Jen Gleason, Vincent Shauri & Gikandi Ngibuini

About 10 years ago, on the approach to Julius Nyerere International Airport in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, I was nervous. My six months of employment at ELAW’s Eugene office hadn’t prepared me for a two-week trip to East Africa; Nor had my two previous international excursions: ten days on a sailboat in the Caribbean with my father in third grade and a week-long family vacation to Mazatlan in high school. Thank goodness ELAW’s well-traveled staff attorney Jen Gleason was with me!

We were met at the airport by Vincent Shauri, the charismatic Executive Director of Tanzania’s Lawyers’ Environmental Action Team (LEAT) and as we bumped and swerved through traffic and pedestrians on the way to LEAT’s offices I began to realize just how different this Law and Technology support trip to Tanzania, Kenya, Malawi and South Africa would be from a tropical vacation. (Vincent passed away from lung cancer in February, 2006 leaving behind a wife and two children and a world of saddened friends.)

The first thing to strike me about LEAT’s office in Dar es Salaam  was how new all of the computers were. The second thing was how slow the Internet access was. (I would later learn that LEAT’s Internet Service Provider (ISP) shared their 28.8Kbps dial-up connection with all of its other Internet customers over the ISP’s 56Kbps satellite Internet connection.) The third thing to strike me — call it a revelation of sorts — was just how slow ELAW’s fancy new website was for our partners in far-flung parts of the world such as East Africa. No wonder most of our partners clung to our text-only email conferences, leaving the website relatively lightly used.

After surveying the LEAT office and offering my usual advice about updating Windows and their anti-virus software more often, it was time to think about the problem of the excruciatingly slow access to the ELAW website. This was the occasion for my first brainstorm of the trip: develop a website for LEAT — which had none — with a very stripped-down, graphics-averse navigation system that would allow visitors to browse LEAT’s impressive library of publications efficiently in small, fast-loading pages of text.

By hosting the site on ELAW’s web servers in the United States, we were able to remove long-term funding worries about the website, and provide a stable, reliable home for LEAT’s web presence. Several years later, with the help of volunteer Andrew Lardinois in Eugene, we would expand upon this idea by presenting Tanzanian statutes in a standardized legal version of XML called “LEXML”.

ELAW’s idea of helping partners create new websites has since grown to include the idea of a Content Management System (CMS) that allows non-technical staff to manage the content on a website using browser-based forms and relieves ELAW technical staff of the duty of updating the site indefinitely.  Examples of ELAW’s more recent use of a CMS include the Climate Justice Programme website (which focuses on enforcing climate change law) using the Plone CMS , and the Grand Slam Alliance website using the Drupal CMS.  ELAW sees content management systems as a way to help our international partners create vibrant websites that will remain interesting and informative for years to come.

Almost ten years after that first trip to Africa I consider myself to be a bit less of a greenhorn, having traveled for ELAW to Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia and the Ukraine. I still look back on that first trip to Africa with fondness and a little sadness when I think of my friend Vincent.

Glenn Gillis, IT Manager