Video: 84-Year-Old Volunteer Rebuilds, Sends Linux Laptops to Africa

By May 5, 2015Blog

FreeGeek laptops kenya

Retired pastor James Anderson, age 84, has never worked in IT or had any formal computer training, but over the past two years he has rebuilt more than a hundred IBM ThinkPad laptops and sent them to schools and nonprofits in Africa – all running Linux.

For the past nine years, Anderson has volunteered at FreeGeek, a Portland, Oregon-based nonprofit that recycles and rehabilitates old computers for donation. He spends four hours every Friday testing and rebuilding the ThinkPads, which he then loads with Linux Mint 17 and sends one or two at a time to Africa via personal couriers.

It’s a passion project Anderson began in 2006, after he and his wife spent 13 weeks in Zimbabwe teaching math at a rural boarding school near the Mozambique border. When they returned, he began looking for a way to continue to help the kids he’d met there.

He has always been a tinkerer and loved computers; he’s owned one since the mid-1980’s when laptop precursors, known as “luggable” computers, weighed more than his wife’s sewing machine, he said. So when a neighbor told him about FreeGeek he saw the chance to help through technology.

“I realized the opportunity these students had to use computers even in the most simple way were almost nil,” he said. But, “I didn’t know what a memory stick was from a video card.”

Open Source is Rewarding Work

He learned how to rebuild old PCs at FreeGeek, which also offers classes and training, and has since racked up more than 1,500 volunteer hours there.

James AndersonHis early attempts to ship desktop machines back to Africa via container proved too difficult and expensive – the machines were too bulky, he said. So he volunteered on other projects for several years, slowly improving his hardware knowledge, until 2013 when a new opportunity to send the ThinkPad laptops arose.

The ThinkPads, which run on Intel Pentium M single core, 32-bit processors and hold less than 2 Gigabytes of RAM, were state-of-the-art 10 years ago but are far outdated by today’s standards. They arrive at FreeGeek entirely by donation and need a great deal of work. But once Anderson figures out what’s wrong, and fixes it, swapping out replacement parts, reformatting, and doing whatever else is necessary – they become fully working machines again.

“They’re not the fastest computers available now but they still have good use for teaching children who are learning how to type and manipulate a computer,” Anderson said.

He finds the work incredibly rewarding, not only for the knowledge that he’s helping increase computer literacy for impoverished children, but for the experience of volunteering at an organization that embraces open source technology and philosophy.

“Community here is extremely important,” he said. “I enjoy the tinkering but above all I simply enjoy the community. So as long as I’m able I think I will be here on Fridays, as long as they’ll let me, and I have no indication that they won’t.”