Directors: Antonio M. Battro, Kurt W. Fischer and Diego Golombek
Program officer: María Lourdes Majdalani
Building a modern science culture in Africa
Economically Africa is growing fast admittedly though it is from a low base. Africa has many physical resources. Half of its population of one billion is 20 years of age or younger. Many of the older people are illiterate. Poverty is widespread. There is a need for developing infrastructure rapidly and this should be done by its own people in its own way, while accepting advice and support from the developed world.
To achieve development goals set for Africa by its own structures as well as by the international community, a concerted on-going effort in science education and technology training is required. This view is gaining recognition and, for instance, in South Africa it has now been elevated to the highest policy priority. However, the challenges are enormous and there can’t be a simple blue-print to achieve the goal. All well-meaning approaches should be accepted and embraced. Things need to be done actively and urgently, while just talking about plans achieves little. Nevertheless, some general considerations are called for. In this contribution several guiding ideas are put forward for discussion:
1. The education must be relevant in a broad sense. (Of course it should not be limited to bread-and–butter issues, but it should also enrich culturally including reflections on our existence etc.).
2. African matters should be emphasized but they also need to form part of the global knowledge, and should be pursued with the same international rigour. (One should avoid training students merely to contribute to the brain-drain. The slogan should be “train and retain”, of course without mobility restrictions.)
3. Education should not only be focussed on specific age groups. It needs to be pursued for all from primary school to post-graduate university study, as well as for adults.
4. Education should occur in a multi-cultural and multilingual context in order to underpin pan-African collaboration. (Diseases and other developmental challenges do not observe national borders.)
5. Students and the population at large should be exposed to scientific activities and achievements in their region, on the continent and globally.
How can this be achieved? One needs passionate people who act as agents of change! History has shown that such actions have been successful in the past. For instance missionaries of all denominations have spread their religions over Africa and have developed hospitals, schools and even the written language for many the indigenous languages. Freedom fighters and activists have changed political realities throughout the continent and elsewhere. In each case they have worked with the local population who made it their own cause. The digital era has brought many new means to achieve such goals more effectively and more quickly. First and foremost is the ability to communicate rapidly by mobile phones and by internet among each other and globally. In areas in which there are only poorly resourced libraries, students read articles, lecture notes and textbooks on the internet. They can download free open-source mathematical tools which help them to quickly write programs to solve real world problems. They can use on-line dictionaries to assist multilingual communication. In short, they are able to overcome their previous isolation.
As an example of such an initiative, some details of a specific action called the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences, AIMS, will be presented in this talk. It was started in South Africa ten years ago and now two new branches have opened, one in Senegal and one in Ghana, and more are to come. Many of the students who have graduated so far share the passion for contributing to the development of science in Africa. Even though already a few hundred have been trained, challenges remain.
One of the critical additional challenges is to develop science and technology careers for Africans in Africa. One needs structures in which Africans across the continent and international colleagues work together on typical developmental projects. For this one needs mobility of scientists and engineers who can work together using internet communications regularly. Such groups need to seek recognition of excellence at home and abroad which subsequently will lead to sustainable funding.