Embracing Africa: Ubuntu and Ubuntu
The word ubuntu has a variety of different meanings; respect, community, sharing, unselfishness are just some of them. In the computer world, the word is also the name of a type of operating system that runs on free and open source software, which might have the power to help Africa make the “technology leap” that is so essential to its success in the future. Ubuntu, a Linux operating system distribution, adheres to and embraces these ideals of the African word, and that is what sets it apart among the many Linux distributions that exist, and makes it the most popular. Ubuntu has the potential to help countries in Africa not only by supplying free and open source software, but by helping to overcome the language divide, as a free and legal means to eliminate Internet software piracy, and as an alternative to Microsoft Windows; the operating system has already proved to be a great tool, demonstrated by the project One Laptop Per Child, which uses an open-source derivative similar to Ubuntu to power low-cost laptops for children around the world.
The word ubuntu is derived from the Bantu language, which is spoken in southern Africa (Coughlin 1). It is also a word close to the heart of Nelson Mandela, the first democratically-elected President of South Africa. He explains in a video posted in the “Ubuntu Blog” in June of 2006 that the word has multiple meanings (“Meaning” 1). He gives the example of some travelers who arrive in a village and the people there bring food for the travelers without even having to be asked (1). He says that this is:
one aspect of ubuntu. But there are various aspects. Ubuntu does not mean that people should not address themselves. The question, therefore, is: Are you going to do so in order to enable the community around you to improve? These are the important things in life. And if one can do that, then that’s something very important to be appreciated. (1)
This message is central to the philosophy of the operating system and those who are involved with it, and this ideology is what sets Ubuntu apart in a world of different Linux distributions. Dennis Brutus, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, author of 12 books of poetry and recipient of various poetry awards, and whose work was also banned in South Africa, writes that it is through oral history that “we learn how Mandela’s mission to gain ubuntu (humanity) for all South Africans began in the days of his rural childhood” (Brutus 144). So the concept of ubuntu, humanity, is at the core of Mandela’s beliefs and his philosophy for Africa.
Ubuntu, in addition to being an ideology central to African community and culture, is a type of free and open source software (FOSS), which means that using it, in any form, is free, and redistributing it is also free; people anywhere, at any time, can download the operating system and use it. Ubuntu is released under the General Public License (GPL), which states what it believes as the four freedoms every user should have, which are the following:
· the freedom to use the software for any purpose,
· the freedom to share the software with your friends and neighbors,
· the freedom to change the software to suit your needs, and
· the freedom to share the changes you make. (Smith, 1)
Most importantly, the GPL states: “Nobody should be restricted by the software they use” (1). When software, like Ubuntu, follows these four freedoms, it is called free software. Brett Smith is the author of “A Quick Guide to GPLv3,” and a Free Software hacker, writer and speaker for the GNU Project, which was launched in 1984 to develop a free, Unix-like operating system. Smith writes in the online guide to the GPL, regarding software, that:
you should be free to redistribute copies, either with or without modifications, either gratis or charging a fee for distribution, to anyone anywhere. Being free to do these things means (among other things) that you do not have to ask or pay for permission. (1)
To really understand the concept of free software and the GPL, according to Smith, “you should think of free as in free speech, not as in free beer” (1). Every user has a right to use software; it is a matter of “liberty, not price” (1). As such, no one should not be able to afford to use software, and this is why Ubuntu is free, and its licensing guarantees that freedom. Oddly enough, the entire GNU.org webpage can be translated into a plethora of different languages, one of which is Afrikaans. Ubuntu is only one in a long and diverse chain of other and older operating systems that all agree on these principles of freedom.
Unlike Microsoft Windows, Ubuntu doesn’t charge money for its use and never will, saving hundreds of dollars per user. This could be especially important in African countries, where there is painstakingly little money to be spared on technology or computers. Christopher May, a professor at County College South, Lancaster University, in Lancaster, England, writes that the “most obvious reason for Africans to consider the option of open-source software is cost: countries in sub-Saharan Africa currently pay around US$24 billion each year to (mainly US-based) software companies to secure the use of proprietary products” (May 123). But running Ubuntu would eliminate those costs. This kind of free availability to computers could be a factor in the “technology gap” that African countries are facing in a world of interconnectedness among other countries. Ubuntu and FOSS could help these countries make the “technology leap” that they need. In February of 2005, there was a meeting among the leaders of African countries in Ghana to come to some sort of agreement about their technology needs in the future. The meeting was a preparation for a later convention, the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), a United Nations Summit that was set up in two phases: the first, to “foster a clear statement of political will and take concrete steps to establish the foundations for an Information Society for all, reflecting all the different interests at stake”; and the second, which was primarily to “reach agreements in the fields of Internet governance” (“World” 1). The first phase took place in Geneva, and the second in Tunis. The Summit had more than 11,000 participants from 175 countries (1). According to Dr. Gado Alzouma, a postdoctoral fellow in the Global Media Research Center of Southern Illinois University:
For a number of these participants, the Information Society is unquestionably perceived as a chance for Africa, a chance to blend into a world of economic opportunities and social well-being. They think that information and communication technologies (ICTs) are the instruments through which the growing marginalization of Africa can be tackled. (Alzouma 339-340)
According to Alzouma, there are many perceived benefits of opening up Africa to computing and technology, but he isn’t convinced that the world of computers will be the panacea to all of Africa’s problems. He writes that, with regards to ICTs, “it is not the first time that grandiose hopes of leapfrogging development have been attached to a new technology” (340). May agrees: “Although the deployment of ICTs may have specific advantages in certain areas, this is different from the general panacea sometimes presented. Computerisation is seldom, if ever, the most pressing developmental priority: health, welfare and education are much more serious problems” (May 127). However, if African countries or Africa as a whole could be helped developmentally by opening up to technology and being able to participate in the world of online economic activities, there is no doubt that Ubuntu can bring that type of technology to more people. So while Ubuntu may not solve the crisis of health and welfare, it certainly offers a partial solution to the problem of technology in African countries. And while technology alone will not fix all of the problems facing African countries, closing the “technology gap” between these and other countries is just one way that African ones can begin to connect to the rest of the world.
Another problem facing Africa as a whole, and even African countries individually, in the digital age is language. The majority of the information on the Internet is written in English or European languages (345). The Regional Conference of Africa, which took place in Bamako in May of 2002:
insisted in its conclusions on the need for Africa to address the economic, technological and political aspects of the use of African languages on the internet (production and maintenance of websites in African languages, training of African data-processing specialists, etc.). In this context, software in African languages, automatic-translation software, online dictionaries for African languages, African-language tablets and graphics, and multilingual internet names have been created and are managed by dozens of projects. (345)
Part of Ubuntu’s appeal is that it can be re-written and repackaged for free, allowing users to translate it from one language into another, say from English to Afrikaans. Unlike a product from Microsoft, which would cost users money, Ubuntu is free and translating it into another language is completely legal. Stephen M. Mutula, author of several articles on Africa, writes that it is important for governments to help subsidize the cost of computers and technology education in schools (Mutula 494). Additionally, he believes:
governments in Africa should be vigorously lobbied to waive duty and other taxes on computer software and hardware to make them more affordable and accessible to the schools. Similarly, governments could offer rebates and subsidies to educational institutions to acquire ICTs. (494)
What Mutula is basically suggesting is that governments should lobby against paying taxes and fees on software and hardware, but governments – or anyone else – can already use computers and software for free using Ubuntu and the repository of programs that comes with it – all of which is also free and open source. This repository of software that comes with Ubuntu is not amateurish or somehow less useful than any software buyable from Microsoft. According to James R. Hood, Founder and CEO of ConsumerReports.com and a veteran journalist, in a glowingly positive article he wrote about Ubuntu:
Today, Linux and other UNIX systems power most of the Web servers that keep the Internet running. And there’s really no reason they don’t power the world’s desktops and laptops, except that Microsoft has sold the world on the notion that you have to pay for software, then pay some more to keep it updated. … Make no mistake — there’s nothing amateurish or low-grade about Ubuntu or most other open-source software. In fact, because it’s open source, it’s constantly being improved, unlike Microsoft and Apple’s operating systems which are upgraded rarely and then for reasons having more to do with damage control and corporate profit than anything else. (Hood 2-3)
Ubuntu is not a crutch for third-world computing; it is not a less-powerful operating system than Windows; it is not, in some way, defective or incomplete because it is free. So Mutula, who was advocating that African governments lobby for tax-free software, is basically arguing the benefits of Ubuntu and FOSS without even knowing it; and the benefits of using Ubuntu would be exactly the same as using software that cost money. Mutula later concludes that a basis of framework in Africa must be established, and there is a long list of other problems that need to be addressed to enhance Internet uptake and usage, such as the “[r]eduction of tariffs, modernization of bandwidth, use of open software to overcome the language divide, the problem of IT illiteracy, marketing strategies to create awareness and imbalances in the telecommunication infrastructure between urban and rural areas” (Mutula 496). But, Mutula ultimately concludes that by “stimulating Internet growth and uptake” and providing good technological infrastructure could help Africa “leapfrog into the information age” (495).
In the ongoing debate between Ubuntu and Microsoft operating systems, some people already realize why Ubuntu, or any Linux distribution, gives African countries an advantage. In a Wired article written in November of 2000, Nick Wachira, the Managing Editor of the newspaper Business Daily in Nairobi, gives some startling figures about the expenses that a Windows-user would incur in Kenya:
the Windows operating system costs around US$100 and the Windows Office Suite applications may cost as much as US$800 in Kenya. In a continent where the average annual per capita income is less than US$250, proprietary software — with its accompanying licensing difficulties — is a major drawback for would-be Windows users. (Wachira 1)
Wachira writes about Githogori wa Nyangara-Murage, a man who holds free computer classes for the public in his office. Githogori, “a former software researcher at the Xerox Research Center, is preaching the gospel of Linux. He’s convinced that the free software model is the only way for Africa to ever leapfrog its status as an underdeveloped continent” (1). His mission to spread Linux to Africa involves “the explosive politics of proprietary versus free, open-source software. In Africa, even with its few computers, this debate is now boiling down to a clash between Microsoft Windows (MSFT) and Linux OS” (1). The expensive cost of Microsoft fuels software piracy in Africa, a topic that is starting to cause international concern, for reasons such as a 90% piracy rate in countries like Zimbabwe (Business 1). One problem that Ubuntu faces in Africa is that Microsoft is already pretty established as the operating system of choice for businesses. “The reason why Linux has not caught up so fast is because most big companies operate on group-wide IT platforms built on Microsoft NT,” Sam Nganga, a technology columnist, says (1). He says Microsoft is “relatively entrenched” (1). However, big “businesses are also growing curious about using Linux in Kenya, with giants such as Kenya Airways and Kenya Power & Lighting already evaluating its merits” (2). And as of the year 2000, the Linux User Project, an online counter of the number of registered Linux users, rates South Africa as having the 24th-largest user base in the world, according to Wachira (1) – Kenya, Algeria, Egypt and Botswana are trailing behind. There are several registered users, even in the most remote parts of the continent (1), so the merits of Ubuntu and Linux are a reality to Africans, all across Africa; users are already experiencing some form of Linux. But, according to Nganga, “once businesses get to trust the Linux platform, it will catch on like bush fire” (1).
One great example of how open source projects like Ubuntu is already helping Africa and children around the world is the One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project. OLPC’s goal is to “provide children around the world with new opportunities to explore, experiment, and express themselves” (“One” 1). The project, nicknamed XO, uses free and open source software to provide children with the opportunity to change anything and everything about the machine. The reason that they chose to use free and open source software, according to the website, is that:
While we do not expect every child to become a programmer, we do not want any ceiling imposed on those children who choose to modify their machines. We are using open-document formats for much the same reason: transparency is empowering. The children—and their teachers—will have the freedom to reshape, reinvent, and reapply their software, hardware, and content. (1)
The website contains stories about children sleeping with their laptops because they treasure them so much. “The laptop gives learners opportunities they have not had before. Tools such as a Web browser, rich media player, and e-book reader bring into reach domains of knowledge that are otherwise difficult-or impossible-for children to access” (1). Part of what makes these laptops so affordable is the fact that they use free and open software. Without a functional but free operating system, the laptop never could have been cheap enough to give away to children who wouldn’t have access to a computer any other way. The purpose of educating these children is at the heart of this project, and Linux and FOSS is a part of that education and enabling process. One section of the website features the children who have received laptops playing with their green, technological toys; all have the serious look of study on their faces as they share information with each other.
Ubuntu, a word for community and humanity derived from the Bantu language spoken in southern Africa, is epitomized by the Linux distribution of the same name; the operating system is an open source project, which means that it contributes freely to the community for the betterment of society as a whole. Nelson Mandela himself believed firmly in finding ubuntu for South Africans, and adhered to the ideology of the word in leading his country. In the present day, one of the best ways for Africans to improve their circumstances, and certainly their understanding and use of technology, is with the introduction of Ubuntu; the operating system could help countries make the “technology leap” that would put them on the same technological foundation as other, developed countries. Because Ubuntu is available as a free alternative to Microsoft Windows, and is just as powerful and effective, just as safe and complete, Ubuntu is an obvious and simple way for anyone in Africa to become acquainted with computer technology. Ubuntu also offers a great alternative for businesses and users who already pay too much money for Windows, or who can’t afford it at all; Ubuntu is also a great solution to software piracy. Many users in Africa who already use Ubuntu advocate its use, and even predict its popularity in the future. Because Ubuntu is free and legal to change and redistribute, it offers a great solution of the problem of the language divide on the Internet; much of the Internet is written in English or European languages, and not languages that Africans would be able to understand, but using free and open source software fixes that problem by making software in the desired language available freely to anyone who would need it. While there are still problems of Internet infrastructure for African countries to discern and standardize, Ubuntu could be the tool that helps these countries finally leapfrog into the future. Free and open source software has already penetrated the market for educating children around the world, not just in Africa, as part of the project One Child Per Laptop. The project, which aims to educate those who could otherwise not be educated due to the socio-economics of their countries, uses an open source derivative to keep the cost of the laptop down. To date, there have been no problems with the operating system; children and teachers alike are even encouraged to make changes to the computer if they feel so inclined by modifying the source code. With so many great attributes – free, infinitely customizable in any language, redistributable, an alternative to both Windows and software piracy, and easy to use, even by children – Ubuntu is sure to help and embrace the ubuntu of Africa in the future.
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 Nganga here is referring to the Microsoft NT architecture, which is still widely in use today, though the article was written in 2000. Microsoft NT architecture includes Windows 2000, Windows XP and Windows Server 2003 (Thurrott 4-5).