COME TO SNAKE-INFESTED, LAND-MINE-STREWN LAOS! Watch rural villagers pedal onto the Internet via a bicycle-powered computer and an over-the-mountain Wi-Fi network! Witness the unveiling of a super-rugged, ultra-efficient Linux PC! Built from scratch! With no moving parts! Hang out in the sweltering jungle with a motley crew of tech geeks and do-gooders from around the globe!
Who could pass up an invitation like that? Not me.
And so last February, shivering with cold and anticipation, I began the 18 000-km journey to the Lao People's Democratic Republic. Starting with an early morning drive past grimy snow banks to New York City's John F. Kennedy International Airport, the trip took an exhausting 24 hours, via Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Bangkok. Upon landing in Vientiane, the capital city of Laos, I was delighted to walk through warm sunshine into the small modern airport.
Thinking ahead to the project's scheduled launch the next day, I considered the particulars: a hand-built, bicycle-powered PC in the village would send signals, via an IEEE 802.11b connection, to a solar-powered mountaintop relay station. The signal would then bounce to a server in the nearest town with phone service and electricity, 11 km away--and from there to the Internet and the world. If it worked, such a system had global possibilities. Already, project leaders had fielded inquiries from 40 countries.
A volunteer with the Jhai Foundation, the nonprofit group sponsoring the information technology (IT) project, gave me a warm welcome, ushered me into a van, and handed me a press release. As I read it, my heart sank: at 4:30 that morning, the hard drive on the foundation's development computer, which contained all the software to be loaded onto the village's new PC, had crashed, along with the only backup. The launch was dead in the water.
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I knew enough about engineers to realize that this would not be the last word. And indeed, when the van pulled up to the foundation's office in Vientiane, I was quickly shooed away--everyone was hard at work trying to figure out what went wrong and how to fix it.
The sight of Western engineers working alongside their Laotian counterparts drove home the fact that this was a grass-roots, all-volunteer effort [see bottom photo]. What's more, the end users of the wireless Internet--the 440 inhabitants of a rice-farming village called Phon Kham [top photo]--had been involved from the start: defining their needs, helping explore possible technologies, and training for the day when they would operate and maintain the system. The project was by no means the first to try to bridge the digital divide, but it was mercifully free of the top-down approach that characterizes many such efforts.
Still, what they were attempting to do was, technically speaking, no mean feat. Laos is one of the world's poorest countries, but even by Laotian standards, Phon Kham has very little--no electricity, no phones, no running water. Ambitious young people tend to head to Vientiane, or someplace farther.
The inhabitants of Phon Kham are all refugees from the Plain of Jars, so named for the hundreds of enormous Bronze Age stone urns scattered across the 1000-km2 region [see map below]. During the Vietnam War, the plain became the most bombed spot on earth, part of the U.S. government's covert, and ultimately futile, effort to prevent men and munitions from reaching the Viet Cong. For nine years, an average of eight planeloads of bombs fell there every eight minutes, eventually releasing a half-ton of ordnance for every man, woman, and child in Laos.
In 1976 the government resettled the Plain of Jars refugees in and around Phon Kham. Now a palm-fringed collection of thatch- and tin-roofed houses, at the time it was just a clearing in a snake-infested jungle. ”Many people got malaria,” recalls Bounthanh Phommasathit. The disease claimed her oldest brother and a younger sister. Phommasathit escaped that fate when, as a teenager, she was sent to live in the United States. (About 10 percent of the Laotian population emigrated after 1975.) Now a grants manager for the state of Ohio, she maintained close ties to her family and eventually started a letter-writing campaign to solicit medical supplies for Phon Kham. One of those letters found its way to Lee Thorn [see photo].
Grizzled and gap-toothed, Thorn was tied to Laos for very different reasons. Back in 1966, he was a 21-year-old sailor stationed on an aircraft carrier off the coast of Vietnam, loading bombs onto A4 fighters. Many were destined for the Plain of Jars. After getting out of the Navy, Thorn cofounded Veterans for Peace (now a national organization in St. Louis, Mo.), and he's been a peace activist and community organizer ever since.
But his military past still haunted him. Phommasathit's letter prompted Thorn to return to Laos in 1998, and upon his return, the two cofounded the San Francisco-based Jhai Foundation. ”Jhai” means ”hearts and minds working together” in Lao, Thorn notes. The foundation has since helped villagers build schools and computer labs, install wells, organize a weaving cooperative, and raise and sell organic coffee.
But what the villagers told Thorn they needed most was to communicate with the outside world. This wasn't about multiplayer gaming or bargain-hunting on eBay; it was about making a phone call. ”You can't even talk to the other side of the mountain on a cellphone unless you climb to the top,” Phommasathit's mother, who still lives in Phon Kham, says.
The villagers knew they'd get a better price for their rice and handicrafts if they could check prices in the market town 30 km away. More significantly, they wanted to call and e-mail relatives living abroad. ”A lot of these families have been split up for 25 years or longer,” Thorn points out. ”That's really serious, because here the family, not the individual, is the basic unit.”
From such basic needs, the Jhai Remote Village IT Project was born.