How did your brightest professor impress you?
One of 16 selected scholarship holders: Hamidou Tembine at the Next Einstein Forum in Kigali
Hamidou Tembine stands by the side of the stage at the Convention Center in Rwanda's capital Kigali, breathing slowly in and out. The air conditioning has cooled the room to a pleasant 20 degrees, it is the rainy season, but the sun is shining from the almost cloudless sky. A moderator stands on the stage, who calls out the speakers one after the other in a firm voice. Five scientists, each of whom has ten minutes to present their research. That's not much, Tembine knows. It has to be brief, quickly attract the audience's attention.
He steps behind the curtain, the audience cannot see him here. He briefly raises his arms like a priest when he asks for God's blessing. He does this exercise before every performance, a colleague told him the trick years ago, against stage fright and to calm his breathing. He pushes out his chest, inhales and exhales, slowly lowering his arms. Then he steps into the spotlight.
A stage for the brightest minds in Africa
Tembine and the four other speakers are here today because, as the moderator announced, they are among the brightest minds in Africa. They are scholarship holders of the program with the visionary claim “The next Einstein will be from Africa”. In 2018, 16 African scientists were selected for the program, from Egypt, Senegal, Ethiopia and South Africa, including a climate researcher, an astrophysicist, computer scientist and human geneticist. The Next Einstein Forum (NEF), the largest science conference in Africa to date, brought them together. There they exchange ideas with researchers from all over the world, with politicians and experts from business and talk about how the continent can be promoted.
Hamidou Tembine on stage: The Next Einstein Forum should also ensure that African research benefits the African continent more and more.
Tembine's eyes wander around the hall, he can't make out any faces, but he suspects who is listening to him. The Rwandan President is here, Paul Kagame, the Nobel Prize winner Klaus von Klitzing. The audience applauds, Tembine smiles sheepishly. Many in the audience are convinced that he has what it takes to win a Nobel Prize one day. Hamidou Tembine, 35 years old, born in Mali, son of a simple farmer, went to school in France, today professor of electrical engineering and information technology at Abu Dhabi University in New York. He is wearing a black suit, black pants, white shirt, black shoes. He has seven of these suits hanging in the closet, one for each day of the week. Sometimes he's not in his New York apartment for weeks and then doesn't have much time to have his suits cleaned. Bonjour Mesdames et Messieurs, he greets them in French and then again in English: Ladies and gentlemen, the audience is clapping again. Who of you is interested in working together? He now calls out. A rhetorical question, he knows the audience is now listening to him.
Applause for the scholarship holders: Meeting so many African scientists on their own continent is something special for many.
“It went well,” says Tembine as he steps off the stage. “At some point you get used to speaking in front of people.” He speaks in Seoul, London, Paris, New York or Shanghai, so in Asia, Europe or America, but almost never in Africa. It is paradoxical: of the 60 conferences he attends each year, perhaps 4 are held on the African continent. In Morocco, Egypt, South Africa, and sometimes in Ethiopia.
Tembine is now standing at a high table in the anteroom and is eating something for the first time that day. As a child in the Malian steppe, breakfast was rarely served. His family got meat maybe twice a year, the first meal often being lunch. It is Tembine's favorite meal to this day.
“It's enough,” his parents said to him when he went to school for four years. He had to walk there for over an hour there and back. He could now read and write - what more did he want? Why should he still go to school? Time that he was needed in the field, as a helper tending the cows and harvesting. He was the first in the family to understand what an alphabet that could distinguish an A from an O is. It is only thanks to his uncle that he was able to switch to a secondary school, 35 kilometers from his parents' house. His résumé then sounds like a modern fairy tale. The country boy meets a French couple at a math competition in Mali - they are impressed by the boy's thirst for knowledge and his will to learn. They later adopt him and bring him to France. He is twelve years old, doesn't speak a word of English, not a word of French and has no idea where Europe is. “I was lucky,” he says today. "I have two parents."
Hamidou Tembine's résumé sounds like a modern fairy tale.
Tembine's research is important for the African continent
When he later calls his parents from Mali in the hotel room, he will say that he is traveling, he will ask about his sisters, about the cows and the health of his uncle. His Malian parents think he works with computers even if they have never touched a computer. “That's true somewhere, too,” he smiles.
His French parents know that he has three masters in economics, mathematics and computer science, they know his university, the famous École Polytechnique in Paris - and they have an idea of what he is doing in New York, what his research is about : that he deals with traffic jams, with mathematical models that can calculate the flow of traffic and also predict where traffic is crowding and where it is not.
His research is important, especially for the African continent, where megacities are emerging and will continue to grow over the next few years. In 2040 the urban population will be larger than the rural population on the continent. The infrastructure, the water supply, the access to electricity and also the traffic must be geared towards these crowds. His French parents are both teachers, he can explain to them that the Next Einstein Forum is not only there to ensure that more scientists come from Africa in the future, but also to ensure that they stay there or at least return there, so that African research can also do so The continent - and not just Europe or the USA. Tembine should also take care of the traffic jams in Lagos, Nairobi or Accra, not just the ones in New York.
Brief history of the Next Einstein Forum
Five years ago, Thierry Zomahoun, President of the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS), and the Robert Bosch Foundation jointly launched the Next Einstein Forum. It is about promoting top African researchers, but also about strengthening their visibility in the world and their networking with other scientists and decision-makers. A lot has happened since then. The first global meeting of the forum took place in 2016 in Dakar, Senegal, where the first year of NEF scholarship holders also presented themselves. And in March 2018, more than 1,500 researchers, politicians and scientists from all over the world traveled to the event. Paul Kagame opens the conference, on the second day he sits on stage with Senegalese head of state Macky Sall for a discussion. Science and education are important issues in a continent as young as Africa, both presidents are aware of that.
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