Assembling a digital resource and coping with scarcities in Mbandaka, DRC

By Eva McNamara, Projet Équateur Technical Assistant.

I am currently building a digital library for the Institut Supérieur de Développement Rurale (ISDR) to give its clientele improved access to national and international reports, agricultural literature, and open access articles and textbooks. Last summer for my master’s thesis I worked with students and professors at ISDR to get a sense of the quality of the education at the school and what challenges they faced. Students and professors both said that in general they had poor access to materials, as the internet is expensive, their physical library is outdated (many of the books in the library date back to the 1960s, and I even spotted a few from the pre-independence era), and in Mbandaka there are no relevant or affordable reading materials available to purchase.

EvaDRC.Sept2016

Eva with the “chief rat exterminator.”

At the beginning of August the library building at ISDR was renovated and a solar panel-supported satellite Internet system was installed. Even though the students and teachers will now have Internet access through ten computers in the library, the network is slow to download files. Thus, a database of files available offline is practical and necessary, and the digital library will be available on the computers as well as on twenty additional offline tablets located in the library.

I have collected about 800 documents, classes, and videos to import into a library database that is fully searchable, not dependent on an Internet connection, and user friendly. We are also developing materials to help the students and staff learn about “best practices” when using the Internet, as well as directing them toward some good starter websites for information. In the coming weeks, staff and students will also attend training sessions (as is done at most universities these days) on the library and the new materials, so that they will be able to navigate the new systems successfully.

Living at the office in Mbandaka can be a bit challenging. You quickly remember that things like running water, electricity, and even small electric fans are luxuries. As we are now into the raining season, the mosquitos are rather fierce, and a large downpour of rain means that everything stops. Everyone runs around the office to put buckets under the leaky roof and towels under the leaky windows, and then the electricity usually goes out, given that we are dependent on the sun for our power!

However, there’s nothing like going out in the morning to collect the chickens’ eggs, only to find bananas, papayas, passion fruit, or oranges (although they never turn orange here; you eat them when they are still green) ready to be eaten. Over the past three summers I’ve watched the office garden grow into an impressive home for many diverse trees, plants, bees, birds, and small animals. Melaine (Projet Équateur Manager Melaine Kermarc) even had a monkey move in for a few weeks this spring, but we haven’t spotted him yet this summer. My fingers are crossed that the avocado tree will have its first bloom before I leave in October.

In the evenings we enjoy leisurely walks along the Congo River with Dawa, Melaine’s dog, who is a celebrity in Mbandaka. Everyone yells, “DAWA!” as he walks past. We often pick up a few samosas made fresh daily at a nearby shop owned by an Indian family. We head home quickly before dark, which comes between 6 and 6:30 every night regardless of the season, due to our equatorial location.

This is truly a unique place, and I hope that the work that Projet Équateur does here will help start a bigger conversation about the need for targeted capacity building on all levels within the country, as well as smart investments in education and training programs.