Launching Africa with Arusha, Tanzania

Finally, Africa, a continent I’ve felt all along might be ideal for my odyssey: English as an official or co-official language in many countries, plenty of eager students, few international conferences or faculty passing through, local projects that could benefit from Big Data, and lots of new travel territory for me. My schedule doesn’t have as many African stops as I’d like, in part because of visa issues: It should have occurred to me when I started traveling that I wouldn’t ever be home long enough to send my passport away for a visa, so it’s seeming impossible for me to teach in countries where that’s a requirement.

My time at The Nelson Mandela African Institution for Science and Technology (NM-AIST) in Arusha, Tanzania confirmed my hunch about Africa — I had a great week. NM-AIST is one of seemingly many new universities sprouting up in developing countries. Sometimes they’re billed as liberal arts colleges, which are rare outside the USA, or they “develop future leaders,” or like NM-AIST they’re for graduate studies only. They typically have strong initial philanthropic support and publicity, nice campuses, facilities, & residences (relatively speaking), and a dedicated student body. But quality faculty can be difficult to come by, and some of them hit a slump a few years in. For now, NM-AIST seems to be doing well.

We started off with a Design Thinking and Collaborative Problem-Solving workshop that highlighted once again how the Design Thinking approach crosses cultures and continents with little difficulty. Invariably, participants appreciate the methodology, master sticky-notes and team-based brainstorming, come up with interesting solutions to their design challenge, and build creative prototypes even when materials are limited.

Design Thinking workshops appeal to all cultures and combinations of participants.

The main event was Big Data, running 8:30–5:30 for four days straight, making it the longest single Big Data short-course so far — we were able to cover nearly all of the topics on offer. It was standing room only in the 100+ person auditorium, with negligible drop-off in attendance. By pure coincidence, my visit was immediately preceded by the African Grand Challenge, which brought four-member student teams to NM-AIST from Kenya, Uganda, Rwanda, Nigeria, Burundi, Burkina Faso, and Tanzania; the objective was “a collaborative learning experience for students interested in the application of science and technology research to critical problems in Africa,” along with a competition. Sponsors of the Grand Challenge generously extended their support so all of the students could stay on for my teaching. I found them to be some of the most attentive and accomplished participants, with a special shout-out to the team from Carnegie Mellon University’s branch in Rwanda, who incidentally also won the Grand Challenge.

Students hard at work in the Big Data classroom. The flowers and colorful streamers were left over from the African Grand Challenge.

One evening I had an interesting roundtable discussion with about 20 women. We covered a wide range of topics, but what struck me most is that many of them, NM-AIST graduate students, were married yet living apart from their spouse. A good fraction had children as well; sometimes their children were living with them in the spacious and attractive NM-AIST student housing, but often the children were living far away with their father and/or other relatives. Most of the women reported having supportive families and supportive husbands too (though I heard a lot about the “typical African male,” who would decidedly not be supportive of his wife going to graduate school), but all of them said their chosen path was frowned upon by their community at large.

Interesting discussion over refreshments with NM-AIST women graduate students and a few faculty & staff.

The biggest logistical challenge was internet connectivity. The Big Data hands-on modules don’t require high bandwidth, but they do require reliable connections. The IT staff kept adding wifi routers but it didn’t seem to make any difference — only a small handful of the 100+ students could connect at a time. Fortunately many participants set up their phones as hotspots and were willing to share. I’ve observed that phones are becoming the de facto standard way of connecting to the internet in countries where data is cheap, which seems to be every country except the USA! I myself frequently connect through my Google Project Fi phone, a service that’s been near miraculous for my travels.

I’m often asked how the students, and my teaching experience in general, have differed across the wide variety of places I’ve been to already. There’s no crisp answer. As expected, broadly speaking the more developed the country, the more prepared and knowledgeable the students are — but not particularly more eager or engaged. It also makes a difference whether the country funnels its highest-achieving students to specific universities (e.g., Vietnam, India) or the universities are all more or less equal (e.g., Indonesia). The classroom environment can also make a difference — electricity, projection, internet, microphone, ventilation, etc. — though so far I’ve been able to overcome or at least tolerate all of the practical challenges.

My overall experience is also influenced by non-teaching factors. Accommodations have ranged from upscale hotels in Thailand and Indonesia to the campus guesthouse in Bhutan where there was no running water for a while, and even when there was I had to tote buckets of water from the bathtub to coax the toilet to flush. (I actually loved the charm of the place!) Then there’s the jogging. Given how busy Arusha is in general, I was lucky to have some relatively quiet streets near my hotel. During my morning runs the most common greetings I received were “pole pole” (pronounced “poh-lay poh-lay,” which I happen to know from our 2010 Mt. Kilimanjaro climb means “slowly slowly”), and “hello mama!”. I fear neither says a lot about my athletic prowess.

After a three-way convergence of my husband, daughter, and me for a weekend in Cape Town, next it’s a full week of teaching in Windhoek, Namibia.

In my limited free time I always enjoy visiting colorful local markets.