Muza Gondwe: It was not easy to identify them

Muza GondweIt was not easy identifying them; I had to rely a lot on nomination from peers. The information in biographical dictionaries of “leading” scientists was scant and searches on the internet revealed very little. But now, I am mid way through my six month fellowship and it seems I am overwhelmed with the numbers, this ever-growing list of names of esteemed African scientists fills me with pride as it demonstrates the magnitude of African ingenuity. 

I am a visiting fellow at the Centre of African Studies on the Public Understanding of Science in Africa. I am working on two projects, the first I refer to as “ science engagement tourism,” where I have burdened myself with the enviable task of going around to famed science communication organizations learning what they do so that I can adopt and adapt it to Malawi, where I am from. I have so far met with the Naked Scientists, been on a maths school road show, explored the depths of five science museums, attended several activities during the Cambridge Festival of Ideas, started a blog, and been on a documentary film making course. The second project is African science heroes, a project that aims to celebrate distinguished black African pioneers of science who have made significant contributions to any of the physical and basic sciences.  The primary purpose of this project is to nurture ambitious aspirations by showing young Africans what can be achieved in any walk of life.

The seed of this idea was planted in me when I attended a science seminar several months ago by Bobby Cerini on her PhD thesis – Science Heroes. It should not come to anyone’s surprise that the science heroes she discovered were mostly white and male. It then occurred to me that even in my former life as a scientist, I did not have any black science role models, no black equivalents of Einstein, Darwin, or Newton. So I sought to correct this deficit, motivated by quotes from Toynbee and Watson.

“It will be seen that when we classify mankind by colour, the only one of the primary races, given by this classification, which has not made a creative contribution to any one of our twenty-one civilizations is the Black Race.” – Dr. Arnold Toynbee, The Study of History, Vol. I, page 233. (Vol I: Introduction; The Geneses of Civilizations (Oxford University Press 1934). The famed Nobel Prize geneticist who discovered the structure of DNA, James Watson, in 2007 said in an interview with the Sunday Times he was “inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa” because “all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really.”

In my investigation I have learnt some startling facts: no black African has won any of the Nobel prizes in science; the UK has six times as many researchers as Sub-Saharan Africa; and, according to the Mathematicians of the African Diaspora (MAD), 0.1% of the total number of mathematicians in the world are of black African heritage.

This all made the task of identifying the scientists daunting – the volumes of books in the Cambridge University Library and the internet were not much help. I did, however, come across several publications about African-American scientists, peppered lightly with African scientists, but it seemed no one had already done the work for me of gathering the stories of African scientists. I quickly overturned my initial disappointment into a challenging opportunity, circulated an email around to all the people I knew, and asked them to suggest names, and, lo and behold, the names started trickling, then pouring, in.

It has been gratifying to learn of talents that have overcome hard times, such as Philip Emgweali who was a refugee during the Nigerian Biafran war but later rose to become a hero of the internet or Hamilton Naki a technician in South Africa during apartheid who assisted in the first heart transplant, or Olufunmilayo Olopade who is doing ground breaking research in breast cancer. It is my hope that celebrating their achievements and advancing them as role models, they can connect with young Africans and inspire them. 

Muza Gondwe is a science communicator from Malawi who is keen to engage Africans with science. She is currently on a fellowship at the Centre of African Studies on the Public Understanding of Science in Africa, working on a project titled African Science Heroes.