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Daniel Howden: Ex-NASA man tried to tackle Mali’s problems

A widespread and worsening hunger crisis, at least two competing rebellions that have cut the country in two, active Islamic jihadists, a military coup and massive population displacement are some of the items in the in-tray of Mali's leaders.

If 'rocket science' has become the popular shorthand for complexity then the situation in the West African nation demands a rocket scientist.

Enter Cheick Modibo Diarra, Africa's first astrophysicist, formerly of NASA, and now the acting prime minister of Mali.

Ostensibly, his task is to deliver elections and a return to civilian rule in only 40 days.

The situation pits one of the most successful Africans of his generation against a perfect storm of the various problems that have held back progress on the continent for more than half a century.

He was born in a small farming community in central Mali in 1952, and his life's journey from a village in the Sahel to working on NASA's space programme is one of the more remarkable of the past century.

Mr Diarra decided to pursue the dream of becoming a scientist, winning a scholarship to study Maths and Physics in Paris. After graduating, he moved to Howard University in the US, where he completed his PhD and was teaching until a chance encounter with a Nasa recruiter who mistook him for a grad student.

Within a matter of months he was working on the Magellan mission to Venus. Working in California at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, he played an important role in five space missions, including heading the Mars Pathfinder quest.

While the appointment of the former NASA man to help restore democracy has been hailed in some quarters, others have dismissed him as being out of his depth.

Twelve years ago, Mr Diarra published a tome called 'Interplanetary Navigation' but he is likely to find that devising a way out of the complex crises besetting his homeland is beyond even him.

(©Independent News Service)

Irish Independent