Tech Support, Cameroon Style

2016-03-20 13:08


The following day-in-the-life story was emailed to me in 1999 by my brother, Roger Dawson, from Cameroon. He and his wife Sandy were working there with Wycliffe Bible Translators, a missionary organization that probably employs more linguists than anybody except the CIA, in furtherance of their mission of translating the Bible into various indigenous languages. Sandy was teaching English and Roger performed computer support in Yaounde, the capital city of Cameroon.

Roger Blaine Dawson died on August 18, 2013.

Note added 2016-03-24: After his death, Roger’s widow Sandy spent over a year in discerning what she wanted to do in the next life phase, and decided to return to Cameroon. She is there now, teaching English, and sent a note after having read Roger’s thoughts below.

This day is so weird (yet so typical) I have to write its events in my journal.

I begin the day at 7:30 am, as usual, at the Admin. center. Mark greets me (he’s the office manager). “Good morning! All our clocks are a week off!” Must be that central clock setting system we set up gone amok. It is supposed to set all the computers to the same date when they start up.

At 8:00 am, I get a crisis request. “Can you set up Microsoft Word for Windows and Cameroon characters on this lady’s computer? She doesn’t speak any English (she works for another mission) and her computer has German Windows on it!” (“Exit,” of course, is “Beenden” — and a Window is a “Fenster”…) “And by the way, she’s catching the train right after lunch!” I hate when that happens!

So my day starts.

I taxi to CTC, about 3 KM away, greeting the young man digging drainage ditches on both sides of the road. He’s been at it for three weeks. The road is about 500 metres long. I comment to him, “Grand travail!” “Big job!”

When I walk in the office, there are three people waiting to pounce on me with their problems. I listen, briefly, to each… lining up their computers on any available horizontal surface… and madly writing notes on what each needs… and by when.

By 9:00 am, I am seriously into the German installation. I may even make the deadline. Interruptions occur every 5 to 10 minutes and I’m putting people off: “Come back this afternoon. Or tomorrow.”

Then at 9:30, the power goes off, an event which occurs at least once a week. It may be off anywhere from 3 minutes to 3 hours. We have about 45 minutes of battery-backup power in our UPS’s (uninterruptible power supplies). This keeps about 5 essential machines going. After 30 minutes, we decide to find the gerant (the building manager) to ask her to crank up the diesel generator which powers the computers and the refrigerators in the kitchen. In a few minutes I find a Cameroonian maintenance worker who agrees to show me how to start the generator. A few minutes later it’s roaring away — and we have plenty of fuel. We fiddle with the engine speed to get the right voltage…

I return to the office. Coffee time. But I dare not go and mingle with the 40 or 50 other workers who gather in the cafeteria at 10:00. They will mob me with their e-mail and computer questions. To make matters worse, a workshop is starting today with 19 Cameroonians speaking 13 different languages. My coworker tells me he gets coffee at 10:45 after everyone else is gone! So we actually get 30 minutes of peace and quiet. But no coffee.

More interruptions. The radio doesn’t work. Can you check it out? (We don’t do radios, normally!) We can hear them, but they can’t hear us! I go outside and check the antenna (it operates on 7892 KHz — nearly 40 meters). It’s OK. I check the PTT on the microphone with an ohmmeter. It’s OK too. I give up. Call the radio guy. We don’t do radios in the computer department!

New e-mail messages come in for me: anywhere from 10 to 20 per hour during the day. Some are automatic ones reporting status on the e-mail servers that I am responsible for; others are from real people. I spend perhaps 10 minutes each hour answering urgent issues. The installation continues. As it loads, I have three computers working on different jobs. I have a rolling chair, and I scoot among the three. No kidding.

One interruption is a French instructor (that is, a French-speaking French national, who teaches French!) from the University of Yaounde. He wants International Phonetic Alphabet fonts. Macintosh, please. We tell him we don’t do Mac… but three minutes after he leaves, we find an old diskette with exactly what he needs. My co-worker races after him. Too late: he’s gone. He is going to France “in a fortnight,” so we can still contact him before then… Did we get his phone number? Ah, yes, here it is on this scrap of paper… His English is not too bad… but he switches back and forth to French, assuming we can all understand it. I just nod knowingly. I get most of what he says.

It’s lunch time. I call the lady who is the German lady’s friend. I’m not going to make it, I tell her. Well, she can wait until 12:45 at the latest… can you please try to finish? She may not be back in town again for 6 months!

I still have 37 minutes to finish the German installation. It’s going well. Now it’s giving me long dialogue boxes in German; I agree to almost all of them (you just click on “Ja”)! Soon it’s done! I race down to the road and catch a taxi (that 500 metre long road where the kid is still digging). I carry the $3,000 computer in a plastic bag. I’m jammed in with 5 smelly Cameroonians and a 100 pound bunch of bananas. Green ones. Perhaps “smelly” is a subjective judgment: it’s really more like “normal.”

I see the lady coming across the street. It’s 12:45! She thanks me profusely (I guess) in German and French. Whew! She hurries off to her train.

Back to the office by taxi again. It’s after lunch and the business picks up again. All I’ve eaten is 3 bananas I bought from a kid on the street. Nice yellow ones. And a big glass of cold water. Too busy to get very hungry. During a lull, I print out my Newsletter. Must take it over to the printshop later.

By 3:00 pm, there are 6 jobs lined up. One of them is a “Star” computer — unheard of — with a bad keyboard. The messenger who brings it speaks only French, and is going back to the Far North on Friday. Can we fix it? We tell him we will let him know for sure by Friday. Avant Vendredi, bien sur!

The queue has reached its limit. We tell everyone to come back later. There are no more horizontal surfaces left. Either physically or mentally.

The interruptions continue, but by 5:00 pm we have decided to send two machines for hardware repairs; two get deferred until Thursday or Friday, and two more are almost done. Probably finished by tomorrow. We have made two new appointments for Tuesday and one for Wednesday. But we have answered a lot of short questions in between actually doing a little productive work. And amazingly, nobody is excessively mad at us.

It’s after five, and I head back to Admin. (my fourth taxi ride today), carrying my own computer and the two to be put in the shop. It’s time now to say “Bon soir!” to people…

I do a few odds and ends on e-mail administration. Now it’s nearly six. I think I will quit for the day. Everyone else is out of the building, so I lock up. I walk home, and find a Cameroonian friend (who works for Campus Crusade for Christ) waiting on my doorstep. I invite him to stay for dinner. He does; we have a nice chat, but he has to rush off. He only stays an hour; the normal Cameroonian visit is 2-3 hours.

Oh, I forgot to mention the two phone calls I got today. One from each end of Cameroon. Village teams with some crisis or other. I am able to help one man by sending him a replacement modem via someone from another mission going to his village tomorrow. At 8:00. He also asks me to send him out a diskette with Times Cameroon True Type font on it. Old stuff used prior to ‘90. Quite a lot of translation work was done with it then, before we standardized the fonts.

The biggest challenge is always to be gracious to people when we are in the “scurrying mode” — and not bark at them. And we have to consciously remember not to scowl when they come through the door into our office.

Somehow, though, I rather enjoy this job…

— Roger Dawson at the far end of a very thin pipe in Yaounde, Cameroon

Roger’s widow Sandy has returned to Cameroon; she sent this note after having read his words, above.

I really enjoyed reading Roger’s letter. There are still people here who remember him and all of the many services and hard work he accomplished while serving in Cameroon. He was always kind and patient to the many people who required his expertise.

Things have come a long way in terms of technology in Cameroon. The internet services and phone services alone have made a huge difference.

However, the infrastructure is still a challenge. The roads are almost impassable especially during rainy season. I always liken them to rides at Disneyland. Who needs to pay $100 for amusement rides?

We still lose our power on an almost daily basis. Thank goodness for new LED light products. I have a rechargeable 220v flashlight that works great. (Last night when we lost power I saw something move in the dark and it ended up being a large cockroach — common occurrence in the tropics. I decided to chalk my floor — in the dark — with a product called in French craie insecticide miraculeuse. You draw a chalk line and the insects are repelled and remarkably it works.