Computers Come To Rabi Island by Dan Bridges Appeared Nov, 1996

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Computers Come to Rabi Island


by Dan Bridges, Australia


As reported in the November 96 - Vol. 11 No.6 issue of 'Significant Bits' Journal of BRISBUG PC User Group Inc 



Buakonikai Primary School students perform tradtional dances to thank Brisbug member,

Dan Bridges for help with their school library 

As published in our August Issue of 'Sigbits' near the end of August I spent 18 days on remote Rabi Island, part of the Republic of Fiji, but privately owned by the Banaban people. They were transported there in 1945, after WWII, rather than being returned to Banaba (also known as Ocean Island) which is in the Kiribati Group of Islands. Banaba itself is now mostly uninhabitable, having been mined extensively for phosphate fertilizer between 1900-1979.

The primary purpose of my visit was to donate and install some computer equipment in the Rabi High School (RHS) at Tabiang Village. I am glad to say that there was a good response to my previous 'SigBits 'article and to the speech given by my Banaban "niece", Luisa Sakabula, at the August Brisbug General Meeting, at the end of her three-month stay in Australia.


I received:

  • Donations of money (towards shipping costs);

  • Software and a portable Overhead Projector (OHP) from the Club;

  • A 386 portable computer from Club member John Edenborough;

  • A 286 Compaq portable computer from Club member David Sykes

  • A new Star Wintype GDI Laser Printer from Club member Hermann Schraut (won as a prize 7 months before)

  • Computer books and software from a number of other club members.

I also donated a number of items:

  • OHP spare bulbs, blank transparencies for both standard (low temperature) and Laser use & OHP pens, storage folders.

  • Panasonic KX-P1124 24-pin dot matrix printer with 3 extra ribbons;

  • 386DX/25 desktop computer, EGA, 8 MB RAM, 60 MB HD.

  • 586/100 desktop computer, SVGA, 16 MB RAM, 1.5 GB HD (2 separate HDs), 6x CD-ROM, Vibra-16 sound card (highly compatible with a SB-16), various educational CD-ROM titles.

The last machine came about when I decided to build up a cheap computer for RHS. Originally I was going to use a baby AT case & power supply, 14" SVGA monitor, 2 x 245 MB Maxtor HDs and a 4 MB Tekram VLB IDE caching controller I had lying around doing nothing. I didn't take long to realise that it was not going to be economically feasible to do this. 486 VLB Motherboards and cards are very hard to get. (I wanted to use the VLB caching controller.) At one stage I thought I was going to use a cheap 486SX/66 (clock doubled) VLB motherboard a dealer had that belonged to his friend who was overseas. Unfortunately, it has the CMOS password protected and we couldn't clear the password. (Oh I tried: the method mentioned in the motherboard booklet; pulling out the BIOS chip; unsoldering the CMOS backup battery; multi-brand password sniffing program.) Also my old power supply was faulty.

Once I found out how cheap a Cyrix 586/100 motherboard ($245 at the time), 16 MB of RAM ($180), a 1.3 GB HD ($290) and a new case/power supply ($50) were then it became obvious that complete replacement was the way to go. Throw in a PCI video card ($130), 1.4 MB HD ($50), 6x CD-ROM ($160) and a Vibra-16 ($180 - getting a close SB16 clone cost more than I expected), keyboard ($25 - I bought 3), mouse ($25 - I bought 3) and about $350 of CD-ROMs with my old SVGA monitor and you have a good, cheap computer. In fact this is more powerful than my current 486DX/50 machine.

I was also given a lot of other books, older software, and two 286 desktop computers. This equipment was far too heavy to go by air in my luggage. (A mono monitor on one of the 286's went to heaven as soon as I turned it on.) The thing that I most regretted not be able to send by air was over 10 years of Scientific American magazines donated by Brisbug Ex-President and Life-Member Ron Lewis. These items will have to wait until we can afford to ship them by sea.

The Zen of Going to Rabi: Arrival at the destination is not the goal of the exercise; it is the act of undertaking the journey that cleanses the mind of all distractions.

We come to the luggage check-in at Brisbane Airport. I was also accompanying Luisa back to Rabi. Between us we had 50 Kg luggage allowance and my sister had got permission from Air Pacific Sydney for us to be given an extra 100 Kg for computer equipment (thank you very much, Air Pacific for the gift of $1,000 worth of airfreight). My sister also gave us about 15 Kg of pharmaceutical samples for the Rabi Hospital. I had 13 large boxes of equipment. I was carrying the OHP (10 Kg) as hand luggage and had a very heavy bag (with the heaviest books in it) across my shoulder. These were not weighed. As it was, our shipment weighed in at 170 Kg! Oh dear, 20 Kg over at $10/Kg. We decided to leave one of Luisa's bags behind. (It had clothing materials in it. My personal luggage for the trip was only about 12 Kg.) So, at 155 Kg they waved us through. Phew! Round 1 to us.

Round 2 We had heard disturbing stories about Fijian customs problems with donated computer equipment. My sister gave me a letter of clearance from a Fijian minister that we thought would ease us through. I was very worried with the large quantity of pharmaceuticals that she gave me a few days before the trip. This had not been mentioned in the letter. Anyway, Luisa and I got our 4 trolleys of bags though OK.

Round 3 We arrived at Nadi International Airport at midnight. We had to be up next day at 5.30 AM to catch our next flight. We were staying with a Banaban friend (Teri Nanton) and she had a lot of relatives at her flat to greet us. At this time of the day, partying was not on our minds. We managed to get to sleep around 2 A.M. When we got to the airport we were in for another shock. Teri who works at Nadi Airport, arranged with Sunflower Airlines to take our gear to Taveuni for free (I estimate, at $1.65/KG for excess luggage, we would have been up for almost $300). We were told there was not enough room on the small plane for all our gear! (In the immortal words of the airline official: "This is a passenger plane, not a freight plane.") I was told that about 30% would have to wait for a day or two until room could be found. So I had to sit down and work out what packages we would need to have on Rabi for a few working systems. I had to leave behind the EGA monitor, both printers and some books. So, wondering if we would see ever these again, we bordered the little plane (my sister calls it the "flying coffin") and took off into the blue yonder.

Round 4 The route we normally take is a Nadi-Savu Savu flight, then a three-hour taxi ride, mostly over rough roads, to a small deserted inlet (near Karoko village) opposite the island. Then we sit on the embankment and hope that the council boat from Rabi has been organised and will turn up within the next hour or so. Then we have a 30-minute boat ride to Rabi.

This time we decided to try a different method and fly from Nadi to Taveuni, a big island south of Rabi. This has a tourist industry and a permanent airport. (Rabi, being a closed community, only has an scary looking grass emergency airstrip leading up the side of a hill.) Disaster struck again. Nobody on Taveuni wanted to take a boat on the 60-minute trip up to Rabi. "Maybe tomorrow". We drove around for a couple of hours over rough roads visiting different harbours looking for a boat. (I worried about the computer equipment getting bounced around in the back of the truck. I hoped that my styrofoam packing would be effective.) Finally we found a dive boat operator who was willing to take us in an hour or so, when he had prepared the boat, for $100. We sat in a 20' open high-speed boat with all our bags and boxes up the front, covered roughly by a tarpaulin. We fought a running battle keeping the cover over the equipment as it flapped about in the breeze and the spray started to came over the front. I whiled away the time entertaining myself with pleasant daydreams about the effects of salt water on the EHT electronics in a computer monitor.


It took a long time for the boat to travel up the west side of Rabi to Nuku (at the southern end of Tabwewa Village). It was raining lightly and the effect of glimpses of the southern tip of Rabi coming into view from the sea as the very low clouds and mist rolled over it was quite magical. The frustrations of the journey vanished and I felt that I was coming back to my second home. As to what Luisa must have thought after her first trip of 3 month's duration away from her home I can not say. When we arrived at Rabi our Banaban friends were there to greet us: Luisa's family overjoyed at her return after her time in Australia (family ties are everything on Rabi); Iantaake and Rubena from RHS; Nenem Kourabi, the island's Administration Officer. They told us that due to a mix-up in the messages they had received they had gone looking for us on Taveuni and Savu Savu the previous day and the council boat was out again today on the same job.

I was relieved that they knew why I had come and were ready to put me up in the teacher's accommodation at RHS. I had sent a fax to the sole fax machine on the island (available 3 days a week when they run the generator for the office) but the radiophone link to the mainland is hissy and faxes often don't get through and I had received no acknowledgment.

When I got the equipment up and running I noticed two problems brought on by the trip. The fancy new machine had an unpleasant clacking sound inside it. The CPU fan had come adrift. So had the CMOS external battery pack in my 386 desktop machine (held on by velcro). These were soon rectified. Once I had the main machine set up I gave a demonstration of some of it capabilities to Rubena & Iantaake. They were quite impressed since the only other computer they were familiar with was the 286 laptop which I had bought over in the Dec 95 visit. (My decision to go for a fast multimedia setup was only made 6 days before this visit but I'm glad that I did.) I was asked to give a demonstration of a modern computer to parents from the remotest of the villages, Buakonikai, who were voluntarily coming to the school each day to build a science laboratory for RHS. (The Banabans have much to teach us about community spirit.) I can remember the looks on their faces when they saw pictures and heard voices and music coming out of the computer. The people were used to films from community screenings, videos in some of the houses that had generators, and few places had just recently been able to pick up a weak but watchable TV signal from the mainland, but this was their first exposure to this type of technology. I was determined that their children would become familiar with it.

I was fairly busy for the rest of the visit. I attended at least 8 celebrations while I was there and was well and truly "partyed out". (Parties often go all night. Banabans also have a lot to teach us about hospitality.) I gave a lunchtime talk to about 80 students about what is inside a computer and the names of the parts. I told the Principal I was there to get through as much work as was possible in the time available and she took me at my word. During the days I would take 1-3 teachers and/or school office staff at a time, who could be spared for lessons, in Windows, word-processing and spreadsheets in Works for Window v3 (donated by Brisbug), Quattro Pro v4 for DOS (3 copies had been donated by various members), Pagemaker (I bought two copies of Pagemaker Classic - one for myself - just before the visit and I use PM5 at work) and Q&A v4 (one donated by a member, one from me).

It night I would take whomever turned up for either personal tuition or just leave them to explore for themselves. There was usually 1 and sometimes 3 or 4 participants until the generator was turned off at 10 PM.

I was not completely relaxed until the remaining equipment arrived about 4 or 5 days later.


The main machine is running Windows for Workgroups v3.11 because this can run the donated software. OS/2 and Windows 95 were ruled out of contention completely because of the limited local support. I created self-extracting RAR archives of C: drive and of the Windows directory tree and put copies on both physical HDs in case of HD failure. If the 245 MB first HD fails (C: drive) then they can unplug it, boot from a system disk and SYS the remaining HD and then unpack the archives to re-establish the core of the system. Also due to fears of mould growing on the program FDs, I put Disk Express self-extracting images of every program floppy disk on to the HD.

I could not print for the first 4 or 5 days so I had a good chance to get to know the system. It was quite stable until I put the GDI printer driver in. Then all types of blow-up would occur when I tried to run programs that had been working fine until then. I thought that I may have corrupted Windows (not that hard to do) so I ran the 40 MB RAR self-extractor to unpack Windows again to its stable state of a few days ago. Once I reapplied the GDI drivers the fun started again. I've always had a special loathing for GDI printers ("gutless wonders") and this experience did nothing to dispel it. I thought that it may have something to do with Windows for Workgroups 3.11 whereas the drivers were labelled for Win 3.1. One of the teachers had computer experience and had performed hardware support at the University of the South Pacific. He had Windows 3.1 disks for a machine he was hoping to build but after I installed this version the problem was still there.

The kludge that I came up with involved creating icons to install the GDI drivers from a HD storage directory and to uninstall them when required. The programs that seemed to be suffering did not use printing (Chessmaster 4000 and other DOS games) so this seems to work. When the printer works with the programs it likes the results are very good.

The second compatibility problem occurred due to the use of a Cirrus Logic 5440 video card with the Dorling Kindersley Multimedia packages, namely The Ultimate Human Body and The Encyclopedia of Science. A README warned about corrupted movie images in 256-colour mode with this video card and suggested running in 64K mode. This solved the problem but then the Microsoft multimedia packages my sister and members had given me (The Magic Tour Bus Goes Inside The Human Body, Explorepedia, Hunted House) would not run ("requires 256-colour mode"). Oh the joys of multimedia. So I had to show them how to change video modes.

The third problem came about when an 8 MB SIMM module consistently came up with a stuck memory cell 5 days into the visit. I tried swapping the modules around, and sure enough, the memory fault was now consistently at the same new address. So the SIMM was no longer reliable. I yanked it out to leave 8 MB in the machine. Performance plummeted for many programs but it least it still ran. (I've got a replacement module to mail to them but one never knows with memory, until you try it, whether it will work correctly with the other module).

The fourth problem was misreads on the CD-ROM. I believe it could be due to finger marks on the CDs and scratches. Washing the CDs seems to be fixing it. I've tried to teach them about this but we are dealing with students who have not used CDs before and they will probably only learn from their mistakes. It could also show that a fault is occurring with the CD-ROM drive. I'm worried about mould on the optics.

The 386 portable has a decent screen and I've installed Q&A on it, set up a library catalogue database on it, shown the school librarians how to put entries in it, how to find them and how to use the word processor.

The 286 Compaq portable and the 24-pin printer went to the Rabi Council office at Nuku. Until then they had been using old typewriters that seemed to have a number of faults. The Compaq has a horrible little blue screen on it. We had to use this for the first day's training which was terrible when we had more than one student. For the second day I took the EGA monitor from my old 386 desktop machine and plugged it in to the Compaq to give CGA quality viewing which, compared to what we had been suffering with, was much better. I achieved good results there with the secretary, Meri, teaching her how to do correspondence with Q&A. I saw that her record keeping requirements were beyond the capabilities of a flat file system like Q&A and we had to leave it at that.

The 386 desktop machine with the EGA monitor was used to teach DOS, Quattro Pro v4 and Q&A until the second last night of my visit when it failed. I think it was either the power supply or an excessive load from the motherboard. (The light would come on briefly then go out.) So, the day I left I asked Nenem to remove the EGA monitor from it and take it to the Council office to improve the useribility of the Compaq. It is a pity though that I had had to lug such a heavy machine (20 Kg) so far to have it fail just as I was leaving.


Some of the classes in the morning were exciting affairs, not the least because of random reboots (particularly in the 386 desktop machine) bought about because the school's generator which was about 300m away was also being shared by a few power tools that the Science Lab construction workers were occasionally using.

There are too many highlights to relate here. Probably the biggest one for me was seeing the popularity of the Community Library at Nuku which I was involved with on my last visit. I will mention here three computer-related ones. The first highlight was seeing the faces on the geography teachers when they saw how they could produce excellent quality OHP transparencies, with the laser printer, of maps and graphs from World Atlas CD-ROM. I remember how, at the first teacher's meeting, the subject of making this semester's fund-raising project the purchase of a photocopier, came up. The geography teachers wanted to use it to copy maps from books so the students could see them. Although the OHP was not as good as every student having a map themselves, it is certainly handy to have at this time.

The second highlight has to do with the school's bursar. "Call me K. J.!" KJ was a bit slow to pick up Windows because of interruptions we had in the tuition. On the second last session I asked him to bring along the balance sheets he prepared each month. I set these up as Works spreadsheets (finding an arithmetic error in his figures in the process), showed him how he could use this as the basis for future months, and how to print these out. I saw the realisation come to him that this could save him a lot of work. Similar looks came over the faces of other members of the school staff doing our time together.

The third of many highlights was one afternoon at 2.45 PM when I had a female science teacher bring up a group of girls to see some biology topics from the Ultimate Human Body. We had covered digestion and the alimentary canal from one end to the other. After that the teacher said to me "If you now have the time, the girls have asked could you please cover Female Reproduction". Here I was, completely unprepared for this, surrounded by about 15 beautiful, sweetly smiling young Banaban women. I gulped and then, as adult as possible, commenced. (Un) Fortunately it was nearly 3.30 PM and we could not get very far into the topic before they had to leave to catch the school bus.


Although there was only one powerful machine the students appeared to be picking it up quickly when they had an opportunity to use it. My original plans were much less ambitious then what I ended up doing. I was glad that two of the teachers have a fair amount of previous computer experience and can carry on after I left. Now most of 357 students at Rabi High School know what a computer looks like and some of the things it can do. Some of the students and a number of the teachers now know a lot more than that. Given the time, type of machinery I had at hand and power restrictions, that's probably all one can hope for.

Thanks again to all the members of Brisbug who offered assistance. Thanks also all my friends on Rabi (now that RHS is an associate member of Brisbug they will be able to read our magazine) and especially to Iantaake & Rubena Karakaua for putting themselves out so much to make my visit so memorable and successful.


I was recently contacted by David Christopher, the Rabi MP in the Kiribati parliament. He visits Tarawa every few months to attend parliament. He has been using the Compaq when he in the Nuku office and has picked it up quickly. (Rabi can not afford a secretary for him.) He would like to use a portable computer while on the plane and while in Tarawa to write reports to Parliament. Currently he has to impose on Kiribati friends to do this. If any members have a portable computer that they have outgrown and/or a small portable inkjet printer suitable for this task could they please contact me at 07-3345-9298  07-3345-9298 a/hrs.


There was one other reason for my visit to Rabi that I had not made public. For some time, Teri Nanton (a quarantine officer at Nadi Airport) and I had been discussing marriage. She had bought Luisa Sakabula out in June 96 and had stayed 3 weeks herself. My family put her up and I showed her around Brisbane and the surrounding areas. When I returned to Nadi after leaving Rabi, Teri was going to return the favour by taking me to say with Banaban relatives living at a gold mining town on the mainland (Vacukoula, I think). It was there that I proposed to her and she accepted. (My having enjoyed being around Banaban people again of Rabi so much may have had something to do with it.) We had planned to get married in Fiji in December. When I got back to Australia and saw how long the immigration process would take and that it could not start until we were married. (Other avenues have been restricted due to budget cutbacks.) I went back 10 days later and legally married Nei Terintango Nanton on 26th September in Nadi with a Church wedding to follow on 21st December in Suva. We submitted a mountain of paperwork next day at the Australian Embassy in Suva and our interview went well. At this stage it appears we will be returning to Brisbane to live on 31st December and visiting Rabi each year for holidays.

Dan Bridges - August, 96.

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