16 March 2007

A Madrassa in the City

I had long promised to visit my friend Bubacarr, who works as an Ustas (Koranic teacher) at a dara/madrassa in Thies, Senegal's second city, during the dry season. Bubacarr comes home to Njau to farm during the rainy season, so that's how I know him. So it was that, after the Magal and a stopover in Dakar, I came to visit Thies.

I expected that some parents in Njau and other villages had left their sons in Bubacarr’s tutelage. I was surprised to discover, though, that all of his talibes/students were from around Njau, having moved 300 kilometres away to Thies. It seemed to me counterintuitive that Bubacarr, an Njau native, and his talibes would leave their homes and families for an expensive, unfamiliar city in another country. As it turns out, the rationale is economic.

If Bubacarr’s madrassa were in Njau, parents would not be able to pay him for his services. There are rural madrassas where children toil in their Ustas’s fields (see my July 18 2006 post on this), but Bubacarr lacks the land for this to be a viable option.

Moving to Thies proved feasible, though. The talibes’ parents still don’t have any money, and there’s no subsistence work available, but one can get by thanks to the West African and Islamic values of hospitality and zakat (alms giving), respectively.

Bubacarr rents a compound where he and his 40 or so students live and study. With water fees (there’s a tap in the compound), rent comes to 12,000 CFA (about $22) a month – a heady sum when your students have no money, nor food. This is where the aforementioned kindness of strangers, prescribed by social and religious norms, comes in.

The talibes spend a couple of hours every morning out with old tomate paste cans (for taking collections), offering prayers to people kind enough to make a contribution. A similar thing happens at lunch and dinner. The children return home with extra rice from compound food bowls and divvy it up at meal times. Bubacarr, too, has a couple of neighbours that provide him with meals, out of respect for the work he does teaching children the Koran and Islamic values.

The talibes study for a few hours before and after lunch, and for another hour or so at night. Older students teach the younger boys, with Bubacarr there to teach the older guys and to answer questions that come up. Bubacarr likened his role to that of my headmaster at Njau’s primary school.

So Bubacarr’s dara relies solely on charity to operate. At first this seemed unrealistic, but if every kid collects 25-50 CFA a day that works out to 1000-2000 CFA. Bubacarr had enough to splurge 2500 CFA on dinner for us (leaving me feeling a little sheepish), and is even contemplating renting a slightly nicer room. The funds also supported his two wives (now three as he has married his brother’s widow) and children at home in Njau.

So the urban dara system, in this case, works quite well financially. On the other hand, living quarters are cramped, the diet’s not great (but on a par with Njau), and Bubacarr and his talibes are far from home. Also, one boy is there simply because he ran out of money to attend government school, and Bubacarr has poached a few other kids from Njau’s primary school. It would be nice if more children simply took the two track approach – about 30 Njau LBS students pay for extra Koranic classes with the school’s Ustas – rather than making it an either/or proposition, but the money’s simply not there to support a madrassa in Njau.

Addendum: I did a brief Internet search on talibes, and most posts deplored the living conditions of dara students. Although the living conditions are difficult, I saw a generally happy atmosphere at Bubacarr’s school, and the talibes seemed to be treated reasonably well.

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