An Alliance for Africa

power lines in desert
Getty/Jeremy Woodhouse

Power lines across the Namib desert.

For the children of Mpumalanga, South Africa, a typical walk to school involves picking a path across land abandoned by a coal-mining company, dodging sinkholes, and holding cloth to nose to avoid breathing in toxic gases and dust from underground fires raging below. It's not unusual for children to be swallowed up during this walk, or for nearby roads to cave in, taking cars or buses with them.

Undergraduates from Penn State, visiting South Africa for the United Nations World Summit on Sustainable Development last August, could hardly believe their advisor, professor of geography Amy Glasmeier, had brought them to this wrecked place—"returned" to the community after its resources had been depleted. She wanted the students to see an example of a method of resource extraction that is not sustainable.

But for the children of Mpumalanga, dealing with the wreckage and the fear is part of their daily routine. Understandably, most of them leave for the cities—or for other parts of the world—as soon as they're able.

Environmental atrocities are not the only burdens that the people of Africa must bear. The U.S. Agency for International Development released a report this year identifying sub-Saharan Africa as the only region in the world in which average incomes have declined over the past three decades. "The African continent has been ravaged by war, famine, disease, and countless other problems. Its human resources have been depleted," says Michael Adewumi, professor of petroleum and natural gas engineering.

Adewumi, a native of Nigeria, is one of a growing number of scholars who insist that universities can, and should, play a key role in rebuilding Africa's human and natural resources. He and 20 other Penn State faculty members—engineers, scientists, and social scientists, including Glasmeier—recently formed the Alliance for Earth Sciences, Engineering, and Development in Africa, a partnership among scholars at American and African universities, governments of African nations, non-governmental organizations, and international aid organizations.

The idea: Use their combined skills to tackle problems as complex as environmental degradation caused by oil and mineral extraction, drought, lack of clean water, AIDS, a poor telecommunications infrastructure, and overpopulation. The idea is not for western universities to swoop in to the rescue. "We plan to take a collaborative approach," Adewumi says, with the various cooperating groups learning from each other. He envisions research and educational exchanges between students and faculty from partner institutions; training internships and visiting scholar programs; and courses designed collaboratively and delivered over the Web. Technology transfer—adapting engineering and earth science technologies developed at Penn State so that they work in the African environment—is another major goal.

"But there's always a chance people will say, ëNo thank you. What a wonderful idea, we just can't implement it,'" says Sylvester Osagie, assistant professor of labor studies and industrial relations at Penn State's Altoona campus. "It's important to take into account political situations and cultural differences, and to listen."

This October, the American and African university partners, as well as government and non-governmental organization leaders, will come together for a symposium at Penn State, and several representatives from oil companies will attend.

Steven Hinchman, a 1980 graduate of the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, is vice president for production at Marathon Oil, overseeing his company's operations in both Equatorial Guinea and Gabon. Hinchman is dismayed that Gabon, which has the oldest oil industry in Africa, is a country in economic and social decline. "The government never established a grassroots infrastructure to invest oil money into communities to build hospitals and schools, develop a skilled labor force, train people in technical areas," he says. Hinchman, with the support of Marathon Oil, wants to work with the Alliance and the government in Gabon to build such an infrastructure.

For Adewumi, the Alliance is "more than just a program. It's a passion," he says. Adewumi has seen his country and its people suffer over the years, and now, with the backing of the University, he has finally found himself in a position to make meaningful change.

Michael Adewumi is professor and Quentin E. and Louis L. Wood Faculty Fellow in petroleum and natural gas engineering and director of the Alliance for Earth Sciences, Engineering, and Development in Africa (AESEDA) in the College of Earth and Mineral Sciences, 102 Hosler Bldg, University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-2816; m2a@psu.edu.

Last Updated September 01, 2003