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Reforming Quranic Education in Sierra Leone

By Umaru Fofana

Before your mind goes on an overdrive please note that this piece is not about radical Muslim preaching or preachers in Sierra Leone. Nor is it about an attempt by these preachers to indoctrinate. I doubt we have clerics here who would radicalise their followers into hating Christians or the Western world to the extent of violently attacking them or their interests. Warning however that a new firebrand type of extremist Muslim preachers and fiery charismatic christian evangelists may be around and should be looked out for. Again this is not about that. This is a piece about the appalling atmosphere and condition under which children are taught in Quranic schools and the need for the Supreme Islamic Council and other umbrella organisations to attend.

Iqra - the Arabic word for READ or RECITE - is a word of command in the Muslim Holy Book - the Quran. It is the first revealed word of the Qur'an. It is a fundamental verse which emphasises the importance of learning or education in the islamic faith. No prize for guessing therefore why there are so many IQRA universities in the Muslim world. However it is a big irony that the acquisition of islamic education in Sierra Leone and many other parts of West Africa is fraught with challenges which expose children to all sorts of indignity, brutality and lack of empathy for these vulnerable and innocent souls.

In Senegal the so-called TALIBAYS experience some of the worst forms of servitude children face anywhere in the world. They live in very squalid conditions. They carry bowls in hand, rough and dirty especially in the two extreme harsh weather conditions of that semi-Sahel country, begging for what to eat and what to feed their teachers with. They even sometimes crawl for stale food and ludicrous amounts of money dropped at them by passersby on highways and at homes.

Children who attend marabout schools in Sierra Leone may not be experiencing what their Senegalese counterparts have to go through everyday but their lot also certainly needs to improve or the risk exists children will shy away from attending these quranic schools because of the violence unleashed on them.

Children who attend Quranic schools (or ELAYKAY’UN as some call it) in Sierra Leone are at the mercy of their teachers some of whom lack the basic skills required to teach children without resorting to violence. Quranic education in Sierra Leone is probably as old as the faith itself is in the country. Of recent I have come to realise that it is so badly regulated - if at all - that a monster can become a teacher. To suggest to the authorities to call on the muslim leaders to regulate it by certifying those who should teach the Quran and under what conditions will not be too much to ask for.

Because I am extremely busy and sometimes return home tired and sleepy, my son attends a Marabout School. In fact he was enrolled by my wife who is a Christian. That’s how lucky I am but also how much of an asset Sierra Leone has in its legendary religious tolerance. So whatever I say here is not the sordid view of a non-Muslim or one who doesn't allow his child to attend the religious school. On the contrary! Because I do value it I want it to be in the interest of those children who attend or we risk further dwindling the number of Muslim children who cannot read a single verse in the Quran and consequently drift away from the faith.

What obtains in many Quranic schools is not corporal punishment - it is BRUTALITY! The way they beat the kids for some simple mistakes frightens the hapless children and makes some start crying whenever it is time to go to learn. They are turned off! In fact some marabout teachers have this myth which has been ingrained in the psyche of many, making islam look like a violent religion - that the Quran came down with a whip. Balderdash! This is like a rapist trying to justify his despicable act by saying that the women were created for sex. Despicable! Thing is, many of these quranic teachers have received no training whatsoever in how to relate with let alone teach children. They teach them assuming they are grownups and utilising brute force for make their point.

The tablet the kids use to write on requires “scratch leaves” to wipe off for fresh writing. In an urban setting like many parts of Freetown, laying hands on those leaves means the kids having to walk long distances and going into the bush to get them - thereby exposing them to a lot of hazards and they get blisters or bruises in the process. And because these leaves die and become unusable after 24 hours, they cannot be stockpiled. If this industry was being well regulated, the option of bigger slates than the ones used in elementary western school could have been developed so chalk could be used. Or just anything devised if only to keep out this idea of Scratch Leaves.

The environment in some of these Quranic schools also leaves a lot to be desired. If these places were a hospital they could be causing nosocomial transmission of diseases. Who knows that they could still be causing infection for children anyway because in some of the marabout schools, sitting on the ground is like an article of faith some teachers make it appear.  A clean environment is essential especially for places where children go to do anything - play our learn.

I observed that many of these marabout schools did not close down during the Ebola break in schooling. And the Karamors (teachers) think they are competing with western education schools. To the extent when they cannot adjust their timetable to reflect and accommodate the fact that children attend school on weekdays. In fact some of the marabout teachers are so incensed at the suggestion of some concessions for the kids that they say you are suggesting western education is better than quranic education. There is no comparison. They can both be acquired without mutual exclusivity.

I am sure the number of children attending marabout schools is dwindling which could well be as a result of the way children are handled there. Children should be allowed to enjoy learning not to endure it. My dad taught me the Quran. He would sometimes lose his cool but the thought of me being his son restrained him. Not so for most of those who are taught by someone else. As the world evolves, so should Quranic education even if the message in the holy book remains the same. Otherwise the kids will hate it.

(C) Politico 19/01/16