Exterminate All the Brutes

Project by Alex Antener[0] presented by Ramon Cahenzli[1] translated by Myriam Schweingruber[2] into English Language

Free Software, a Chance for Africa?

“Africa, oh Africa! God must have been in a desperate mood when he created this continent. Why else would he have populated it with people who, from the first day on, were damned to be chased by men from other continents? Wouldn’t it have been easier to make niggers white from the beginning, so with some luck they had a chance to become decent Englishmen, instead of charging the latter with the problem of extermination? Niggers have no weapons, therefore no rights. Their land belongs to us.”

This quote by R. B. Cunninghame Graham, a friend of Joseph Conrad, describes with bare irony the attitude of the colonialist societies. Alex Antener discovered during his trip into the “Heart of Darkness” – or more precisely Malawi how this attitude in its neo-imperialistic form still prevails, and tells us of his experience.

Malawi, a former British colony, lies on the shore of the lake of the same name, third in size of the African lakes. The country is settled between Mozambique, Zambia and Tanzania. Since the times of David Livingstone the inhabitants make their living with tobacco and tea, a business controlled by the white citizens. But agriculture is not the only object of desire for the representatives and laymen of western companies. Everywhere you read about the Digital Divide – Africa apparently being way behind Europe and the United States in the computer business.

But the support Africa gets from industrial countries is not wholly altruistic. Companies like Microsoft, HP and Dell debauch the education structures in creation, entrap people and later also companies in the never ending cycle of system upgrades and reinvestments. This is obvious for example during the ICT Trade Fair in Blantyre, the largest city in Malawi, where western IT companies find customers for the future.

It can’t be useful to impose western price structures on people who can hardly pay their daily food. But this is exactly what the companies mentioned above do, be it for hardware or software. Initially African schools and universities are equipped for free. but they have to pay for upgrades as soon a new version is released. Upgrades are inevitable. This is also part of the deal between Microsoft and SchoolNet Malawi. When Microsoft approached them with claims for money and upgrades for the ‘donated’ Windows-PCs, SchoolNet realised that they had been led into dependency on these companies.

Almost nobody in Malawi knows that “besides this highly proprietary software” there are other applications and operating systems which are open, independent and often free of charge like OpenOffice and Linux. The precondition for this knowledge is an unhindered flow of information, for which an affordable connection to the internet is of course necessary. The hopelessly outdated 64 kb connection of the university of Malawi – The Polytechnic is neither appropriate nor affordable. But even with that the university is one of the privileged schools

Ramon Cahenzli: Alex, what motivated you to knock at the doors of the University of Malawi – The Polytechnic?

Alex Antener: I was looking for places where I could pass on my knowledge. So Bessie Nyirenda, the leader of SchoolNet Malawi, introduced me to people who could help me with my goals: to pass on my knowledge not only to a small group but to reach as many people as possible and to build a sustainable project. Barbara Berger of the IT centre of the University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Zurich (HGKZ) helped me by donating five laptops which were handed on to The Polytechnic.

RC: What did the existing infrastructure look like? In what state was The Polytechnic when you arrived?

AA: The infrastructure at the university was totally outdated. More than 500 students shared this extremely slow internet connection. Vermin lived close to the servers and the rooms were not cabled correctly so the university network could only be used partially. Bug infested Windows machines in the offices put the connection over the edge and ate the last remains of bandwidth.
RC: What could you do against it?

AA: I offered the university to extend the infrastructure, build reliable network services and later to train technicians able to administer the facility. In return the university offered me the job of a visiting lecturer. I was happy to agree to it but did not accept money for my work. The Polytechnic provided board and lodging in their staff quarter.

RC: What were your first steps to improve the situation?

AA: First there was a lot to do about the software: the existing Red Hat 8.0 Server was outdated at the time and only badly and incompletely configured. I replaced it with a more recent Fedora Core 2 (another kind of Linux distribution) and provided consistent availability of all services. Further, I extended the network to make it available in all necessary places.

RC: Talking about Linux: how strong is the prevalence of Linux and other Free Software in Malawi? One can imagine that Free Software is more than appropriate for the burgeoning African IT world, and not only because of often comes free of charge.

AA: That’s true. But unfortunately the existing know-how is unequally distributed. The average African knows nothing about the existence of Free Software and those who could use it sit in the offices of foreign companies and are mostly trained in western countries. This maintains the Digital Divide even more. Local knowledge is strongly needed. What is Free Software? Why is it important for Africa? How does one use the applications and tools? For this reason I installed the first Linux-Mirror of Central Africa at The Polytechnic. A mirror is made of local copies of software and other files which can be distributed through the fast school network – ideal for such a slow internet connection as the one in this college. This system did speed up enormously the installation of the software on student PCs. To avoid the slowness of the connection to be to much of a hindering I also took other measures like installing a Proxy server and so on.

RC: But software alone is only half the equation. You mentioned the unequally distributed know-how. Which state of knowledge did you find and how could you bring in your knowledge of Free Software?

AA: In my eyes the starting position was a catastrophe. Most of the training programs were provided by Microsoft, HP and Cisco who of course wanted to impose their own products on the university and did not allow an unbiased view of the software culture. But this objectivity is a must for an all-embracing IT training. The Linux mirror provides not only the software but also a free and complete documentation for it. something the companies mentioned above would like to be paid for. This documentation is tremendously useful and allows all participants to find their way without problems and continue to improve their know-how after my departure.

One year after my return to Switzerland it is interesting to see how people continue to learn to use this documentation. First feedbacks confirm the present success. I love to receive e-mail from Africa with questions about the installed systems which show me that the infrastructure is intensively used. That’s also the reason I’m drawn back to Malawi to carry on the work.

[0] Alex Antener graduated in the New Media department of the University of Applied Sciences and Arts, Zurich (HGKZ) in 2005. He is systems administrator and visiting lecturer in Malawi.

[1] Ramon Cahenzli is a GNU/Linux systems administrator and technical assistant in the New Media department.

[2] Myriam Schweingruber is a FSFE Fellow and activist

4 Responses to “Interview”

  1. Markus Zielonka Says:


    wie kann ich Kontakt mit Herrn Antener aufnehmen?
    Alex Antener
    Student im Diplomsemester des SNM. GNU/Linux Systemadministrator und Gast-Dozent an der University of Malawi The Polytechnic.

    Ich habe zu dieser Seite ( viele Fragen.


    Markus Zielonka

  2. Anthony Sinya Ziba Says:

    Dear Alex,
    Thanks for sharing your experiences and observations. It is indeed true that (technologically) Malawi is miles
    away from the developed world. However, it appears that while Microsoft and other organisations shamelessly continue to take advantage of this poor country, some key decision makers within Malawi stand aside and let Malawi be taken advantage of. In your article you talk about the deal between SchoolnetMalawi and the IT giant, Microsoft. Although I do not have the detailsof the agreement between the two, it is clear that this is not a healthy relationship. Firstly, as you have already indicated in your article,it only serves to foster dependency structures and put Malawi in a position of a helpless nation – always at the mercy of Microsoft and other similar organisations. In any language, this is not healthy at all. Nations like Malawi need to be empowered to extricate themselves from poverty and underdevelopment. This cannot happen if hypocritical organisations like Microsoft continue with these aggressive marketing gimmicks that are perfectly disguised in philanthropy. Poor or rich, as far as technologies are concerned, nations should be given full autonomy to choose what technologies they want to implement depending on their contextual needs and conditions. On the other hand, Malawians should also learn that if something sounds too good to be true, then indeed it is. There is no way Microsoft can give out computers free of charge – There will always be a catch!!!
    Anthony Sinya Ziba

  3. Yurtdisi Egitim Says:

    mein Deutsch ist nicht gut, is it availible in English

  4. lix Says:

    Yes it is available in english language:
    Interview in english

    regards, a

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