A Conference in Ghana: Fufu and Cluster Algebras

by Tarig Abdelgadir

beachghanaI love going to conferences. There are the maths: sharing your peculiar interests with others is always fun. Then there is the warmth of the mathematics community. Add to that the experience of visiting a cool new country with your math-friends and you have a winner.

This conference was no exception. It was set in the beautiful West African country of Ghana, in Biriwa, with the official title of Homological Methods in Algebra and Geometry. The goal of the conference was to expose young African mathematicians to expertise in algebra and geometry, because these areas of research are slightly unrepresented in Africa. We hoped that the conference would help them enter one of these fields if they wished.

The idea for the conference came about when Ulrich Krähmer, a good friend of mine and mathematician at the University of Glasgow, visited Trieste. We got talking over pizza, at Peperino of course. He told me how he goes to Ghana to teach at the African Institute of Mathematical Sciences (AIMS) every year. The students’ enthusiasm made a real mark on him; the three weeks he spends there are the most fun in his academic year. It was then natural to invite him to ICTP to speak to our head of math, Fernando Villegas, who suggested we apply for ICTP funding to organize a conference at AIMS-Ghana. The rest is history.

The conference took place in the first two weeks of August 2016, held at the AIMS building in the fishing town of Biriwa. When selling it to the potential speakers we wrote “think Oberwolfach (a popular mathematics research centre in Germany) but with palm trees.” It didn’t disappoint. We had a lovely sea view from the dining hall; after talks, people would walk down to a nearby beach resort for a fresh coconut. After dinner, we would chop up some fruit that Rune, a Danish participant at the conference, got from the market. Rune would wake up at 5:00 am to go fetch fruit from the market! One may think that with this globalized world you can taste everything Earth has to offer at your doorstep; nonsense. I never tasted pineapples and mangoes like the ones we had in Ghana, super buonissimi!

groupghanaThe Ghanaian people were amazingly helpful and welcoming. We owe the local participants a lot; they volunteered to help with the airport transfers and were our local connection wherever we went. With them we had long discussions about Ghana’s upcoming elections. John, one of the young participants, hopes to stand for president someday. We helped come up with his campaign slogan, “good character is the key”, and hone his public speaking skills. Emmanuel Essel, the academic director of AIMS Ghana, invited us over for some fufu, the signature local dish. He filled us in on the inner workings of chieftaincy in Ghana, him being the son of a chief. We also got some lessons from the students on how to balance things on one’s head, a skill most Ghanaians seem to have mastered: street vendors not only walk but run with enormous amounts of goods balanced on top of their heads.

It’s hard to do justice to Ghana: the huge funeral parties, the elaborate caskets, the amazing fabric shops, the tro-tros, the early morning village radio to name but a few. However, I should also say something about the serious matter that is the academic aspects of the conference.

The talks at the workshop were top notch. The speakers made a considerable effort to make them comprehensible to a good percentage of the audience without compromising content. There was an exciting buzz about the place; the invited speakers clearly wanted to be there. They were eager to engage the participants in mathematical discussions: Aaron Lauda (a mathematics professor from the University of Southern California, USA) spent an extra hour every day speaking to the students, while Paul Smith (a mathematics professor at the University of Washington, USA) made it his duty to speak to all the participants and ask about their interests—these stories form a small sample. And of course, Ulrich was great, his energy and enthusiasm carried us through this.

In summary, high quality maths went down and lots of fun was had. Hopefully this had a positive effect on the mathematical awareness and maturity of the young African participants. The aim was never to change the face of algebra and geometry in Africa in one fell swoop or to change it at all. Part of it was to expose people to what the international algebra and geometry community are up to. So if one of the students ends up with a good Ph.D. in cluster algebras or one of the African participants publishes a good paper that uses Khovanov homology for example, this conference would be a great success in my books. The other part was to provide points of contacts for people inside and outside Africa. One of the greatest things about conferences is that it reassures us all that we are not alone in our academic endeavours. It would also be amazing if people went away feeling they are part of a bigger community, a bigger family.
Tarig Abdelgadir is a former postdoc in ICTP’s Mathematics Section, now at the School of Mathematics and Statistics at the University of New South Wales, Australia.

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