Education is the husband that will never let you down," said Daphney Singo, bringing the audience of 2,000 to their feet at the Technology, Entertainment and Design conference in Long Beach, Calif., last February. Daphney, who was born to a poor family in the northern South African province of Mpumalanga, was quoting her mother, a domestic servant who single-handedly supported and encouraged her throughout her education. She is now completing her PhD in nuclear physics at Stellenbosch University, developing neutron-detection systems for South Africa's nuclear-energy program. I had the privilege of observing her transition from shy new graduate to impressive young scientist at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Cape Town.
Jules Baruani is an impressive young man, a leader with natural style and gravitas. He is now a senior technician in a South African information technology company. At 17, he was separated from his family in eastern Congo, then a war zone, and escaped with his younger brother across Lake Tanganyika. Repeatedly held at gunpoint, interned and deported, they journeyed through Tanzania, Zambia, Malawi, Botswana and finally to a refugee camp in Namibia. There, Jules managed to pass the entrance exam to Windhoek University, where he obtained his BSc in mathematics. He worked as a tutor in Angola, before he got his lucky break to come to AIMS and obtain his master's degree in computer science.
Daphney and Jules are just two of AIMS's 252 graduates so far, from 30 African countries. Every one of them has an inspirational story.
AIMS was set up with one goal in mind: to help people like Daphney and Jules realize their potential. A million students graduate from Africa's universities every year, but there are few careers available to them. Their universities have suffered decades of underfunding and isolation. Graduates leave with a certificate, but without the problem-solving and independent thinking skills that governments, companies and non-governmental organizations desperately need. Nevertheless, among them are many exceptional people who, with modest investment, are capable of leading Africa's renaissance.
AIMS recruits Africa's top graduates in math, science and engineering, and outstanding visiting lecturers from all over the world. Its intense, 10-month program serves as a stepping stone to a scientific career. And its track record is remarkable: 95 per cent of its students continue on to master's degrees and PhDs, roughly a fifth in each of: biosciences and health; information and communications technologies; finance and decision-making; natural resources; and pure math or physics. The vast majority remain in Africa, many in academic careers helping to renew the continent's universities and colleges. Their success proves that investing in graduates is a highly cost-effective way to contribute to Africa's development.
Mathematical science might not seem an obvious focus for a pan-African educational centre. But for many reasons, math and science are ideal: they are cross-cultural, foundational, universal. Whether you are Cameroonian, Madagascan or Sudanese, two plus two equals four and the hydrogen atom is described by Schrödinger's equation.
It is a delight to see how students brought together by their shared interest in science rapidly overcome language, cultural and religious barriers to form a close community. As one student said, only at AIMS did he really learn what it means to be African. Africa is the world's most diverse continent and at AIMS it is a source of pride and strength: to be a part of a continent's entry into high-level science. Teaching this diverse, highly motivated group inspires the lecturers to teach at their best. Through living and interacting with outstanding international scientists, the students build the global networks and contacts that will support them throughout their career.
AIMS is now attracting increasing attention as a successful model for high-level, relevant education in the African context. The African Union and many leaders are becoming interested in the idea of a pan-African network of many AIMS centres. If this plan is realized, the outcome could be extraordinary. Just think what will happen if Africa does for science what it has done for music, for literature and for art. Not only Africa, but the world, could be transformed.
Neil Turok is director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, in Waterloo, Ont., and the founder and chair of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences. He also chairs the AIMS Next Einstein Initiative, which seeks to create 15 AIMS centres across Africa within the next decade.