Meet the mathematician teaching maths in Igbo and Nigerian pidgin

January 18, 2018 · 6 min read
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In June 2017, Nigeria’s Minister for Science and Technology, Dr. Ogbonnaya Onu, reportedly said plans were being made to teach Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects in indigenous languages.

There was an opinion as to why this was not a good idea. Even though this opinion had its own strong points, maybe there is more to consider.

Suggested read: Why teaching STEM subjects in local Nigerian languages is a bad idea

Considering the low level of adoption of STEM subjects and career paths in Nigeria, teaching them in indigenous languages may not be a bad idea after all.

Even before the government made this announcement, a mathematics teacher in the Port Harcourt, Rivers State had already adopted the local language medium. Cynthia Onwuchuruba Bryte-Chinule has been teaching her students mathematics in Igbo and Nigerian pidgin for a while now.

Cynthia is a mathematics graduate of the Nnamdi Azikiwe University in Anambra State. She is the founder of PEEL Initiative, a non-profit organisation particularly interested in improving education in Africa especially mathematics and impacting the lives of underprivileged kids through education.

I chatted with Cynthia and she shared insights on STEM adoption in Nigeria, mathematics as a feared subject, marriage and revamping education in Africa.

Victor Ekwealor of Techpoint (VE): Where did the idea of teaching in indigenous languages come from?.

Cynthia Bryte-Chinule (CBC):  I run free tutoring programmes. Every Saturday I teach over 40 kids, on Thursdays it’s the Port Harcourt Remand Home. Most of them are school dropouts who do not understand the English language.

Apart from the fact that I studied Mathematics in school, I personally love the subject so I thought to spice things up a bit. I felt English language shouldn’t be a hindrance to learning mathematics. So I tried a different method.

I gave them the maths questions in Nigerian pidgin and concepts they could relate with. For example, trying to find the sum of 5+7 became;  ‘If you carry 5 yam join am with another seven yam, how many yam you go get?’ in Pidgin.

VE: Where did the Igbo language enter the picture?

CBC: I am Igbo so that was a no-brainer. Even though I could not teach all my students in Igbo because of their diverse ethnic backgrounds, I still made short video tutorials on Facebook and YouTube in Igbo and Nigerian pidgin.

VE: How did you compress whole mathematics topics into short videos?

CBC: The thing about the videos is I don’t teach regular classroom maths in them, they’re more like maths tricks and hacks to make the subject more interesting and relatable. Like showing you how to multiply 9999 by 89 in a few seconds.

VE: Have you been able to measure the impact of these videos?

CBC: The comments and feedback I get on my Facebook and WhatsApp groups and the community on Instagram show that people love them. I see a lot of interest is being stimulated and that is the sole essence of the exercise; to show people maths is not that difficult.

I made Igbo and Pidgin versions of videos and tutorials on mathematics but I discovered the Igbo ones got wider acceptance. This generation of ‘slay kings and queens’ do not really know how to speak their language, so most want to learn. In my very first Igbo video, I used some English words to gauge engagement and people commented and gave feedback on the Igbo equivalents of the words.

VE: There’s a problem with STEM subjects and fields in Nigeria. Do you think using local languages as an instructional medium will change anything?

CBC: I think local languages have a great role to play in teaching STEM subjects in Nigeria, especially mathematics. I remember the first time I made a video in Igbo language, it was trending within my community and outside, people shared it and were excited.

For instance, the kids I teach are from different ethnic backgrounds, and most do not understand English. I discovered teaching in English was a waste of time. Most do not know what “addition” means so you have to tell them “join am together”. To make STEM subjects widely accepted and understood in Nigeria, language mediums that are easily understood by the students have to be employed.

Cynthia teaching mathematics tricks in the Igbo langauge

VE: Even though they naturally thrive in STEM courses, there is an even lower level of participation for the girl child in STEM careers in Nigeria. What do you think is the reason for this and how can this be remedied?

CBC: The Nigerian system, culture and parents do not really encourage girls in STEM. They mostly always say things like, “You’re a girl, do a ‘soft’ course”. When I was in the University, we were only four girls in my class studying mathematics. We always got weird looks and jokes, but I knew mathematics was just like any other course.

Guess what, I graduated as the best in my department with a First Class. Even though this isn’t really a gender thing, it shows that girls can be even be better in STEM. Women are usually better than men with details and this gives us an even better disposition to STEM courses.

We need to continually encourage the Nigerian girl child.

Being a long-term mentor to these girls is also very important as a one-day seminar cannot change this mindset. They have to be continually guided and disabused of these toxic notions. I authored a book, “Academic Without Tears”, and I have my contact details behind it. I give this book out during my programmes too. I create a platform for effective communication with these students as mentoring cannot be overemphasised. Academic and career mentoring is key.

At the PEEL Initiative, we have annual leadership conferences where we are intentional about this. Also there are motivational rounds in secondary schools where we tell girls they can be all they want to be, STEM or not. Just help them be bold enough to do what they want.

VE: What exactly does the PEEL initiative do?

CBC: We empower and provide quality education, develop leadership potential and meet the human needs of the youth. For education, we want to revamp Africa’s educational system especially in mathematics and make sure underprivileged kids get an education. We have an annual scholarship scheme for the kids.

VE: How do you know what kids qualify for these aids?

CBC: It is very hard determining eligibility but we stick with kids that are still in school, showing signs of seriousness and unable to keep up with their fees. It is very important they are still in school; I tried to help kids that were out of school but I had lots of challenges. One is that with them, you might not be able to determine seriousness when the person is already out of school so it was hard for me because of all the wasted money, effort, and time. So now, we go as far as paying the fees ourselves and verifying at the schools and homes of these students.

To qualify for the scholarship, we have a summit and over 600 students write an exam. The exam consists of basic maths and an essay on why they need the scholarships. For the essay, we are grading their reasoning over grammar and English correctness.

After the exams, some people get academic scholarships while others get skill scholarships in bead making, web design, blogging and others.

VE: This scholarship and support scheme is restricted to Rivers State and until the students leave secondary school. Any plans to expand its geographical and class scope in the future?

CBC: Even though I have been volunteering and doing social services for more than 7 years, I have been concentrated on this niche for 4 years now. PEEL was registered in August 2016 so, we are still young.

There are definite plans to expand this programme in every way in the nearest future. We tell our students on scholarships they can renew it by maintaining good grades.

VE: You are away Thursdays, Saturdays and some other days of the week. As a married woman, has your choice of career ever caused any sort of friction with your husband?

CBC: It has not in any way whatsoever. My husband has actually been very instrumental to my journey so far. Apart from being a very understanding person, he is luckily a public servant in terms of volunteers. He understands my schedule and even offers to help with my free tutoring classes sometimes.

VE: What have been the challenges been so far?

CBC: Funding. We are bootstrapping and most of the monies that go into these projects are from my own pocket, there has not been any external funding so far. When I had a full-time job, I put all my earnings back into the project.

We have currently reached out to organisations to help and are waiting for them to respond. But I believe I don’t have to wait for funds to do what has to be done. I’ll keep on at the level I can. Now we have a maths tutoring programme, Maths Afrique, that is going to be a sustainability model for the whole structure. Maths Afrique offers paid mathematics tutors for students.

Even with Maths Afrique, there is still the challenge of clients not fully understanding the services on offer and trying to underpay. But we will overcome with time.

Victor Ekwealor

Victor Ekwealor


tech. media. startups. africa. vc | Twitter: @victor_ekwealor

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