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June 26, 2006

Ubuntu in Ethiopia: The difficult early years

750px-Ubuntu606.pngIt's 5.30 in the morning. My eyes are glazed over. I am mistyping every second word. And I've got one of those mind-melting, tinitus-powered headaches coming on.

The reason? I have decided to take my first steps away from Windows and into the brave new world of Ubuntu.

Ubuntu is one of the sexier versions of Linux - the open source challenger to Microsoft's ubiquitous Windows computer operating system. (It is also the name of a community-based philosophy seen as one of the founding principles of the new South Africa – read more here).

While I was browsing around six months ago, I noticed that Ubuntu's backers were offering to send free installation CDs out to anyone who wanted them. I filled in the form using my mother-in-law's UK address and forgot all about it.

Last week a friend flew in with a big fat brown envelope filled with all the bills that we haven't been paying in the UK and a package of discs for the second-most-recent version of Ubuntu, code-named Breezy Badger.

I got out our No 2 laptop - a cranky Dell Inspiron 8000 - and put in one of the CDs. After about half an hour working out how to boot a computer from a CD (sorry, this is going to be painful reading for any true geeks out there), it all started working.

There are lots of reasons why this seemed like a good idea at the time.

First of all, you just have to love Ubuntu itself. It is free. It is multi-lingual. It is backed by Mark Shuttleworth, the Afronaut, the first African in space. It has recruited an army of volunteer hackers who spend hours typing out patient emails and forum postings to any newbie who contacts them. It comes with very cool screensavers and desktop wallpapers (see pic). It is African. (Well, kind of. The company that promotes it Canonical Ltd is actually registered in the Isle of Man.)

There was another big reason why I wanted to give it a try. I have lost count of the times I have heard tech commentators say that open-source software is the future for Africa. The argument goes something like this:

Microsoft's Windows operating system is big and bloated and Western and evil and, worst of all, very, very expensive. It ties you down with proprietary software packages and file formats and forced upgrades. And, despite all the language packs on offer, it works best of all in English.

Open source software is compact and good and multi-cultural and open. Best of all it is very, very cheap - i.e. it is free - an ideal price point for a country like Ethiopia. (The computers that run it remain expensive but, thanks to the savings from open source operating systems, even that is changing.)

African countries, which are now in the process of building out their IT systems, can now start afresh and install open source software everywhere it works. These countries now have a unique chance to leapfrog over the misguided age of proprietary software in the same way that they have already largely leapfrogged over the clogged-up age fixed line telephony into the world of mobile phones.

That is a theory that I wanted to test. One simple way to do that was to see what it was like living with Linux in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia.

So the installation went surprisingly well. There were four or five easily-understood questions and, no more than 20 minutes later, my detested Windows ME welcome screen was gone for good. In its place was a minimalist plain brown desktop.

This is the first great thing about switching to Linux - an end to clutter. No more QuickTime forcing itself into your startup menu. No more of those pre-installed first-six-months-subscription-free packages that Dell loves to force on to its valued customers. Just a plain brown screen which you can actually use as a desktop - a place to leave those few documents that you are currently working on.

There are lots of other great things about Linux. There is the almost total lack of spyware, worms and viruses. There is the universe of free software waiting for you to download. There is the volunteer spirit of the whole Linux community. As a wannabe geek, I even enjoyed the control and responsibility of using the command line interface.

So, why am I sitting here with the headache and the blurry vision and the clumsy fingers? It is because I have hit a brick wall.

There is one thing that the bright-eyed fans of Ubuntu and its kind never tell you. That is that if you install it on to an old Windows machine in a country where dial-up internet connections are still the only way – then you are in for a rough, rough ride.

Ubuntu, you see, doesn't like winmodems - the modem systems installed as standard in most commercially available PCs sold with a Window operating system (ie almost all of them). Minutes after my wonderfully easy install, I found I had no way of connecting to the internet.

If that Dell Inspiron had been our only computer, that would have been it. We would have been left with a beautifully brown laptop with no one to talk to. Because we are in the highly unusual position of owning two laptops, I was able to log on via Windows through our No 1 machine to try and Google around for a solution.

There is a solution. It involves the downloading of what they called a Linmodem - here are the full instructions - a piece of software that will force your Winmodem and your Ubuntu system to get along. I followed those instructions. And after three long nights of installing and re-installing and tweaking and swapping messages with very nice volunteers on Linux user forums - I still can't connect to the internet.

Screenshot.gifMy new Ubuntu PC is managing to reach out and touch something. When I set the new Linmodem running, messages start popping up in the console, including a version of Ethiopian Telecoms' logo (see pic). But it is steadfastly refusing to accept my username and password.

Sorry to go on like this. And I know everyone has stopped reading this by now. But you wouldn't believe the frustration.

It is worth repeating that I have only got this far because I own a second computer - an almost unheard of luxury in Addis. it is also worth pointing out that without an internet connection, I can not start downloading updates to fill a few other vital holes in the basic Ubuntu system (for legal reasons, the basic version of Ubuntu can not run DVDs or play MP3s).

It is enough to make me wonder whether Ubuntu really is a viable alternative to Windows in its present state in dial-up countries across Africa like Ethiopia. I am not the first to wonder that. Here is a passionate plea for built-in winmodem support from a computer user "outside the USA":

I would like to remind developers that people outside USA (especially the "third world" -sic-) actually use modems (dialup) to connect to net. We provide them free operating systems, which will not work with their modems and force them to purchase over-priced high-speed internet, or a serial modem, which is kind of expensive abroad (any electronics is expensive for that matter). that, they won't do it, so they'll switch back to what ever they had before (we know what that is), probably leaving ubuntu with wasted shipping costs...

We are providing good language support. why not provide network support (out of box) that they (we) will use as well? Wouldn't linmodems.org people wanna work with you on this? Wouldn't ubuntu be slashdotted as the first out-of-the-box winmodem supporting distro?

This isn't supposed to be a Ubuntu-sucks post. When it comes to Linux and open source software, I really want to believe. But I can only keep trying for so long.

Posted by aheavens at 3:57 PM

A tale of two cables

Read these two articles if you want to know why Africa's internet connections have been so ropey and expensive in the past – and why they are likely to remain so ropey and expensive in the future.

A peaceful EASSy feeling - by Ethan Zuckerman of My Heart's in Accra.

Just say No to EASSy - by Ronald Alden of www.ralden.com.

The enemies of the piece – no surprise here – are the continent's own telecoms monopolies.

"20+ parastatial telecommunication bureaucracies [have], through gross levels of corruption and managerial incompetence, wasted the entire 20th century bringing telecommunications in Africa to the dismal state it is in today" - Ronald Alden

Apparently there are now signs of hope that the planned East African Submarine cable System (EASSy), designed to bring cheaper broadband up the entire coast of east Africa, is going to operate under an open access model – giving smaller internet suppliers a chance against the big guys.

Here is a report on this possible advance in Kampala's The Monitor. I love the way it tells the story, then misses the entire point of its own report by blaming Western telecoms companies rather than the cartels operating in its own back yard.

Currently the region's international traffic is routed through transmission infrastructures like space satellites and servers, which are all situated in and owned by the West.

That has meant that companies here have to pay transit charges to Western technological giants who own those facilities, which translates into exorbitant communication costs here.

Of course, the only reason that African web users resort to using foreign satellite connections is because the connections offered by home grown providers are so bad. (Check this comparison of broadband prices offered by one "technology giant" in the West and the state monopoly Ethiopian Telecoms.)

Posted by aheavens at 1:21 PM

And another one's gone

The Sub-Saharan Informer was missing from the news-stands in Addis Ababa this weekend.

The English-language, Addis-based newspaper hadn't sold out. It never came out.

Its staff spent all Thursday night laying out the latest edition. But when they delivered everything to the printers, they hit a brick wall. The printers told the paper they had had a phone call from the Ministry of Information telling them not to start the presses. They said the Ministry told them it had temporarily withdrawn the paper's license.

This is the latest stage in a long and convoluted tale.

Back in April, this site reported that the Sub-Saharan Informer had been thrown out of its offices in the Bulgarian Embassy. Here are more details on the tangled reasons behind that decision.

The paper spent the next month or so searching the city for affordable office space. It finally settled on a place in a brand new office block opposite the Dembel Centre just off Bole Road.

The paper has now been told that it failed to inform the Ministry of its change of address officially. (The paper insists it did inform the Ministry). As a result, its license has been revoked.

No one at the paper knows whether this is a final revocation, or just a temporary blip that will be resolved with a quick exchange of paperwork. No one knows why they weren't told of the decision before they went to all the time and expense of writing and laying out an entire edition. We will have to wait and see what happens next.

In the meantime we will just have to make do with the three surviving English-language papers that are still worth reading – The Reporter and the business titles Capital and Fortune. (In case anyone is interested, there is still no sign of the bulk of the country's blogs.)

Posted by aheavens at 10:23 AM

June 15, 2006

Addis Aba-ba-ba-ba

Urael has just had a little dig about the relative lack of politics on this blog:

After the crackdown of the local press the content of this blog [Meskel Square] tended to be more human interest and less reporting about what is going on in politics and human rights issues.

It is the latest is a line of similar complaints. I'm afraid this isn't going to make him/her any happier.

I was listening to The Stone Roses' second album The Second Coming the other day and came across what must be the best reference to Ethiopia's not-so-sunny capital in popular song.


From New York City
To Addis Aba-ba-ba-ba
Keep on keeping strong
Keep on keeping on

You could see it as some sort of diaspora political rallying cry if you really wanted to.

Can anyone out there think of a better musical name check?

Posted by aheavens at 7:57 AM

June 14, 2006

Tales of charm and beauty

clayton.jpgJonathan Clayton, Africa correspondent for The Times (of London), has started a blog - African Safari.

It its first entry, he promises to balance out the doom and gloom news stories that traditionally come out of the continent with:

tales of another Africa – one of great charm and beauty full of remarkable people battling enormous challenges with great fortitude… and may be if I am lucky I can put across its other great magic ingredient – happiness.

Should be a good read.

Posted by aheavens at 9:07 AM

June 12, 2006

Spare us

Yesterday's Capital had a strongly-worded comment piece about online censorship.

Let there be a free cyberspace!

Dear internet gods, spare us the relentless advertising, the vulgar chatrooms and child pornography sites. Spare us the deviant lies and half-truths by racists and tribalists who use cyberspace to say things that they do not have the guts to say in public. Spare us also from governments like China's, which lulls its people with shallow economic gains but clamps down on dissidents even on the internet.

Most importantly, we can do without the hypocrisy of Google and Yahoo who have effectively compromised the sovereignty of the internet by cutting a censorship deal with the Chinese.

All that is missing is a reference to blogs and link-spam.

Posted by aheavens at 2:50 PM

Football in the classroom

Now this really is a good idea.

All World Cup football matches are to be shown on thousands of TV plasma screens installed in schools across Ethiopia.

I first wrote about these screens in January 2005 when I came across them in a classroom in SNNPR. More than 50 children were crammed into the room, getting a trigonometry lesson from a teacher speaking through the screen from a TV studio somewhere in Addis Ababa.

There has been some controversy over the introduction of this kind of remote learning in Ethiopia. Many teachers have been nick-named 'DJs' by their pupils - reflecting their reduced roles turning television sets on and off at the right times to catch scheduled lessons. There have also been worries about students struggling to keep up with the English used in many of the lessons.

But there will be no complaints about this. As Fortune reported:

The Education Media Agency (EMA) has approved the screening of the 18th World Cup at 450 schools across the country that have plasma screen televisions.

The screens have been prepared for this purpose by the joint efforts of experts from the Ethiopian Radio and Television Enterprise, the Ethiopian Telecommunications Corporation and Ethiopian Television...

The EMA has 8,000 plasma screens that have been set up in 450 schools across the country. The Ethiopian government purchased plasma televisions as a cost of a quarter of a billion Birr with the intention of conducting uniform courses at schools throughout the country.

Posted by aheavens at 1:51 PM

Ethiopian community in Japan "reorganized"

Is there anyone out there who can explain what this means:

Ethiopian community in Japan reorganized - The Ethiopian Herald 12 June

Addis Ababa - The Ethiopian community in Japan was reorganized, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs quoted the Ethiopian Embassy in Japan.

In its statement sent to ENA [the Ethiopian News Agency] Friday, the ministry said the Ethiopian Community in Japan has been reorganized in connection with the 15th anniversary of the May 28 victory.

Are they now all being forced to stand in alphabetical order? Or by height?

Posted by aheavens at 1:32 PM

June 10, 2006

Anyone got a spare $63,000?

D4747438x.jpgIf you have you could help save some cultural treasures for the nation.

Christie's is planning to auction off four beautiful 17th century Ethiopian manuscripts on June 27-28 in New York. Here are some more details on Lots 82-85.

There is lots of information on the items themselves. It is nice to know, for example, that the main piece, the 'HYMNS ACCOMPANYING THE MIRACLES OF MARY AND OTHER MARIAN TEXTS, in Ge'ez, DECORATED MANUSCRIPT ON VELLUM' (see pic), is:

a particularly fine example of the style of manuscript painting of the First Gondarene Period, which flourished from c.1660 to the beginning of the 18th century. It is typified by the placing of figures, usually finely drawn and coloured (predominantly in red, yellow and some green) against an uncoloured, neutral background. Painters from Gondar itself also worked at monasteries in the adjacent countryside, including at Gorgora on the shore of Lake Tana.

This is a rare example of a manuscript which contains paintings accompanying the hymns, rather than the Miracles of Mary themselves.

What these catalogue entries are always a little hazy about is how these manuscripts got out of Ethiopia and on to an New York auction stand in the first place. The export of cultural treasures is now strictly banned. Before the ban, manuscripts like these were generally 'acquired' by a string of light-fingered explorers and adventurers.

Now, the only time Ethiopians themselves get a chance to have a look at these treasures is when they briefly pass through the web pages of auctioneers like Christie's. I've often thought it would be a good idea to keep track of these websites, grab the photos and descriptions as they appear, and build up a kind of virtual museum of missing manuscripts.

If anyone would like to help build up an actual collection of missing manuscripts back in Ethiopia, the Institute of Ethiopian Studies would be welcome any donations.

Posted by aheavens at 7:19 AM

Shining shoes to go to school

shoe shine girl 1Meskerem Geremew knew she had to get an education. So the 12-year-old girl from Ethiopia's bustling capital, Addis Ababa, decided to take action.

First she got hold of some rags and a cracked water container and set herself up as one of the city's only shoeshine girls, holding her own against hundreds of competing shoeshine boys. Then she started saving, splitting her earnings between her mother and a special school-savings pot.

On weekends and evenings after classes, Meskerem shines shoes for up to 1 birr (11 cents) a pair. On a good day, she can earn as much as 10 birr ($1.15). Half of that goes to buy food and other provisions for her family. The rest of her earnings are put toward school fees and related costs – 15 birr a month, or 154 birr for the whole year.

Read more on www.unicef.org

Posted by aheavens at 7:07 AM

June 9, 2006

Mourning families to sue government

victimejuin2Families of people killed during last year's post-election violence in Ethiopia are to sue the government for compensation.

Relatives of 42 of the dead announced their plan during an emotional memorial event held in a house in the Bethel area of the capital Addis Ababa last night.

The event was organised by Wubalem Tadissa whose 15-year-old son was killed on his way home from school on June 8, 2005 when armed police clashed with protesters.

She said she found out he had been shot when his name was read out on television three days after he disappeared.

"I can't express my sorrow about when I lost my son," she added "He was a decent, intelligent boy and his teachers and everyone who knew him loved him and I can't really express my sorrow."

Mourning relatives held up pictures of the dead and lit candles in their memory. They said they plan to consult lawyers on Monday. They also called for the introduction of an annual day of peace in Ethiopia to remember everyone who died.

memorialThe government said it regretted the deaths that took place during protests over alleged irregularities during the May 15 general elections. But it blamed opposition supporters for starting the violence. An investigation into the events that led up to the deaths is due to publish its findings in July.

Mujabasi Raj was five months pregnant when her husband was killed on his way to work.

Her baby named Metasabia, which means memory, is now six months old.

"I lost my husband and his name was Fekada Nagash and he was 25 years old," she said.

"He was killed on the way to work which was far away from where we lived. We lived in a kebele or council house but now we have been forced to move out by the landlord.

"I don't have anything to raise my son because her husband was the one with a job."

Posted by aheavens at 3:23 PM

June 7, 2006

A year ago today

ethio protest 6A year ago today, it was all about the students in Addis Ababa's other colleges and universities.

Mid morning a friend called to say he had just driven past some sort of trouble brewing at Tegbareed Industrial College on the Mexico roundabout. On the way to the roundabout, we passed a technical-style open vehicle with Special Forces manning what looked like a mounted machine gun in the back. As we came round the corner from Mexico, pedestrians came running towards us, away from the federal police gathering outside the main gates.

Closer in, it was a chaotic scene. A handful of commuters huddled in a bus stop right outside the college gates. Students walked out of the college compound in small groups, crossing the road and stopping to watch what was going on. Federal police milled around in their now familiar riot gear.

The accounts we got were conflicting. Some of the onlookers claimed police had arrived early in the morning to arrest a handful of students – an action which provoked angry protests from inside the compound. One of the police said they had had to come in after students started throwing stones.

After twenty minutes, young men started to crowd together just down the hill from the gates and started waving their arms and shouting slogans. It was one of those awkward moments when you weren't sure whether you were reporting an event or provoking one. The shouting certainly got louder whenever we went up to take photos.

Federal police stood in a loose line in front of them, happy just to contain and watch for the moment. As I wrote at the time:

Police cleared the road outside the college through the morning. But drivers and minibus passengers in the other carriageway leant out of windows to appeal to police and journalists, shouting "how is this fair" and "see what is happening." A handful of women also remonstrated with federal police at a bus stop outside the college gates but were soon ushered away.

Just after 10.30am, the police decided it was time to take more decisive action. Federal police massed by the gates next to one of their vehicles. Some climbed in and they all moved towards the crowd which scattered. Youths were arrested and put into a line of open trucks down the road.

A small group of Federal Police also went up to the gate of a government compound, pointing their guns through the metalwork (see pic). They entered and eventually came out with a middle aged man in a dark blue suit walking in front of them. He argued with them. But one soldier knocked his cap off, and then arrested him. One of the group made a half-hearted attempt to take my camera but didn't persist when I walked away.

Throughout the protest, police made efforts to break up interviews between journalists and students. A number of people who had spoken to us were arrested. As we left, one young man grabbed at my shirt to say he needed protection - that someone was going to take him away. He walked along with us for a bit then melted into the crowd.

Posted by aheavens at 10:55 AM

June 6, 2006

A year ago today

protest2A year ago today, it started with the students at Addis Ababa University. I missed the morning protests at the main campus. I also missed the mass arrests.

By the time I got there at midday, the students had gone and all the streets from Arat Kilo to Sedist Kilo were blocked off by beige-uniformed police officers. Our press passes eventually got us up to the main Sedist Kilo gates. Looking inside we got our first look at the blue urban-camouflaged federal police in their full riot gear, wearing their strange Samurai-style white helmets that came down at the back to cover their shoulders.

Hundreds of students had been loaded into trucks and driven out of the city to various camps and holding areas.

As I wrote at the time:

Troops were photographed using batons and the butts of their rifles to beat students in the streets and inside the campuses. Armed soldiers sealed off the whole area around the main university buildings up to near the turning to the Sheraton Hotel this morning.

A local journalist on the scene told me that a paper arranging the protest had been circulated among students last night. Somehow the police also got a copy and moved in early to prevent the demonstration spreading.

I heard later that students from another collage sited on one of the roads out of Addis had tried to block the road. The federal police were called in, shots were fired and the crowds dispersed.

Two foreign journalists, a writer and a photographer, were arrested during the protests. Their equipment was confiscated and they were held in a police station for more than five hours. The university was closed and remained closed for months to come, disrupting the education of thousands of students.

As I said, I can't give any eye-witness account. So here is what some unnamed students told the BBC World Service earlier this week:

STUDENT: They were just sitting on the fence at the main gate. They were just shouting expressing themselves they weren't violent. They were peaceful. But finally the police force barged into the compound and they start to arrest students. By that time there was some kind of conflict between the students and the police force.

CORRESPONDENT: And what do you think about the political situation now?

STUDENT: Me and my friends even though we don't like the situation we have shut our mouths about it.

CORRESPONDENT: Why's that then?

STUDENT: If something happens on this campus we know we will lose some months that will affect our graduation and our future so we are going to add some semester or a year and nobody wants that. We want to graduate on time.

Posted by aheavens at 4:03 AM

June 2, 2006

Ethiopian journalists rejoice

State Minister stresses providing information to the media - Ethiopian Herald

State Minister of Information Tesema Fote stressed that public relations officers need to provide information to the media.

Posted by aheavens at 6:42 PM

Email change

Oddpost is dead. Long live Gmail. See top right.

Posted by aheavens at 3:29 PM

Spam spam spam spam ...

I have been buried in comment spam over the past week - more than 400 links to porn sites in seven days. Is anyone else in what is left of the Ethiopian blogosphere going through the same thing?

Posted by aheavens at 5:40 AM

Go see Tsotsi

tsotsi.jpgThis is a very belated recommendation to go and see the South African film Tsotsi. I saw it weeks ago in a typically exclusive screening at The Sheraton.

I was reminded about how great a film it is by an article someone sent me yesterday from The Times of Swaziland written by the outgoing head of UNICEF there Dr Alan Brody. (The article has since disappeared from the site but here is Google's cached version - I have no idea how long this link will last.) Not surprisingly, Dr Brody sees the film from the perspective of someone who has spent a life in development.

‘Tsotsi' is coming to Swaziland. I have seen it, and the film says so much to us here. The character Tsotsi is a short youth, really only just emerged from childhood. His face is a mask drained of the emotions that make us human, but just under that surface there is one abiding emotion, an anger whose depth can hardly be fathomed, until we see it explode into violence, except in the murder of an innocent man on a train, and in the vicious beating of one of his own gang members and closest friends, who dares to push him too far with questions.

The boy who became ‘Tsotsi' was what in Swaziland we call an ‘OVC' [Orphan or Vulnerable Child], but five or 10 years down the road from today. When his mother was dying of AIDS, he, a mere child, suffering the mixture of love and trauma of a 10 year old's soul, his drunken, violent father wouldn't even allow him to be with her, to comfort her. The boy ran away from ‘home' that night, became a child of the streets, sheltering from rain in the large sewer pipes of a half-finished project of abandoned development. The streets, and an uncaring world, tutored him to become the Tsotsi that, as a young adult, terrorised and murdered hard-working laborers and privileged ‘black empowerment elites' alike.

For me, the film's ending, built around redemption and a hint of forgiveness, is the most moving thing I have seen since the closing scene of Priest.

Posted by aheavens at 4:02 AM

June 1, 2006

The magnificent eight

So there are only eight of us left.

By 'us' I mean the few remaining bloggers who can still be accessed in Ethiopia. That means that 75 per cent of the previously-flourishing Ethiopian blogosphere - as tracked in the right hand column and GlobalVoices - has mysteriously disappeared from our screens over here.

That does not count the eight opposition websites including Ethiomedia and Nazret.com which have also gone - see the running coverage from Reporters Sans Frontiers and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

The only thing the survivors have in common, as far as I can see, is that they either host their own blogs or use one of the "minority" blogging platforms - i.e anything except blogger.

At the moment, the official line from the Ethiopian Ministry of Information is that there are no blocks in place. Ethiopian Telecom Corp has, as far as I know, said nothing definitive - perhaps unsurprisingly given the current management upheavals. (Although I have since heard the CEO wasn't so much fired as offered another job.)

filtering_map.jpgIt is ironic that all this has come up just as state filtering of the internet comes into the spotlight.

A few days ago, The Open Net Initiative came up with a map tracking ongoing government blockages of web traffic (see image to the right). So far it is not showing any confirmed cases in Africa below the Sahara - with Sudan alone on its 'watchlist'. (The only confirmed case of widespread blocking in North Africa is Tunisia.) Ethiopia is still greyed-out, without any official reports of government filters or 'great firewalls'.

And around the same time, Amnesty International launched its linked Irrepressible.info campaign (see the green image top right) about state censorship of the internet "to show that online or offline the human voice and human rights are impossible to repress".

A good illustration of that fact is that Ethiopia bloggers have kept blogging as normal despite the strange stoppages (they can all still be seen outside Ethiopia). Weichegud! ET Politics has kept writing as has CoffeeChilliSun. Ethiopundit even came back from his summer vacation to keep on blogging as he went off air.

How do I know all this sitting in front of my dodgy dial-up connection in Addis Ababa? All I can say is God bless RSS.

Posted by aheavens at 5:15 PM