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Last Updated:  Wednesday, 12 March, 2003, 15:53 GMT
Mali's Koranic schools of hard knocks

By Joan Baxter
BBC, Bamako

Education in Mali is a complex matter.

There are state schools offering a modern education in French. There are Franco-Arabian schools supported by Arab countries and teaching exclusively in Arabic.

Koranic recital at one of Mali's schools
Pupils are supposed to learn humility and respect

There are also Catholic schools full of Muslim youngsters in a secular country that is about 95% Muslim.

All these are part of the official education system.

But then there are the road side Koranic schools, many thousands of them, where the religious teachers (marabouts) are pretty much on their own.

They do as they like with the children with absolutely no support or control from the government.

Malian children who attend these schools spend more time on the streets begging than they do learning about Islam and the Koran.

'Always hungry'

In one of the estimated 3,000 neighbourhood Koranic schools in the capital, Bamako, 44 youngsters sit in front of wooden tablets, reciting Koranic verses, hour after hour, day after day, until they know them by heart.

They are seated cross-legged on the bare ground, under a tin roof that crackles in the morning heat, resting precariously by four walls of rough boards.

Koranic school students
Pupils spend most of their time begging

These Koranic schools are completely dependent on donations from parents, and in many cases, on the money the garibouts, or Koranic school pupils, obtain when they head out each morning onto the streets to beg.

One student from neighbouring Guinea says each morning they begin reciting the verses at 0500, then they are sent out to beg.

"It's a school of hard knocks," he says.

They are always hungry, often sick and no one seems to know what to do about it.

Fundamentalism

Imam Mamoud Dicko, an executive member of Mali's Islamic Council says it is time the government stopped ignoring the problem of Koranic schools and the neglected pupils.

I don't see how the ministry of education... can possibly deal with Koranic schools too. We don't even know where they are
Mohamed Lamine Traore, Education Minister

"At least 40% of all kids attend them. So if the government doesn't get involved, in this day when there are so many Muslim ideologies floating around, I think the government is making a very serious mistake by not taking charge of these schools."

Mr Dicko also thinks the government should support the Koranic schools, make them part of the education system, to ensure that teachers do not exploit the children, mistreat and even abuse them.

He also suggests this could prevent rising fundamentalism born of frustration and ignorance.

Despair

But Mali's Minister of Education, Mohamed Lamine Traore says it is not up to the government.

It is up to Islamic leaders to modernise and monitor these schools.

Boy at a Malian Koranic school
They start learning lessons at 0500

"It is tradition for children from Koranic schools to go to the streets for charity, to learn humility and modesty," he said.

But he did admit they were a problem:

"I'll tell you the truth, I don't see how the ministry of education with all the problems we have already, can possibly deal with Koranic schools too. We don't even know where they are."

Koranic school teachers told me that they have asked for years for government help to offer basic reading and writing in the official language, French, but all their pleas fall on deaf ears.

So millions of Malian children who spend their childhoods in such schools continue to suffer, and leave without the skills they need in a brutal and rapidly changing world.




SEE ALSO:
Country profile: Mali
06 Mar 03 |  Country profiles
Timeline: Mali
04 Mar 03 |  Country profiles


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