Algorithms in Africa
When it comes to Africa, the so-called digital divide is just a divide; there isn't anything especially digital about it. The divide is geographic, because Africa is a long way away, and cultural, because the traditions and histories of Africans developed independently from those of Europeans and Americans. Almost incidentally the divide is economic, from the standpoint of cash resources and differing perceptions of wealth, though the natural resources of this continent are vast. The divide ends up being mostly one of ignorance, and this gap is at its widest in America.
Americans in general know very little about Africa, and what little they do know or think they know is usually prejudiced and fallacious. If I were to know the state of Florida only from news reports, I would think it was a large mobile-home park of fat pink people constantly flattened by hurricanes. Similarly, most Americans probably only know Africa as a disaster zone of epidemic, starvation and genocide. The principal media image Americans hold of African assistance is usually the one of the brave young (white) woman, a nurse or volunteer, holding a helpless black infant, center stage among a group of grateful and admiring Africans in the background.
Of course Africa is nothing like this image at all, and the first step in crossing the divide here is to banish these offensive stereotypes and learn all one can about what Africa is really like. It would be a disservice to the many peoples of the continent to generalize and describe the essence of Africa as though it were a single place. But I would just like to say: Africa is such a joy! Whenever I am in the streets of Conakry or an upcountry village, I am overwhelmed with the pure bandwidth of humanity, of color and vitality and life. So much more than can ever be expressed on even your largest CRT, with even the fastest DSL connection; Africa is the ultimate realization of broadband in culture and diversity, natural and human content. Maybe a virtual, flat-screened reality over the Internet is meaningful in the pitifully dreary cubicle of the US office worker, but Africa is all about face time in real time.
Open-source advocates can be sure that Africans get community; Africans get bazaar. These are concepts intrinsic to the cultures and traditions throughout the continent, where African societies had mastered networking long before the invention of the RJ45 jack. Africans have historically been quite receptive, often at their ultimate peril, to ideas and innovations flowing between cultures and brought in by outsiders. And in general Africa has been early and enthusiastic about adopting new communication technologies, particularly when they are practical and affordable. So in Botswana I was astonished at the number of fax machines per capita ten years ago, and now find a thriving trade in cell phones, both legitimate and black market, in Guinea. On a recent visit to a mosque in the interior of the country, a wizened old muezzin took me up into the minaret specifically to show me their solar-powered amplifier and loudspeaker system, used to call the village to prayers.
As one learns to develop an appreciation of what Africa is really like, it will then help if one can develop a sensitivity to the pitfalls of foreign aid and the havoc such programs have brought to this continent. The subject of other narrations, it is sufficient to observe here that the official assistance programs of foreign governments are usually a foul brew of political hegemony, economic imperialism, cultural ethnocentrism, personal avarice and, too rarely, genuine altruism. Too often the implementation of foreign aid is all about developing market share and spheres of influence, instead of improving lives. Proponents of foreign assistance may even argue that these are synonymous, as though markets for American soft drinks, snack foods and beauty products result in happiness and prosperity for the consumer. The sad fact is, whether intentional or merely consequential, foreign assistance has often had devastating effects on communities, local markets, traditional cultures and environmental conditions throughout Africa.
Finally, it is helpful to bring an honest perspective of one's own history and culture into focus. For example, the United States represents less than 6% of the world's total population and has existed for less than a blink of an eye in the span of all human history. So, what makes us think we've got it right? What evidence is there to suggest this brief record is proof that our way of life and cultural adaptations will be viable in the long run?
For example, it may be surprising to learn that, due to the predations of infectious illness, urban population levels were not even sustainable until about 100 years ago and required steady migration from rural areas. And it was less than 90 years ago, Gina Kolata writes in Flu, when “Ladies Home Journal proudly declared that the parlor, where the dead had been laid out for viewing, was now to be called the living room, a room for the living, not the dead.”
Shortly after this proclamation, a global flu of epidemic proportion—the origin of which is still not understood—killed 1.5 million Americans and 40 million worldwide. This was not in the murky history of the Dark Ages; this was 1918. Today, with the modern plague of HIV/AIDS, the re-emergence of tuberculosis and new mysteries like the relationship of human CJD to Mad Cow Disease, will our mastery of medicine prove all that enduring, even for the world's most fortunate few?
In any case, those who would help others should at least try to learn from past failures and have the humility to ask if the modern model of urbanization, congestion, resource utilization and environmental depletion are sustainable, even desirable, let alone worthy of export to others in the world.
Then we may be able to accept that the Internet may not be the solution to all problems of humankind and have the patience to realize that working through the major challenges in Africa will take time and understanding measured in generations. Now it becomes clear that Linux and open-source developers are helping Africa best by what they have been doing already. People who are programming and installing the world-class, free software at the soul of internet technology are helping others around the world in profound and important ways, no matter what license they are using. GNU and open-source software are the perfect fit for the emerging nations of Africa—as for the rest of the world—not only for the superior technical quality of these systems, but for the values embodied in their development.
The mere existence of Linux and open-source systems give people the chance to use these powerful technologies for low-cost, grassroots level applications, an opportunity not possible just ten years ago. The pages of this magazine have described many of these self-directed success stories, everywhere from Mexico to Pakistan, where Linux solutions enabled people to make the difference. Such examples are to be found among African communities as well, from South Africa to Kenya to Nigeria. And Africans like Katim Touray are using Linux servers to connect other Africans in dialogue around the world.
Beyond the software itself, though, it is the culture of Linux and Open Source communities that provides the model for meaningful outcomes. This is the culture of sharing and empowerment, of the thousands of Linux users' groups throughout the world, of the Linux Documentation Project and the general willingness of one user to selflessly help another. Participating as a Linux user is all about developing crucial skills and passing them on. Often users' groups hold regular installation clinics, giving new users personal, one-on-one support from an enthusiastic peer. And these users' groups are often active in other community projects, such as helping schools install servers and network connectivity, while transferring the skills necessary to maintain them. Each of these connections is essentially more human than technical, linking people together more than their machines, and can lead anywhere. Each of these personal connections sows the seeds of others, and the spread of the Linux bloom is now reaching to every corner of the earth. For example, even though the use of internet technology in Guinea is nascent, Linux certainly preceded my own arrival here. One finds Linux books in French in bookstores and Guineans eager to learn more about this “true” operating system.
And there are other instances of Linux and open source helping to solve problems in Africa. One of the most inspiring and hopeful to me involves no computers at all.
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