It all began in 2010 with the word “quiver”. A year earlier, I had applied to be a mentor in the LMS MARM project, responding to not much more than an internal urge to do something exciting. One aspect of MARM is that it acts as a kind of matchmaking service, aiming to find common points of interest between African mathematics departments and prospective mentors. This is not always an easy task. But after an earlier proposal with no clear links to my interests in geometry and algebra, which I decided not to respond to, I was sent another application, from a place right on the Equator in Western Kenya I had never heard of. The list of specialisms of members of staff included Operator theory, PDEs, as well as “quivers”.
While my work has nothing to do with the first two topics, it has a lot to do with quivers; but it was an odd choice of word, referring to a relatively narrow area of formal algebra, though with links to many other subjects. The person behind this smoking gun turned out to be David Stern, a recent PhD in my field, who had moved to Kenya and taken up a lectureship at the Maseno University following a much stronger urge to do something really exciting.
It was clear then that there was common ground, and thus a MARM partnership was established; and with that, a journey for me to Africa.
Together with my graduate student Ben Davison, I paid several visits to Kenya, gave lecture courses on elementary and algebraic geometry and knot theory, and conducted heated discussions with local colleagues on teaching methodologies, the balance of research and teaching, and many other subjects.
We hosted in Oxford some of the talented Masters students David was working with at the time; we helped one on his way to a US PhD position. Contacts were established with other Kenyan institutions: the University of Nairobi, the country’s oldest and largest, though not necessarily its most innovative, and the dynamic Strathmore University, a Christian private institution with the soft-spoken, highly regarded statistician John Odhiambo as its Vice Chancellor.
I was impressed by the honesty and openness of many of the lecturers and students I met, as I tried (often unsuccessfully) to remember their names. Due to the hospitality and resourcefulness of David and his colleagues, I had the opportunity to visit some of Kenya’s beautiful places: lakes, extinct volcanoes, rainforests and the savannah with its non-human inhabitants, carnivores as well as herbivores. But first and foremost, I began to understand better the difficult conditions under which our colleagues in Africa work. The lack of resources is a problem; as is the relative isolation, including distance and cost of travel between, and even within, countries. But the main difficulties arise from the very large teaching and administrative loads that they carry.
READ FULL ARTICLE