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The four VUB computer science students and Jimmy at UTG

Since the past two years The University of The Gambia (UTG) and VUB have been building a partnership of mutual collaboration. Instigated by Gambian PhD student in political science Jimmy Hendry Nzally (who graduated in 2017 from the Multilingual Masters in Linguistics & Literary Studies), the collaboration between the two universities has gone from strength to strength. 


European support

The partnership between UTG and VUB started by way of the EU CARIBU programme, part of the then Erasmus Mundus project (now called Erasmus+). The CARIBU programme saw UTG students welcomed at the VUB to study, and Jimmy was one of them. The project, however, finished in 2016. The VUB’s International Relations office submitted and won an Erasmus+ KA107 grant, to support a mobility project with UTG to enable students to come to VUB as part of their studies. The project also includes staff mobility in both directions.

In terms of student mobility, 6 students from UTG will come to VUB for one semester this September. In addition to this, the VUB Institute for European Studies (IES) has offered a scholarship to cover tuition fees to the best UTG graduate from Law (2019).

In parallel, there have been exchanges and meetings throughout the last 2 years between the student council bodies of both universities as well. The latest one was in February 2019 when the VUB student council (along with a representative from the VUB Student Newspaper De Moeial) went to The Gambia for meetings at UTG and met with a variety of people there. You could say it was also a recce to check out what further needs UTG had where VUB could be of assistance. [continue reading below pictures]

Infrastructure needs

UTG is a young university, founded in 1999, and is the only public (state) higher education institution in The Gambia. The university though faced some basic infrastructural issues, and e.g. does not have a functioning library, labs or well-equipped classrooms yet. Jimmy, who did his first degree at UTG, knows all too well where the needs are, and being a VUB student, knows where and how help can be given. So, in December 2018 two 40-foot containers left the port of Antwerp for The Gambia, filled with tables, chairs, filing cabinets, safes, incubators, laboratory tables and computer equipment. The organisation Close the Gap organised the shipment of 150 notebooks (including mouse and headset) and 231 desktop computers (including monitor, mouse, keyboard and heatset), co-financed by the VUB International Relations office.

The recce trip also saw the beginnings of the ‘Library Learning Centre’ which is in the process of being set up. This centre also houses – among other things – some 30 computers and desks for students.  But these also needed to be set up and brought up to date and set into a manageable network. This summer, 4 computers science students from the VUB went over 3 weeks to work alongside UTG’s IT department and its computer science students to install a fully-fledged network across some 120 computers in all.


An experience like no other

We speak with two of the four students who went out to Gambia. Steven Denys and Alexandre Kahn. They were joined on the trip by Eleni Ilkou and Elnur Abdullayev. Steven and Alexandre enthuse about their experience in The Gambia. Both are about to start their 2nd year master’s in computer science programme. Their job was to install software on the machines and ensure deployment across all and make them ‘student-proof’. The main aim was to ensure the computers were set up with long-term security and maintenance in mind. The goal was also to deploy the set-up and updates over a network rather than install it on individual machines – all 300 of them.  

“What an experience! We had to figure out how to do it all and spent several nights working non-stop at how to best manage this deployment across the network. We’d never done this before,” explains Alexandre.

“We had to write scripts as well but ensured everything we used was free, so the updates and maintenance can be done by the UTG IT staff easily enough,” Steven adds. “For instance, we included automation scripts so the Linux and Windows product keys for each computer were automatic on all machines”. [continue reading below pictures]

The group went to visit Kunta Kinteh Island

All work and no play…

The trip was of course not just all work. “We spent a lot of time with the UTG student volunteers who were helping us out. Some were around because they had classes, others came along to help us out during their holidays. We had a BBQ on the beach with the UTG student council and staff, lunch was with the volunteers and IT staff, and we went on a day trip to Kunta Kinteh Island (formerly known as James Island) with the students to see. It’s a UNESCO World Heritage site, and an important historical site in the West African slave trade.

Asking Steven and Alexandre why they decided to volunteer to go to The Gambia during their holidays, the answer was unanimous: “It was an amazing travel opportunity and for both of us, a first chance to visit the African continent, meet new people, learn about different cultures and customs.” Alexandre adds, “Volunteer work during the holidays was on my ‘to do’-list so when this opportunity came around, and I saw it was something where I could use my skills as a computer scientist, I jumped at the opportunity.” Their interest was supported fully by the VUB’s applied computer science programme director Professor Nikolaos Deligiannis.


Next steps

The collaboration between UTG and VUB is definitely growing. The further development of the hub at UTG will be followed-up by the students who were there this summer and by the student council. The UTG student council will visit VUB this coming October to meet with the VUB student council, follow up on the hub activities and the Erasmus+ project work.

In addition, February 2020 will see the first winter school launched, where some 30 VUB students will go to The Gambia for one week. Some of the students (20 more or less) will be selected from the Linguistics and Literary Studies (LIST) programme, and another 10 will be able to apply from within other faculties at VUB. The winter school is also part of the Erasmus+ project and spearheaded by the programme’s director, Professor Ann Peeters with help from Jimmy. They’ll be accompanied by the future Dean of the Arts & Philosophy Faculty, Professor Alex Housen. The aim is to have lectures in The Gambia on linguistics and literary studies, but several visits will also be included. The winter school’s activities are currently being fine-tuned in time for the call to be launched at the start of the academic year next month.

VUB computer science students at UTG with ICT staff

VUB computer science students at UTG at the radio station