Published: 09.12.11

Strike on campus

It was with mixed feelings that Christian Monstein travelled to the troubled country of Kenya in order to get another “Callisto” radio measuring instrument up and running to measure solar radiation. His fears would prove well founded.

Christian Monstein
Antenna construction in the mechanical workshop, the mechanics in overalls, the engineers in white coats. The professors and the author wearing a jacket are out of shot. Incidentally, half of the dipoles have been assembled on the wrong side. (all Photos: C. Monstein / ETH Zurich)
Antenna construction in the mechanical workshop, the mechanics in overalls, the engineers in white coats. The professors and the author wearing a jacket are out of shot. Incidentally, half of the dipoles have been assembled on the wrong side. (all Photos: C. Monstein / ETH Zurich) (large view)

Things did not bode well for my trip to Kenya: the Friday before my departure, unknown assailants shot at a Swiss woman 300 kilometres north of Nairobi, wounding her severely. Her driver was killed. Then, an Austrian student was found dead in Mombasa and terrorists let off a bomb in a bar full of tourists in Nairobi …

In light of this, the course of malaria tablets I begin two weeks before the trip seems to be the least of my worries, even if the possible side effects do run into their thirties.

Monday, 7 November 2011

The flight is quiet and boring. Ten kilometres above Abu Simbel, the cabin crew hand out forms for the visa application and immigration control. We land in Nairobi at 7:15 p.m.

My contact, Kenneth Kaduki‚ the head of the Department of Physics, is waiting for me with a big sign saying “Christian Monstein”. We race through the night towards the centre of Nairobi on the left-hand side of the road. It is pitch-black; the street lights have been turned off. The air is dusty but, at an altitude 1,600 metres, the temperature is a pleasant twenty degrees. Twenty minutes later, we arrive at the United Kenya Club, where I go through two security checks before being allowed to enter the hotel. The room is basic, especially the shower (see picture). For dinner, there is beer and a small Engadine nut cake. I don’t feel like traipsing around in search of a restaurant; you can’t see anything because the streets are not lit and there is too much dust in the air.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

The shower works; you just can’t adjust the temperature, that’s all. There is only heating on or off. I didn’t get an electric shock. I treat myself to a Mefloquin for breakfast – my malaria medication. Francis Juma picks me up in his clapped-out car at 9:15 and takes me to the university. It has six faculties and a total of 50,000 students.

We are in the Department of Mathematics, Geology and Physics. A room is available for ETH Zurich’s spectrometer Callisto. The flat roof for the planned antenna is one floor up. The visit to the antenna in the workshop deals a real blow: the dipoles have been assembled incorrectly; they should have been attached the other way round (left/right). The mechanic is peeved because he has to interrupt the construction process and drill, rivet and screw again. The plastic supports are missing, too, and there are only vague ideas regarding how to attach the mast; no concrete plans or even any material. They have envisaged an RG-58-type cable, which can’t work because it has too much attenuation. There is another, better cable from an unknown source with a peculiar diameter. The plugs I have brought from Zurich won’t fit. With great difficulty, we eventually get my laptop connected to the Internet – just the browser, though; no SSH, no mailer and no VPN. All the toilets at the university are locked. I have to fetch the key from the secretary’s office. In the toilets, there is no paper, no toilet brush, no soap and no towel.

Charles Obure helps the mechanic to screw the antenna together. At 11:50 the Internet connection crashes. Ten minutes later, it’s working again, but things are starting to get a bit much for me. There is no one here to whom I can impart my knowledge and we haven’t got much time. At 12:30 Paul Baki, the Associated Dean of the School of Applied Science and Technology and the Polytechnic University College of Nairobi, turns up.

At one o’clock, we head to the professors’ canteen. There is chicken or vegetable stew, both served with rice or polenta. I go for the vegetarian option. It tastes fabulous. My colleagues eat chicken, vegetables and polenta with their bare hands. The menu costs between KES 200 and 250 (CHF 2 to 2.50). We order fruit salad for dessert. There are bananas (safe for the stomach!), papayas (danger!) and pineapple (danger!).

At 2:30 in the afternoon, we visit the workshop. The mechanics are beavering away like mad. One support has been changed on the dipoles on both sides and some clamps to screw together the supports are already finished. Paul says that the staff are “allowed” to work until nine in the evening and that the antenna can be assembled by Wednesday.

Soon, the mechanic bursts into my office. In no time, they have actually assembled all the dipoles the other way round and finished both halves. Now I’m optimistic that the antenna will be ready by tomorrow. All that remain are the screws for the cross connections, tension cables and the cover for the contacting.

Francis Juma wants to call it a day so we drive back to the club. I’ll walk tomorrow. I have a nice, well-earned, dark beer on the club’s garden terrace to wind down. I go for the grilled goat with salad (danger!). The meat is a bit tough. On the television, there are reports of hostilities against the Shabaab rebels on the northern border with Somalia. They are mostly reports of victories: half of one area has supposedly been “cleansed” of rebels. The Somali rebels are threatening suicide attacks on tourist facilities.

Wednesday, 9 November 2011

The sun beams into my hotel room at 7:30 in the morning: time for breakfast. Today, there is papaya, pineapple and watermelon (triple danger!). I am still waiting for an upset stomach to warrant the investment in Imodium.

Today, I walk to the institute to get some exercise. It takes twenty minutes, during which time I have to pass through four steel-grate gates with up to three armed guards.

Things don’t look great with the antenna: the workshop is closed and the mechanics have disappeared. Getting started on the installation and training is also impossible. The management has called a last-minute meeting because of a strike. Apparently, the academics are protesting outside the ministry because it has not authorised a pay rise. A cacophony of whistles and trumpets echoes up from the street. Hundreds, if not thousands, of protesters stream by. Some of them storm the building. They burst into my office waving flags and want to know whether I am a lecturer. My sense of wellbeing visibly deteriorates. I don’t know what is wrong and there is no one around anymore to ask. I say no and pretend to be busy. The mob moves on, whistling and ranting.

The way things are going, our project is in danger of failing. At eleven o’clock, at least Kenneth Kaduki eventually turns up and I explain to him that we are wasting a lot of time and money like this and that the project is in jeopardy. He phones Francis Juma and Charles and tells them to stop their protest. Sure enough, the two of them and Geoffrey surface shortly afterwards, only to disappear again because they have to configure the new PC; the old one is on the blink.

We rearrange for me to give an introductory talk at two. Afterwards, we want to get started on the configuration; perhaps even solve the problem of the plugs and cables.

At two o’clock a video projector is booted up; the network cable is missing. A quarter of an hour later, I can finally begin my presentation. Afterwards, we install and configure Callisto and the software. Callisto works at the second time attempt, once the configuration has been performed correctly.

At eight o’clock we call it a day and treat ourselves to a few beers in the lecturer restaurant. Unfortunately, I can’t understand a word of Swahili. My colleagues keep switching back and forth between English and Swahili. At nine o’clock I’m back at the United Kenya Club, but not without having to go through two security checks first. Now, of all times, the laptop bag bleeps, but they don’t want to look inside; they just trust me blindly that there’s actually a laptop in there.

The situation after today: software installed as far as possible, personnel instructed and Callisto is working. However, plenty of problems remain: antenna still not on the roof, cables and plugs for high frequency and direct current missing, preamps need assembling and security problems with the proxy server.

Thursday, 10 November 2011

My nightly calculations hit a maximum frequency of 170 MHz. If we use the best cable we can find and assemble the preamp in the receiving room instead of outside, we can save ourselves a lot of work. After a brisk, sweaty walk, I’m in the astronomy office at 8:10 in the morning. Between the hotel and the office, there are five security checks, which means ten checks a day, fifty checks a week.

At 9:45 the mechanics still haven’t turned up. I have given up all hope of the project succeeding. It’s half eleven and still nothing is happening. According to the latest reports, the strike is still on and the workshop is to remain shut. The technicians or mechanics are not available – even though they promised me yesterday that they would get cracking early today.

At lunchtime, we have some tea and a dasi (doughnut without a hole) to tide us over, then off we walk to the nearest electronics shop in town, up at an altitude of 1,800 metres. The chairman decides to take a cheap taxi. I’ve never experienced anything like it: crammed into a VW bus like sardines with the door open, hurtling along without any seatbelts. The conductor stands on the footstep, clinging onto the roof rack. The journey costs a couple of shillings, less than one franc for two people.

We need a suitable plug for the coaxial cable. It’s unbelievable: in the Kenya Electronic Shop Nairobi, they have got almost everything an electronics heart could possibly desire.

At two-thirty, we head back to the lab; the hard drive won’t format, which means Windows can’t be installed, either. There aren’t any spare parts or any money to buy new ones.

At 14:45 remarkably a mechanic and an electronics engineer (both strike breakers) appear and lug the profiles, poles, screws etc. onto the roof. There is a glimmer of hope again. I need to spend a penny but the toilet key is in the secretary’s office, which is locked. The secretaries are also on strike. Eventually, I find someone who can get into the secretary’s office so that I can relieve myself.

It is now 16:45. About a quarter of the antenna has loosely been screwed together. The plastic pipes for stabilisation are also supposed to be available. I have also given Charles two terminal tags with steel screws to solder the coaxial cable onto the supports. By five-thirty half of the dipoles have been assembled. Charles is confident that the antenna can be assembled by tomorrow – Friday, my last day.

Geoffrey takes me back to the hotel, where I shout him a beer. It soon turns into two or three. Apparently, Kenyans are allowed to have several wives; however, my companion has “only” got two. The prime minister of Kenya is sitting in the same bar…

Friday, 11 November 2011

Even though it is cold and wet, I still walk to the institute. My shoes get caked in mud. At half eight, I’m the first one in the office. Soon, Kenneth Kaduki arrives with news. The strike is still on; the demands haven’t been met. Last night, I was still optimistic that someone would come to work, but unfortunately there is nothing doing. Good opportunity to check in online. Much to my delight, it actually works; just need to print it out now. The next challenge is to find a printer, what with everyone on strike and all the secretaries’ offices locked up. It takes all my powers of persuasion to convince the secretary to print my boarding card. And even then she takes her time and says that she is only here “by coincidence”; really, she’s on strike. The main thing is that I’ve got my documents.

Meanwhile, Charles is back assembling the antenna poles, although at least one dipole is missing. I give him the green light to continue. He seems to think he can stop if a dipole is missing. Slowly but surely, work continues.

I can hear the sound of the demonstrators’ whistles, horns and loudspeakers outside. The workers disappear and the antenna is left where it is. The PC is useless: the university’s proxy server is blocking any communication with the outside world, which means the FTP Watchdog and the FITS file can’t be uploaded onto the FTP server in Switzerland. I suggest they use NASA’s dedicated GPS line. No sooner said than done: hey presto, the FITS file is in ETH Zurich’s archives!

I am on the brink of despair; everything is proving so difficult. Paul pays us a visit and we go back to the club for lunch again as they are not on strike there yet. A heated debate ensues about the best way to make the strike as effective as possible.

It isn’t possible to assemble my little test antenna on the roof, either, because we haven’t got the right extension cable.

Exercise abandoned; I give up. It’s just not possible. I can’t even participate in the discussions. The people are so indignant that they argue in Swahili and various other local languages. No tools, no toilet; everyone goes in the sink in the hallway. I’ve had enough. I gather my things together and walk back to the United Kenya Club.

Hopefully, Kenneth Kaduki will actually pick me up at nine in the evening so that I can get to the airport on time. The traffic is building up outside and at seven-thirty everything grinds to a standstill. If I wait until nine to order a taxi, it will be too late. Checkout at 8:45 p.m. and a short call to Kenneth Kaduki; luckily, he’s on his way. The traffic is frightening, but we reach the airport at ten. Half an hour later, I’m at the gate. I’ve still got KES 1,650 to use up. A packet of cashew nuts costs KES 1,200 and a small bottle of red wine KES 450. That’s me cleaned out.

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Return flight at 12:30 a.m. straight to Zurich, due to land at 6:20 in the morning local time. At eight-thirty, I’m already at home in Freienbach. Thank God!

About the author

Christian Monstein (58) is an electrical engineer at ETH Zurich’s Institute of Astronomy. His main research interest is measuring radio radiation from the sun. Monstein operates a global network of radio-spectrometers called “Callisto” with volunteers. The project is backed by the United Nations and NASA under the project ISWI (International Space Weather Initiative). To fill in a blank spot on his world map, he travelled to Kazakhstan in May and Egypt in October.