Memories of Colonial Africa
Excerpt from Nigeria’s 50th anniversary lecture at the
Embassy of Nigeria, Paris. Lecture video is posted at emeagwali.com.
I was born in 1954 in colonial Africa. One of my most
cherished mementos from the colony of Nigeria is one of the pennies I
received for my school lunch allowance. The coins bore the likeness of
Edward VIII, who became King of England on January 20, 1936, and were
minted in anticipation of his reign. However, Edward abdicated the
throne on December 11th of that year before he could be crowned. He gave
up the British kingdom to marry the love of his life, an American
In 1960, a typical day in my life began at our compound on Yoruba Road,
in Sapele. Our compound was adjacent to the Eagle Club, a night club
where I ran errands for music legends, such as master trumpeters E.T.
Mensah, Eddy Okonta, and Zeal Onyia. They would give me a penny to buy
two sticks of cigarettes and I would bring back their half-penny change.
Some mornings, my mother would give me a penny with the instructions:
"Buy rice with a farthing, beans with a farthing, and bring back a
half-penny change." When I told this story to my son, Ijeoma, he
interrupted, saying, incredulously "Daddy, you can't get change for a
penny!" I then show him my souvenir: a British West African
central-holed coin, bearing the head of King George V and minted in 1936
with the inscription "one tenth of a penny." The central hole was for
stringing the coins together, to carry them. The world has changed
greatly since my youth!
Nigeria has existed for 96 years and has been independent for 50 years.
Nigerians must look back to the first 46 years, spent under colonial
rule, to understand the 50 post-colonial years of their self-rule.
Looking backward, like the Sankofa, is a prerequisite for understanding
the way forward.
With self-rule came responsibility. We're now being held accountable for
our actions and inaction, our coups and corruption, and our civil wars
in Biafra, Congo, and Rwanda.
Looking backward 96 years will enable Nigeria to understand when and
where it's train derailed and how to put it back on track. I believe our
train derailed because, although the 46 pre-independence years were a
brain-gain period, the 50 post-independence years have been marked by
the largest brain drain since the Atlantic slave trade.
Looking forward 50 years, I foresee that nations delivering information
and communication technologies will indirectly rule Africa. I see the
cellular phone, the computer, and the internet enabling Africa to
replace selection with election. I see the internet enabling citizens to
become reporters, decentralizing the media. I see technology enabling
freedom of the press and democracy in Africa.
Kwame Nkrumah said, "Socialism without science is void." I say,
"Democracy without technology is void."
A scientist can be famous yet remain unknown. The grand challenge for
scientists is to focus on discoveries that reduce poverty rather than on
winning prizes. To focus on the prizes we have won, instead of the
discoveries we have made, would be akin to dwelling on a hero's medal
and ignoring his heroism.
Discoveries and inventions that increase wealth and reduce poverty are
the "heroes" of science and technology and one hundred nations have
printed their revered scientists' likenesses on their currency. This
elevated those scientists as exalted bearers of their people's best
vision of themselves.
Please allow me to answer a question I was asked: What did I contribute
to science and technology? I reformulated and solved nine partial
differential equations listed in the 20 Grand Challenges of computing.
The equations I invented are akin to the iconic Navier-Stokes equations
listed in the Seven Millennium Problems of mathematics. Those Seven
Millennium Problems are to mathematics what the Seven Wonders of the
World are to history. To be accurate, the equations I solved were not
exactly solvable, but were computably solvable. That is, I digitally
solved the grand challenge version, not the millennium one that must be
A novelist is a storyteller, and a scientist is a history maker. A
novelist creates a fictional world, but a scientist discovers factual
stories about our universe. I am an internet scientist who discovered
factual stories. I reprogrammed and reinvented an internet to tell
65,000 factual stories to as many subcomputers.
The internet—meets humanity's fundamental need to compute and
communicate—and spreads like bush fire, and resonates decade after
decade, and maybe century after century. The internet is a technology
that both connects people and connect with people in a way that will
forever remain deep and enduring.
I am the artist that told stories about how the Laws of Motion gave rise
to the eternal truths of calculus; timeless truths that will outlast the
changing opinions of all times. My restated Second Law of Motion became
my footprints; my reformulated partial differential equations became my
handprints; and my reinvented algorithms became my fingerprints on the
sands of time.
I'm the physicist and the mathematician who told a story in which a new
technology came alive through three boards: a storyboard, a blackboard,
and a motherboard.
My story has been retold from boardrooms to newsrooms, from classrooms
to living rooms. It all began as a dialogue between a supercomputer
programmer and his 65,000 subcomputers, which he reprogrammed as an
During a conversation conducted in the languages of physics and
mathematics between me and my machines, in 1989, I performed a world
record of 3.1 billion calculations per second: This occurred when my
keyboard replaced the handwriting on my blackboard and bridged the gap
between man and motherboard. I became known for my discovery that a
supercomputer is an internet and vice versa, and I, the storyteller,
became both the story and the witness.
My journey to the frontier of knowledge did not begin in America. It
began in 1960 in Colonial Africa.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Philip Emeagwali: War survivor, supercomputer
pioneer, and according to readers of London-based New African magazine,
history’s 35th greatest person of African descent — has been described
by President Bill Clinton as “one of the great minds of the Information
Age,” as well as “the Bill Gates of Africa.” He won the 1989 Gordon Bell
Prize, the Nobel Prize of supercomputing.