We often laugh at the perceptions people have of Africa and her people, like the one that we still have wild animals roaming the streets of Johannesburg.  Hopefully the thousands of visitors that came to South Africa for the 2010 Soccer World Cup will dispell that myth once and for all.  Another persistant (and more worrying) perception seems to be that African culture and intelligence is inferior to those of Western nations.  Most people still think that the various Europian colonists did Africans a favor by introducing Western culture and religion – so-called “civilisation”.

African Fractal

I found this TED talk by Prof Ron Eglash fascinating.  It’s about the use of fractals in African design, specifically in the design of African settlements.  Fractals are complex shapes with the property of self-similarity. Rather like holograms that store the entire image in each part of the image, any part of a fractal can be repeatedly magnified, with each magnification resembling all or part of the original fractal. This phenomenon can be seen in objects like snowflakes and tree bark. The term fractal was coined by Benoit B. Mandelbrot in 1975.

Prof Eglash has fractals are used in several locations across the Afican continent, sometimes intuitively (because they look nice, stupid!), but quite often they are associated with complex algorythms that are used intentionally by the designers.   To quote Prof Eglas: “These results agree with recent developments in complex systems theory, which suggest that pre- modern, non-state societies were neither utterly anarchic, nor frozen in static order, but rather utilized an adaptive flexibility that took advantage of the nonlinear aspects of ecological dynamics”

These self-organising fractals are part of Africa’s hidden cultural capital that can be used in a variety of ways.  Of particular interest to me is the use of fractals in maths and science education, especially now that we’re in partnership with the Sasol Inzalo Foundation, who focuses on improving Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics education in South Africa.  According to Prof Eglash they have seen statistically relevant improvement in maths education of children from ethnic minorities when they used these fractals as part of their tuition.  According to him, It has tremendous value to be able to demonstrate to children a rich cultural heritage based in mathematics, and not just singing and dancing. In effect they are able to use these fractals as metaphors for maths and science concepts that children find difficult to understand.  Because these fractals are rooted in African heritage, they find greater resonance with African children.

Here is an example of how it could work in practice:

Perhaps the most important function will be the utilization of traditional knowledge in math, science, and engineering education. For example, the Jola are excellent musicians, and have developed a “whistle language” as well as a drum communication system that allows them to communicate over long distances. Because of this, their vocabulary includes analogs for western concepts of oscillation, frequency, phase, and other elements of signal processing: an excellent basis for physics education. We plan to develop an introduction to basic physics using amplified sound from the Ekonting visually displayed on an oscilloscope; showing how the modern physics concepts are translated by the Jola indigenous knowledge system. We have asked the Tektronix Foundation to donate an oscilloscope for this purpose, and Portland’s Black Educational Center has expressed an interest in participating in an exchange program to further develop this physics lab for encouraging in math and science interest among African American students. Since it is widely acknowledged that some version of the Ekonting is the forerunner of the American banjo, the connection to American heritage, both Black and white, is quite profound.

Again, an important aspect of developing such a synthesis is in terms of local empowerment. Students will be able to use indigenous knowledge to learn ecology, medical sciences, and physical sciences in ways that encourage both the continuation of Jola tradition and prepare them for an increasingly technologized world.” from African Fractals in Development: Indigenous science for education and development – a bootstrap approach.

Traditional African methods for doing self-organisation are robust algorythms that offer ways of doing entrepenieurship (for example) in ways that are gentle and egalitarian.  They offer unique ways to approach complex problems from the bottom-up.  Could the answer for poverty alleviation, HIV prevention and other intractable problems potentially lie in Africa’s fractals?