Religious Education in West Africa

An African notebook, to be wiped and reused

Islam, like the other great religions of the world, has a long and rich tradition of teaching and learning. Universities in the Islamic world, such as those of Fez and Cairo, are among the earliest anywhere, and Muslim scientists contributed much to many disciplines, especially during Europe’s so-called dark ages (see post of 6.13). In addition to general learning in the Islamic world, however, there is of course also Islamic education–religious education–which takes place in the madrasa, or Islamic religious school. A prejudiced western mind might imagine that the Islamic world is full of madrasas, of mullahs and imams and eager bearded students. Well, it’s possible that Islamic religious education in the east is more popular than Christian religious education in the west (one reads that seminaries are gravely empty these days), but, in this modern age, it is most definitely secondary in prevalence to secular education, to the fields and disciplines, from the humanities to the sciences, that are more likely to contribute to someone’s livelihood. Even as tourists who seek out mosques, it was not that common an occurrence for us to run into crowds of madrasa students in the Middle East. Which is why, traveling through Senegal, we have been astonished by the visibility of large numbers of religious students, called talibes, in the country.

Talibes are an interesting phenomenon. For the most part, they seem to be quite young children who come from all over the countryside to learn from religious leaders called marabouts. The students finance their education–feed themselves and pass along money for their upkeep to their teachers–by begging for alms, which in addition to being their only possible source of income, given that most come from poor families and are too young to do most kinds of work, is intended to teach them humility and give fellow citizens an opportunity to fulfill their religious requirement of charity. In a city such as St. Louis, the old French colonial capital where we are now, the little kids can be found by the dozens, carrying around their characteristic empty tin cans or plastic buckets and begging for money and food.

The easiest comparison, and a very apt one, is to the boy monks of Laos. Just like the Buddhist monasteries of Laos, the madrasas of Senegal provide kids who may not otherwise be able to afford much of an education with essentially free lodging and tuition, and the system of begging and almsgiving provides a way for the community (and generous tourists) to support their schooling. The kids beg, yes, because they are poor and have no other source of money, but the religiously-sanctioned nature of the begging is intended to give the process a dignity and meaning that keep from turning the kids into mere beggars.

Almsgiving, Laos

This comparison, however, reveals the strengths of the Laotian system over the West African one. While I recognize that giving alms is one of the five pillars of Islam, it is problematic that the talibes are begging in countries where extreme poverty and reliance on begging are all too common. In Laos, there is almost no begging, and so there is no mistaking the boy monks, clad in saffron robes, for homeless beggar children. In Senegal, talibes are poorly clothed and often dirty, indistinguishable from child beggars found in Senegal or other poor countries around the world. In Laos, almsgiving is ritualized to an extent (performed at certain times of the day, in a regular procession, with regular donors) that there is no mistaking it for “regular” begging. The citizens and tourists giving alms kneel to place themselves lower than the monks, showing that the almsgiving is not an indication of greater wealth or status on the part of the giver, but an offering recognizing the higher spiritual status of the receiver. In Senegal, there little of this ritual, and it is all too easy (especially to the casual tourist) to mistake the student children as mere homeless street urchins, and one wonders how the begging might affect their sense of dignity.

A further concern I have is the type of education that the West African talibes receive. While Laotian monasteries are extremely basic, with the teaching done largely by the older students, the curriculum consists of a wide range of subjects, from English to mathematics. Visiting Laos, it is hard not to be surprised by the apparent ambition of the monks, many of whom come from extremely poor rural families, and their hunger to learn English by practicing with tourists (some monasteries set up regular chatting hours to encourage such language practice) or to gain experience using computers by visiting the local internet cafes where owners give them discounts or even free usage. One particularly adorable little monk in Luang Prabang explained to us that he wanted to be a computer programmer, which seemed to us sadly unlikely given local resources, but epitomizes the drive and hope of secular success that these students have, and that they hope their monastery educations will make possible for them.

In Senegal? Admittedly we did not converse much with these children (who speak no English and little French), but the curriculum seems to consist mainly of Islamic studies and Arabic. What of their futures? For what jobs is such an education suitable? It is hard for me to say with the little background that I have, but we were told by a Peace Corps volunteer from West Africa that, in their village, young people study in madrasas to become imams, because imams make good money attending births, circumcisions and other life-cycle ceremonies, uninvited, and receiving honoraria for their religious guidance. According to the Peace Corp volunteer, the local youth saw it as a good career choice, a way to make a decent living in an impoverished African village. (Meanwhile, the villagers complain that there are too many imams, too many people to pay off come ceremony time.)

Waiting outside of the mosque at sunrise

A typical secular liberal viewpoint, and one that one may be skeptical of for its commonness, is that lack of education and economic opportunity drives people toward religion–this argument is tested true from our experience and learning about madrasas in West Africa. If the public school system were more effective or better financed, perhaps children would have more opportunities to get an education outside of the madrasa. If French- and English-learning opportunities were more readily available, perhaps Arabic would not be as appealing a second language (although I do acknowledge that, to Muslims, some knowledge of Arabic should be considered essential and that learning Arabic could open some opportunities in North Africa or the Middle East). If there were more jobs in the public or private sectors, more economic opportunity, young people might not be dreaming of becoming imams (nearly no-one in the west these days wishes to become a Christian cleric, as the churches’ recruiting problems show–indeed, first world countries now import Christian priests from Africa and Latin America, showing that the same phenomenon plays out with the Christian faith and seminaries as with Islam and madrasas).

Most West Africans certainly don’t look like fundamentalists, and I do not doubt that the brand of Islam being taught in these madrasas is quite moderate. And, no doubt, along with the Quran and Arabic come a valuable education in literature, philosophy, ethics and so forth, which would be valuable in any field. But religious education and the religious life, even if sometimes called a vocation, is a choice. In the west, particularly in Europe, it is a choice that fewer and fewer people are making, because there are so many other (more appealing) life choices. This in turn is making much of the western world less and less religious, and less driven by religion. In West Africa, it seems, the trend may be in the opposite direction.

Inside a madrasa in Dakar

NOTE: I have left out of this post the fact that many of the talibes are in fact receiving little to no education at all, but simply being used by their so-called marabouts as a source of income–a troop of semi-enslaved children to go begging for them, with beatings for children who do not bring home specified amounts. This is of course appalling, but I have left it out of my discussion above to focus on more general thoughts.