Helene Smuts

Ashoka Fellow
South Africa,
Fellow Since 2012
The Africa meets Africa Project: Helene Smuts


This profile was prepared when Helene Smuts was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2012.
The New Idea
Helene has developed a learning methodology that cuts across disciplines and integrates culturally and contextually based learning in science and mathematics in grades 9, 10 and 11 in rural schools. By using familiar patterns that are drawn from the rich South African cultural heritage and its knowledge systems, she provides rural teachers and students with an accessible, and powerful, visual language of learning that makes information accessible and releases teachers and students’ potential for excellence in these disciplines.

Helene is working to make academic information accessible, relevant and exciting to teachers and students in rural areas. Mathematics and science are still perceived as foreign and irrelevant subjects in rural communities today, and many teachers and students fear these subjects, despite the evidence of rich cultural knowledge in these disciplines that exists around them. Complex mathematical patterns are woven, beaded, or painted on objects of everyday use, including baskets, jewelry, and houses. Patterns in the skies above have been known and used by rural people for centuries. Traditional craftsmen and many people in rural areas intuitively understand these patterns without necessarily having studied them in a classroom. Helene is working to provide a platform for interaction between this rich cultural/informal knowledge and academic/formal knowledge in mathematics and science in order to make these subjects more accessible and exciting. She bridges these knowledge systems to empower both teachers and students with confidence in their ability to grasp and convey these concepts and to encourage further learning. She releases their potential for excellence both as teachers and students by demonstrating that the information is both familiar and interesting. In this way, subjects such as mathematics, geometry, astronomy and physics become more familiar to them through a visual language of learning that is drawn from knowledge inherent to their cultural heritage. This system has succeeded in removing the fear of mathematics and science for both the teachers (who are not as adequately trained in these subjects) and the learners themselves. Consequentially, this work is creating the conditions for rural youth to pursue excellence in these subjects and, thus, pursue a wider range of higher-learning opportunities.

Helene’s organization, Africa meets Africa (AmA) has trained 900 teachers from thirty schools in eighteen rural districts of South Africa to use these tools in their classrooms. This has benefitted more than 50,000 students. Currently, Helene is working in partnership with the Department of Science and Technology to expand to fifteen more schools in KwaZulu Natal and another forty in Mpumalanga.
The Problem
The Strategy
The Person

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