Technology and Free Software in Tanzania

mit-2After two months in Tanzania and in the computer education centre I work every day I learnt a lot about the culture of the locals in terms of their viewpoint on information technology. And in the same way I had to accept that my initial mental image of the people’s behaviour was (at least in parts) very wrong. So in this article I try to explain how I see the situation of modern technologies and the usage and understanding of Free Software in the region of Tanzania where I live.

Free Software guarantees the full rights to use, study, share and improve it (but is not necessarily free of gratis). This sounds like something only interesting for IT specialists and nerds. But given the importance of software in our lifes one has to reconsider: Software controls our mobile phones, cars, air planes, heating systems, power plants, bank accounts and medical equipment. The one who controls this software is also the one who controls most parts of our lifes. Questions like „Does all my data belong to someone else?“, „Is my data safe?“ and „Who knows how much about me?“ can only be answered when we start thinking about Free Software. By some people Free Software is also called Open Source. More about Free Software.

Let’s start with a list of what I thought and what’s in fact the reality:

Misconception I

Before I went to Tanzania it was quite clear to me that people here value Free Software quite much. This is because a lot of Free Software is also free of cost. Why should people use Windows, Adobe Photoshop and Microsoft Office when there’s also GNU/Linux, GIMP and LibreOffice/OpenOffice?

Reality I

„Free Software? What is this and can I eat it?“ It’s not that drastical though but the core message remains the same: The broad average population doesn’t know about Free Software and Open Source or even the applications I listed. When I gave a small workshop about GNU/Linux, noone of my students knew about it. But as we installed replacements of popular non-free software like LibreOffice, GIMP or VLC the questions marks in my students‘ heads became almost visible. Although they liked the idea of the whole world working on this software and that it’s for free, they asked me afterwards „…and how can we install Microsoft Frontpage?“. This is the perfect time for misconception 2.

Misconception II

„Free Software is cool“. This is what I and many other people think. It takes power away from single and very large IT-companies to us, the users and small companies. It enables a free and fair market competition and can support our data privacy and civil rights protection in various ways. In western countries I can almost understand that there’re people who mistakenly think that only expensive products by big brands can be quality products. But in Africa? Never ever! The people are quite poor and why shouldn’t they value products which are for free and good?

Reality II

Apart from the fact that many people don’t know about alternatives to popular non-free software, they also cannot believe that something is for free. Many people here have arranged themselves with sharing illegal (and often virus-infested) copies of Windows and Microsoft Office. And especially in the rather „rich“ northern Tanzania, everything is about money. Asking to take a photo of a group of Maasai people in a nice background setting? 2000 Shilling. Somebody escorting you to a place you didn’t find? 500-1000 Shilling.

However, I was able to convince my students that in the case of Free Software most software is really for free in terms of free beer but only after clear up many questions about it. The idea that something so valuable and created by so many people in so many working hours is really for free – almost unbelievable, even for my local co-teachers.

Misconception III

I’ve been tinkering with computers and software since my youth when I reinstalled my operating systems at least once a month and started exploring the internet. I did this because I was interested in technology and wanted to explore its and my limits, but also because even back then I knew that IT will become more and more important and those who don’t understand it will rather be left behind.
I thought in Tanzania it’s a similar situation but somehow easier for the population. I thought that they have very limited technology here but that they know about the importance of computers and software in the industrial countries – and it’s quite obvious that with several years delay they will reach the same level of IT-dependency than we have today. So I thought the people here would care about technology and will try to learn as much as possible about it to improve their career chances and catch up the industrial countries.

Reality III

(Disclaimer here: This is just my personal and at the moment very subjective view) It’s not that the people here are lazy and miss the future. They already have the future and it’s too much for them. Most of the Tanzanians in the city have a smartphone, some even have several. The mobile internet is partly better than in Germany, many companies already heavily depend on computers and I’m asked for my Facebook and WhatsApp contact details almost every day.

The in some way funny thing is that they know all this (modern smartphone apps, newest iPhone’s details) but if they’re asked to download and install an application on their own Windows computer, even my IT-students reach their limits.

Why?

That’s one of the questions I have in my mind every day. Why don’t they know about other software than the most popular (and even not best). Why do they refuse alternatives even if they just benefit their financial and infrastructural situation (no money, old computers, slow internet)? And why don’t they even know the most basic things but enjoy quite modern technologies?

I assume it’s because of the very rapid and overwhelming change that the people here experienced. Before the smartphones they only had very old computers, mostly donated or from the trash bin of the industrial countries. While we already enjoyed internet, they had to linger around with ancient machines. And on these machines there was preinstalled Windows and maybe applications like Photoshop and Microsoft Office. It was almost impossible for them to download OpenOffice or GIMP because landline internet (ISDN, DSL) is very uncommon here.

So they didn’t know about any alternatives and were happy to be able to use at least some applications. And here a second reason kicks in: How to learn to use a software properly? There’re almost no schools who teach usage of computers and their applications. And small companies cannot afford the expenses to train their employees in IT. So the limited supply of technology is further limited by the missing knowledge. As a side note: A volunteer friend of mine here told me that he fascinated his whole working place by showing the people that there’s something like =SUM() in Excel. Before that they wrote down long lists of numbers in Excel but calculated them by hand. It was a micro-finance organisation which lend small amounts of money to communities and single persons…

And then, the smartphones came. And the companies offering mobile internet for affordable rates. People don’t rely on home computers and landline connections anymore but can chat and surf everywhere. They’re given the technology but not the knowledge. Although it works like a charm, many don’t know anything about it or how it works. When one of my students asked me how I learnt about web programming I showed him how to use internet search engines properly. He was stunned the whole day about sources of knowledge like wikibooks.org. And when I told the other student that apps on smartphones are just like programs on classic computers he asked where to find the Google Play Store on his Windows laptop.

Tanzanians are not stupid and they’re not lazy. The students I referred to in this article are keen on learning new things and improving their lifes. However it’s hard to understand for first world people like me how they behave and think about many things. For me many people here are some kind of paralyzed by the rushing modern technologies coming from the industrialised nations without any education about it. So I still try to find a good way to teach my students and co-teachers the importance of computer and software knowledge as well as the benefits of Free Software.

And as another important note: Not all Tanzanians are rather helpless when it comes to IT. I also met people who run very successfull IT businesses and some who know crazy software tricks which let my jaw drop to the ground. They somehow found a way to teach themselves although it’s very hard to do that here. I hope there will be more people of this type in the future. But for this, Tanzania need more and better education, more political support of IT schools, better infrastructure and better future perspectives for workers in IT businesses. Sounds like a harsh roadmap? It is…

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  1. Flo /

    Thanks for this interesting article, Max. For me the key sentence is: „They’re given the technology but not the knowledge.“ I can confirm this from other parts of the world.
    And also there is the thing with the status symbols which are so damn important in many societies. I can imagine that people might even actively reject Free Software just because it doesn’t cost money hence it cannot act as a status symbol.

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