Algorithms in Africa

Maybe the rush to market for spreading internet access across the globe isn't in anyone's best interest—a report from the front.
Vim in Uganda

The emergence and spread of AIDS has been devastating to sub-Saharan Africa. Sure, you are probably tired of hearing about it. For one thing, it is so hard to come to grips with the scale of the problem. In the short time since I left Botswana—when AIDS was just beginning to emerge as an issue there—life expectancy has plummeted, from nearly 60 years to barely 40. It is now estimated that as many as 40% of the adults in Zimbabwe are HIV positive. This has been a debilitating setback to the emerging countries of the region, where public health efforts had previously been making remarkable gains.

The epicenter of AIDS in Africa has been Uganda, which was hit first and perhaps hardest. The government of Uganda is considered to have mounted an effective and ongoing public health campaign for its people, and there is hope that the incidence of HIV/AIDS is decreasing. Nevertheless, the consequences of the disease have been severe. One of the biggest problems is the large numbers of children left without parents. In a society where children are traditionally treasured and raised with the supportive assistance of extended families, there are simply too few adults left to care for growing numbers of orphans.

Bram Moolenaar is the author of Vim, one of the most popular open-source text editors, with ports available for just about any platform in existence. Bram had already started Vim when he first went to Uganda in 1994, volunteering to work as a water and sanitation engineer for the Kibaale Children's Centre (KCC).

The center, located in a rural village of southern Uganda, provides food, medical care and education to about 600 children, most of whom have been orphaned by AIDS. The conditions are austere: one book for ten children, a tiny blackboard and a roof with holes.

Bram found that his skills could help at Kibaale, his help made a difference. After a year spent working with the Centre, he wanted to find ways he could continue helping the project while also letting other people know of its existence.

That's when Bram hit on the idea of “charityware” for Vim. The license for Vim says simply: “Vim is Charityware. You can use and copy it as much as you like, but you are encouraged to make a donation to orphans in Uganda. Please read the file doc/uganda.txt for details.”

While using Vim, type :help uganda to get the complete text of the license and a description of the Kibaale Children's Centre.

Beyond this, though, Bram is fairly modest about the project. Although he asks for copies of CD distributions that include Vim, he doesn't appeal to distribution vendors directly for any additional financial support. Bram prefers to remain low key rather than risk annoying people and turning them away from supporting the Uganda project.

Knowing that Linux distributions in use are now in the billions, one may wonder how successful the charityware license has been as a fund-raising method for the Centre. Vim users are asked to make contributions to the International Child Care Fund that Bram and his colleagues have set up specifically to support the KCC project, and the ICCF web site provides annual financial reports. For 1999, donation income totaled about $7,000 US (17,800 Dutch Guilders), up from about $3,500 US in 1998.

These figures may seem rather underwhelming and suggest that the conscience of open-source users and vendors is not as evolved as one may like to think. But the bottom line for Bram is, even at such a modest level, these contributions make a huge difference in what the KCC can accomplish. The funds raised by Vim donors are used to keep the Centre running, maintain and improve the facilities and recently purchased rainwater tanks so that more people have access to clean water.

Bram continues his personal involvement with Kibaale to this day, having made return trips in 1996, 1998 and 2000. This experience gives Bram a thorough grounding in the realities of life in Africa, as well as an understanding of the means of effecting meaningful change. When I asked for his opinions about the digital divide, he said, “I'm afraid I don't know what the digital divide is. Is it about bringing computer-related stuff to Third World countries? Well, the area around Kibaale first needs a good water supply and a phone.”

When asked if he could give any suggestions to those interested in projects supportive of African information technology, Bram replied, “The best suggestion I can make is to work in small groups. A hundred small projects bring more benefit than one project that's a hundred times bigger. The strategy and planning done by people in head offices is a waste of time and money.” The message here is that the strength of any bridge depends upon its integrity.

In the end, Bram is doing what the Open Source movement has been all about from the beginning: working with personal conviction, making a difference where one can and sharing the work one loves with others. These are the ideals of a world seeking connections, the values that can link Linux and the Internet with an orphanage in Uganda. The human connections of these efforts empower people, improve lives and build the solid bridges of understanding among diverse global communities, digital and otherwise.


Wayne Marshall ( is a UNIX programmer and technical consultant living in Guinea, West Africa.



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Re: Algorithms in Africa

Anonymous's picture

its stupid

Re: Algorithms in Africa

Anonymous's picture

Mr. Marshall:

I am moved by your article. You have made some valid points, often times people of developed countries think that what those of developing countries need is advance IT and related services. When it actual fact this is not so.

What I think they must remember, is that, development is a process and there are certain key elements that are fundamental to this process:
1. basic fundamental education
2. sustainability.
3. Consistence
4. Vision.

Without these development will never happen. Countries of the developed world started out with these principles. I think it would be extremely difficult to go around these fundamental priniciples to acheived the coveted prized to be called "a developed country".


Re: Algorithms in Africa

Anonymous's picture

Inspiring story. As a linux tech installing servers in Africa, Asia and Latin America to support our international development organisation, i found this well worth the read. My job is to connect all our local offices to our emailsystem.

Though we install linuxservers as firewalls and mail servers, we do the maintenance ourselves. For local LAN's we always advise to choose something that can be supported locally, rather than something we fancy and like, though we are working on a simple manual for local administrators, and suggesting simple windowsconfigurations for which we can offer support. Furthermore, we are encouraging contacts between administrators in the regions we operate in. This is mainly determined by language (i.e. french in West Africa).

So, while we feel that open source is more in the spirit of our core "business", development, than proprietary software, and we are certainly encouraging the use of it (I always leave plenty CD's for the local administrators to play with), we also run into the fact that local support for its use is not always available, making it quite impossible to install it on a larger scale than we do now. Like you state in your example, there's nothing good about installing systems that can't be "repaired" if you're not around while at the same time making people dependent on them.

Being a techie that chose to work in the international development field rather than the fast telecom/ict sector, I'll install linux wherever I can. But not at all costs.

Cathelijne Hornstra

International ICT & Datacom

Re: Algorithms in Africa

Anonymous's picture

I do agree with you....i think people are in need of basic needs than computers

Re: Algorithms in Africa

Anonymous's picture

Absolutely inspiring.

Found this article through another paper I'd read by Alan Story (Law Dept., Kent University, UK) which was a report to the UK CIPR (Commission on Intellectual Property Rights)[<B> study_papers/sp5_story_study.pdf</B>] in which it is extensively quoted.

Thank you for helping me understand a little more.


Re: Algorithms in Africa

Anonymous's picture

Wayne ,

I am so delighted and thankful for your article. Though a native of Burundi (Central Africa) , I have learned so much from you than in my many years growing up in Africa .

Assuming that we now know what has gone wrong with Africa , why is it that we can not scale up the efforts from best practices to the whole african continent ? What is it standing in the way for a sustainable progress ?

Jean B Manirakiza

Washington D.C

Re: Algorithms in Africa

Anonymous's picture

Money I'd imagine?