Stories told on the sidelines of a math conference in Africa
Written by William Foreman
They spent most of their time discussing mathematics. But during coffee breaks and lunch, they swapped fascinating personal stories and described their interests and ambitions. Here are just a few shared by participants of the Third Buea International Conference on the Mathematical Sciences on April 30-May 3 in Cameroon:
Trolling for tips
Although he’s a doctoral student in physics, Nfor Oma Nkeh sat in on an Italian professor’s lecture about financial mathematics.
The Cameroonian graduate student wasn’t thinking about changing his field of study. He was just trolling for tips on giving better presentations.
“I’m learning about how to present and how to make contacts and how the professors go about research,” said the graduate student at the University of Buea, which hosted the conference, co-sponsored by the University of Michigan.
He gained a lot from the lecture given by Ermanno Pitacco, professor of actuarial mathematics at the University of Trieste.
“The presentation was quite precise and concise – straight to the point,” he said. “He made sure that people can grasp the information.”
Nkeh also hopes the conference will advance his ambition to go abroad.
“For young researchers like us, your background experience counts so much,” he said. “When people see your CV and notice that you’ve attended a conference like this, they say let’s give him a try.”
An IT evangelist
Harry Ngatchu doesn’t have access to the Internet at home, though he’s a doctoral student in computer science and an associate lecturer at the University of Buea.
He keeps his home offline because he said a Web connection would be a constant source of frustration. Internet access is sporadic and unreliable, even at the university.
“Before it used to really kill me, but I’m learning to find ways to deal with it,” he said.
Ngatchu became accustomed to reliable Internet access while studying at Cardiff University in Wales. He said his students in Cameroon aren’t annoyed by the lack of regular access to the Web because they’ve never had it.
“Most of them don’t know any better. For them, this is the norm,” Ngatchu said. “This is one of those situations where ignorance is bliss.”
Ngatchu said that when it comes to information technology, Africa is playing in an inferior league, and this presents serious challenges to development.
But he added that events such as the Buea conference give him hope.
Many of his students are attending the conference. The event gives them a better idea about what the rest of the world is doing with information technology.
“The main impact of the conference is that it makes the students want to build up their own league,” he said.
Ngatchu said he’s less interested in the Internet and focuses more on SMS and mobile phone communication, which is more accessible and reliable in Africa.
He encourages his students to write telemedicine applications for mobile phones that enable people in remote areas to have better access to life-saving medical information and resources.
“I’m an IT evangelist,” he said. “I preach and talk information technology.”
He’s a French speaker who teaches in English. But the biggest linguistic challenge Mkam Tchouobiap Serges Eric has faced was doing his doctorate degree in Japanese.
The senior lecturer in physics at the University of Beau earned his Ph.D. from the University of Yamaguchi, near Hiroshima.
A series of global connections took him to Japan. When he finished his master’s degree in Buea, he went to France, where he met a Russian professor who was also working in material physics. The professor introduced him to a Japanese colleague who invited him to Japan.
He spent his first year and a half in Japan studying the language six hours a day. “But on Saturdays, I would only study four hours,” he said.
Searching for Uncle Gregor
As a boy growing up in Germany, Werner Varnhorn loved to listen to stories about his Great Uncle Gregor, who served as a Roman Catholic missionary in a faraway land called Cameroon.
The uncle went to Cameroon about 1892 and quickly developed a reputation as a handyman. He was a skillful plumber, carpenter, mechanic and metal worker. He even did basic dentistry, and Varnhorn has a black-and-white photo on his iPad of his uncle pulling teeth in a makeshift dental clinic on a verandah.
“He was an all-around man, taking care of practical things,” said Varnhorn, chair of applied mathematics at Kassel University in Germany.
Uncle Gregor eventually died in Cameroon in 1913 from an aggressive strain of malaria. He was buried in Douala, close to Buea, but his grave’s location was unknown.
When Varnhorn heard about the first Buea conference in 2009, he saw it as a good opportunity to pursue his professional interests and search for Uncle Gregor’s grave. He spent one week at the meeting and two more weeks researching church records and following his uncle’s trail.
He found a church with a roof installed by Uncle Gregor that was still intact. He also went to a hardware store and bought a hammer.
“On the hammer, I wrote the name ‘Uncle Gregor,’ which reminds me of the things he has done,” he said.
He found the graveyard where Uncle Gregor was buried, but the grave markers were gone, so he couldn’t find the exact burial spot.
Varnhorn isn’t giving up the search.
“Next time when I come here, I’ll spend more time preparing,” he said, “and I’ll go to the archive in Douala to find the old documents.”