September 2019 Theme: The Education of the African child

Don’t tell anyone but there was a time in my life when Math used to be the class I dreaded the most! Allow me to take you back in time. It was September 1984, I was leaving the College of Byimana (Collège des Humanités Modernes), a public boarding high school located in a tiny locality called Bukomero, in the south of Rwanda, a few miles from the city of Gitarama, to come and study in the prestigious Lycée of Rugunga. I had completed my third year of secondary school and was about to complete the second and last half of my high school in Rwanda’s capital.

The Lycée of Rugunga, also known as Lycée of Kigali (LDK), was known to be one of the best public schools in the country. I know, everyone like to believe that they studied in the best school ever, but allow me to make this claim for LDK…

Everything in Lycée de Kigali was different from my former school. Byimana was a big compound with a set of beautiful historical building made of red bricks, high ceilings, wooden windows and doors, and covered with traditional red roof tiles (amategura), a trade mark of catholic establishments in Rwanda. The school was run by a religious fraternity, the Marists, so we had a chapel and daily morning masses and crosses above every door.

On the opposite end of the spectre, LDK was a modern looking school, a little like those houses you see in California, with white walls, bay windows, geometrical grey roofs with very steep angles and colourful metallic doors. We had a big gymnasium – with a tennis court, mind you – and rooms instead of dormitories. LDK was a laic school, so there was no chapel, no daily masses and no crosses above the doors. Byimana was surrounded by hectares of forests and fields where we planted some of the food we ate; LDK was surrounded by a sports club downhill, and elegant residential houses under construction uphill in the burgeoning neighbourhood of Rugunga.

LDK was built by the French cooperation in 1974 and it opened its doors in 1975. For many years, all the teachers were French. By the time I joined the school, the Director was Rwandese, a Mr Mbabariye, and so were most of the teachers. There were two or three French teachers left, and there was one or two Congolese teachers.

One of the French teachers was a man called Mr Salès. Mr Salès was our Math teacher and he was a real wizard with numbers. When the class started, he asked everyone to introduce themselves. I don’t know what made him notice me, maybe was it my neatly pressed khakis pants and white shirt, inherited from the very strict catholic high school I was coming from. I have to say that alone made me stand out in this school where everybody seemed to dress in very lose variations of the mandatory school uniform. Or maybe was it that I was coming from a provincial school? I don’t know.

I always thought of myself as a smart student (very humbly speaking of course..lol), I did well in all my subjects, including math, but LDK showed me that I was not so advanced in math as I thought. In the LDK curricula, Equations were taught starting in the third year, whereas Byimana would have introduced them in the fourth year. In other words, I was one year behind and Mr Salès found great delight in reminding me of that fact.

Every single class, he would call upon me and ask me to come to the black board to solve the equation of the day. It was dreadful! I would stare at the black board, with the chalk in my hand, and could not write anything. The Numbers and the Latin and Greek letters were staring back at me, and they seemed to mock me as much as my teacher did.

He would leave me there, motionlessly standing before the blackboard, for a very long time before taking back the chalk and solving the equation himself. This lasted many weeks. Going to the Math class became like walking to the Golgotha, except that I did not die and would have to go through this excruciating trial over and over again.

At some point, I decided to conquer my fear of math on my own, since this teacher was obviously enjoying mu humiliation so much, he was unlikely to teach me anything. Yes, that was already the determined self you know today, though I was just 15 years of age! I went on and spent countless hours in the evening studying every math book I could get my hands on, till one day I had an Eureka moment! The Equations unlocked all their mysteries! I finally understood that the x, y and z and the alphas, betas and gammas were not my enemies, they were just random place holders, a convention, a language. What was expected of me was to guess what was behind the letter and not be blocked by it!

I could not wait to go back to Mount Calvary to show off my newly found erudition. The expression on Mr Salès face was worth every minute I spent studying instead of playing outside with my comrades. I stood up even before he finished calling my name (Patrick Emmanuel Habamenshi, you have to admit that it is quite a long name), came to the black board, walking confidently, and solved his equation in less than a minute! He looked at me, with a frozen expression, and remained speechless for a long time. At some point, he regained all his oral faculties and grudgingly said: “you see, you can do it.”

He never called me to the black board again.

If I was to stop the story here, you might think that it’s just a story of a teacher giving a hard time to a student and the student overcoming the challenge. It is a bit of that but much more. First let me say that, in hindsight, I don’t think of Mr Salès as a tormentor, though that’s the way I saw him in those days. To be fair to him, apart from those moments when he called me at the front, he never addressed me in any way, he never called me disparaging names and he never marked my exams unfairly. I guess it was his way of teaching, a way many of our teachers taught us from primary to secondary school to university. Who needs charisma when trauma seems to work?

One thing I promised myself in those days was that if I was to ever become a teacher, I would never take delight in the demise of those I should be preparing to take their place in the world. I know many kids who met such pedagogic approach never recovered from it and some were never able to heal from the pain inflicted. My former students will tell you if I held on to that promise of being a kinder educator, when, years later, I became an academician. But that's a story for another day.

Back in 1984 onward. Do not worry, my encounter with this teacher did not traumatize me or leave any lasting scars in me. At age 15, my character was already shaped, I saw every difficulty as a trial that I could only allow myself to win. 

To tell the truth, this Math ordeal was one of the most liberating experiences in my life, believe it or not. My teacher liberated me, intentionally or unintentionally, from the fear of this big monster called Numbers.

After that first dreadful trimester in Mr Salès class, Math became my favourite subject and that is still the case, 35 years later. I like literature as you can imagine, I like history, geography, etc… but I LOVE Maths. The day I understood math and learned to solve complicated equations, is the day I stopped dreading school.

Later in University, I became fond of Game Theories, a subject that helped me realise that math can be applied to everything in life, every single thing! The equations might change, there might be new variables, but at the end, all equations can be solved when you stop being scared of what is in front of you and learn to look for what is hidden behind.

And since I am celebrating my father’s life this month, let me share another valuable life lesson, something he told me right before I went to university, something that shaped the way I look at Education:

“My son, do not expect the University to be the place where you will go and find all the answers. On the contrary, you might leave there with more questions than those you had before entering school. But you will know that you are in a good university if they are able to teach you to ask the right questions and, most importantly, if they are able to direct you to the right answers. The University is your gateway to the Universe."

That is the essence of education, to teach us to ask the right question and to direct us where we can find the answers. The rest is up to us.

This month of September 2019 let’s all go back to school and imagine how our lives would have been different if we were taught how to fly instead of being chained in front of an unfriendly black board.

Turi Kumwe.

 Contributor

Um’Khonde Habamenshi

For the UMURAGE Foundation