African kids shouldn’t study quantum physics

17282220272_05a256ee33_k-1170x754

Image from tcdailyplanet.net | Flickr Creative Commons

Or things like that.

I had a particularly upsetting day for me during my stint in England in 2010. I was rounding up my studies in Industrial Systems and Management and had been invited for a cocktail by my sponsors. My thesis then was in the fairly esoteric field of ant colony optimisation algorithms and I was quite pleased with the initial results of my work. I think my supervisors and industrial sponsors were too! We were looking at novel schemes for algorithms that may one day be part of the backbone of so called self serving assets e.g. aircraft that are aware of their state and autonomously select and procure maintenance services for themselves as they fly all over the world. So pretty next gen stuff.

So I was in that place where I was flirting with the idea of research for the next couple of years. You know? A PhD from a prestigious university and everything. I was mulling the idea everyday, weighing the odds, exploring potential supervisors etc. In the middle of that period was this lunch/cocktail thing that came along and we were all just standing there that afternoon, chatting about everything and nothing in particular when this man asked me what my next plans were.

I spoke freely, told him about my current research and my thoughts of a potential PhD along those lines. He looked at me incredulously and said something like “but how is that relevant to Africa?” Hmm. The man has a point, doesn’t he? We can’t even figure out how to generate electricity for the continent and this one is talking about aircrafts that call the service centre to check themselves in. I can’t remember how I responded to that seemingly innocous question, but I was upset. Upset because the tone of his voice suggested that being from Africa automatically drew bounds around what I was allowed to explore – development, sustainability, you know the usual suspects.

He looked at me incredulously and said something like “but how is that relevant to Africa?” Hmm. The man has a point, doesn’t he? We can’t even figure out how to generate electricity for the continent and this one is talking about aircrafts that call the service centre to check themselves in.

That’s unfortunate. Completely against the spirit of the place we met and I daresay, against the spirit of education itself. I understand the spirit of the scholarships that we frequently get handed out in exchange for showing promise. The idea is to use the opportunity to develop skills, return home and make our countries better. I get that. But does that circumscribe the limits of our intellectual exploration or contribution to knowledge? My personal view of education, especially tertiary education is that the subject matter itself is not what counts (except in some particular cases) but the process of learning – I promise a post on that shortly. So I didn’t think he had a point. In fact he probably won’t have asked the same question of a self sponsored student. But oh well.

I didn’t do a PhD in the end. For a bunch of reasons that had nothing to do with the suggestion that it was out of scope for an African kid. But I wonder how many of those interactions go on daily. How many people who could probably make phenomenal contributions to different aspects of human endeavour get nudged away, because of where they come from, because of how they look, because of their sex, or their orientations? Folks, don’t let anyone; even those who have been tremendously beneficial, limit you. Do what you will, follow your curiosity. Live. Be.

Don’t stop questioning. Curiosity has its own reason for existing – Albert Einstein

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “African kids shouldn’t study quantum physics

  1. I like this post….
    Faced a similar situation in 2010/2011. Africa puts you in a box..I had a research topic the supervisor thought was beyond me as an African..took some form of tutoring on Africa for him to agree. Coincidentally, he had a problem he needed a solution and I just provided the way out without breaking a sweat… just sheer providence…

    I didn’t proceed to PHD… although I’m currently torn between PHD or MBA…

    Africa’s narrative needs to be increasingly shaped by Africans..

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s