Cry the Beloved Country


By Timi Hyacinth Ughanze, October 24, 2000, Lagos, Nigeria.

MANY years have gone by, since the Nigerian nation fought its civil war. The cries of the past remain unheard, at least for the unhearing. The blood, the sorrow buried in the hearts of those who cannot forget. Buried also in distant places, in the earth, the sea, the rivers of Nigeria: A nation blessed with human resources, blessed with intellectual strength. A nation though 40 yet full of limitations. Hopes dashed almost in pieces: Nation reaching out. Crying to be helped.

To whom shall we lay the blame?

Her colonialists?
Her leaders?
Her citizens?

If we can find whom to blame would she be revived? Will her anguish be satisfied with the accusing finger?

It is time to speak out.

Her strength lies in her limitations, her future in her opportunities.

She seeks opportunity, which may never be given her. Her friends lost her confidence after they lost confidence in her. Her future is in her hands under a merciful God.

It is time to rehearse the lessons of the past. Time to examine our limitations. It is time to create our opportunities. For our limitations have become our opportunities.

Many years ago a child suffering the pains of hunger, went homeless and without school, He was a refugee. Surviving a maddening war he did not start, he was cast into despondency and helplessness like many children in his time. This child’s limitations are today his greatest opportunity. I write of Philip Emeagwali, Africa’s super brain. He is as a matter of fact one of the "Fathers of the Internet."

It is expedient that this story is told for the sake of Nigerian children born during and after the war. It is important at a time like this to remember that the Nigerian civil war did not solve the problem that triggered it. The same problem rears its ugly head even now and until we can agree to resolve our differences we stand the risk of making the same old mistakes.

We can live together as one nation. We can rest all accusations. We can through individual and communal effort make the difference in this entity called Nigeria and perhaps in the wider world.

We find ourselves under a gross sentence “ The most corrupt nation in the world.” By classification we have been judged ‘guilty as charged.’ Our people are looked upon as drug pushers, thieves, and criminals, without redemption.

The name Nigeria is scorned in many places. In spite of this, we are still Nigerians. We have raw natural talent: Our God given ability to excel in any field of study, our thirst for knowledge, our resilience, our vast and diverse culture, the never relenting will to survive. We stagger on, nation, resourceful in a thousand and one ways. Reeling in confusion yet consumed with a supernatural desire to endure. Philip Emeagwali is a Nigerian.

Born about 40 years ago. It was his lot to be from Onitsha, which was a major battlefied during the Nigerian civil war. He was exposed to death by bullets, death by hunger, death by disease and malnutrition, death by any means and in any form it assumes during war. He survived the war. Many like him were not so lucky.

The war cost him the comfort of a home and normal family life. In replacement he got poverty. His dreams of a better tomorrow were overshadowed by the harsh realities of life. He lost the continuity of formal education.

Dropping out of school in standard 8, his hopes for the future were put to the test. Would this child who was particularly brilliant in mathematics amount to nothing? Not so for his father.

His father, James, rekindled the hope by getting involved with his son’s education. His inability to pay Philip’s school fees did not deter him from his plans. Putting it into action, the senior Emeagwali began his son in a daily routine of 60 mathematics problems every day.

In the next few years, Philip Emeagwali would see himself studying 18 hours a day. This routine formed the basis of Philip Emeagwali’s venture into the world of mathematics and with it technology.

From solving 60 mathematics problems a day he increased to one hundred per hour further stimulating his mental faculties. He soon surpassed his father in mathematics. He now had to study alone.

Philip Emeagwali was turning a limitation to opportunity with the help of a wise father. He was able to catch up on his lost formal education and in 1973 he obtained a scholarship to study in the United States of America.

The boy who had dropped out of school for financial reasons had finally qualified for further studies abroad through sheer hard work and strength of will. For many young people in Nigeria today, the pains of Nigeria’s crisis has caused much sorrow. They were not involved in the founding process of the nation. They feel cheated, helpless and hopeless. They have done all that they know to do.

Many have struggled to acquire an education of some sort, striving to acquire more degrees. The search for fulfillment has been frustrating. More have hunted for jobs that are simply not available. Those with jobs still grapple with a harsh economy. For many the future appears bleak.

Students still struggle to go through school, often times with rushed syllabuses. They still face the agony of an uncertain future from sub-standard facilities, outdated textbooks and laboratories that are virtually empty. For them the study of science has mostly become theoretical.

These same students can still change the world. To the youth that feel they have not had a chance, I say: learn from the story of Philip Emeagwali. You may never get an opportunity until you create one for yourself. Your limitations are your best opportunities. It is not the time to trade blame. It is time to contribute to the development of the Nigerian nation.

It was many years from the days of hunger and destitution; Philip Emeagwali was now in the United States to study. Life was by no means rosy. He had to content himself with studying in a small college. With careful planning he was sure he would get through. At first one of his teachers suggested he major in computer science. He enrolled in the program but changed his mind when he discovered he would have to make do with a substitute for a computer: a teletypewriter. There were no computers available in this small American college because they simply could not afford any in 1974.

During his undergraduate years, he stumbled upon a book titled "Weather Prediction by Numerical Process" written in 1922 by Lewis Frye Richardson. Classified as science fiction, it was about a human computer made up of 64000 humans and its ability to trace the weather of the whole globe.

Science fiction or not, Emeagwali believed this hypothetical situation could be modified to reality. He used as his prototype the busy bee colony and the efficiency of the bees at work.

He also had his own theory that 65000 chickens could efficiently carry the same weight that 8 strong bulls could and could even surpass the bulls. Since he did not have 64000 humans to use to test this theory, he was left with no other option but to propose that 65000 small computers working together would exceed supercomputers in speed and efficiency. This formed the basis of his discovery.

This was the beginning of his dream of the supercomputer he would program but as usual he had many hurdles to cross. This time he was not only going to suffer for being a Nigerian, but he would feel the sting of his skin colour becoming to others a limiting factor. More than a decade would pass before he would put into practice what he believed to be possible. Our young people still dream like all other people. They hope for a better life. They aspire for the same things other young people aspire for all over the world: love, good health, sound education, good jobs, freedom of statement etc. Will they be condemned because they are Nigerians? Will they extinguish their hopes and aspirations because of a harsh economy and the perceived imaginations of people who are hasty to judge them?

It is interesting to note that Philip Emeagwali was jobless and homeless in 1977 even though a graduate and in the USA. The memory and lessons from the dark days of the Nigerian civil war and how he survived in spite of all odds kept him going.

He was experiencing racial segregation. Confronting the realities of life in America, and the general preference to hire White engineers above Blacks. Undeterred he increased learning to give himself a better chance in a society that was predominantly white. Today, he has university degrees in five different areas of study.

Philip Emeagwali walked a path that few have treaded because they lacked the courage or because they allowed a so-called limitation to prevent them. In the sequence of time, Emeagwali faced new challenges. He needed to solve a mathematical problem that would assist the oil industry in oil exploration and enhance accuracy in the discovery and recovery of crude oil.

With no immediate access to a supercomputer he applied to be allowed to use one. Fortunately, permission was granted. He was then asked to proceed to get his password to access the supercomputer. Twice, he was refused a password even though he had official approval. Whenever he appeared to pick up his password he was refused on one excuse or the other. He finally found out why: he was Black.

Undaunted, he held onto his theory of the efficiency of smaller units of computers working together instead of one supercomputer. He had one option yet: Create an opportunity out of this situation.

Using 65000 different processors in different locations, he put his theory to practice many did not believe he could do it. The rest is history.

In 1989, Philip Emeagwali performed an astounding feat, which was previously considered impossible. He did the world’s fastest computation: 3.1 billion calculations within a second using his invention, a supercomputer with 65000 different processors, 3 times faster than all previous supercomputers.

His need pre-empted his discovery. Together his 65000 different processors working together became his prototype for a supercomputer that could work more efficiently than the other supercomputers.

Sharing his mathematical equation into 65000 different parts, he simultaneously programmed 65000 computers to solve a mathematical problem described by the United States' government as one of the twenty most difficult problems in the computing field: simulating the flow of oil in petroleum reservoirs.

He set about doing his graduate study but ended up stunning the world. His successful calculation helped to solve a major need in the oil industry. He would be saving the oil industry billions of dollars in oil exploration.

In 1975, Philip Emeagwali believed in a hyperball supercomputer network that would compass the world. Others did not believe. For them the Internet would span only America, and would be a limited network, and would remain exclusive.

In the 1990s, when the Internet (as we know it) was reborn, he was proven right. Today the benefits of his resilience are many. His proven theory has changed the basic structure of the computer processor. With his theory, we will eventually have personal computers that are as powerful as the supercomputers of today. Cries of marginalization fill our land. Many complain of disadvantage. Nigerians must understand that no disadvantage is a disadvantage after all. Limitations are essentially a thing of the mind. A plant will always grow round the hurdle that keeps it from light. Its root must press deep otherwise it dies.

What we do ourselves with our different situations is what determines our future.

Injustice in any form should not be condoned; it will do us some good, however, to understand that we can do the things that will bring us honour despite visible limitations as individuals and Nigerians.

It is time for reconciliation. Time to give thanks for 40 years of independence. Time to plot a path for the advancement of the Nigerian nation.

We live in the Information Age; we must not be left behind. Our policies on technological advancement that are suitable must be put into practice and where they fall short, be re-appraised.

A sound foundation of mathematics will need to be properly built as a basis for learning. Humans are numerically intelligent, we think in terms of number. Understanding mathematics is essential for every Nigerian child.

It is expedient that methods be formulated to make this foundation less difficult for our children to grasp. Educators should face the challenge of making mathematics more interesting and teaching children that we can do anything when we try.

Young people should take courage. Their contributions to Nigeria will make or mar her. There is a way out of every predicament, a way of honour and hope. It is time to speak out without striving. Time to listen. Time to be objective. A time to believe again that Nigeria will remain because we want it to. Time to learn from the example of people like Philip Emeagwali. "

  • To be continued

  • Mrs. Timi Hyacinth Ughanze is an Internet consultant, a Graduate of English Language and a member of the Society of Friends of Emeagwali.

    Philip Emeagwali, biography, A Father of the Internet, supercomputer pioneer, Nigerian scientist, inventor

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    Philip Emeagwali, biography, A Father of the Internet, supercomputer pioneer, Nigerian scientist, inventor