During my early involvement in Kenya, I had the pleasure to chat with Prof. Haynes Miller, an MIT mathematician, about the potential for e-learning in Africa. He related the story of a relative who had gone to work in a small developing country, creating an interesting technological component in a library. After working for a year to get everything set up, the project leader went back to North America. Two years later, the leader went back to visit and found the library in terrible disrepair. Computers busted, the e-library unusable. The lesson here is that a successful project needs to have a good mix of leadership and capacity on the ground to continue after the mzungu founders have departed. A good project needs to have long-term participants involved in the design and deployment, and respond directly to the needs and capacities of the local community. And as one unravels these ideas, the whole notion of the ‘mzungu founders’ is itself quite problematic; our success is really measured by our ability to promote quality leadership, build capacity, and facilitate the vision of people who are committed to live and work in Africa for the long term.
All of which is to say that I think LakeHub hits a number of the right boxes. The leadership is almost entirely Kenyan, and the project is about harnessing and amplifying the abilities of the tech community in Western Kenya. I’m extremely excited to see it continue and thrive now that I’ve wandered back to North America. The Kenyans who are taking the lead on the project so fa are fantastic, and have the skills and vision to help take it forward. These are people like James Odede, Google’s student ambassador to Maseno University and head of the Maseno ICT guild, and Simeon Obwego, who works for Innovations in Poverty Action, and is a truly fantastic self-starter. Evan Green-Lowe, also from IPA, has also been a great contributor, and is largely responsible for the current push to get a full-time employee.
But we’ve run into the limits of volunteer organizing: there’s a lot of vital-but-time-consuming work that needs to get done. Like scouting for potential spaces, building partnerships with local businesses and community organizations, and, yeah, locking in funding sources. The plan is to search the budding Kenyan tech community for someone with a great combination of drive and vision to help build LakeHub up to meet its fantastic potential.
I’ve never been a hang-out-at-the-mall kind of person. The prices are higher than things I can find in the internets or strange alleys, the food courts unappealing, and the general level of “shiny” doesn’t really match my self-concept.
And yet, during my year in Kenya, I spent a lot of time at various malls. When staying in Nairobi, I would find myself in a mall every other day, it seemed. And it makes sense in retrospect: The specialist shops and on-line stores where I usually use to get my obscure electronics aren’t available in Kenya, and food safety seems a bit more reliable in the malls. The biggest factor, though, are the coffee shops. I spend a lot of time in coffee shops wherever I travel, unwinding thoughts and sketching proofs and sipping on a simple black Americano. And most of the coffee shops in Kenya are in malls.
The mall I spent the most time at in Nairobi was The Junction, and most of that time was spent at Art Caffe. It’s a space with a great slice of the mix of modern Nairobi. Yeah, there are a lot of jackass travellers like myself plugged into their laptops, but just as many people stopping through for a business lunch, mommas chatting about their kids, young people hanging out with friends, and men from unidentifiable Eastern European countries discussing possibly shady business in an unidentifiable language. It’s a great cross-section.
The third annual Maseno math camp ran in the third week of August; it’s a bit hard to believe that we’re up to three already!
The week started with a great talk from Rejoyce Gavhi, a South African mathematician who just finished a postdoc in Canada, and who is now starting a new job with AIMS:Sec. She talked about the challenges she overcame in pursuing mathematics as a woman from Africa, and was quite inspirational for everyone involved.
As usual, we divided this year’s camp up into five ‘themes.’ The themes this year were programming, modelling, geometry, combinatorics, and code-breaking. I mainly helped put together the combinatorics section with Ingrid Mostert (from AIMS:Sec) and Santiago Borio, a Geogebra virtuoso who teaches school in London; the sessions were about the bijection between subsets and lattice paths, and seeing the binomial coefficients from different perspectives. Chris Clarke put together some great sessions in the modelling section (for example, using massively multi-player dice-games to model the spread of a disease in a population). The programming section focused on building flow charts to describe algorithms, which was a pretty different tack than we’d previously considered, and I think a good one. I never really think of flow charts when I program, but breaking a process down into some ‘decision points’ and considering all possible outcomes is quite useful as a programmer. Approaching the process via flow charts is a great way to organize that process in a visual way.
This week I’ve been giving lectures at an algebraic geometry workshop in Mombasa. I know what some of you are thinking: ‘But Tom, you’re nothing like an algebraic geometer!’ And that’s true. But often the best way to learn something is by putting yourself in a position where you have to know it, like standing in front of fifty people expecting a clear explanation. In this case, I’ve learned some basics of Grobner bases (mostly from an excellent book by Cox, Little, and Shea) and have been augmenting the lectures and exercise sessions with Sage. I’ve written up some notes on the talks, and I’ll probably convert them into a web-based format with Sage cells and stuff sometime next week…
The workshop has participants attending from Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, Rwanda, and Zambia. The participants have been super motivated; we’re just finishing up the third and final week of the workshop, and the participants have been staying up late working on final projects. Attendance has stayed high throughout the workshop, to a degree you wouldn’t expect in (say) North America. The chance for exposure to math going on at the international level is a big draw, since it’s still so rare for international mathematicians to come through East Africa. I imagine it’s like if you only got to eat ice cream once every year or three: you’re not going to let anything go to waste.