is going to update Djabal’s commkit to version 14, and then I’ll walk him through the brand-new picture upload feature. I can hear his little kids chatter in the background.
1:37am: Djabal is offline. Abdulaziz has successfully uploaded 3 pictures under my (remotely) watchful eye. He types so much faster than he did when we visited the camp! Soon we’ll be seeing pictures posted by Murtada, Rahma, Khaltouma, Ali, Busseina and the others. Well, not Khaltouma, whose father refused to have her to go to school since she became pregnant. And not Murtada, who left for Ndjamena, the Chadian capital, to find a job (illegally, since refugees do not have work permits). They are only 16. I worry for them. I guess it’s part of the job description.
“So they hardly have proper food and houses, and you’re giving them…Facebook?” Yeah, that’s what we do. Before hanging up, my friend the Darfuri school teacher thanked me many times, and repeated once again how happy he was to be part of Commkit. After all, we only built it because they asked. Our customer, the refugee, is king.
They said “No people should be an island.” So we built the bridge. We connected our island and their island.
Photo and note from Abdullaziz sent through our CommKit social network:
Hello my friends I hope you are well. I want to tell you that we had distributed certificates to the students yesterday so we finished our school year and also we are very proud of our results of our school because we get good mark in this year OBAMA school is the best one this year its degree was 86 percent and also about other schools also their results are very good so many students went to the farms to help their parents and some of them are decided to study English classes your friend ABDULLAZIZ
It was nice to see Yuen-Lin (YL) and Eric (E) live on our computers last night. We tested the three way communication using the equipment we’ll be using out in the refugee camps. It was quick and pretty simple. Out here, there’s no high speed internet. There’s no medium speed internet. There’s slow and slower. To be able get on a video conference with someone halfway across the world is, in reality, no simple task. Except that our tech team makes it easy for out here, even if we don’t exactly understand how they do it.
I remember when I first spoke with YL, using basic technology – a phone. He called me from Malaysia, where he was spending some time with his family. I told him how we wanted to come out to Eastern Chad, spend time in the camps with the refugees, and, oh by the way, we wanted to upload video from the middle of the desert, where there is no infrastructure at all. After hearing me, YL said, “Hmm…I see. It is not my area of expertise, but I will find a way to do it. I’m in.”
Back then, technology was not close to what we have right now, and it’s still quite a challenge to do what we do. We’re just lucky to have YL and E and our team.
Oh, I also have to thank VSee Lab, who provides the video conferencing software. It’s amazing that we can stream video through such low bandwidth! Thanks also to Eric Talman at SatellitePhoneStore.com, who has been great to work with for our satellite service. And, since I’m in thanking mode, thanks to the great team at the Darfur Dream Team office in DC! We are involved in a complex program, and they are managing so many parts of it, but it’s nothing but a pleasure to work together with them on this very basic concept, connecting people to people.
It’s definitely all about teamwork!
The name started being a bit longer: interactive-activism. I guess that’s a lot longer. From there, someone suggested, “How about inter-activism!?” Then it was a short jump to i-ACT.
But i-ACT started before we had a name for it, and Starbucks played a hand in it. I wish that hand was involved in funding our work, but no. It’s just that we were sitting at a Starbucks in Culver City when the idea of i-ACT first came together.
My good friend, documentarist Paul Freedman, and I met to talk about a trip to the refugee camps in Chad. Paul had just finished an award winning documentary on Rwanda, “Do Scars Ever Fade,” and he was determined to act while the first genocide of this century was taking place. I had just started my activist life, taking stabs at figuring out how to engage people at the grassroots level for peace in Darfur. From the smashing of these two passions, documentary filmmaking and grassroots activism, i-ACT was born.
We were both excited and caffeinated, talking about how we would go to these Darfuri camps in the middle of the desert and film the people, having them tell their own stories, their hopes and dreams. We would then, that same day, edit short videos and shoot them up to the internet and allow anyone around the world to interact with the team on the ground and with the refugees themselves. We would travel up and down eastern Chad, right on the Darfur border, and we would post journals and pictures, and we would do this for 21 days! 21 days of i-ACT!
We had to move our conversation outside and sit on the sidewalk, since Starbucks closed before our excitement did. Paul and I knew that we had to engage people at the very personal level and then give them ideas on how they could be a part of the solution. We had it, i-ACT. Simple, right? Wrong.
Besides not having any funding at all for this, we knew nothing about the technological challenges of uploading daily video, pictures, and journals from the middle of the desert–and then interacting with anyone that visited our website and asked questions or made comments. Oh, the camps also happened to be located in a chaotic, lawless, conflict zone.
The technology part worried me more than the funding. I figured, we’ll scrape enough money, somehow, to make it out there. Also, credit cards already existed back in 2005. The tech side of it, that I knew nothing about. Through someone I met from online activism, Niny, I heard about this guy, Yuen-Lin. He worked on software and was just supposed to be a good guy. Niny told Yuen-Lin (YL) about our i-ACT idea. On a night in which I was starting to wonder if i-ACT would ever happen, I got a call from Malaysia. YL was visiting his family, taking a break from his work in the San Francisco area. In his soft voice, YL asked me, “What is this idea you have?”
After hearing about our crazy idea, YL said, “I have no experience with this type of technology, but I will figure out a way to do it. I’m in.” These words are pretty much what the spirit of i-ACT is all about, being willing to take a personal challenge and risk, embrace it, and go for it.
Well, I’m going to skip the part of the story about the funding challenge. That’s always there, but we find a way to make it happen. i-ACT1, our first trip to the camps, happened in November 2005. It was just going to be one trip. I was naive. I thought peace in Darfur would come soon. Paul was not able to go with me because he unexpectedly found the opportunity to go inside of Darfur for the documentary he was working on, “Sand and Sorrow.”
That first trip, with Chris Bessenecker filling in for Paul as my travel partner, lasted more than a month. We traveled to five camps and delivered on the 21 consecutive days of same-day webcasting. It was supposed to be a one and only trip, connecting people anywhere in the world with the personal stories in this huge crisis that Darfur was and continues to be.
We are now preparing to go on i-ACT9. It is exciting but also extremely sad. We are going back, but we are going back because they are still there, which means that there is no peace in Darfur. We now have friends in most of the refugee camps in Chad, and people that follow i-ACT know the refugees by name. They are no longer just numbers.
On our last trip, we had Rahma, a teenage refugee that has lost his home in Darfur, speak live and directly, through technology, to a room in DC filled with VIPs, including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, politicians, and Angelina Jolie. As we have found out, the refugees have a strong voice, but it cannot be heard if they are isolated in camps in the middle of the desert.
For our team, i-ACT is more than a name for this non-profit. It’s a concept and a way of approaching our work on mass atrocities and its results. It’s all about the person that’s on both sides of these difficult issues. It’s about being a part of a culture of participation. I hope you become part of it.