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It’s a long way from ‘Mara’ and Spike Abacus!

By August 27, 2012June 6th, 2023No Comments

Sunday 26th August 2012

Exile does many things to you, all of them bad. In my case, it played havoc with my destiny. As we speak, I’d be a Confucius or an Einstein if I hadn’t run into exile. I’d be walking in the streets with my head in the clouds as it tries to solve some complex algebraic equation.

In primary school in Rwanda, we recited what we called ‘mara’ (mathematical tables) every morning. This meant subtracting, adding, multiplying or dividing any numbers and giving an answer in a split second. The teacher only needed to have his numbers ready on the blackboard and we’d give him answers to any sum before he could even point his long ‘rêgle’ (ruler).

It was like this. As soon as we entered class, the teacher pointed at a multiplication question, for instance, and shouted your name. He’d point at 147X73, say, and shout: “Ingina!” And I’d shoot up without hesitation and squeal: “Ten thousand – seven hundred – thirty-one!” Then, without giving me even a hint of a cursory look to confirm the accuracy of my answer, he’d turn to another pupil and point at other numbers and the rote lesson would continue.

But suppose you got the answer wrong, God forbid. Celestin, our Maths teacher, would look at you as if you were something that a cat dragged in yesterday. Then he’d pick the nearest object and hurl it at you. If you were lucky, the object would be something soft. Many times, unfortunately, we were not so lucky. Like this time he pointed at 3,741÷29.3 and shouted my name. Again, I squealed: “One hundred – twenty – seven – point – six – eight – zero!” Then he gave me that ugly look.

I wouldn’t have minded the ugly look, only there was a stone slate next to him. That spelt the end for me. Remember, a slate in our time was an object we used in place of an exercise book. But it was better because we used it multiple times. There were two types: one in cardboard and another in clay or stone. In both cases, they were used as blackboards as you could erase whatever you wrote so as to use them again. The cardboard one was light but the stone/clay one was as heavy and hard as a stone.

Imagine me, then, in the face of such danger. After weighing up the situation, I did what any wise person would have done, in my place: run for dear life. But my dear life wasn’t going to be saved, poor me. As I made to run for it, the slate caught me at the back of the knee and I fell down, knocking my head on the dust floor. A piece of the slate cut me on the leg but, otherwise, I was intact. That’s how I survived and went on to be tortured with more ‘mara’ rote lessons.

Even in exile, as we were taught by our fellow refugees, this ‘mara’ torture continued until we finished primary school and joined secondary school.

Whereupon, arithmetic became a complete alien. Instead of using our rote brain to juggle numbers around, we were introduced to some curious objects.

We were told that our brains needed a rest and we could use beads to add or subtract, instead of our brains. The beads were on a board and we were supposed to play with them and get our subtraction or additions more easily. We played around with those beads for about two years and by the end I could hardly count to one hundred. So idle was the brain that it seemed to be dying. The contraption responsible for that death was called a ‘spike abacus’.

In third year, even the board of beads was done away with. In its place, a ruler was introduced. Yes, you got it right: a ruler like the one we used to trace lines. Only this one was not wooden. By all appearances, it seemed to be made in glass. Actually, it was not a single ruler: it was one big ruler with many other sliding rulers inside it! We used it primarily for multiplication and division but never for addition or subtraction. We also were told that we’d be using it for strange things like roots, logarithms, trigonometry, etc. The contraption this time was called a ‘slide rule’.

After trying to slide the things a couple of times without making sense, I gave up. No, this Maths had been messed up. I wanted none of it and I told my teacher so. With the result that any student who failed to perform well in Maths was told by the teacher “to do an Ingina”. In short, transfer to Arts subjects. But even before a year was out, the slide rule was done away with, too. This time what came on the scene was a cute little thing. It was small, easily portable and could perform basic as well as complex operations of arithmetic. Even a one-year-old ccould operate it without thinking. Yes, you guessed right: the ‘calculator’.

Then came the computer, the internet, the cellular phone. Now iPod, iPad, iEtc, etc! Do we still need mathematicians amongst us? Me, exile helped me for once. It forced me to guess early!

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