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Making maths fun: volunteering in Africa

This summer, PhD students Marta Maggioni and Rosa Winter went to Africa. Not just to enjoy the beautiful continent, but also to stir up the enthusiasm of young students for mathematics. They volunteered at math camps in Kenya and Ghana. ‘I think it is important they experience the fun of maths.’

Classical VS creative

Maggioni and Winter are committed to SAMI: Supporting African Maths Initiatives, a charity that aims to improve the access to high quality mathematics education in Africa. The organization among others arranges summer camps in African countries. ‘These camps give local students the opportunity to explore maths beyond what is traditionally taught in schools, which can inspire and encourage them to pursue future studies in maths,’ explains Maggioni. ‘I think it is important to show that women as well as men can do maths and that maths can also be a lot of fun.’

‘What we hear is that the current way of teaching maths in Africa is very classical,’ adds Winter. ‘The teacher says something and all the pupils reply. This gives little room for mathematical or creative thinking, so maths is not as much fun as it could be.’ The camps are also an occasion for local teachers and international volunteers to team up and share ideas on education.

Perfect combination

The PhD students got involved with the project through a friend who couldn’t stop talking about it. Winter was immediately interested and joined a camp in Ghana. ‘I love teaching young students and I think it is important they experience the fun of maths. Apart from that, I really love Africa and maths, so this is the perfect combination!’ For Maggioni, it was her second camp with SAMI. This year she went to Kenya, after visiting Tanzania last year. ‘The mathematical backgrounds of the students differ quite a lot because of differences in the development of the regions and countries they’re from. But, in both countries the people were really welcoming and friendly and the experience was awesome!’

Mukimo is made from mashed potato, leavened pumpkin and corn. Most dishes are served with ugali: cornmeal porridge.

Everything is different

Volunteering in Africa is not the same as teaching at home. ‘Everything is different!’ says Maggioni. ‘But I think it is just a matter of how you handle it. Just try to be open and go with it. For example, you’re not gonna have your usual diet there, but the food was actually very tasty. I ate mostly ugali (cornmeal porridge), but my favourite dishes were mukimo and mandasi Language was not a problem, according to Winter. ‘In all these countries English is one of the official languages. In high schools they speak English. So it is very easy to talk to people.’ Winter noticed big contrasts between rich and poor, also at her camp. ‘Some of the kids were obviously from rich parents, while other kids were not that wealthy. And the fancy research institute that hosted our camp was next to a little town that was really poor. Those contrasts you don’t see in the Netherlands.’

The closing ceremony

Both agree the closing ceremony is the best moment of the week. ‘Sometimes, students decide to give a little speech about what they’ve learned, and to thank us,’ tells Maggioni. ‘I ended up going back home with drawings and cards from students who wrote things like: “This week was amazing, thank you!”’ ‘Yes, I really think their enthusiasm grows a lot because of all the fun. And because we teach them maths through puzzles and games,’ adds Winter.

It’s probably not very hard to guess what both Maggioni and Winter answered to the question: Would you like to go again? ‘I definitely intend to go again next year,’ says Winter. ‘I hope it works out timewise.’ ‘Definitely yes!’ answers Maggioni just as excited. ‘I’m looking forward to the next camp.’

Thank to the MI

Maggioni made sure that the rest of the Mathematical Institute (MI) also got acquainted with the camps. During the annual Christmas dinner, with the help of Aad van der Vaart, Maggioni held a fundraiser for SAMI. Among fellow mathematicians, she raised a 1,000 euros. ‘The director of SAMI told me that the money has been used for the 2018 math camps in Ethiopia, Ghana and partly for Kenya!’

Collection of books

Lots of schools do not have textbooks, let alone computers or an internet connection. To help the schools, Maggioni is collecting secondhand Maths books to send to Africa.

If you want to help her by donating books, you can hand in books in one of the boxes that are placed at the MI. One at the reception and one in the common room of the MI, on the second floor. Address: Snellius building, Niels Bohrweg 1.

The books can be of any level (high school/university) and must be in English.

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