The African Origin of Mathematics – Wohu no sɛn?

African mathematics is metaphorical! It is a technical metaphor for the moral and spiritual principles that guide our lives. Each week this semester in our mathematics and science courses we pose an African philosophical challenge to our students. We give them an African proverb and challenge them to find the connection between our topic for the week and that proverb. The topic for our first week of classes was the African origin of mathematics.

One fundamental tenant of the African worldview is the idea that what is first is sacred and by imitating what is sacred, we too become sacred. Given these ideas, we asked students to discuss the connection between our topic and the Wọlọf proverb below. The top student responses follow. Wohu no sɛn? How do you see it?


Ganaawu yaay; garabu liir la.

Mother’s back is the baby’s medicine.


I think this proverb means that anything that helps us grow is like medicine. For example doing math is like medicine because it makes our brain stronger. Exercising is like medicine because it helps strengthen our immune systems. Medicine is not only something given to us by a doctor. Medicine can be anything that helps us get stronger.

Doing math is like taking medicine. Math is like medicine because it helps us become smarter. We use math to solve problems. Math can help us think clearly. It is like medicine for our mind. Being smart is important because it helps us to make better decisions as we grow.

Exercising is like medicine because it helps strengthen our immune system. When our immune system is strong, we are less likely to get sick. If we do get sick, a strong immune system can help us heal faster. Medicine can also help us to feel better when we are sick . Exercise and medicine can work the same way.

Medicine is anything that helps us grow. A mother is a baby’s medicine because she helps the baby get stronger as he or she grows. The mother makes sure her baby has what he or she needs. A mother also carries a baby on her back to give support. Medicine can be many things.

~Niara M.
Black Radical Pre-Algebra


The literal meaning of this proverb would mean the mother’s back helps the baby. The baby uses the mother’s back to get around since the baby itself cannot walk. This relates to medicine because you need medicine when your body cannot fight something off on its own. The proverb could also mean everything has a foundation.

Everything comes from something that came before it. It’s origins hold up that idea or thing. Without an origin, the thing would not exist. For example, without looking at the origins of math we would not have the math we use today nor would we know how to do it. The first to come paved the way for the later generations. Without the first generations, there would be nothing right now.

This proverb could be applied to life when you are having trouble with a topic, or that topic does not make sense. You could go back to its origins/basics, and possibly develop a better understanding of what you’re doing. You could also use this if there is a problem and you are trying to figure out how it happened. You could go back to the basis of the issue, and use what you find to help you prevent future issues of the type.

I think this proverb is important because if you want to understand something or be good at something you need to fully understand the basics/origins of what you’re doing.

~Jabea M.
Black Radical Algebra I

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