Monday, July 16, 2007

Fear Not the Madrassa

July 11th, 2007

Today our white van (aka the development mobile) sped off to show us the Madrassa pre-schools, with the visit hosted by Mr. Mjaka of the AKF-T supported group called the Zanzibar Madrassa Resource Centre (ZMRC). The centre helps create quality pre schools through working with local communities to help build physical structures, train teachers and school management committees and engage with local community members to teach the importance of early childhood development. Since it’s inception in 1990, ZMRC has trained more than 600 school teachers in such things as low cost classroom material acquisition, and theories of early childhood development. Through its work the ZMRC has strengthened educational services to more than 13,000 Muslim and non-Muslim children attending these schools throughout Zanzibar.

We were scheduled to visit four Madrassas. Two were in urban areas and the others were in rural areas. With all the talk in Western media since 9/11 of extremists recruiting young minds and bodies from Madrassa’s in Europe and the Middle East to literally blow up Western interests at home and abroad, I was curious to learn about how they worked in the pre-school context, and how they should be understood. In Zanzibar, a Madrassa is a Koranic school that children attend so to understand the teachings of the Koran. Students normally commence studies as young as four or five, when they learn the Arabic words and phrases found within this holy book. After having memorized and learned the words, they move on to memorize “Juzus”, or short passages, which are reviewed multiple times until the meaning behind the selected Juzu is understood. There are thirty in total. A student does not graduate from a Madrassa until they can successfully recite and comprehend the words and meanings within each Juzu, which together constitute the entire Koran (the interpretation of the Juzus varying of course between the Islamic sects). If given full attention, graduation occurs when a child is a late teenager. In Zanzibar, the Madrassa pre-schools offer both Koranic learning and early childhood development programming that are separate from each other. Thus half a day is devoted to learning the ‘three Rs’, and the other half to studying the Koran.

The development mobile pulled up to a Madrassa in a remote rural setting. An elderly man dressed in a green safari suit and black sandals walks over to meet us. This is the headmaster. The standard greetings are conducted: I say “Shikamoo”, he says “Marahaba. Karibu”; I say “Asante” while shaking his hand and touching my right elbow (a sign of respect for a stranger) with my left hand. We follow him into the Madrassa – a single storey building made from mud bricks and topped with a tin roof – where a classroom full of small children aged three to seven greet us in shy, silent whispers of “jambo” and muffled giggles. Big staring eyes from the girls, whose heads are covered in red hijabs, examined us in great curiosity, while the boys giggle sheepishly at my white socks, which look like bright beacons against the grey stone floor. I want to stick my tongue out so to tease them, but refrain from doing so after remembering the professionalism AKFC expects us interns to uphold overseas. I am no longer an independent student traveler, but an honoured guest being hosted by a well respected organization. I imagine how strange it would be if a guest walked into my grade 2 class in Toronto and stuck out his tongue, especially for the teachers! Instead I smile politely and keep myself composed. One of the teachers offers us a place of the classroom mat so to watch the afternoon’s activity.

The children sit in a circle and listen to one of the school’s four teachers for instructions. Along the perimeter of the room lay shelves that house numerous items which vary from empty tooth paste boxes to cups and buckets. They have been organized into different activity centres labeled “cooking”, “building”, “cleaning”, “health”, and so forth. The teacher begins assigning the children various tasks at these centres. Two jump up excitedly and rush over to their assigned areas, their head scarves flapping behind them. They are soon joined by others, who promptly begin to imitate everyday activities they observe at home in their respective sections. The girls collect sand and begin to shape it into little cakes and flat bread, placing them on buckets they pretend are stoves. Others cradle rag dolls and sing Swahili nursery rhythms. The boys are at the building area, laying blocks on top of each other so to mimic building a house. Like in Canada, gender roles are taught at a very young age. A few minutes pass and the teacher calls everyone back into the circle, their naked feet slapping against the cold stone surface while running to sit back on the mat. Once settled, the teacher hands out a small wooden block to one of the children, who presses it up against his ear as if it were a cell phone (the modus operandi for Tanzanians), who then waits for the teacher’s questions that will be ask ed into another block across the room. The inquisition starts, and the child shyly describes what he did and learned. This goes on for a few seconds, until he is unable to answer a question. Embarrassed, he covers his tiny face in frustration. The teacher immediately corrects him and encourages the class to clap in support of his effort, which they do while chanting encouraging words. I am reminded of Nyerere’s famous theory of "ujamaa", which encouraged Tanzanians to work together in achieving their own development. It failed as a policy, but survived as a philosophy, now woven tightly into Tanzania’s social fabric.

It’s time for us to leave. We collect our items, smile politely to the children and speed off in our white van to visit three more Madrassas, which all vary in class sizes, number of teachers and available resources. Mr. Mjaka attributes the differences to two reasons. The first is revenue collection. Urban Madrassas service poorer communities. This means lower tuition fees for children wishing to attend than their urban counterparts, who statistically are better off financially. The prices are decided by the community and can vary from 60 cents to 2.50 Canadian dollars per month, which is still unaffordable to many in the rural areas. Thus with lower cash inflows, there’s less money for infrastructure support and materials. There’s also less money to pay teachers’ salaries. But this has not waved the determination of the community teachers to provide the best education they can to the local children, clocking seven hour work days to make 7 Canadian dollars a month, or the cost of my pizza the other night in Stone Town.

Differences between the Madrassas are also due to different levels of support from ZMRC. Those Madrassas which are still being weaned by this organization are much more resource abundant than those that have ‘graduated’ many years ago. Central here is the idea of sustainability, or the lack there of once ZMRC phases out its guidance in the spirit of community ownership and self-reliance. You see, upon working with the community to open a school, the ZMRC collects empty household items to fill the activity shelves, as described above. For these shelves to remain full, teachers must collect items within the community or parents must drop them off at the centres on an ongoing bases, so to replace materials that become damaged. Unfortunately, Mr. Mjaka tells us that once ZMRC is no longer there, the communities struggle to keep the schools well stocked with materials the children can use for the activities, which means the teachers and students have less to work with over time, devaluing their education. Until the community understands the importance of keeping these materials present and up to date, which Mr. Mjaka assures us are readily available, and until local teachers are paid a greater salary so they can afford the time it takes to collect these materials, nothing will really change. But Mr. Mjaka believes that as more information is disseminated throughout the villages about the importance of education and early childhood development, an activity ZMRC also supports, community behaviours will change.

The Madrassa schools reflect how the AKDN is focusing its priorities on what I argue are two essential pillars of development: education and health care. Recalling that if development is the act of restoring or enhancing basic human capabilities (with poverty therefore being the lack of choice or capability), then the importance of health and education is pretty clear, as each is a fundamental determinant of our capabilities. Without health, overall well being is diminished and one is incapable of leading a productive and fruitful life. Without education, one’s life is likely to be dissatisfying and unrewarding as potentials become unfulfilled and capabilities remain limited. Both contribute to the overall well being of society and quality of life experienced by all, and without them development is not possible.

Recognizing the importance of supporting the health and education sectors, groups like AKF have invested considerable time and money into supporting local organizations like ZMRC, which in turn support CBOs like the local committees of the Madrassa schools in Zanzibar. With the means of development in the hands of the community, the choice and direction of their future is left to them and ideally no one else. This is what I believe development should be.


Caitlin said...

You forgot to mention the best part of all, after the classroom "debrief" on the activities, the song that involved jumping up and down in a frenzied way. That was awesome!

Sarah said...

I'm an Intern too with the Agakhan Foundation and i agree that Early childhood education is essential in that not only do the children learn how to read and write,these Madrasas bring about community involvement and participation and this eventually leads to the sustainability of these preschools because these are communally owned projects. I know this because my work placement is Madrasa Resource Centre Uganda