The Next Einstein Will Be From Africa

In Kigali, African scientists got together at what is currently their continent’s largest scientific conference. We accompanied Next Einstein Forum fellow Hamidou Tembine. He grew up in Mali as a son of simple farmers. Today he’s a professor of electrical engineering and information technology, and one of Africa’s best scientists.

Linda Tutmann | July 2018
Hamidou Tembine at the Next Einstein Foru

He is one of 16 Africans selected for the NEF-program: Hamidou Tembine in Kigali.

Hamidou Tembine stands at the side of the stage in the Convention Center in Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali, slowly breathing in and out. The air conditioning has cooled the room to a comfortable 68 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s the rainy season, but at the moment the sun is shining down from a nearly cloudless sky. A moderator stands on stage, calling each speaker one by one in a firm voice. Five scientists, each given ten minutes to present their research. Tembine knows that is not much time. He’s got to keep it short and quickly gain the audience’s attention.

He steps behind the curtain – where the audience can’t see him. He briefly raises his arms like a priestpraying to god. He performs this little exercise before every appearance. A colleague showed him this trick years ago to calm his jitters and steady his breathing. Chest out, breathe in, breathe out, let the arms down slowly. Then he steps forward into the spotlight. 

Visibility for Africa’s brightest minds

Along with the four other speakers, Tembine is here today because, as the moderator puts it, he is one of the brightest minds in Africa. They are all fellows of the program with the visionary claim that “the next Einstein will be from Africa.” A total of 16 African scientists were selected for the program – from Egypt, Senegal, Ethiopia and South Africa. The cohort includes a climate researcher, an astrophysicist, a computer scientist and a human geneticist. The Next Einstein Forum (NEF), currently the largest scientific conference in Africa, brought them together. With researchers from around the world as well as politicians and experts from the business world, they exchange ideas and talk about how to advance the continent.

Hamidou Tembine on stage: The Next Einstein Forum is also meant to ensure that African research increasingly benefits the African continent.

Hamidou Tembine on stage: The Next Einstein Forum is also meant to ensure that African research increasingly benefits the African continent.

Tembine’s eyes cast about across the hall. He doesn’t recognize any faces, but he can guess who is out there in the audience, listening. The Rwandan president Paul Kagame is there, as is Nobel Prize winner Klaus von Klitzing. The audience applauds, and Tembine smiles sheepishly. Many in the audience are convinced that he, too, has what it takes to someday win a Nobel Prize as well. Hamidou Tembine, 35, born in Mali, son of a simple farmer, schooled in France, now Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at New York University in Abu Dhabi. He is wearing a black suit, black trousers, a white shirt and black shoes. Seven of these suits hang in his closet – one for each day of the week. He is sometimes away from his New York apartment for weeks at a time,so he doesn’t often have enough time to have his suits cleaned. “Bonjour Mesdames et Messieurs,” he says, greeting the audience in French and then once more in English: “Ladies and Gentlemen.” The audience once again applauds. “Which of you is interested in cooperation?,” he now asks. A rhetorical question, he knows. The audience is listening.

Applause for the fellows: Meeting so many African scientists on their own continent is something special for many.

Applause for the fellows: Meeting so many African scientists on their own continent is something special for many.

“It went well,” says Tembine as he climbs down from the stage. “At some point you get used to speaking in front of people.” He gives talks in Seoul, London, Paris, New York and Shanghai, so in Asia, Europe and America, but almost never in Africa. It’s a paradox; of the 60 conferences he attends every year, maybe four are held on the African continent. In Morocco, Egypt, South Africa, and sometimes in Ethiopia. 

Tembine is now standing at a tall table in the foyer, eating something for the first time today. As a child in the Malian steppe, there was seldom anything to be had for breakfast. His family had meat perhaps twice a year, and the first meal of the day was often lunch. To this day that remains Tembine's favorite meal.

“That’s enough,” his parents told him after he attended school for four years. He had to walk an hour each way to get there. He could now read and write – what more could he want? Why should he then continue to go to school, spending time there instead of in the fields where his help was needed to herd the cows and during the harvest? He was the first in his family to understand what an alphabet is, that there was a difference between an A and an O. It is all thanks to his uncle that he was able to switch to a different school to pursue his education – one that was 35 kilometers from his parents’ house. His life story then continues like a modern fairy tale. The boy from the country met a French couple at a mathematics competition. They were impressed by the boy’s intellectual curiosity and will to learn. They later adopted him and brought him to France. At the time he was 12 years old, didn’t speak a word of English, didn’t speak a word of French and had no idea where Europe was. “I was lucky,” he says today. “I have two sets of parents.”

Hamidou Tembine beim Next Einstein Forum 2018, Kigali

Tembine's life story sounds like a modern fairy tale.

Tembine’s research is important for the African continent

When he later calls his Malian parents from his hotel room, he will say that he is travelling, he will ask about his sisters and the cows and his uncle’s health. His Malian parents think he works with computers, even though they’ve never even touched a computer. “And in some ways, that’s true,” he smiles.

His French parents know that he has completed three Master’s degrees in economics, mathematics and computer science. They know his university, the famed École Polytechnique in Paris – and they have some idea of what he does in New York and what his research is about. They know that he works on intelligent transportation systems, with mathematical models that calculate the flow of traffic and can also predict where traffic will accumulate and where it won’t.

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