First Impressions of Malawi

I’ve been in Malawi now since Sunday afternoon.  So far I’ve just been in Lilongwe, this weekend we might travel elsewhere.  I have a pre-paid mobile phone on the Zain network here.  The balance of the account is measured in “units”, a text message is 10 units, I’m not sure about voice calls yet.  I’ve been told that 160 units costs about $1.  Its interesting, some people here also pre-pay for things like electricity – you pay for a set number of “units”, that correspond to the amount of electricity you are able to use.  The local currency, kwacha’s, are exchanged at about 180 kwacha’s for 1 USD.  500 kwacha bills are the most common, resulting in my wallet feeling larger than before 🙂

IT-wise, there are a lot of challenges.  So far we’ve spent some time looking at a VPN connection that I set up earlier.  While the site the user is connecting in from is only a few miles away from the central hospital, the connection still must go through the satellite link because that is the only Internet connection Tidziwe has.  This makes their lab application extremely slow, because of the latency and because the VPN traffic has to compete with so much other traffic over the limited satellite connection.  It appears to be difficult to do our own wireless point to point connection in this case, because of the landscape not permitting line-of-sight.  The remote site, in Area 18* here in Lilongwe, is connected via a new WiMax provider here in Malawi, Tonse.  Both Tidziwe and the Area 18 site have line-of-sight to one of the towers that Tonse uses, so we are hoping to get Tidziwe connected to Tonse, to allow Area 18 to have a fast (in terms of latency, because it won’t be using the satellite connection) and relatively high bandwidth (because the traffic will just be traversing Tonse’s internal network, it should provide faster speeds than traffic going across the Internet) connection.  Then we can run the VPN software (OpenVPN) to connect in to the internal network in Tidiziwe and allow the lab users to access their application.

For the past several months, the UNC Project has also been using a Barracuda web filtering device to minimize the bandwidth wasted from people browsing to Facebook, YouTube, etc.  The servers are on the WAN side of the Barracuda appliance.  I need to research to see if this is a recommended best practice or not.  Interestingly enough there seems to be some connectivity issues between the end-user desktop/notebooks, and the servers ( as well as the Cisco router).  Group policy updates aren’t applying, some clients are having difficulties updating from the Symantec server, and I couldn’t SSH into the router from behind the Barracuda.  We’re not sure that its the appliance causing the problem, it could also be something on the Cisco router – the servers and Barracuda are connected to different ports.  (Though the two ports are part of a bridged virtual interface / on the same VLAN / etc, so I’m thinking the router shouldn’t be involved in anything other than just doing L2 switching).

Today, we also looked at a multipoint wireless connection that connects several buildings that the UNC Project at the Kamuzu Central Hospital.  It was somewhat hard to understand at first – while the connection what previously working, routes were not set up on the main router to allow us to connect to intermediate devices.  The access points at the other buildings also appear to be using NAT, which doesn’t make sense – its not necessary at all in this instances, and actually makes the network harder to manage.  There are a few other things with the network setup that don’t make sense to me.  For instance, before using Tonse, they used another ISP here, that used a site-to-site VPN between Tidziwe and Area 18, but instead of setting up the routes to send all the appropriate traffic through the site-to-site tunnel, they set up a proxy server at the main Tidiziwe site, and set the clients to use that at the remote site.  To me, that just seems like an ugly, awkward solution.  I’m not sure if I’m just not seeing the rationale for these type of setups yet, or if they truly just don’t make sense

It’s difficult to purchase hardware here, it all has to be shipped in from another country.  South Africa is the closest country with a large technology base.  There are also some cultural differences in the workplace regarding employees and their managers.  I’ve also noticed that people shake hands differently here.  Instead of a firm grip and a quick shake up and down, its a much looser grip for longer, without as much movement.  I had read that people did this differently across the world, but it’s kind of neat to actually consistently notice it.

Today we discussed an opportunity in Tanzania that may result in a four day trip to Moshi, near Mt. Kilimanjaro, at the end of the month.  More details about this will be forthcoming.

*Neighborhoods in Lilongwe are called areas and have a number.

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