Feature: Small abacus supports Nigerian young woman's dream in education startup

By Guo Jun

by Guo Jun, Olatunji Saliu

ABUJA, July 4 (Xinhua) -- One afternoon in mid-June, Shirley Ben stood by the stage in the auditorium of an elementary school in the southern Nigerian city of Port Harcourt, where she dictated a series of numbers to several children on stage.

The children's pen-holding hands made a few strokes in the air, quickly wrote numbers on the sketchpad held in the other hands, and raised them to show the audience, causing a burst of applause.

This is the final of an abacus and mental math competition held by a local abacus and mental arithmetic training school. On that day, 300 pupils experienced a preliminary contest, while eventually, 15 winners stood out to participate in the final.

"We have trained these children over a period of time and they are using the abacus right now to show the skills that they have gained from using it. So with this competition, parents and everybody are able to see how fast their children can calculate using the abacus as a tool," said Ben, 35, the principal of this abacus and mental arithmetic training school, while addressing the media at the scene of the competition.

According to Ben, her training school offers three levels of training courses, with each level requiring a study period of four months. And the 300 contestants were chosen from about 3,000 pupils currently in abacus and mental arithmetic training in Port Harcourt after an evaluation test held in May.

Four years ago, at the recommendation of a relative studying in China, Ben went to east China's Shandong Province to better understand the "magic" brain-stimulating skills for children.

Abacus and mental math originated from the Chinese Zhusuan, a time-honored traditional method of performing mathematical calculations with an abacus. Zhusuan was listed as an intangible cultural heritage by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) in 2013.

"I saw how the Chinese children were using the abacus to do the calculation, I was very interested in this, and decided to bring this knowledge here in Nigeria," the former stock manager told Xinhua.

After six months of training in the abacus in China in 2018, Ben returned to Port Harcourt to set up a training school and led her team to promote the abacus-based mental math courses in local primary schools. Because the mental training skill works well to improve children's counting ability, the courses they offer were quickly accepted by teachers, students and parents.

Today, Ben's training school has two direct teaching centers in Port Harcourt, with 10 professional teachers, and more than 40 partner schools.

In an interview with reporters at the scene of the competition, Kike David, a mother whose two children attended the abacus and mental arithmetic training class and the competition, said her children have developed self-confidence and love for mathematics since they started studying the abacus.

"We want to encourage the government to buy into this program and take it to our public schools," David said.

Roberta Ide, a private primary school principal who watched the competition, told Xinhua she was really impressed by the children's outstanding performance and expects more schools to sign up abacus in the Nigerian curriculum system.

"I used to think the abacus was only used for counting but with what I have witnessed here today, (I now understand) the abacus skill is a brain-stimulating process and it is highly beneficial for learning especially in young kids," she said.

In a video interview with Xinhua, Li Mianjun, the founder of China Shenmo Education, believed to be the pioneer and leader of abacus and mental arithmetic training, said abacus and mental math is a technique that originates from the abacus. This technique, he explained, encourages the learner to depict the abacus's plate, beads and grade in the mind, and complete the counting process without using the physical abacus.

This technique has been effective in improving children's cognitive function and attention, Li said. And now, with the growing global influence of Chinese culture, the abacus has spread to more countries.

According to him, since 2018, Shenmo Education has funded the establishment of abacus and mental math training schools in more than ten countries including Nigeria, Rwanda, Tanzania, and Zambia.

The Chinese-inspired Ben now has an even bigger wish to expand the abacus training business to other cities in Nigeria in the coming years and promote the establishment of abacus training and certification standards in Nigeria.

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