An intersection of mathematics and politics

The past Saturdays I have been volunteering as a Maths tutor for the Upstart Youth Development Project. As far as many of my beloved learners were concerned, Maths wouldn’t reside in a planet designated for languages. Maths would reside in a different and very distant planet with a hard to pronounce name— I would imagine, to banish it properly from the memories of people.

I found this disappointing but not entirely unexpected. So, in a slightly determined fashion, I decided one of my key priorities will be to help the learners locate Maths within the language planet. And, of course, allow them to gradually come to terms with the fact that another planet for Maths is as non-existent as Pluto.

In pursuit of this priority, I found myself in an unusually happy space where my politics intersected with Maths. We were discussing functions, which naturally one can’t discuss without establishing an understanding of relations: for a function is but a special relation. Different examples were given to describe multiple everyday relations. Most of these examples were not very exciting until we explored a relationship between Dr. Jacob Zuma and Mr. Mbogeni Ngema. Both men are polygamists and whether or not they have gone on record as pro-patriarchy is detail we suspend. I asked my beloved learners whether a polygamous relationship qualified as a function.

First, there was a reasonable pause in the classroom, as the learners work out whether such a relation qualified as a one-to-many or many-to-one relation. Then, we proceeded to do the obvious, represent the relation on the board, like as shown below:


Almost feverish with excitement, I realised that we had proven mathematically that polygamous relationships are not functional. And, of course, I used the moment productively. I brought into the discussion the idea of “contexts” as sensitively as I could, to explain why the two relational sets may not be swapped around. I argued (without using the term patriarchy) that the instinct to put the male set before the female set defines a very particular context to understanding polygamy as a cultural practice; a context in which a man is defined, for example, as the head of the family—ergo not an equal partner to a woman. I stressed that their instinct was tied to that context, as such, swapping of the sets will lead to a contradiction.

These are high school learners who are familiar with topics like ratios; so it really wasn’t difficult to leverage on this familiarity to cement my point. I simply reminded them that in ratios, the ratio of males to females in the classroom is different from that of females to males —a fact that has been drilled into them by their teachers and one I may need to revisit later with them.

With my learners reasonably convinced that the sets could not be swapped, the conclusion stood: polygamy, expressed in English, is not functional despite what the patriarchs may think!

I remain delighted by the conclusion. In entering what I regard as my political space, I managed to communicate, in subtle ways, how concepts are incrementally developed in Maths such that it eventually becomes possible to bring the idea of contexts to answering questions. I also found the language to communicate the embedded ethics in Maths. As a result, I was even able to dutifully explain the rationale I (and many other beautifully minded Mathematicians) use in marking:

You present me with just an answer and no work (or context to appreciate your thought process)…I will give partial marks on paper but I will certainly give full marks in my heart. Not in my (beautiful) mind but in my heart because that will be a loving act of instilling the value of labouring for your rewards.

This Saturday I will be playing around with the idea of restricting the domain of functions, I hope the idea of contexts will become even much more clearer. In the meantime, I am just looking forward to finding more “inspired” examples that may be useful in concretising concepts and the view of Maths as a language of variables, sets, functions, etc.

Culture or Immorality?

I know eavesdropping is not necessarily moral but I do it often when I dine alone (which is a lot in G-town). This week I listened with great interest and enthusiasm to what people had to say about polygamy. And it is not because I believe in the practice, for I DON’T! I just believe in the concept of culture.

First, let me state that I appreciate that understanding anyone’s culture is not an easy task. So my intention is not to be or sound virtuous. My intention is to merely pose a few questions that may hopefully help to differentiate culture from wrong-doing or even immorality.

From what I heard, it sounded to me like people had accepted Mr President’s statement that polygamy is a cultural practice. Indeed this is true, but only if accepted and understood in context.

For example, in Lesotho not every man can practice polygamy because not all men have a sizeable herd of cattle. Of course, I am not being literal here! My point is, not every man can have more than one wife unless the man can provide for the wives (without assistance from anyone 😉 ). That is, the man has to be on the wealthy side.

[It is important to note that the “clause” attached to wealth or affordance only applies when a man wants to practice polygamy. For monogamy, “monyala ka peli o nyala oa hae” . Roughly translated, this means with two cows one can marry. Therefore, even the poorest of the poor can marry since with love and honour one can build a family*.]

Ok, back on track…affordability is just one dimension. The other important dimension pertains to whether or not the wife or wives approve; for without approval the family will never be united. The question then to ask is: what does approval entail? Does the man go out to hunt or he merely expresses his desire to increase his ‘spread’ ? If he goes to hunt, is it before or after seeking approval?

To me, the answers to these questions define what is culturally acceptable and what is immoral. If approval is sought after a man has planted his seed that becomes rubber stamping and therefore that cannot be taken as part of traditional culture or any culture based on respect. And indeed, in such scenarios, as far as Sesotho culture is concerned, a man wouldn’t seek approval but would seek to make necessary amendments; precisely because he acknowledges his wrong-doing or immorality. When this acknowledgement is made, then we happily move forward since to forgive is divine!


* Its interpretations such as this one that make me appreciate the depth of Sesotho language! As a by the way, the statement is a classic example of use of what is known as “mokhabo-puo-lepata”! Translated, this means language embellished with hidden meaning!