Africa: Encounters With Extraordinary Engineers

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Kanyhama says that this idea of immersion underpins the African feeling about knowledge. It stresses the need to create a space in which a more collaborative, humanistic and holistic approach to knowledge can be developed.

Pictures tell the story

In African knowledge systems, Kanyhama says, mathematics, art and creativity are linked and lie at the heart of what she calls "game-changing ideas".

She gave me a wonderful example of how simple ideas and images, combined in the right way, and with a little technical assistance, can engage policymakers and prompt them to take action.

While working in Sierra Leone she found herself speaking to three senior politicians. Her strategy for engaging these dignitaries was to show them a PowerPoint presentation about transport and access.

The slides showed the construction of small feeder roads, pedestrian bridges and pavements - all small-scale and affordable solutions to local community needs. The effect was dramatic. "This is exactly the sort of thing we need!" cried one of the politicians. There followed enthusiastic calls for the images to be shown to the whole parliament.

Why such an impact? The politicians had, in effect, been immersed in more complete knowledge of what could be done with simple, practical solutions.

These were things which they had seen before and which they knew, but they had never thought about them in a way that immersed their senses in a better understanding of what such simple things could mean. Through Kanyhama's presentation, they had been exposed, in effect, to the third level of knowledge.

Success means being practical

At the World Science Forum, Umar talked of the importance of translating knowledge into practical solutions that can be fully understood by those who aren't researchers. This too seems to echo what Tierno Bokar said about the importance of reaching full immersion in knowledge.

Umar is a man with great energy who focuses on collaborating with everyone relevant to getting knowledge into practice, from designers and branding specialists to businesspeople. He believes that for change to occur, investment in basic and middle levels of education is a must. Or as he put it, the ground must first be prepared and the seeds sown evenly - metaphors echoing his time spent as an agricultural engineer.

While Umar uses complex phrases like the "ecosystem of innovation" and "the value chain of how knowledge becomes useful", his key message is really quite simple: science must be of practical value. "The issue is: do you want to be practically measured or not?" he told me.

"Science can quite easily push you to cloud nine and you start floating by yourself, and you're a great man - but you're actually nothing. You're publishing fantastic papers but you haven't contributed anything to your immediate environment. You may be recognised internationally and nationally but actually when you are checked you haven't done very well," said Umar.

I look forward to engaging Kanyhama, Umar and other engineers like them in the debate that we at SciDev.Net will be taking up in the New Year about how African PhDs can best be developed.

I'll finish with another quote from Umar. "Scientists should understand that our lifetime is very short and that by the time you get a PhD you're already forty or forty-five and when you become a well-known scientist, you're fifty or sixty and you really don't have time, so you'd better get on with it. Be practical, take the young ones with you, be inclusive and for God's sake enjoy your life."

This last sentiment sounds rather like a Sufi pearl of wisdom in itself.

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