Celebrating Malawian Mathematicians
By Sydney Chuka
On 2nd October, the London-based Guardian newspaper published an article titled “Why we’re adding Black Mathematician Month to our calendars”. The article stated the pertinent fact that no black individual other than W Arthur Lewis has ever received a Nobel Prize for something other than “Peace” and “Literature”; nor the Fields Medal, the equivalent of the Nobel Prize for mathematics. The authors highlighted that we have numerous black role models in sports, the arts and in politics; yet we have no Barack Obama’s in Mathematics, Physics, Chemistry and Biology. The authors also cited that there are more black men in UK prisons than are enrolled in the 24 member Russell Group of research-intensive universities. A glimpse into some statistics of British universities gives us some clues as to why this is the case. Not only are black people underrepresented in university faculties, the enrolment of black students falls from 7 percent at undergraduate level to 3.5 percent at postgraduate level. This is a harrowing picture for a G7 country, considering that this highly admirable group of seven countries controls approximately 64% of the world’s wealth.
The reality in Africa is not particularly encouraging either. In an article published by This is Africa (a part of The Financial Times), the author Ameenah Gurib-Fakim, a Mauritian biodiversity scientist, called African governments to improve their investment in African research institutions. She writes “[d]espite being home to 15 percent of the world’s population, Africa contributes just 2 percent of the world’s research output and accounts for only 1.3 percent of global R&D spending.” She cites the lack of infrastructure as a hurdle in developing Africa’s scientific minds. This story is all too common. There are many Malawians who have made a living in the sciences abroad and would love to contribute to their home; but find the lack of infrastructure to be debilitating.
We are rapidly reaching a point in our country where each classroom will require some computing power of one form or another. Not because we have stockpiles of computers lying idle but rather that the forces of globalization will not demand anything less. Globalisation has a way of punishing those who are too slow to respond to its demands. On the back-end of globalisation is the understanding that ideas recognise no borders. Nothing stops someone in Malawi from developing an idea that will someday be incorporated in the trendy technologies and products of the future. If we listen closely to the winds of oncoming global changes, then we better heed the words of the past when Bob Marley sang in the Redemption Song: “Emancipate yourselves from mental slavery for none but ourselves can free our minds”. My generation is no exception. Life will give us no such discount. We must now pursue avenues that our forefathers might have considered to be unprofitable endeavours.
Whilst we await for our day in the sun as leaders in all spheres within our society, we must face the fact that if we are to escape our economic ghetto, we must first nominate ourselves for eviction from this intellectual ghetto. Mark Zuckerberg has made a contribution to the American economy that tangibly and intangibly surpasses in value what most Malawians collectively contribute in their lifetimes. And that is not because we are cognitively handicapped but because we need to overcome a behavioural handicap, we need to encourage each other in developing talents that we might have previously overlooked, such as the pure sciences. We need to encourage Malawian mathematicians at all levels of development: those with doctorate degrees, those still coming to terms with multiplication tables and those like me who in a bid to comply with society, gave up our genii to chase the suburban dream. We as a generation must realise that we will know no better truth than to embrace the blinding beauty of mathematics and its applications in our everyday lives. All notable technologies of tomorrow are built on this truth.