Satellite success – A high-tech Methodist connection occurs in Liberia

By Mark Webb, Special Contributor…

It’s the end of November 2012, the week after Thanksgiving, and the rainy season has come to an end. Mike Ashdown and I are here to install a VSAT (Very Small Aperture Terminal) system in rural Liberia, to provide Internet access at a Methodist mission station. As we travel the road from Monrovia to Camphor Mission Station in Grand Bassa County, the rain begins to fall. Heavy equipment sits idle on the side of the road. When the rainy season ends, road construction begins. Not today, with the unexpected rain.

Workers assemble the VSAT antenna at Camphor Mission Station in Grand Bassa County, Liberia. ALL PHOTOS COURTESY MIKE ASHDOWN

The road is in many ways symbolic of Liberia. In some places the road between the country’s major cities, Monrovia and Buchanan, is modern asphalt. In others it can be a barely passable trail, even for our four-wheel drive vehicle. In 2003, Liberia emerged from 14 years of devastating civil war. In Monrovia, there are signs of recovery with new hotels being built, resorts on the coast and new shopping markets. Adjacent to the progress, sometimes in the middle of it, are such stark scenes of poverty that it is hard to imagine any hope.

But there is hope. There are many relief organizations in Liberia. The United Methodist Church is here, too. But for the church, it isn’t just a relief effort. The denomination’s involvement began long before the civil war. It definitely has a strong presence here now, ministering to the needs of the people, working to build a better Liberia. So, in the midst of the poverty and brokenness, why are we installing a VSAT terminal and turning up Internet service out in the bush? Hope is the answer. Hope for opportunities, for a more rich education and connectedness.

We arrived in Liberia aboard a Brussels Airlines flight on Sunday, Nov. 25. It was evening and already dark. The first people we saw were Sam and Dehkontee, our hosts while in Liberia. We were greeted warmly and immediately made to feel welcomed. Dehkontee, a young University of Liberia student and Liberia Conference staffer, sang to the music on the car radio on our 45-minute drive into Monrovia and to our hotel.

Adjusting the polarity was among the tasks necessary to making the new equipment work.

That night, there wasn’t much time for anything other than a quick dinner before getting some much needed rest. The following morning, we met Sam and Dehkontee for breakfast and a discussion of how the next few days would go. We then met with the district superintendent of the conference’s St. John River District, the Rev. Roosevelt Goah. He accompanied us to Camphor Mission Station that afternoon. Before leaving, we met with the local VSAT installation company and made arrangements to get all of our equipment transported.

Getting connected

At Camphor Mission Station, the United Methodist Church is making a difference in the lives of many. Numerous missionary trips are made here every year to support the mission. This was my first trip and Mike’s second visit. There is a clinic, a school and a church. From a surrounding population of about 40,000, the school serves 306 students, 60 of whom live in the dorms. The rest walk to school, with some walking three hours each way.

The only electricity here is delivered by an infrequently operated generator, and it is usually only used when visitors come. The unfiltered water comes from a hand-pumped well on the mission property.

Mike Ashdown (far right) poses with the Mission Station VSAT Team.

We arrived on the afternoon of Nov. 26, a Monday. In the thick humidity and under the watchful eyes of several curious children and adults, we quickly began going about the business of installing the VSAT equipment. Antenna installation site, check; satellite modem location, check; cable entry point into building, check . . . and so the afternoon went. By day’s end, a steel pole was planted next to a rose bush; this is where the 2.4 meter antenna would be installed.

That evening, we met some pretty amazing people. Just talking to the kids, telling jokes and sharing information about our families, was a rewarding experience. I made plenty of young friends that night and plan to keep in touch with them through the Internet access.

The second day was another for working through tasks. The installers mounted the antenna, ran the cabling into the guesthouse and began work on configuring the equipment and pointing the antenna at the right satellite. By the end of the day, we were ready to turn up the Internet service.

However, some coordination issues among the various companies involved in installing and supplying Internet service pushed that accomplishment until the third day. Then, after many phone calls to straighten out the mix-ups, Internet service was activated. After all the installation and configuration was done, Mike and I had to work in parallel to finish up the tasks and catch our ride back to Monrovia. I trained several of the people at the mission on how to maintain the satellite equipment.

Finally, I was able to give some lessons on how to operate the notebook computer we were leaving behind, access the Internet, and create an email account. While I completed the training activities, Mike hosted a mission station-wide celebration lunch, involving students and faculty.

A celebration lunch with students and faculty at the Camphor Mission Station school followed the successful setup of the VSAT antenna and establishment of an Internet connection.

It’s encouraging to think how Camphor Mission Station can use this new capability. There is potential for bringing so much information into the school, for expanding computer education and literacy, and communicating with far-off people and places. There is also the possibility of building upon the Internet access with projects such as a computer lab for the school. Like a lot of things, access to computers and the Internet and the skills to use them is seemingly ubiquitous in the United States. In Liberia, that isn’t the case. Maybe that will change, at least at Camphor Mission Station.

By early afternoon, our tasks were all completed and we were ready to make the multi-hour journey back to Monrovia. We were given a great send-off with heartfelt gratitude.

The day after returning to Monrovia, Nov. 29, we spent some time with Sam and Dehkontee touring the city. In the West Point area of Monrovia, you see some of the most visible displays of poverty. There are approximately 75,000 residents that live in West Point. If you were to put yourself in the tallest building in West Point, you’d be standing on the third floor of the John Kofi Asmah United Methodist School. Sam and Dehkontee took us on a tour of the school. They proudly showed us the classrooms, the soon to be completed lavatories, and then told us about the community effort that went into building the school.

Being there and seeing firsthand all that they were describing made it obvious that this school is an important addition to West Point. The school serves children through ninth grade. There are no other schools in West Point that offer classes beyond sixth grade. Sam said they hope to offer high school classes at this school soon. The cost for one year of tuition is $175, a price that most cannot afford. So, even with this school and all the opportunity it offers, there are still challenges.

‘Sense of obligation’

On our last day in Monrovia, we met the district superintendent of the Monrovia District at the Liberia Conference office. The Rev. Jerry Kulah is very outgoing and energetic. He was eager to talk to us about the VSAT project and tell us about opportunities and challenges he has in his own district. He’s in the process of raising funds to finish construction on a building that will be called the Children and Youth Rescue Center. It will also serve as the district office for the Monrovia District in support of the 35 churches that Mr. Kulah oversees.

Mark Webb (center) looks for video as test of the new Internet connection.

The local churches in the district funded the first part of construction. Mr. Kulah is looking for ways to fund the project to completion. When finished, it will serve as yet another ray of hope in Liberia.

We went to Liberia to install the VSAT equipment at Camphor Mission Station. This opens up possibilities that have not been there before. Ultimately, we received much more than we gave, including an appreciation for the difficult situation in Liberia and for the people who are trying to build a brighter future. We also came home with a sense of obligation to further support those we met as they continue to restore Liberia.

Mark Webb attends Custer Road UMC in Plano, Texas. Mike Ashdown attends First UMC in Geneseo, Ill., which has ongoing missionary efforts with the Liberia Annual Conference. Mr. Ashdown is chief technology officer and Mr. Webb field engineering team leader for a telecommunication company based in Plano.

Special Contributor to UMR

Special Contributor

This story was written by a special contributor to The United Methodist Reporter. You may send your article submissions to
editor@circuitwritermedia.com
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deb moore
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That dish was a huge blessing to me! A 2nd time visitor to Camphor, a missionary midwife, and Individual volunteer through GBGM. The first year, internet connections were iffy, and I used a stick and climbed 20 feet up the water tower. This year, when the generator was on and the dish on, I could sit inside the guest house in grand comfort! Thank you so much, Mark and Mike! Please pray with me that the staff at Camphor will learn enough technology to keep it functioning!

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