Before arriving in Senegal to work as a volunteer with Tostan, all I knew was that I was going to be working on a child protection project. At the time I had never even heard the words talibé (a student at a Koranic school) or daara (the Koranic school). However, in the three months since my arrival, I have been thrown into a world of deeply held religious beliefs, tradition, and authority, as well as determination, compassion, and a real desire for change that will not only benefit children, but entire communities and a country.
Tostan, through its Child Protection Project, is advocating for a more robust move towards modernizing daaras, which includes meeting safety standards and teaching from approved curricula. As part of this work, religious and community leaders met with government representatives in December to advocate for a more active role from the Senegalese government. Meanwhile, communities and religious leaders are already organizing themselves and taking steps to improve their Koranic schools and communities. Daara Management Committees (DMCs), comprised of community members, Koranic teachers, and imams, now operate in many communities where the Child Protection Project works. The DMCs lead the effort to improve the living conditions and education of the talibés and advocate for change within the community and among Koranic teachers.
However, when a deeply rooted tradition is questioned, there is usually some resistance. And, when a tradition involves religious authority, it is likely the resistance can be even stronger. Frequently, I have found that community members feel the reason why many religious leaders, and others, are against daara modernization is because of fear – fear of outsiders, fear of losing their identity, customs, religion, authority and fear of change. When things have been the way they have been for so long, as long as anyone can recall, the thought of changing can be terrifying. In many communities, daaras are an important fixture in the community, and the practice of forced begging is not only accepted as a normal way of life but, for many, as the way it should be. The practice is viewed as normal and an essential part of teaching humility in a good Koranic education.
Yet, there are many strong voices among religious and community leaders who are advocating for change and the reasons for wanting to modernize are as varied as the reasons against it. During a recent field visit to Thiarène Keur Sacoumba, a village near Kaolack, I had the chance to talk to two community members, Awa Diop and Ahmed Fall, about their own personal commitment to modernization and the challenges it presents. Ahmed, who is an imam, spoke to me about the deep mistrust and fear that his fellow imams have when it comes to making any changes to the daara system. He revealed that when the formal French language school system was first established there was an outcry from conservative religious leaders who feared that the formal schools would usurp their authority and challenge their traditions. Ahmed decided to lead by example and took the bold step of enrolling his own children in the new school to show that there was nothing to fear.
Awa and Ahmed take part in awareness-raising activities such as home visits to talk with the community about daara modernization. I asked Awa what she says to those who are reticent to change. She said that she tells them that the world is changing, and for the good of the children, they have to adapt to this new world.
Story by Detrich Peeler, Volunteer Assistant to the Child Protection Project, Tostan