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1/09/2005
laptops for Africa
In our Humanist Movement council (C180) we have people in the US, Iceland, Columbia, Zambia, Congo, Liberia and Ghana. We use email and the telephone to communicate back and forth between all these places, primarily using public internet cafes in Africa & South America and private machines and connections in North America and Europe.

We also take a census every 6 months. In places where we have our own machines, we install a program written specifically for this purpose and in placeew where we don't have our own, people type the names into a spreadsheet or an email and we do the data entry again in the US to get names into the database.

We have managed to take a few donated computers to various places. We have a laptop in Liberia, at least two desktops in Zambia (one was stolen) and a desktop that may or may not have been stolen in Congo. Old, servicable desktops are easily obtained through donation in the US, but getting them into Africa without paying very high import duties is near impossible. Last time I was in Zambia, I took just the machine itself without a monitor and got through customs unscathed, but then the people have to find a way to get a monitor.

So this all got me to thinking about old laptops. If anyone wanted to donate one (or ten), we'd be grateful. But another way is to buy really old cheap laptops and get them fixed up with our programs on them. I'm experimenting right now. I bought a $79 (free shipping) laptop on ebay. It's a Compaq that shows up copyright 1996 when you turn it on. It's running Win98 on a Pentium 133Mhz. It does have a PCMCIA modem connection so I could connect it to my dial-up connection at home to down load what I need to get it ready to go. I'm a bit worried about security without a firewall. I can download a firewall first thing, but Windoze is so bad I'm not sure I want to risk it. I'm working on getting a PCMCIA CM-ROM drive to avoid that problem.

So now I need to compile a list of everything I need to put on it so when I get a second machine, I'll have a reference guide. Here's what I have so far (in my head, not on the machine):
  • Winsock Firewall - This open source program is small enough to put on a floppy to put on the new machine so it's safe to connect to the internet to get everything else I need.
  • Zip Central - This freeware program allows a file to be compressed and saved in pieces on more than one floppy if it's too big for one. I'd rather use something open source, but can't find anything with that feature. 7-Zip says it will have it on the next version. Not sure if the program is legit, however as the site seems to be about opt-in email marketing when you click on privacy or legal. Anyone have another suggestion?
Anyone have any good advice for me as I learn and get this machine ready to go?