Adding up to success

June 2, 2006

Three years ago, a handsome crumbling Art Deco hotel by the Indian Ocean near Cape Town was transformed into the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences (AIMS). It is an example of how South Africa is proving a regional draw for students from Algeria to Zimbabwe.

And, following a recent meeting of African science ministers, it is set to become the hub of an ambitious project to link science institutes across the continent. Maths is vital for development, says cosmologist Pedro Ferreira, a visiting lecturer from Oxford University. "At the heart of most areas of technical expertise is a fundamental knowledge of maths."

The AIMS is the brainchild of Cambridge cosmologist Neil Turok. It has so far given 110 students the chance to develop their mathematical skills.

Most have faced enormous hurdles to get there.

Atumbe Jules Baruani, for example, had to leave the Democratic Republic of Congo because of civil conflict. As a refugee, he moved between Angola, Zambia, Malawi and Tanzania, arriving finally in Namibia. He recalls the frustration of being an anonymous aid recipient. "They didn't give refugees a pen or a pencil: they gave us things to be a farmer," he says.

Fortunately, Baruani managed to study maths and computer science at the University of Namibia and found out about AIMS through a friend.

He is now studying computer science and belongs to a research group in network traffic engineering. "In my country, many people have never seen a computer. I thought studying computer science would be useful. As soon as peace is restored and I have finished my studies, I will not hesitate to go back," he says.

Baruani found the experience of meeting students and lecturers from other countries invaluable and he remains in contact with many of them.

The desire to foster such networks is behind Turok's proposal to set up the African Mathematical Institutes Network (AMI-NET). It would span the continent and connect 15 institutes inspired by, but not replicas of, the AIMS.

It is seeking $20 million (£11 million) in funding from the G8, a sum that will eventually be matched by African governments.

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