African Mathematics – A Book Review

25 Sep

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.


Posted by on September 25, 2014 in Essays


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5 responses to “African Mathematics – A Book Review

  1. Emeka

    September 25, 2014 at 2:48 pm

    Great article. I never knew this history. It’s great to know mathematics has origin in Africa and we should continue to teach the next generation the importance of this subject.

    • chikaforafrica

      September 26, 2014 at 7:20 pm

      Thanks, Emeka.

  2. Dr. Arthur Lewin

    September 26, 2014 at 5:13 pm

    Dr. Bangura, I have recently discovered your work and I am avidly trying to catch up with you on the internet. I had been acquainted with Eglash’s work. Thank you for putting it in context in your review of his book, African Fractals, and relating it to this present work.

  3. TWIZEYIMANA Edison Dieu

    September 28, 2014 at 5:53 pm

    Thank you for this good article. I was not aware that mathematics is something we use even in most of african games, and surely, some games require more logical thinking, Thank you for shaping our knowledge and this, in particular shows me that Africans are intelligent and in most cases; they fear mathematics because of the language in which they are learning it which makes it difficult.

  4. S'bu

    November 2, 2014 at 5:31 am

    Thank you for this great article Dr. Bangura. You are right about the South African Mathematics concept being taught in English, I was lucky and had a tutor would taught me Mathematics in siSwati, which was way more effective than when I was taught in English. I was one of the best Mathematics students in My High School at the time in the province of Mpumalanga, in South Africa. The more people like you open our eyes on key pan-African facts like these, the better we will be as Africans. Please continue with this great work, I look forward to learning more.


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