The Development Worker’s rucksack


In the early 90’s my wife and I lived and worked in rural El Salvador. We supported development projects in seven remote villages. Since these were unserved by roads we had to walk between them. We climbed the steep slopes, through pine-covered forests, and in our rucksacks we would carry:

  • Exercise books and pens for the village schools
  • Medicines and bandages for the village health posts
  • A toothbrush and a book

In my new role in Nicaragua my organisation also support rural development projects, so again I have to walk to rural villages. From our office in Leon we drive out to the rural communities of Matagalpa and the Segovias, with a rucksack ready for a few days work. But nowadays in my rucksack I carry:

  • IMG_20160308_170530A laptop
  • A memory stick
  • Two mobile phones
  • Two sim cards, for the two competing mobile networks
  • A constant desire to stop in a town with wifi
  • A battery charger
  • A cable to charge the laptop
  • Cables to charge the phones
  • Cables to charge things while you drive
  • A cable to download photos from the phones
  • A dongle
  • A kindle
  • A cable to charge the kindle
  • Adaptors! An adaptor to connect this to that, and a different one to connect that to this.
  • Skype to talk to the office, if you stop in a town with wifi
  • And passwords. A whole sleuth of passwords…. For the comp, for the phones, for skype, facebook, email, WhatsApp

No room in my rucksack now for text books or medical supplies for the villages. In the 1990s when we arrived in a village, they probably thought we were crazy people….but at least they could see we brought something useful. Nowadays when I arrive, they probably think I come from the moon! And I don’t bring anything obviously useful for the village at all.


Back in the office there are two things that dominate my life. One is the heat in Leon, my struggle to stay cool, the other is new technology, my struggle to stay sane. I work with a generation of young people who have grown up with laptops, mobiles and the wired world, but I am of a generation where each step has to be learned.

I used to work for VSO where the second floor of the office was the I.T. department. Behind a big bank of cables and flashing lights you could find a friendly guy who would set things up for you and explain Ctl-Alt-F7. Arriving in my new work I asked for the I.T. officer – none; the I.T. team –none; the help-desk – an outsourced email address of someone in Estonia.

IMG_9911A computer used to be something at your desk you’d use at work to do emails, and if proficient use Word or Excel.  My new laptop in the Leon office is an intricate self-running universe of icons, colours, programmes, music, apps, screens within screens, with some work attached. When I’m on work (Office) I can manage it, but if I swipe something by mistake I find myself in a world of colour and temptation, not quite sure how I got there and not easy to find my way back. To search the net I like the clear empty page of the google homepage, but here in Central America the laptops come loaded with MSN, a cacophony of new stories jumping from the screen about celebrities, naked selfies and the onwards advance of Donald Trump. Yuk!

What to do?  When we first arrived in El Salvador, our rucksacks of exercise books and medicines felt heavy to carry.  As we got fitter they seemed lighter.  What do I have to do in Nicaragua for my new hi-tech rucksack to seem lighter?