Bahir Dar Research, and a Return to Kenya

Ethiopia has fantastic coffee, everywhere, always.  I love this country.
Ethiopia has fantastic coffee, everywhere, always. I love this country.

The math group in Bahir Dar was incredibly hospitable, and, as mentioned in the previous post, has some really interesting outreach projects going on. They have a couple-few research groups getting started, one working on fluid dynamics, and one working on lattice theory (as in posets, not mathbb{Z}-modules). One of the really inspiring things about the visit was that, in addition to having an awesome and enthusiastic staff, they are also receiving quite reasonable support from the University (and by extension, the government) for advancing their research and outreach projects. People involved in project work can apply to have reduced teaching loads, giving them equal pay but plenty of time to advance the projects. Meanwhile, the university is hiring more lecturers to make up the extra time; presumably this will end up looking like a much more flexible version of the research universities in the US, which have a two-tiered system of research professors and lecturers. This allows them to reward people with good ideas and plans with extra time, rather than making the decision at-or-before hiring time; it’s an interesting idea, and probably much more appropriate to the local context than the US system. It reaffirms my feeling that until African countries will continue to lag in science until the governments get serious about funding the universities for research: Here we have an example of awesome university support which is fuelling great projects. Another positive development is that Bahir Dar sounds like it’s starting to put caps on the number of courses people can teach; this keeps people from taking on unrealistic teaching loads in order to get a bigger pay-check, a real problem in Kenya. Of course, such a move also needs to be paired with decent pay for lecturers!

One of thing I heard repeatedly at Bahir Dar was that the research programs need more mentorship. They are about to start offering a PhD program in math, and only have a few PhD holders to start from. This means that there is a danger of the research programs being a bit too over-specialized, especially when combined with the fact that it’s very difficult for people to get out for conferences to share ideas. As a result there’s a real need for interaction with vagabond mathematicians like myself. I think the next time I have a few months free, I’m going to strongly consider going and giving some research-oriented course(s) for the department there. If you’re a vagabond mathematician, I think it would be really cool for you to do so, too! Ethiopia’s really lovely, and it would be an excellent way to get involved in an exciting environment.

Looking out from the conjoined churches of Gabriel and Raphael.
Looking out from the conjoined churches of Gabriel and Raphael.

After Bahir Dar, Elizabeth and I spent a couple days in Gondar, where we visited some 500-year-old castles built by the Portuguese, and then went to Lalibela, home of a mind-blowing collection of rock-hewn churches. The story goes that in the 14th century, King Lalibela carved the thirteen churches over the course of 30 years or so. The churches are also linked by extensive systems of dark, otherworldly, underground tunnels, and surrounded by small holes dug into the rock which until recent times were monk’s quarters. Historians say that all this was built with local labor, maybe 3,000 people, and possibly using help from the Knights Templar. Local legend, though, says King Lalibela did it single-handedly with the help of angels. (Which seems a pretty nice way to overlook feudal labor issues.) I’m not one to put stock in angelic interventions, and tend to side with the native-origin hypothesis over the Knights Templar hypothesis. (The probability of a historical hypothesis plummets towards zero once the Templars become involved, after all.) In any case, it’s a fantastical site, set in a truly remarkable landscape.

I returned to Kenya from Ethiopia about a week ago, after some SNAFU with Kenya Airways trying to secure a ticket back after the election. (They wouldn’t let me rebook without physically coming into Addis, by which time they had cancelled a flight and declared the next day’s flight full, even though it ended up being half-empty… So I came home to Kenya on Thursday instead of Tuesday.) It was a fantastic trip all told, though Elizabeth and I had on-and-off stomach issues throughout the trip, which slowed things down a bit. And now I’m settling back into a hectic pace in Kenya, posting more videos for the Algebraic Structures notes, and getting some training programs started with the Kakamega school district and the group out in Amagoro! More on that soon….