Diary of an RSS fellow teaching at AIMS Cameroon: Part 2

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RSS fellow and medical statistics PhD student Will Hulme moved from University of Manchester in January to teach at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) in Limbé, Cameroon. Here he shares the next installment of his experiences of a typical day working at AIMS Cameroon.

The flagship programme that Will tutors on is a residential Master's degree for talented African graduates, with lecturers invited from across the world. There are 47 students on this year’s course from 17 different African nations.

An embassy for mathematics

Breakfast is served at AIMS from 7-8am. I get up with my alarm, timed to get me to the canteen at 7.55, though I've been awake since the songbirds started chirping at dawn. The water is still off so I take a quick bucket shower using water from the huge back-up barrel. It’s cold, but hot showers are a convenience I do not miss in this climate.

Limbe, CameroonStrolling back to AIMS in the balmy air, the densely vegetated hills that surround the town are now visible in the hazy morning light, though the higher slopes of Mount Cameroon disappear into the cloud. The road is alive with the kind of mundane vibrancy of people unhurriedly repeating their daily routines. Traders head-carrying buckets of groundnut sweet (candied peanuts) or beignets (pastries) or fruit (fruit, but tastier). Dawdling school kids in their all-blue uniforms. Smartly-dressed commuters hailing the yellow taxis and motorbikes that comprise most of the local traffic. Village weavers (birds, not people) harvesting the tall grass by the river to assemble their spherical nests.

The AIMS premises are walled and fenced, like 'an embassy for mathematics' (Dr Michael Ndjinga, AIMS lecturer) or 'a prison' (various AIMS students, who are free to come and go as they please). A new site by the beach will soon be constructed where, like sister centres in Ghana, Senegal, and South Africa, students will be able to escape for a refreshing swim in the Atlantic. For now though, the programme makes do with the current site which, though not as swanky as some other AIMS centres, is pleasant enough so long as the power and water are flowing.

I pass through the gates and go straight to the canteen. It's pancakes for breakfast, my favourite. Doughy, slightly burnt, and slightly sweet, they're infinitely more appetising than the fish-paste and onion baguettes served twice a week. The tea is made from leaves grown from volcanic soils up the mountainside just a few kilometres away. The coffee is Nescafé. I take my tea and pancakes, and join a student eating alone. 'Williams, good morning. Bon appetit!'. Williams is my name now, no matter how many emails I sign-off with Will or William.

Linguistic diversity is an unmissable feature of life at AIMS. Not surprising, since there are 17 African nations represented, one more if you include the tutors. English is the lingua franca – all courses, assignments, and written communications are strictly in English – though more than half of the students speak French, with English-speakers a close second, and Arabic- and Malagasy-speakers a distant third. Most students also speak their own local language though only a few students have these in common (there are over 250 tribal languages in Cameroon alone) so I rarely hear them spoken. There are daily English classes – straight after lunch when everybody is in a hot, postprandial slump – that have been especially helpful for those who had little English to begin with. No respite for the English-speakers, for whom there is a French class instead.

Presently, however, as I chat to my francophone breakfast companion, no amount of language lessons will improve our mutual intelligibility since we’re both hurriedly stuffing our faces with pancake so as not to miss the first lecture. I’m leaving it a bit late (tutors’ privilege), though I still hypocritically chide those few remaining students as I get up to go.

AIMS Cameroon classroom - photo courtesy of CoffiOver in the lecture room, the air-conditioner hums as one obliging student wipes the blackboard and the rest take their seats. The course material has moved onto Estimation Theory – sufficiency and efficiency, MVUEs and BLUEs – thankfully more familiar topics for me so, sitting at the back with the other tutors, I guiltily pay more attention to my phone than the lesson.

The students here are bright and eager to learn, demanding a lot of the lecturers, tutors, and themselves. If a student spots a mistake, her hand will be raised. If a student is confused, his hand will be raised. If the lecturer asks for a volunteer, hands will be raised. Still, break time is break time, and after an hour a few students shamelessly glare back and forth at the tutors and the wall-clock, until the lecture is adjourned. Most students head for the door but, as is typical, a small clutch gathers round the lecturer to scratch a few remaining mathematical itches, denying him his five minutes’ peace.

The next lecture passes much like the first but with the addition of a 15 minute quiz, a mini-assessment designed to gauge how well the students are following the material since they’re a mixed bunch, with different abilities and prior knowledge. There are pure and applied mathematicians, physicists, engineers, computer scientists, and statisticians, so some students will fare better than others for any given topic. And though by no means representative, it is not unusual for students to have undergraduate experiences characterised by cramped and crowded lectures, inadequate resources and contact time, and large curriculum gaps. The lecturers therefore must pitch their courses to be accessible, stimulating and rewarding to a range of backgrounds.

As for the lecturers themselves, this year about half are African and the rest from overseas. That mix is important. First, it helps to raise the profile and prestige of AIMS, both within Africa, where sites and funding for new centres are sought, and overseas, where the quality of the AIMS academic programme may not be appreciated. Many students aspire to careers in Europe or North America and lecturers based in these regions can help to give a leg up students disadvantaged by geographical and cultural barriers. Some students have progressed their careers based directly on connections made at AIMS (Dr Merlin Mouafo Wouodjie recently became the first AIMS Cameroon alumnus to complete his PhD since its inaugural Master’s in 2013/14), but even a five-minute conversation about relevant European research programmes can make a difference.

On the other hand, inviting lecturers based in Africa provides opportunities for them to strengthen their own and their institutions’ international academic connections, both within Africa and elsewhere. Of course, the students also benefit; aside from being more relatable role-models, African lecturers are champions for the continent’s mathematical capabilities and can offer a corrective to students who presuppose prosperity through mathematics can only be found overseas.

The professor leading the present lecture, a formidable but friendly Yaoundéen, is a fine example of this. Not only an ambassador for mathematics, but for mathematics in Africa, and for Africa itself.

Read Part 1 of Will's blog.

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The AIMS programme is kindly sponsored by Taylor &Francis Group. If you're interested in working at AIMS, find out more about our funding opportunities.

Follow Will on Twitter @wjchulme

African Institute for Mathematical Sciences (AIMS)

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