The Nordic Africa Institute

Story from Somafco

by Carl-Olof Selenius, Africa Groups of Sweden

I was working as a secondary-level maths teacher at Solomon Mahlangu Freedom College. (Somafco). It was a school for refugees organised by ANC, close to the town of Morogoro in Tanzania. I worked there between 1986-1989.

Why did I get involved? For me personally, it was not only about South Africa and apartheid, even though that was a contributing factor. I had previously worked with influencing public opinion to get Vietnam out of Cambodia , and when that finally succeeded after several years, I wanted to get my hands on another illegitimate regime. I saw the superpowers' attempts to dominate the world behind the conflicts of that time. I had worked against the Soviet Union, now was the time to work against the other superpower. It was a statement against the division of the world into different blocs, against the cold war.

"I am very surprised", comments my pupil. It is Sunday and I have taken his picture at his request. Several pictures at various sites in school. He was nicely dressed and very meticulous when it came to background scenes. Most of them were taken by the flowerbed in front of the school administration. We went home to my place afterwards where I showed him pictures of my family and friends. And a picture of just nature. That one got him all excited. That you could take a picture of a whole forest and a lake! He had seen similar ones, but always as a background for a model, not a subject of nature on its own. For him, the act of photographing was a relationship between the photographer and the model; the photo is hence a product of the two. But that one could produce new forests, as he saw it, by doing the same thing, made him astonished.

This was a very particular student. He had not had much contact with photography and mechanised media. This reflects somewhat the circumstances under which I taught: an intense, mutual act in order to create a mathematical knowledge base for the free South Africa . Hence seriousness and determination ruled our classes. A belief in the possibility of maths as a tool to develop mankind and society, mathematics long banned under Bantu education by the apartheid regime. This must be the ultimate scenario for a maths teacher!

This intensity and personal engagement was probably needed if one was to go against the strongest military in Africa simply by organising education like this. The youths that had these characteristics and a dash of optimism were the ones whose actions resulted in exile, the ones who ended up sitting on this hot, malaria ridden plain in faraway Tanzania. Sitting there with a duty to study and study again for the future of free South Africa .

It was difficult for everyone to stay focused. At the camp, new arrivals met with those that had fled into exile the previous decade, or the decade before that, maybe so far back as the fifties. The slogan, Freedom in our lifetime!, became a difficult one to believe in, not the least for me.

But in this despair and hopelessness, optimism glowed nevertheless, or a lack of realism, if you prefer to call it that. This was what I had to work with as a maths teacher. Students that after each test kept believing they had got all the calculations right, and their reactions when they got it back: astonishment, acceptance, and then often, another go at it. They could analyse their difficulties in shaky English, and discuss the essence of mathematics, as well as socio-economic problems. But all this philosophical and political wisdom flew out of the window when trying to solve the simplest of maths problems. They had not received what we regard as basic knowledge from primary school, the knowledge to connect the spoken language with everyday occurrences. Students or adults alike, even the entire liberation movement seemed to be suffering from an inability to calculate everyday problems, to plan time, to make realistic budgets - in other words, they lacked realism. And it was my task to change that. To demonstrate that theory and procedures can serve real life. It was an enormous challenge.

So, in the end, I was the astonished one. Can you take a picture of a whole mountain? Can maths class turn a whole apartheid regime upside-down? In the first instance, you can just ignore what is personal and direct the camera the other way. In the latter you need to be more personal in your teaching.

Carl-Olof Selenius
Africa Group