What Math Is For

Two schoolgirls count on their fingers

Two schoolgirls count on their fingers

Quick – What is 7 x 9?

I asked the three people who work in this office and who all either finished a degree or a technical college.  None could figure it in less than 5 seconds.

Memorizing the multiplication tables is standard practice in the US.  I remember learning mine when I was in third grade or about 9 years old.  I also learned the distributive property in junior high school:

a * (b + c) = ab + ac

Which means that if you know what 7*10, then you should be able to figure out that 7*9 is 7*10 minus 7.

One of the girls responded that you don’t use this type of math on a daily basis. Interesting defense…  So you don’t count on a daily basis?  When I first arrived in 2011, I noticed that the taxi drivers here could not do the same calculation.  That is forgiveable because most of them come from poor families and most do not enter senior high school (SHS).

“No wonder the Chinese and Indians can take advantage of the Ghanaians here,” I replied.

Call me “crazy” but I believe a facility with numbers and numerical relationships, e.g. estimation, is crucial to making money.  Someone who is faster at making these small calculations should be able to take advantage of you when negotiating prices.

For example, I regularly use anchoring to secure lower fares from taxi drivers.  Say I want to go back to the Accra Mall in Airport Residential from Adabraka during rush hour.


  • The distance from Adabraka to Accra Mall is 3 units
  • The distance from Adabraka to East Legon is 4 units
  • The ride from East Legon to Accra Mall is 7 in the day and 10 cedis at night

I will first negotiate a low fare from Adabraka to East Legon.  If you just ask for a price, then the taxi driver will say the highest number he thinks you can afford.  This can be from 25 to 30 cedis.  Thus, the first step is call out a ridiculously low price for Adabraka to East Legon.

“8 cedis!”

He might reply 20 cedis and you finally come to an agreement for 15 – 18 cedis.  Either at that same moment or in the ride I will say I actually need to go to the Accra Mall.  The price must be cheaper than first price, e.g. 12-15 cedis.

I taught this technique to my 11 year old nephew and he says it works every time.

That’s how math is used in your daily life.

I’m appalled that educated people cannot do simple math.  The fact that most people cannot multiply nor add without a calculator goes far to explain why this country is so far behind.  A lack of facility with numbers means that the people cannot progress to more complex areas of study, e.g. engineering, physics, math, finance, even accounting, entrepreneurship.

For instance, if you cannot do math, then you are unlikely to grasp a concept like aerodynamics.  Taxi drivers universally believe that driving with the windows open saves more fuel than driving with the windows closed and the A/C on.

Japanese Bullet Train

Imagine traveling at 320 km/hr (200 mph) with the windows open

Last week traffic was inching along on the Kanda Highway.  With nothing to do, I decided to spend 20 minutes explaining to Yaw, my taxi driver, why that assumption doesn’t make sense.   I started with moving different objects through water, I then explained that air is a very thin liquid…

In addition to not being able to handle more complex concepts, many Ghanaians are not detail-oriented nor time conscious.  Both of these things are related to completing tasks accurately and precisely.

I believe the best jobs for creating a middle class involve manufacturing.  Wages are higher than unskilled work and companies employ hundreds of people.  My understanding is that modern manufacturing requires an understanding of mathematical concepts,physics, and a bit of computer programming.

In summary, I believe low proficiency with basic math precludes development in sciences, engineering, and even new business. Coupled with the high cost of financing, these things, I believe, will not enable Ghana to follow countries with higher proficiencies in math, e.g. China, South Korea, Taiwan, India, in the same economic trajectory.  Multinational companies will not want to come to Ghana to manufacture or handle low level tasks.

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