Vickram’s View: Meraka Institute’s Sherrin John Isaac on Free Broadband for Africa

October 24th, 2006 |
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It’s freezing cold in Dharamsala, India, in the mountain state of Himachal Pradesh. Clouds chase the sun away, and rain shatters the sky with numbing regularity. But something about this place has a special meaning to everyone who comes here. Once upon a time, it was for a metaphysical search, since the Dalai Lama, the spiritual head of the Tibetan Buddhist community, is based here and many important Buddhist monasteries and places of learning have been born out of this gathering. The Tibetan government in exile also operates from this beautiful hill town, perched 3,000 meters high upon the flanks of the central Himalayan range, not far south of the Hindu Kush.

But this decade, there is a new reason to be here, and hundreds of geeks and social scientists and others who just want to know are clustered around glowing screens and hot swap disks, in one of the region’s largest wireless mesh networks, totally wired (pardon the pun) to the world. Beginning yesterday, October 22, 2006, the global conference called the Airjaldi Summit 2006, partnering with the World Summits on Free Information Infrastructure.

One of the interesting people I met here is Sherrin John Isaac, a person of Indian origin working with the Meraka Institute in South Africa. Meraka means ‘common grazing ground’ in Sesutho, one of the southern African languages, and signifies an open approach, secular and non-sectarian, to learning and deployment. The Institute was set up in 2002, following South African President Mbeki’s call for a national ICT University. I find Sherrin an interestingly global human, born in Ethiopia, brought up in Zambia, and now based out of Pretoria, in South Africa. He came to South Africa to finish his doctoral program in computer studies and stayed on to work.

The Institute has been instrumental in the formation of NEPAD, the New Partnership for Africa’s Development. This is a multi-stakeholder partnership initiative that seeks to drive the use of ICT and other modern approaches to bring about equitable growth and development in the 53 countries that constitute the continent of Africa.

Sherrin’s own interest in this exciting and innovative approach is wireless mesh networking, and he comes to India to learn not the nuts and bolts of the technology, but how to fill the envelope with meaningful applications and services that will make the technology raise the quality of life for 450 million Africans.

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