African Mathematics – A Book Review

Written by Dr. Chika Ezeanya and published by African Studies Quarterly | Volume 14, Issue 4 | September 2014


African MathematicsThe poor quality of teaching, the low absorption rate of learners, and the general fear of and dislike for mathematics across Africa south of the Sahara is well documented. The root of this challenge has been traced to the pedagogy of mathematics in Africa, which is basically Eurocentric. In African Mathematics, Abdul Karim Bangura attempts to utilize historical and contemporary sources to highlight Africa’s contribution to certain branches and sub-branches of mathematics and furthermore to explore the possibilities of research and teaching of mathematics from an African centered platform.

The author explains that some of the earliest mathematics objects in human history have been discovered in Africa. The Lebombo Bone, dated approximately 35,000 BC was discovered in the mountains of South Africa and Swaziland, while the Ishango Bone, dated 9000-6000 BC, was discovered on the border of Uganda and the Republic of Congo. In African Mathematics, the reader is reminded that it was mathematical knowledge that aided ancient Egyptians in tracking the flow of the Nile in order to determine appropriate planting seasons. Beyond the much-discussed Egyptian hieroglyphic, the book also addresses little known but equally instructive Egyptian hieratic and demotic numeration schemes. The Maghrebian contribution to mathematics is also covered. Much of the mathematics of that era and clime were for practical purposes, such as inheritance division, the construction and maintenance of irrigation canals, and the composition of medications.

Ishango Bone
Ishango Bone

African Mathematics dissects several studies that explore geometrical expressions found in African art. In textiles, wood carving, mural decorations, and story-telling, communities and peoples across Africa south of the Sahara display in-depth knowledge and practical expressions of geometry. The author also establishes several similarities in Africa’s numbering systems, and, perhaps without meaning to, disproves the oft-held belief that the continent is overly complex, diverse, and heterogeneous.

Abdul Karim Bangura
Dr. Abdul Karim Bangura

In other mathematical sub-fields such fractals, combinatorics, bifurcation, tiling, or tesellation the book utilizes numerous scientific evidence to link mathematics to several African activities, games, products, and processes. Under fractals, foremost mathematics researcher Ron Eglash’s statement, that in Africa he encountered “some of the most complex fractal systems that exist in religious activities such as the sequence of symbols used in sand divination, a method fortune telling found in Senegal” and the Ifa divination system of the Yoruba of Nigeria is interesting to note.1 Several African indigenous games are shown to involve Combinatorics. African board games are singled out for emphasis as they are “games of strategy, full of information, logic and intelligence [and therefore] it is imperative to ask questions of intelligence, logic and mathematical reasoning when investigating them” (p. 79). This analytical understanding of African games is worthy of note, especially in the light of its dismissal in certain quarters as a game for idle and unintelligent minds. One implication is that present day African researchers and intellectuals ought to further explore more indigenous African activities for deeper intellectual underpinnings.

The last two chapters of the book focus on the research and teaching of African mathematics. On the teaching of African mathematics across schools and colleges in Africa south of the Sahara, the author focuses on the language of learning. He cites an empirical study conducted in South Africa, where both teachers and students concede that the teaching of mathematics in English is not so that students can learn better, but rather so they could be more fluent in English and get jobs faster. This is despite the admission that students learn mathematics better, and teachers teach better in their home language. Essentially, the language of instruction is an area where African scholars and policy makers need to invest much time and effort to arrive at a progressive and balanced decision.

Traditional African Board Game

At a time when emphasis is rightly beginning to shift from how many schools there are in Africa to what African students are learning in classrooms, African Mathematics will generate numerous questions for all concerned with curriculum development and management. The major challenge of African Mathematics is that it appears to start out as a cross-disciplinary work, but somewhere in the middle it assumes a strong technical inflection, only to slip back into a cross-disciplinary mode towards the ending. But the fact is that the book ought never to have been written just for the very knowledgeable few in that narrow field of study. African Mathematics holds the promise of acting as a catalyst for indigenous knowledge-based exploration in all fields of study where African researchers can be found.

Abdul Karim Bangura. 2012. African Mathematics: From Bones to Computers. Lanham: University Press of America. 220 pp. Available on Amazon.

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