In search of diamonds at Kimberley

In the Northern Cape of South Africa, the Square Kilometer Array has partnered with Sol Plaatje University to produce an annual “Big Data Careers Day” for the undergraduate students in the Data Science degree program.  I was very fortunate to be included in this year’s program (courtesy of the Newton Fund) to explain the field of bioinformatics to these learners and invite them to consider graduate study in the field.  In the late 19th century, Kimberley was a place where we scoured the earth for diamonds.  Hopefully the 21st century will be the era when its young people become diamonds through education.

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Vice Chancellor Yunus Ballim (SPU), Bonita de Swardt (SKA), and I were all smiles after a solid first day.

“Data Sciences” spans a considerable number of subjects, ranging across mathematics, statistics, and computer science, to prepare graduates for work in “Big Data.”  Because the Square Kilometer Array is under construction in the Northern Cape, 400 km to the southwest of Kimberley, many of these students hope to become engaged in astronomy research.  Major technology companies, such as Google, IBM, Dell, Microsoft, and Cisco, made their own pitches for the students, as did local Big Data institutions, such as Tracker, the Centre for High Performance Computing, and other universities.  I focused my message about bioinformatics on four key points:

  • We make a difference in confronting public health menaces, like TB and HIV.
  • Our careers let us pivot to new application areas at will.
  • Academics travel to many places in attending conferences and invited talks.
  • Graduate students in the sciences receive funding to cover costs during training.

Even though I was near the end of a long day of presentations, I felt that the students resonated the energy I put into my discussion.  Several of them expressed interest in practical internships or even attending honours at Stellenbosch Faculty of Medicine and Health Sciences.

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What a great group!

On the second day, I went in search of diamonds of a different sort.  I visited the town’s premier tourist attraction: The Big Hole.  When diamonds were discovered in 1871 on the De Beers farm, the area was a small hill.  After thousands of would-be prospectors acquired rights to mine small claims, the soil disappeared quickly.  By the time the mine had closed in 1914, the wealthy town of Kimberley had begun the industrialization of South Africa.  A massive “headgear” had been constructed to haul loads out of the mine.  A staggering 2722 kg of diamonds had been taken from the ground, with tunnels stretching as far as a kilometer below (essentially the same as the height of Table Mountain above sea level).  This is what remains of that hill:

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For scale, the distance from the surface of the water to the ground outside the excavation is 175 m.

In the mid-1900s, the city of Kimberley decided to turn this site into a history museum, and they relocated many historic buildings to a preserved village on the northwest corner of the hole.  My walk to that village passed through the downtown area, but I soon saw I had taken the wrong route; a high gate with razor wire surrounded the hole, and the area was heavy with litter and an unpleasant smell.  I turned south to walk through the largest concentration of taxi mini-busses I have ever encountered.  I endured my nightmare without screams and continued on my counter-clockwise route around the crater.  After passing a revivalist church of excitingly modern architecture, I reached the entrance to the historic village.  The headgear still stands above the observation platform.  I was heavily reminded of the structure appearing in Buffy the Vampire Slayer Season 5 during the final episode.

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The head gear dwarfs the buildings around it.

The village itself is an interesting collection of old and new.  I was particularly interested in a church (constructed in 1875) and a modular home that was prefabricated in England (1877) and then ported by oxwagon from the coast to Kimberley.  Inside the church, old recordings of hymns are played.  It’s a little spooky, honestly.

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Rapid construction is not always beautiful construction, but these buildings have endured quite well.

One of the biggest surprises for me came from one of the tallest structures in the historic village, with a lovely spire above it.  I saw that it was closed because a class was taking place.  When I peeked through the window, I saw that a Butlers Hotel School occupied the ground floor.  The hospitality workers of tomorrow were learning their skills in a completely up-to-date kitchen!

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Electric lights! Electric street cars!

For me, this reinforces one of the key lessons of my trip to Kimberley: the true riches that we have in our cities are the people who live there.  I am excited to see so much effort given to training the next generation of South Africans.

 

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4 thoughts on “In search of diamonds at Kimberley

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