The University Cheikh Anta Diop has its earliest roots in a medical school founded in Dakar in 1918 to train primarily French students for medical work in French West Africa. Over the years other elements of higher education were started and in 1957 on the eve of independence these were pulled together into the University of Dakar (sounds like the new black school buildings built in the US south in hopes of thwarting the Supreme Court 1954 desegregation decision). For a significant number of years after that, the faculty was predominantly French. In 1987 the name was changed to the University Cheikh Anta Diop after the very famous Senegalese Africanist. If you have not read the English version of his book, The African Origin of Civilization: Myth or Reality, you should.

At independence in 1960 the University had 1,018 students with about 40 percent coming from other Francophone countries in Africa. This has grown to about 60,000 students today, mostly from Senegal. The faculty is now overwhelmingly African. Entrance is based on the French system and those passing their academic BAC exam enter with no tuition cost. It is a tough exam and some students not passing it the first time study to re-take it the following year.

My invitation to speak with doctoral students came from Prof. Alioune Kane, head of the doctoral program on Water, Quality and Use and also the graduate program in Integrated Management and Development focusing on the coastal zone.

The language of instruction at the university is French, but as young scientists they know some English to help then read scientific papers. I on the other hand, function proficiently only in English. Nevertheless we had a great session and I was impressed by the dozen plus students and younger faculty members not just by their intellectual power but their commitment to applying that knowledge to facing daunting problems of climate change and sustainable development. Their understanding of the importance of their work to addressing Africa’s and indeed the world’s challenge for survival is also quite significant.

One young man was working with the MIKE SHE water flow modeling system. This is a complex mathematical system, developed to model water movement identifying the various components that impact water quality. He wants to combine this with satellite information and geo-reference (what one does with a GPS) to improve watershed management. He would like to include in his doctoral program a research stay at a US university. Such experiences are useful when they can be done for any graduate student; but in Africa it can be very important as there is not the density of research universities as in Europe and North America.

Generally students from Francophone countries like Senegal countries are limited to French universities while there is a much broader window from Anglophones. For a country it is useful to have a body of scientists who, as a whole, have exposure and contacts throughout the world. I will be looking for potential university spots for him and welcome readers’ suggestions.

Next time you see a news article showing drought and starvation somewhere in Africa just match that with the image of students and faculty at the University Chiekh Anta Diop who are working to create new water management systems that can prevent future scenes of the impacts of drought from happening.