Women, Art and Geometry in Southern Africa

by Paulus Gerdes

published by Africa World Press, Trenton NJ, USA
(11-D Princess Road, Lawrenceville N.J. 08648,

tel. 609-844-9583

fax: 609-844-0198


The book was originally published in 1995 by the Universidade Pedago'gica in Mozambique and received the Special Commendation in the 1996 NOMA Award for Publishing in Africa Competition. The book was praised by the jury as "combining in an ingenious way the study of geometry with that of the visual arts, presenting an important challenge and stimulant to the future of mathematics education in Africa. It demystifies mathematics in relation to gender and race, and erases the borders between mathematics and popular culture as experienced in the work and crafts of women in southern Africa.

The book's importance lies in its prospective impact on the education of African women in mathematics."


African peoples in general, and those in Southern Africa in the post-apartheid era in particular, are facing the urgent need to awaken and nurture their magnificent creative potential for the benefit of all. Women, constituting half of the population, are still strongly underrepresented in scientific and technological carreers where mathematical ideas play an important role.

Outside the school context, Southern African women have been involved in cultural activities - such as ceramics, beading, mural decoration, mat and basket weaving, hair braiding, tattooiing, string figures - which bear a strong artistic and mathematical character. Mathematics is the science of patterns. Southern African women have created and continue to create, invent, and imaginate beautiful patterns. Some of these patterns from mat and basket weaving,ceramics, tattooiing, string figures, beading, and mural decoration, are presented in the book.

The main objective of the book is to call attention to some mathematical aspects and ideas incorporated in the patterns invented by women in Southern Africa (Angola, Botswana, Lesotho, Malawi, Mozambique, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Zambia, Zimbabwe). It is the author's wish to contribute to the valuing, revival and development of these traditions and their incorporation into (school) education. As an example of the educationaluse of female decorations, the book presents the reinvention of the Theorem of Pythagoras.


 0. Preface  6. 'Mafielo' - grass brooms
 1. 'Sipatsi' - decorated handbags  7. 'Nembo' - tattooiing and body painting
 2. 'Titja' - coiled baskets  8. 'Ovilame' - bead ornaments
 3. Mat weaving  9. 'Litema' - mural decoration
 4. 'Buhlolo' - string figures  10. 'Ikghuptu' - mural decoration
 5. 'Oku-taleka' - decorated pottery  11. Pythagoras a women? - Example of an educational-mathematical examination
 Appendix 1: Decorative patterns among Yao potters (by Salimo Saide)  Appendix 2: Classification of strip patterns

The French language edition of the book was published in 1996 by

L'Harmattan under the title:




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