Saturday, June 23, 2007

Linux, Russia, Africa

Hello again, Gentle Reader. Please forgive the last month or so of radio silence. I've just come back a fantastic vacation in South Africa and Botswana -- places which, I thought, would be wonderfully restful since they have absolutely nothing to do with my project or Russia in general. And with few exceptions, I was right. I saw a lot of people in southern Africa sporting trendy "Soviet" brand bags, and the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg touches on how the anti-apartheid movement was branded as a Soviet front of sorts... but for the most part, I've enjoyed almost no sense of continuity among my everyday experiences of travel in Russia, southern Africa, and Chicago over the last month or so.

That said, I've become increasingly aware of and interested by cultural images of Africa and Africa-ness in Russia and America. For example, on one warm spring day in Moscow I encountered a group of musicians at Chistye Prudy, dressed as crocodiles, lions, and bears, performing for a crowd of children and parents. They were singing this popular children's song, which is, from what I can gather, a kind of Russian Jabberwocky:

Маленькие дети!
Ни за что
на свете
Не ходите в Африку,
В Африку гулять!
В Африке акулы,
В Африке гориллы,
В Африке большие
Злые крокодилы
Будут вас кусать,
Бить и обижать,-
Не ходите, дети,
В Африку гулять.

В Африке разбойник,
В Африке злодей,
В Африке ужасный

Он бегает по Африке
И кушает детей -
Гадкий, нехороший,
жадный Бармалей!

Little children!
Don't, for any
reason under the sun,
Don't go to Africa,
Go walking to Africa!
In Africa there are sharks,
In Africa there are gorillas,
In Africa there are big,
Evil crocodiles.
They'll bite you,
Beat and insult you --
Do not, children,
Go walking to Africa.

In Africa there's a bandit,
In Africa there's a villain,
In Africa there's a terrible

He runs around Africa
And eats children --
Nasty, no-good,
greedy Barmalei!

Fortunately for me, the Barmalei must have deemed me too old to make for a tasty snack, because he never menaced me during my walks in Africa. Nor did the sharks and crocodiles. I did meet a few gorillas, though, but they were quite friendly and even agreed to pose for a family photo.

When I returned to the U.S., I decided it would be nice to spend some time doing something totally unrelated to my research and to my visit to Africa. I eventually settled on what seemed to be the furthest possible thing from my travels: installing Linux on an old laptop.

(I'll wait for you to stop chuckling before I continue. Yes, I know. Linux. The supremely nerdy but cost-free operating system. I try very hard to hide it, but at heart I really am an ultratechnogeek.)

It turns out, though, that I was wrong. While searching for which "flavor" of Linux would best suit my aging Hewlett-Packard, I came across a popular version called Ubuntu. What does Ubuntu mean? Here's what the makers of this version of Linux have to say:
Ubuntu is an African concept of 'humanity towards others'. It is 'the belief in a universal bond of sharing that connects all humanity'. The same ideas are central to the way the Ubuntu community collaborates. Members of the Ubuntu community need to work together effectively, and this code of conduct lays down the "ground rules" for our cooperation.
Where to begin, huh? I mean, there's nothing terribly extraordinary about the cultural image of Africa -- not a country, nor a nation, nor even really an actual continent, but an ideal of Africanness -- used in the service of marketing a product, even in the case of computer software. Rhetoric by non-Africans about African knowledge, rituals, legends and proverbs has a long and rather distasteful history. Suffice it to say that whenever I hear someone talk about "African concepts", I'm immediately reminded of Calgon's "Ancient Chinese Secret."

And maybe this is just more of the same, with these Linux programmers and users casting themselves as more than mere nerds but ethical and socially conscious nerds undertaking a revival of the Ancient Chinese Secret... excuse me... the African Concept of fairness, sharing, and humanity that is Ubuntu. But I must admit that even after installing Ubuntu on my computer, I was not prepared to discover that the system came preloaded with a video file about the relationship between Ubuntu the software and Ubuntu the concept... featuring Nelson Mandela!!!

OK, really, what gives?