DRUM Magazine: Interview of Philip Emeagwali

Philip Emeagwali
interviewed by Tim O'Hagan for Drum Magazine (South Africa, 1998).

What role can a computer can play in furthering the education of DRUM readers?
A computer is absolutely necessary to access the Internet. Books, magazines, music and videos can be electronically obtained from the Internet. A computer with Internet access will enable Africans to read most newspapers in the world, listen to thousands of radio stations from several countries and send instantaneous e-mail to 100 million people. Having a computer at home and work is as essential as having a telephone. In the future, schools and libraries could have more computers than books. Africans that do not have access to computer are not receiving a complete education.

What role can a computer can play in furthering the careers of DRUM readers?

There will be millions of good paying jobs that will require computer literacy. The Internet now makes it possible for an African to be employed by an American company. Many companies will rather pay $15,000-a-year salary to an African professional than pay an American $60,000 a year. Africa can attract these high-technology companies by investing heavily in technical education, introducing lots of computer courses and producing one million scientists and engineers a year.

There are still opportunities in computer programming. According to CNN, during the last three years, over 50,000 computer-related jobs with average salary of over $40,000 a year were created in Manhattan, a borough of the city of New York. That is over $2 billion a year pumped into the economy of Manhattan alone. We can pump billions of dollars a year into the African economy when we start selling our computer expertise to Europe and America.

Computers and the Internet have already enabled Africans living abroad to form numerous virtual communities called discussion groups with 10,000 members living in the United States, Australia, Japan, Finland, United Kingdom, and South Africa.

At these virtual communities, we hold daily discussions on African-related topics. In the latter instance, the e-mail effectively removes national boundaries. In fact, ideas generated within African discussion groups are now published in African newspapers.

In terms of future employment, the implication of the Internet is that an African contract programmer will not need an immigration work permit to work in the United States. Conversely, Africans living in Europe and America who are not yet ready to return home can lend their expertise to African communities, without being there.

What do you think of the fact that many Africans like yourself have been successful in other countries?
It requires a lot of hardwork, perseverance and dedication for an African to become successful in Europe or North America. Successful Africans help break the negative stereotypes and prejudices against Africans and inspire the younger generations of Africans to accomplish more.

Studying abroad makes it easier to become successful abroad. Growing up in Africa, I could only read the classic but out-of-date works of 15th to 18th century European scientists and philosphers, such as Galileo, Isaac Newton, and Betrand Russell.

I wanted to become a mathematician, physicist or astronomer. I could not study these subjects at the cutting-edge level in Africa. During the week that I arrived in the United States, I saw an airport, used a telephone, used a library, talked with a scientist, and was shown a computer for the first time in my life. I was amazed at the level of technological development in the United States and not in my wildest dreams did I expect to be recognized as a contributor to American technology.

Because of your interest in maths and ability at school, did the other boys look at you with respect?
Yes. In fact, my classmates gave me more respect than I deserved. The adulations from schoolmates and teachers bolstered my self-esteem which, in turn, gave me the confidence to tackle difficult scientific problems.

Where were you born, what was the name of your school?
I was born on August 23, 1954 in Akure, Nigeria.

My family moved around a lot while I was growing up and I attended six schools by the time I finished Standard 8. The last school that I attended in Nigeria was a Catholic, all-boys boarding school called Christ the King College, Onitsha.

As a boy did you grow up in modest surroundings or did your family have to battle to make a living?
I grew up in surroundings that varied from modest to extremely poor. My family has been homeless and we slept in refugee camps, abandoned school buildings and bombed houses.

We stood in long lines to receive foods flown into Biafra by charity organizations.

The hardship of living in a refugee camp made me pyschologically strong. It made me street smart. It equipped me with a greater sense of determination and vision.

When and where did you become a refugee?
We fled to eastern Nigeria in May 1967 because of the massacre of 30,000 Igbos in northern Nigeria. We became a refugee from 1967 to 1970.

I still vividly remember the night my hometown, Onitsha, was captured by the Nigerian army. It was a night that bullets and rockets rained in the streets of Onitsha and armed Nigerian soldiers were shooting at women and children.

What advice do you have for South African parents who want their children to do well in life?
We must ensure that our children are properly educated. When we invest in our children, we will find that our standard of living grows, too. We should invest in education and technology not because it is easy, but because our children will be the beneficiaries tomorrow of the decisions, we adults, make today. Investing in education and technology will be our legacy to our children; because it will bring the best out of them as well as all South Africans and enable us to reach our potential as individuals, as communities, as a people.

What do you attribute your success to?
I attribute my success to perseverance, risk taking, creativity and other personal traits that have helped people succeed in life.

These ten traits are preparedness, perseverance, resilience, independence, taking risks, conviction, focus, higher purpose, curiosity, and creativity.

1. PREPAREDNESS. Life is a journey of about 75 years. You spend the early years preparing for the latter part of that journey. To be the best in what you do requires many years of education, training and preparation. We cannot prepare for a good future by dropping out of school, having a baby out of wedlock or having a large family.

2. PERSEVERANCE. The road to success is rocky and requires perseverance to overcome the various obstacles, such as poverty, physical, mental and emotional disability, divorce, sexual discrimination and racism. Nelson Mandela grew up in poverty and spent 27 years in prison but he never gave up struggling and it paid off.

3. RESILIENCE. A resilient person never accepts defeat or failure. He or she keeps trying. Heavyweight boxing champion "Smokin" Joe Frazier once gave this advice. "When your nose is bleeding, fight one more round. When you head is aching, fight one more round. When your legs are wobbly, fight one more round. Always remember that he that fights one more round never loses."

4. INDEPENDENCE. You have to do things you strongly believed in. Makeda, the Queen of Sheba (modern Ethiopia), made the arduous journey across the desert and the Red Sea to learn from King Solomon. Nzinga, the fierce warrior queen of Angola, fought and defeated the Portuguese to liberate her people.

As a teenager, family members opposed my coming to the United States to study because they felt I was too young to live in a strange country by myself. I disobeyed them, came to the United States and succeeded and today they are glad that I disobeyed them. As a scientist, other scientists call my ideas and line of enquiry foolish and tried to discourage me from pursuing them. Again, I disobeyed them, made important discoveries and today they are glad that I disobeyed them.

Great scientists are innovative and non-conformist thinkers who followed their hearts and ignored the conventional wisdoms. Leaders in other fields are individuals who are not discouraged by the rejection of their ideas.

5. TAKING RISKS. We have a natural tendency to avoid taking risks. Harriet Tubman, the "Moses" of the Underground Railroad, risked her life to rescue and bring freedom to over 300 African slaves. Nelson Mandela took risks in his fight against apartheid. As a scientist, I strive to think differently from other scientists which, in turn, has resulted in lots of failures and successes.

6. CONVICTION. Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko had absolute conviction that their fight against apartheid is a worthy cause and therefore did not back down when they received death threats.

7. FOCUS. While it is important to always remain well-rounded, focus on the primary objective is important for success. The two best known African-American scientists, Benjamin Banneker and George Washington Carver, were so focused in their work that they never found time to marry or have children. While such extreme single-mindedness and devotion is not recommended, unnecessary distractions such as being on drugs, contracting AIDS or becoming a teenage parent makes it very difficult to make important contributions to society.

8. HIGHER PURPOSE. Successful people are driven by a force or higher purpose to accomplish their goals. Oliver Tambo, Miriam Makeba and Nelson Mandela were driven to serve humanity. Bishop Desmond Tutu is driven to serve God. During the period of apartheid, Bessie Head, Ezekiel Mphahlele and Alex La Guma used their critical writings to serve as South Africa's voices of conscience.

9. CURIOSITY. Many people were great not because they had a lot of formal education but because they were curious. Garrett Morgan that invented the traffic light and gas mask had 8th grade education. Thomas Edison dropped out of high school. Albert Einstein was such a poor student that his grade school teacher told his parents that he is retarded and his high school teacher convinced to drop out of high school. What Morgan, Edison and Einstein had in common is that each had a burning desire to invent things and solve the mysteries of the universe.

10. CREATIVITY. Successful people are willing to seek new solutions to old problems or accomplish a lot with limited resources. The African military genius, General Hannibal, had few soldiers and supplies and received sporadic and limited reinforcements. Yet, by being creative including using elephants to transport his soldiers across the Alpines, he was able to strike fear into the Roman army which outnumbered his. Today, warfare tactics innovated by Hannibal are taught in military schools.

Creativity is not immutable and genetically encoded upon renown scientists or military generals. An individual can boost her creativity by remaining motivated, curious, openminded and imaginative.

We either have these characteristics or qualities within us or we can study and learn them. No person was born great. We become great by practing these ten qualities and using great people as our role models.

Related articles/websites

Emeagwali's Website

Letters to Emeagwali

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

Click on emeagwali.com for more information.
Philip Emeagwali, biography, A Father of the Internet, supercomputer pioneer, Nigerian scientist, inventor

Next Page