Sixteen Bits Online

JUNE 1996

Work and Play in the Happy Isles

by Gloria Robbins

The majority of articles published in Sixteen Bits refer to some form of computer activity in Australia. Let me take you away on a trip to the Happy Isles as the inhabitants call them (the Solomon Islands is their more formal name). As a retired computer programmer/consultant I was asked if I would be interested in being a volunteer for AESOP (Australian Executive Service for Overseas Projects). Volunteers with professional or technical skills are selected to work on projects in Pacific and South East Asian countries. These projects have clearly stated aims and objectives, generally concentrating on training local staff in new techniques with resulting commercial development. Over the last three years I have worked on six of these projects, two in Fiji, one in Thailand , one in PNG and two in the Solomons. It is this last project in the Solomons on which this article is based.

In November last year I was asked if I would be interested in setting up a computerised dispensing system for the Honiara Dispensary and in training staff to use such a system. We arranged that I would fly there for a week in December to sort out their needs before returning in 1996 to bring out the hardware and software they selected, install it and train staff in its use. Before leaving I put a message on Internet asking for the names of good dispensing software and received some suggestions from a pharmacist in Tasmania. I also obtained information about two possible packages, CHEMDATA and FRED. During my brief stay we established that FRED could be customised to suit Honiara's dispensing procedures. We sent many faxes with lists of questions to Pharmacy Computers Australia (the company who develop and support versions of FRED) and everytime received full, satisfactory answers often within the hour. We discussed hardware needs: a Pentium 100 with 16Mb memory would do the job, two printers (one for labels and one for reports), a modem and a Conner tape backup system would complete the system. There was no Windows version of FRED as yet, but we were assured it would run as a MSDOS program under Windows 95. It was all work and no play for this week. I left the owner of the dispensary and the pharmacist ruminating over where in the already overcrowded shop the computer, printers, manuals and accompanying disks would have a home.

Christmas over and a new year begun, I started getting quotes for the hardware, settling on a deal from TodayTech. In my home I installed FRED and MSOffice on the new machine, tested the Conner tape drive and the Maestro modem. Gordon Urquhart (a staunch Coffee & Chat supporter) packed everything up for me and I flew back to Honiara with $499.80 excess luggage. On arrival in Customs at Henderson International airport when I asked where the trolleys were (three big boxes as well as my luggage were going round and round the baggage table), I was told they did not have trolleys. As I was pondering how to obey the customs officer who was beckoning me to bring everything over to his table Jeff, the owner of the Dispensary, came through the EXIT door and took over customs arrival procedures.

Although I had said I would like to be present at the unpacking of the hardware, etc., in their keenness it was done when I arrived on my first morning. There was one thing that had been overlooked - the need for power points beside the hardware. The computer was sitting on the dispensing counter with the two printers beside it, but... no power. By the afternoon, however, we had a double adaptor in the nearest power outlet and off it a 4-plug power board to which a UPS (bought that morning) was connected, which in turn was connected to another 4-plug power board to which the computer, two printers and the Conner tape unit were attached. The other socket of the double adaptor was used to boil the kettle for the distilled water required by the pharmacy. There were cables everywhere, sharing space with odd tubes of this and that and drug containers. There was a cardboard carton which was used as an open rubbish bin all the length of my stay which held empty coconuts (the girls drank the milk through straws throughout the day) and empty softdrink bottles. I had to ask for a stool as the pharmacist said the girls could not sit down at work. It was a most uncomfortable high wooden one and when I wasn't on it there was always a girl quick to seize the opportunity to sit down. I'm digressing - the main point is that we turned on the power, Windows 95 loaded, FRED loaded and we were off into the world of computerised dispensing. There was only one minor holdup. The correct labels on which the scripts were to be printed hadn't arrived (in fact they hadn't arrived when I left three months later), and so we had to spend time setting up a Word file that typed "Honiara Dispensary" in the correct place on some rolls of blank labels which were not formatted correctly for FRED.

Ken, the pharmacist, had no trouble learning to use FRED and neither did Naomi, a local girl. Rose, also a Solomon Islander, was older and an ex-nurse. She had kept very clear, neat manual records and found it hard to change over to the computer. She managed the transition within a week and solemnly entered in scripts and checked the ensuing printed label. However, we ran out of labels for a week and I did notice her starting to sing again as she processed the scripts manually again! Just before I left Rose resigned to help her husband and the Church.

Once FRED was in daily use my task was to customise the program which was based on a dBase III relational database. The prices supplied for all Australian pharmacies could not be used in Honiara. To insert the current local prices I had to load the Drugs database into Excel, make the changes there and then transfer the resulting database back to FRED. It sounds simple, but in fact involved writing a series of five macros and then reindexing the new database. The main problem was getting on to the PC to do this. As the PC normally had FRED running on it, ready to produce the next script, I only had a clear go when we ran out of labels and couldn't use FRED.

Ken soon realised the computer's potential and I stayed on an extra month setting up more Excel macros to help him prepare price lists which had to calculate various local taxes and freight charges. We also worked together on a set of macros for his stock control procedures, based on the everchanging dates when ships were supposed to arrive. Volunteers are expected to work normal working hours, however, Ken asked me to start half an hour later than everyone else in the morning so that some of the dust and dirt could be swept away before the tablecloths came off the computer and printers and I powered them up. This suited me as I either had to go down one hundred and seventy three steep slippery steps from my unit which overlooked the ocean, or walk three kilometres down the winding roads to the dispensary.

Enough about work! Each lunch time I spent an hour at a table in the Point Cruz Yacht Club with new friends, eating a sandwich, drinking a Bitter Lemon and gazing out to sea. It frequently was pouring with rain, but we were under an awning and there was always a slight sea breeze. Another volunteer, Jan, and I were taken as guests on the new luxury cruise ship, "Spirit of Solomon", for a weekend trip to the Florida Isles. We also made two visits to another island, Voulalei, where you drive over a rough road for almost two hours and then signal the island with a mirror for a canoe to come and transport you to the island. Once there, you can fish, swim, dive, snorkle, relax and eat and sleep till it is time to leave.

At Easter Jan and I went for four days to Uepe, a well known diving resort. To get there from Honiara you have a one hour flight and then have an hour and a half canoe trip into a large lagoon. We had a cabin on a private part of the beach and during our stay we went on a rainforest walk, spent a morning on a canoe trip up a river with a local guide who told us all about the uses made of the plants and trees we passed, and visited villages where we saw examples of local carving and weaving. We were served meals prepared from pig and locally grown fruit and vegetables and managed to find time to swim and sleep. It is truly a pacific paradise!

I have not said much about the Solomon Islanders themselves. They are by nature friendly and a smile comes easily to them. They have low wages and high unemployment, but the land is fertile and there are fish in the sea. They are very sociable, standing chatting in groups in the street (and in the narrow aisles of the dispensary). Most shopping is "eye-shopping", their term for window shopping. They pick up new methods easily and the younger staff in the dispensary were very happy to become computer users.

Next year the dispensary will be installing point-of-sale procedures. I have been asked to come back and help them and I will be happy to do so.

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