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Bad news coming out of Dakar. Media Helping Media has the story.

An estimated 70 armed soldiers raided the Dakar offices of Avenir Communication on May 31 as owner Madiambal Diagne was holding a press conference to launch Premiere FM.

The commander of the gendarmes and officials of the national telecommunications and stations regulatory authority reportedly asked Mr Diagne to stop Premiere FM broadcasts.

When Mr Diagne refused, the soldiers removed radio equipment, leaving the station off the air.

Avenir Communication are the publishers of Le Quotidien, Week End magazine and the satirical Cocorico.

Mr Diagne’s publications have been critical of the government. He first applied for a broadcasting licence in 2003 but has suffered numerous delays by the government.

In recent months, the authorities reportedly pressured an equipment supplier not to provide Premiere FM with materials and refused to allow the station to broadcast after claiming its transmitter was too close to the airport, even though other stations broadcast from similar locations.

Over at the Free Software and Open Source for Africa website, they’ve put up the opening remarks by Ghanaian Communications Minister Mike Ocquaye kicking off last week’s MediaFOSS event. The speech had me cheering, and it’s comments like this that give me great hope for the future of Free Software in Africa:

“The seeds of freedom must be nurtured. Ghana has a pivotal role in FOSS, in the use of ICT for the development of a true and sustainable Information Society in Africa. We will champion excellence. We will champion, freedom, we will champion Free Software and Open Source Solutions.”

Coming from a cabinet-level official, this is great news indeed.

I’ll be heading to Jakarta, Indonesia tomorrow to hold workshops on Campcaster with Indonesian radio stations. It should be really interesting from many angles, not least that Indonesia is a place I’ve always wanted to visit.

Expect posts and pictures if/when I get the time and connectivity.

In case you’ve been wondering what I’ve been up to these past few weeks, I’ve been busy talking to the media about our Campcaster software and the various implementation projects we’re using it on.

I’ve been interviewed about Campcaster for a few different media outlets in the past couple of weeks, and figured I’d provide links to the articles here:

Now the task is a lot harder, but also a lot of fun: getting radio stations in the developed world interested in using and extending Campcaster, and getting other open source developers interested in extending it.

The new ‘Radio Package’ release with combined Campcaster/Campsite interoperability should be ready in a few days. I’ll let you know when it’s out of the oven.

Wooooooo!

The BBC News website has an article drawing on the Digital Planet interview I did last week. You can get it here.

I’m so stoked that I’m even prepared to forgive ’em the misspelling of my name… 😉

The days in Freetown were hectic, filled with lots of work combined with lots of waiting in traffic to get from one side of town to the other. Traffic was pretty bad, with a strangely functional form of chaos governing things. In the traffic, people selling random stuff – tube socks, flashlights, bathroom fixtures, and the ubiquitous mobile phone top-up cards for the 5 mobile operators in Freetown – kept walking by in a never-ending procession.
Campcaster has its first confirmed installation, at Radio Mount Aureol, a college radio station run by Fourah Bay College on a high hill overlooking the city. With myself and Campcaster developer Ferenc Gerlits watching, the Sierra e-Riders successfully set up the PC and installed Campcaster with no complications.

Because training was an important part of this visit, we were careful to make sure we weren’t just doing all the work, so the e-Riders “drove the mouse” on the vast majority of things.

Together we installed and set up the Campcaster network hub – which lets radio stations exchange program content – at the offices of the Cornet radio network. The stations are set to be linked via wi-fi in the next few days and weeks, and then Cornet will be truly on the air.

We’ve spent a lot of time testing and trying out various scenarios, but there are always things that you can’t anticipate. For us, one of the big ones was that the PC we were going to install to was full to the last gig with sound files, so we spent half a day on a trip to get a new one to add on. With the hard disk in place the install of Ubuntu and Campcaster went smooth as silk.

This was my second trip to Freetown in three months, so many things were familiar this time – the warmth, wit and resourcefulness of the people especially come to mind. My hosts and partners in Freetown – the Sierra e-Riders and the Cornet radio network – really impressed me with their persistence and ability to Get Things Done.

The grinding poverty is everywhere, and it informs almost all aspects of everyday life. With no electricity, generators are the only source of electrical power, but only for those who can afford both the generator and the gas to run one. The water only runs sporadically, so most people keep buckets next to their sinks to use as a backup.

They’re big problems, and I got no indication that they were going to be solved any time soon. But what continues to impress me is how adaptable Freetonians are to changing circumstances, and how they manage to keep things going.

Before we knew it, our time in Freetown was up, and it was time to board the helicopter that carries passengers over the large bay to the airport on the other side. The helicopter ride is a unique experience – a Soviet era Mi-8 that’s been put into use ferrying passengers instead of soldiers – and its pilots are from somewhere in the former Soviet Union (Russia? Ukraine?).

I uploaded video of the flight to YouTube, but for some reason my WordPress doesn’t like the embedded video thingy. Here’s the link.

I’ve arrived in Freetown, Sierra Leone and am now at the offices of the Sierra e-Riders. We’re going to have to cut our trip a day short after finding out that the airline doesn’t fly to Dakar on Friday, as we originally expected.

Lots to do, so we’re jumping into the training on installing and setting up Campcaster tonight. Much room to cover, and I’m very happy to be back in Freetown among familiar and friendly faces.

You may have wondered what I’ve been up to lately and why, even for this blog, there has been such a prolonged radio silence.

In fact, the cause of so much ‘dead air’ has been the work necessary to complete our latest software release, Campcaster 1.1 “Freetown.” We released “Freetown” this week, after a painstaking round of bug catching, optimizations and bug fixing.
Today (Saturday) I’m headed back to Freetown, Sierra Leone via Dakar, Senegal.

Now that the software is finished, we get to the fun and difficult part – getting the software to community radio stations throughout Sierra Leone. The actual installation will be handled by my colleagues, the Sierra e-Riders, so our contribution will be to train the trainers.

Believe me, anticipating problems with the software, the hardware, and the users before they happen is _really_ hard.
Over at her blog, Janet Haven says we’ll kick her in the shins for saying that developing software is the easy part. She says,

“The harder part of software for the non-profit sector is deployment within the civil society organizations that needs it, and making sure that staff members have appropriate hardware, training, connectivity, electricity, ongoing support, and access to upgrades and bugfixes.”

She’s right. My only quibble is that what we’re doing isn’t just making any old basic software. We’re unique in that we create tools, and those tools are by and for the sector we work in. When a tool doesn’t exist, and we see a need – an itch that can be scratched, to use the old Free Software term – we create the tool to address the need.

Because of that specialization, what we do is a little different from deploying general tools like OpenOffice or Firefox.

But I get the point: You could have great software, but it means nothing without the ‘infrastructure’ necessary to run it, maintain the computers it runs on, have connectivity and electricity, etc.

That’s one of the reasons I’m excited and honored to be working with some of the people who are doing a lot of that hard work – the e-riders – who really Get Things Done.

Expect more posts from me in the next few days from West Africa.

I’m headed to Brussels tomorrow to take part in the Euro Foo Camp event, which should be a blast. It’s my first time at such an event, so I really don’t know what to expect, but am ready for almost anything. I understand that at one of these Foo Camp events in California they took apart a Toyota Prius just to see how it worked. That’s pretty cool stuff.

After Foo Camp, I’ll be attending and presenting at O’Reilly’s European Open Source Conference (Euro OSCON). My talk is titled “The Campware Initiative: Free Software for Free Media in Developing Countries.” I get to talk about all the interesting work my team has been doing in not only promoting existing open source software all over the globe, but in creating applications and communities where none existed before

Plus I get to demo LiveSupport 1.1 “Freetown,” which should be at least interesting because my old and increasingly cranky VAIO notebook is giving me fits these days.

Many thanks to Jeffrey McManus for putting me in touch with the O’Reilly folks. And speaking of Jeffrey, you should definitely go and check out the work he’s been doing with Approver.com, his new startup. Approver is a web service that takes care of something that gives most organizations and workgroups fits, namely that they have a hard time keeping track of who’s approved which version of a document. Approver is easy-to-use, well-thought-out, and quite powerful. I’m telling all my friends and colleagues about it. (Disclosure: Jeff’s a good friend from Back in the Day and I’ve been helping him beta test Approver, as well as giving him suggestions on how to improve various aspects of it.)

Aside from EuroOSCON and Foo Camp, Campware is definitely raising its profile these days. My colleague and Campware’s leader, Sava Tatić, was interviewed on this week’s LUGRadio show, which was very cool indeed. Download the show now.

Partially it’s the nature of geeks to want to keep a low profile until one comes up with something really, really good. And it’s partially for this reason that Campware has had a relatively low profile among the Free Software community. (It’s also partially because for some of the projects we work on, keeping a low profile is sometimes better due to political considerations). But we think we’ve got some pretty good stuff these days, and we definitely need to work on our outreach to the free/libre/open source community.

I’ll be in Brussels all next week, which will mean no Radio 1 show next Saturday 😦 But I am working on a new mix, and will drop that on an unsuspecting world when the time is right.

I got back into Dakar late last night, safe and sound, after waiting around the airport in Freetown because my plane was delayed for nearly 7 hours. I thought I would miss my connecting flight in Banjul, Gambia, but as it turns out, happily, there was an error in the computer system, and my flight happened to be scheduled for the evening anyway.

There was a delay because of severe thunderstorms (and when you talk severe thunderstorms, you should check out the severe thunderstorms West Africa gets in the rainy season), so that just meant I had a little more time to knock back a couple of local “JacBrew” beers at the airport bar.

I’m safe and sound in Dakar, and after getting back from the airport and having a shower, I went to a wonderful outdoor restaurant/music club, where I had some nice shrimp curry washed down with the local Flag” beer and caught a gig by the internationally-known Senegalese musician Cheikh Lo.

Dakar kicks ass. It’s beautiful, cosmopolitan, safe, there’s an infrastructure, and the people are super-friendly. I’m really going to enjoy this leg of the trip, which lasts for four more days.

I had a couple of long delays, so while waiting in Freetown and Banjul for my connecting flights, I managed to write out these blog posts on paper (man, imagine that!):

Cell phones in Freetown

One of the most surprising things to me about Freetown was the ubiquity of mobile phones. They’re everywhere! One estimate I heard was that half of Freetown – something like 600 thousand people – has one. As in other places, Freetown has its ‘mobile girls,’ young women who, thanks to mobiles, are always on the go, planning parties or the night’s events.

Many people have multiple phones – one each for the top three operators – and use phones imported from Europe that are then unblocked if they’re tied to a single European operator. The street finds its own use for things, William Gibson says.

The presence of cheap telephony here, as elsewhere, meant a huge increase in convenience. Before, to make an international call, people used to have to travel downtown to the central telephone office, waking up early to get a good spot in the line to make a call.

There are 5 mobile operators in Freetown. One is South African-owned, two or three are Lebanese-owned (two are even run by competing brothers), and one is Sierra Leonian-owned, but backed by Chinese investors. There’s even a new service selling ringtones. One provider, Comium, offers free ringtones as a unique selling point of their service.

Mobiles are now thoroughly a part of life in Freetown. My taxi driver, an old gruff man proud of his sixty years, had three stowed in various pockets around the car.

The tot-tot

Another thing that caught my eye traveling around Freetown were the vans that serve as semi-public transport, called ‘tot-tots’. Every tot-tot is painted with slogans, some advertising their Christian or Muslim faith, with slogans like “Allah is One” or “The Lord is Almighty.” One even had “Nasrallah” written on his. Go figure.

But before you go getting the wrong impression, relations between religions are for the most part harmonious, thanks in part to a history of religious tolerance that has more or less held up till now.

The tot-tots are run by sole proprietors, but they have ambitious names, such as when an operator uses his last name, followed by “Tours.” So you have “Smith Tours” and so on. The tot-tots are always full and are slower than regular taxis because everyone has to get off at different locations.

Taxis are done a bit differently here too. The taxi driver will usually stop to pick you up, but will also pick up additional fares as well, so that unless you pay the driver extra – like many foreigners, or was that just me? – expect to be smashed in, 5 to a small Nissan Sunny.

Sssss!

West Africans use “sssss!” to get your attention. I found this out while waiting for the helicopter after arriving. When I tried to take a picture of the Soviet Mi-8 military helicopters used by Paramount Airlines to ferry passengers between the airport and downtown, an old woman made the “sssss!” sound and told me “no pictures!” Eager not to break any cultural taboos, I was careful for the rest of the trip to always ask before taking pictures of anything.

You can hail a cab with “sssss!” You can call a waitress with “ssssss!” I didn’t, though, because for one thing, coming from me I’d probably mess it up, and it also seemed kind of heavy-handed for a foreigner to be doing it.

Poverty and power

Yes, of course, Freetown is poor. Astoundingly poor. And there are amputee beggars that congregate around the places people frequent, especially people with money. But far more hopeful to me was to see how many micro-businesses there are. Streets are packed with stalls offering anything and everything: mobile phone top-up cards, shoes, cosmetics, fruits and vegetables, you name it.

People hustle to get by. Everybody works hard, and one of the striking things was, in the face of such conditions, how clean everyone’s clothes were. (This of course is being said by someone who looked rumpled and sweaty even getting on the plane in Prague). To quote Stevie Wonder in “Living for the City,” his shirts are old, but never are they dirty.

One thing others have pointed out about living in poor areas – even in the U.S. – is that it’s ironically much more expensive to live there. Take generators in Freetown as an example. Because there’s no electricity grid, everyone who uses a generator has to buy gas or diesel for it, which costs around $5 per gallon. Our generator used about 2 gallons a day, so for electricity alone on working days, the e-riders have to pay around $200 per month. I can’t recall exactly what my last electricity bill was, but I’d venture to say it was around $50.

The phenomena of mobiles, lack of electricity and hustle have combined in the so-called “telecenter” in Freetown. These are usually shacks that sell both top-up cards and mobile phone charging. So even if you don’t have a generator, you can still keep your mobile phone working.

The lack of electricity also lends itself to frustration about the political situation. I heard from a couple of different people that Freetown would have electricity from the grid if it weren’t being diverted instead to power the mineral extraction equipment elsewhere. Can I vouch for that? Of course not.

There’s a big hydroelectric plant that’s supposed to come online in 2007, but many are skeptical as to whether it’ll be finished on time (it’s been under construction, on and off, since the 1970s).

What gives me hope?

The simple fact that despite all the obstacles, people somehow manage to get on with the details of their lives, and that for me is probably the thing that leaves me feeling most hopeful after being here. People in Freetown are very good at coping, and I got the distinct impression that they’re going to muddle through, just as anybody would.

Could they use some help? Absolutely. But there’s a difference between giving a hand and giving a handout. I asked once about the growing presence of the Chinese here, and the answer I got was: The Chinese are here to do business with us, and that’s good. We don’t need more charity aid. We need a stronger economy.

I’m hopeful when I see people like the e-Riders, guys who otherwise would be working for a multinational or for a government ministry, but who are instead putting their ICT skills to use to help other organizations. They’re sharp and committed, and know what’s up. Case in point: When I started to give my spiel about Ubuntu and the Ubuntu philosophy, they interrupted me with: “Yeah, we got to meet Mark Shuttleworth at the Africa Source conference in Uganda earlier this year.”

I expected to come to Freetown to give an introduction to Ubuntu, the open-source approach and all that, but they were really looking for a refresher course. So of course that helped us get to speed.

The first Software Freedom Day in Sierra Leone, as organized by the Sierra e-Riders and other organizations, is scheduled for September 16, 2006.