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Back from Kenya

Had my sponsors explained the full details of my trip to Kenya and Tanzania, I am not sure I would have gone.  I knew we were heading off to the far north bush country of Kenya to meet up with some tribal people…I knew that we would not have electricity, water or any measure of creature comforts…what I was not prepared for was the incredible dust that filled every crevice and was a constant nuisance to the camera, or that I had to ford a river by walking through it (I did lose my still camera to that one). The hardships were real: snakes, scorpions and mosquitoes all around us…but the beauty of the people and the landscape far made up for the hardships.  I was there on a documentary project hired by the Christian Orthodox church to create a short video that showed the work they are doing in this part of the world. It was an amazing journey, the details of which I will save for another blog. What I wanted to share with you here was my experience with the wireless world I thought I had left behind.

In the old days of missionary work, it was quite common for a minister to get his ham license so he could talk to his colleagues back home. This was not only for health and welfare traffic, but really provided a simple social network for the men in the field.  In fact, I was talking to someone from the Divine Word Missionary (the place where we house some of our repeaters) and was told that it was common for the priests there to get their ham ticket before they departed for their ultimate mission destinations.  That is no longer the case.  Ham radio has been replaced by cell phones.

Yes, after driving 5 hours in the absolute bush, through dusty, misshapen roads, when we arrived at our tribal village that was to be our home, we were able to get cell service!  Largely this was for text messaging (I suspect because the cost is high for a voice call).  And, to be sure, it was not the indigenous people using the phones, it was members of our team.  All Land Rovers, in this part of the world, come equipped with a monster HF whip antenna mounted to the front bumper…but I never saw a single radio!  The airports had lots of HF antennas, so I know they are used for something, but the common person uses his cell phone.  Even the Archbishop in Nairobi, with whom we met and interviewed, spent most of his time texting to people in the field.  That is how the church works these days!

Meanwhile, back to one of my first challenges - getting power to charge my video camera batteries. Originally, I was told that we would be dropped off by a driver and then left in the back country for several days to camp.  With no Jeep, we would have no power.  Eventually, that changed, but I had to prepare a plan where I could be completely independent of truck batteries.  It took awhile, but I eventually I found a gentleman in Boston who specializes in making solar battery systems for the film and video industry.  In fact, he was making a set for a team going to shoot on K2 when we spoke.  He agreed to help me out – we worked out the specs for the project and I left him to it.  Two days before I was to leave, I had not heard from him and I was getting concerned.  I called and he said he was just putting the finishing touches on the unit and would ship it out FedEx for overnight delivery. It arrived the next day…with a note from him apologizing for the shipping cost.  Turns out overnight express for the charger and the panel was half the cost of the system!  Ouch.  Anyway, he delivered a brilliant little self contained charging system…20 watt solar panel that feeds into a smart control panel that manages the power to the battery.  The output was three cigarette lighter plugs…because that is what many of the commercial camera battery chargers use.  Well, the system worked great.  I charged all of my batteries everyday and on some occasions, even helped charge the cell phone my colleagues had brought.  Now I have a terrific little system that I can use to power a QRP station!  I am eager to find new ways to torture test this little device!

So, I am now back on home turf.  Had to spend my first days repairing my wire antennas that had been dropped by falling tree limbs while I was gone!  Now that I am almost back to normal (jet lag bothered me for about a day), I am recharged and set to go out again.  BTW, I was thrilled to be able to contact my wife by text messaging a few times myself, so I am a believer – the world is getting smaller thanks to wireless technologies.  Also, turns out that in this part of the world, electricity is difficult to come by, even in the large cities.  In parts of Tanzania, they had to ration electrical power because of a water shortage (they relied on hydro power and the water levels were too low to produce enough juice for the city).  Power would go out randomly…and, of course, people adapted…almost every business has their own diesel or smaller power plant!  Made for a noisy, smelly city.

Glad to be home and very grateful for what I have.