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# News from ICTP 85 - Features - C Chidume

*Math professors in Africa have become an "endangered
species." Unless immediate steps are taken to reverse this
trend, Africa may not be able to develop an adequate pool of skilled
workers to meet the challenges of the 21st century.*

**Africa's Future
Discounted by Math Crisis**

**"You can't expect students to do math for the fun of
it. In fact, math's not much fun when you have few resources while
in school and limited job prospects afterwards that offer only
low pay and bad working conditions."**

**T**hat's Charles Chidume's shorthand
explanation of what is driving the crisis in mathematics currently
afflicting universities across sub-Saharan Africa.

For the past five years Nigerian-born Chidume, who coordinates the Diploma Programme for the ICTP's Math Group, has led a campaign to reverse the declining fortunes of mathematicians in Africa. Some of the statistics he has uncovered are startling. Zimbabwe, a nation of 11 million people, has only three fully trained mathematics professors. The same number holds true for Kenya, a country of 27 million people. And Ghana, with 17 million people, has none at all.

"The situation is disastrous," laments Chidume. "Universities throughout sub-Saharan Africa are starving for competent math lecturers. Their absence means that students in all fields of endeavour are not receiving the skills they need to succeed in our highly competitive and complex world."

"The problem is compounded by the fact that mathematics departments in Africa no longer attract the best and brightest students. In fact, math has become the major of last resort and often serves as dumping ground for our worst university students."

With teachers in such short supply and marginal students roaming the hallways, it should not be surprising to learn that other disciplines--most notably, engineering and computer science--have become more attractive for African students seeking to major in technical fields.

"The sad truth is that mathematics is no longer considered a worthwhile profession," Chidume adds. "The only jobs awaiting students when they complete their doctorates is teaching. And everyone knows working conditions in African universities are bad and the pay is pitiful."

Although the problem has become particularly acute over the past decade, Chidume notes that the root causes of the crisis lie in a series of events that have unfolded over a long period of time.

"Africa's chronic instability has adversely effected universities in general and mathematics departments in particular," Chidume notes. "Tribal warfare in Rwanda, for example, has shredded the social fabric of that nation and left universities in a state of chaos. Political unrest in Liberia has had a similar effect. It's virtually impossible to acquire adequate resources in such an environment or to create a nurturing atmosphere that's so crucial for learning," Chidume says.

The end of the Cold War, moreover, has made it even more difficult for African universities to receive much-needed funding from the North. International aid for the developing world has declined precipitously since the late 1980s and universities have not been exempt from this distressing trend.

The rise of other scientific fields--for instance, computer science and biotechnology--has added to the woes of university mathematics in Africa. As Chidume observes, "such trends do not mean that math is no longer valued but it does suggest that other technical fields are valued more, especially when majoring in these fields usually leads to better paying and more secure jobs."

So, what's to be done? Surely, African nations themselves must devise more effective strategies for encouraging their better students to pursue careers in mathematics. At the same time, they must take steps that encourage those who earn advanced degrees in mathematics--whether in Africa or elsewhere--to pursue their careers in their native countries.

Chidume notes that "boosting salaries and providing a more hospitable environment would help ease the crisis. Such measures would likely encourage African mathematics professors currently working abroad to return home. At the same time, these measures would help attract better students, making teaching more enjoyable and more rewarding."

Yet, Chidume adds that "the problem is so immense that the North's help must be solicited if we have any chance of meeting the challenge."

And that's where the ICTP has tried to make a difference. Over the past six years, Chidume and his colleagues have led an effort to slowly increase the number of well-trained mathematicians teaching and conducting research in Africa.

Since 1995, the ICTP's Office for External Activities (OEA) has sponsored four regional workshops in mathematics for sub-Saharan African students. The workshops, which have been based in Ghana, have attracted more than 200 participants.

"The process has been a very personal one," Chidume explains. "Because the number of participants in each workshop is so small, I'm able to talk to each student at length."

"Such interaction," he adds, "is often critical because the problems workshop participants face extend well beyond the classroom. Students must be convinced that the career paths they have tentatively chosen offer them a reasonable future. If they're not convinced, they'll move on to other fields."

This year, ICTP will take a second step in its long-term strategy by launching a regional college in Nigeria. Chidume says that the goal of the college, which is also being funded by ICTP's Office of External Activities, "is to advance the progress that has been made through the workshops. At the college, the most promising workshop participants will be given ongoing opportunities to exchange ideas and learn from one another. In addition, the best African math students in ICTP's Diploma Programme, which provides the equivalent of a master's degree, will also be encouraged to attend the college."

The first session of the regional college, which is likely to include some 15 students, is scheduled to take place in December 1998. At the college's conclusion, participants will be given an examination and the most successful candidates will be urged to enroll in university doctorate programmes. The ICTP plans to further assist these students in the preparation of their theses.

"Our math-crisis initiative began earlier this decade with our workshops. Now it has expanded into a regional college. The final step will be to produce well-trained African math lecturers with doctorate degrees who are eager to remain in their own countries and serve as role models for others," Chidume says. "Before long, we hope to be graduating about five newly minted Ph.D.s in math each year."

Chidume acknowledges "the strategy that the ICTP has devised to deal with this crisis will not overcome the problem by itself and that other steps will have to be taken. But he also warns that "continuing to ignore the issue will only handicap Africa's efforts to provide its people with the training and skills that they need to compete in a world where progress is driven largely by science and technology."

"Other issues--nutrition, health care, political and social unrest and environmental degradation--may receive more attention, but the Continent's appalling shortfall in qualified mathematicians is damaging its ability to develop a skilled and productive labour force. And without such workers, Africa will find it much more difficult to break its chronic cycle of poverty and hopelessness."

*Charles Chidume is Co-ordinator of the ICTP Diploma Programme
in Mathematics.*