A Discussion with Abdalla Rashid Agolla, Head of Programs at Islamic Relief Kenya

With: Abdalla Rashid Agolla

November 12, 2014

Background: With mounting insecurity linked to conflict and climate change, the north-eastern region of Kenya poses unique challenges for development actors. Abdalla Rashid Agolla, head of programs at Islamic Relief Kenya, met with Elisabeth Stoddard on November 12, 2014 in Nairobi to discuss his organization’s strategies for implementing programs in this difficult region. He reflects on how his organization's Islamic values help build trust in the majority Muslim communities of northeastern Kenya and describes how Islamic Relief involves religious leaders in most of their programs as a way of fostering sustainable and inclusive development. He speaks about Islamic Relief’s education programs in Dadaab refugee camp, which integrate formal education into the Qur’anic duksi schools. He also discusses their sharia compliant microfinance program that has seen great success for both local populations and their local partner bank.

When did Islamic Relief first begin in Kenya? What were the circumstances?

We started working here in 1993 through a local partner that supported formal education at Mandera Islamic Center. In 2006, we established an Islamic Relief office in Mandera district which is just at the tip of Somalia and Ethiopia in the North Eastern province of Kenya. In 2010 and 2011, there were a series of droughts in Kenya so Islamic Relief expanded its programs to Wajir and Dadaab (Garissa). The Horn of Africa drought and famine in Somalia forced thousands of Somalis to flee to Kenya to try to find better food security. Violence from armed groups in Somali also contributed to the influx of Somali refugees.

During this time, the number of refugees in the Dadaab refugee camp nearly doubled. UNHCR was looking for partners to help with the growing refugee population, so we expanded our programs to include Dadaab. Right now we have three main offices—Mandera, Wajir, and Dadaab.

Then in 2013, just over a year ago, we moved into urban programming in Nairobi by working through a local partner, YIKE—Youth Initiatives Kenya. Our other three offices implement programs directly, but in the Nairobi program we work through a local partner as urban programming was new for us and poses new challenges; we felt using local partner that already had access, acceptability would give us more room to focus on quality control.

How does the Islamic faith influence your organization and your programming?


As an organization, we don’t do anything religious. But our principles, mission, and vision are based on the Islamic faith. We use the Islamic faith as a tool because the areas we work in, Wajir, Garissa, and Mandera, are all predominantly Somali Muslim communities. We don’t build mosques or give out religious books but we are guided by Islamic values as we undertake both emergency and development projects. A good number of our national staff are actually non-Muslims. But, we do encourage our staff to be sensitive to cultures and religions of the people we serve and the values of Islamic Relief.

Being a Muslim faith-based organization also gives us a level of access and acceptance amongst the communities we serve. These areas can be insecure because of conflicts over resources, armed groups, droughts and famine, and the growing refugee populations. Having a tie to Islam coupled with the community-driven nature of our programming has helped us build trust with the local communities.


What programs do you have in and around the refugee camps?


Our refugee programs can broadly be defined in two categories—within the camp and outside the camps with the host community. Many organizations focus their services on the refugee communities in the camps and neglect the surrounding Kenyan communities which also struggle with food security, poverty, water, health, and education. This occurs because, technically, the host community is not the responsibility of UNHCR or its partners, but rather falls under the Kenyan government’s purview. So, we basically provide both emergency relief, because if Dadaab is in a drought, so is the host community, and long-term development programs. Our development programs cover a wide range from food security, WASH, and health, to micro-finance and the environment.

We drill deep boreholes so that the communities can have constant access to water and out of 2,800 orphans in our sponsorship program, 500 are from the host communities. We are also supporting a level five district hospital that is equipped with emergency response capabilities.

What programs do you have in the refugee camps?


Our main programs are in education and health. We have 22 primary schools in Dadaab and we also run preschools. The refugees in Dadaab are mostly from Somalia and mostly Muslim. In their culture, children go to Qur’anic schools (duksi) before they begin formal education. Some children remain in these duksi schools up to age 10 either due to late enrollment or being slow at learning Qur’an—this part of the local community culture. They prefer not to enroll their children in primary school until they finish duksi school. Their formal education gets delayed and they have a difficult time catching up.


As Islamic Relief, we have begun programs that integrate primary education into the existing community-managed religious schools called duksi. In the morning they learn the religious education, but in the afternoon they are introduced to formal education: reading, writing, and math. We have completely restructured the preschools to make sure the environment is child friendly and we employed formal teachers to complement the duksi teachers.


Our part is not the duksi. Our part is ensuring that these children are not missing primary school. And it has worked! Actually, by adding in the formal education, the children are graduating from the duksi schools much faster. This program is currently active in seven schools in Dadaab.
We also have health programs which cover reproductive health, HIV/AIDS, malaria, TB, and the clinical needs of SGBV survivors. We treat them for any injuries and take samples for evidence so that their case can be brought to court. In our HIV programs we often use religious leaders to fight stigma through their teachings. Dadaab has many radio programs, so the religious leaders often talk on radio programs about discrimination, health issues, and any issues surfacing in the camp. We also have nutrition programs which complement the primary health care programs and we operate one hospital in the camp along with six dispensaries for outpatient treatment.

How old are the children in the duksi preschools?


They begin around age 4 or 5, but sometimes learning the Qur’an might take 10 years. Ideally, at 7 years old they should be in the first grade of primary school. Most children who begin in the duksi schools do not start primary in time. When they do come to primary we put them in accelerated programs to help make up for the years they missed. If we don’t accelerate them, we have found that there is a high risk they will not complete primary school. Some of them enter into early marriage instead.


Generally, if a child starts first grade when he or she is already 12 years old, they will feel very uncomfortable learning in a class of 7-year-olds. They skip classes and end up dropping out. But, if we put them in an accelerated third grade class, they become more engaged and can catch up quickly.

What is the primary school enrollment rate in Dadaab?


It’s quite low; around 50 percent of children are enrolled in primary school in the camp. The schools are overcrowded. The infrastructure is just not enough to handle all the children in Dadaab. Primary school graduation rates for boys are pretty high, but retention rate for girls is much lower. We have some retention programs which target girls to help them graduate from primary.

One of the program interventions is supplying girls with sanitary pads so they can continue to go to school after beginning puberty.
But, basically due to early marriage and child labor, the retention rate for girls remains quite low.

We need a complete shift in how we approach education in the camps. It needs to be more holistic and engage parents in discussions about the importance of education. It needs to be focused towards long-term investment. In first grade the boy to girl ratio is 1:1, but at the end of primary it could be 7:2. It is a serious problem.

What other interventions are you doing to increase girls’ retention rates?


We are training a lot of female teachers. Male teachers have a difficult time understanding the needs of the girl students. Women teachers are more receptive and can be role models for their girl students. We call this girl-aided learning. Many girls drop out because they are not faring well in school. We are currently creating a network of women tutors and teachers who can help these girls excel in school. We want to empower these girls to be educated.

The other strategy we employ is to work through religious leaders to develop advocacy tools based on Islamic teaching for sensitive issues like girls’ education, reproductive health, and child marriage. The religious leaders in the camp have been very receptive to these programs. They want to help.

In the past, other organizations have tried to raise enrollment rates by using strategies that unfortunately were not accepted by the refugees. We wanted to make sure the community played a part in the recruitment of the teachers. We also brought in the religious leaders to help promote the value of education. This strategy was especially effective in the duksi school programs. Now the religious leaders and the parents see that formal education and religious education can coexist!

Is Islamic Relief implementing the duksi school programs anywhere outside of the refugee camps?


The government of Kenya is actually piloting a similar program in Garissa. The Ministry of Education was very supportive of the program and the government approves the curriculum.

Do you hire Kenyan staff to run all of the programs in the refugee camps?


We do have Kenyan and international staff, but our programs are mainly run by the 1,450 refugee incentive volunteers we employ. Since they are refugees, they cannot leave the camp and they are not allowed to earn wages because of legalities. So, we pay them with incentives like extra food, materials, supplies etc. Otherwise we treat them like all of our other staff. We train them and they hold skilled positions. We are looking towards repatriation. We want to make sure that when they return to Somalia, they are equipped to earn money, provide for their families, and contribute to the development of Somalia.


Are the Somali refugees planning on returning to Somalia in the near future?


Most likely, yes; however two of the main reasons that forced them out are still not resolved—conflict insecurity and food insecurity. The conflict is still ongoing while the region continues to experience recurrent droughts of below average rain performance. But, a number of organizations are preparing for their voluntary repatriation sometime in the future. In the past 20 years, a lot of infrastructure has been developed in Dadaab. The schools and health systems are quite often better than most Kenyan systems.

When I was growing up in Kenya, my schools had no windows and school supplies were non-existent. The organizations working in Dadaab have done a good job in providing for the refugee population.

This is not to say that there are not problems in Dadaab. But in comparison to the systems in Somalia, Dadaab is far better. The refugees, however, lack the freedom of movement and the freedom of having a home. At this point in the conflict, we cannot expect parents to pull their children out of these good schools to go back where their towns have been ravaged by war, where there are no structures left.

I don’t think that voluntary repatriation will happen unless some kind of strategic aid is identified and a decent level of services is developed in Somalia. People need to be assured of their security. In Dadaab, they feel more secure. UNHCR and the other agencies are there to protect their human rights and keep them safe. And, Somalia has been experiencing cycles of drought and famine which causes terrible food insecurity. At least in Dadaab, food supplies are guaranteed.

Some refugees in Dadaab have been there for a generation. Do they see Somalia, or Dadaab, as their home?

They speak Swahili, like I speak Swahili. There are young boys and girls, some of them were born here and they are now twenty plus because the camp was established in 1990. If they were born in 1990, they are now 24 years old. At 24 years old, I can assure you a number of them are already married, so we are talking about the third generation. Their links with Somalia are very few. They have more links with Kenyan society. This contributes to the slow pace of repatriation.

Do any of the refugees think about resettlement to a third country, maybe the U.S. or Australia?


Resettlement is everyone’s wish as they believe it offers more opportunity. Many of them have relatives who are based in Canada or the U.S. They hear the stories of how they are much better off and able to support their families. This generation is driven to find a way to support their families. Not everyone wants to go to new country. The family usually fights for only one person to go, believing that that person can work hard and then send money back to the camps or to Somalia.

As much as we say services are good in Dadaab, we don’t provide everything. It is just the necessities. Families want at least one or two of their kids to be in the West so they can support them here in the camp. But, a very small number actually get resettled. And, those that do are often special medical or protection cases.

Can you talk about your sharia compliant microfinance program?


This is another program which reflects our organization’s Islamic principles. The sharia principle of banking is basically that both the borrower and the lender share both profit and loss. With strategic funding from DFID, we have partnered with a local bank, First Community Bank, to develop a financing system based on the sharia principles. Basically what this means is that interest rates are lower and both the bank and the customer share profits and losses.

For instance, if I give you a glass of water, maybe the glass of water is worth one dollar right now. That is the actual value at this moment. If you have the same glass of water in two years’ time, maybe it costs one and a half dollars. There is also a possibility that the glass of water might cost less than one dollar due to increased availability or something. In traditional banking, the bank has to make a profit; they never lose. In sharia compliant banking, we both share the profit or the loss of the glass of water.

If the bank decides to finance my new business with a $5,000 loan and my business succeeds, I pay back the $5,000 and more. If my business fails due to the market environment or drought, I do not have to pay back the entire $5,000. We both share in the profit and loss. This program is paired with our food security and resilience building programs.

We provide secondary collateral for people who otherwise would not be able to get a bank loan because they do not have a credit history. This has allowed people to begin their own income generation activities with a lower risk. We’ve really used religious leaders to disseminate knowledge about the program and assure their communities that this program follows all Islamic principles. The project is currently being implemented in all of our field offices—Wajir, Mandera, and Garissa.

How do religious leaders sensitize the people to the sharia concepts and the microfinance program?


They provide guidance on the concept of sharia and understanding about the banking principles. The concept of sharia is quite dynamic, cross cutting across different Muslim regions. Sharia concept in Middle East might not really be the exact same sharia concept in Kenya. But even that sharia concept itself does not operate in a vacuum; it operates within national frameworks and acts regulated by the Central Bank.

So we use the religious leaders to be able to link the Sharia concept to the national framework. Because ideally you would not pay any interest, but this is not feasible for a national bank. Maintenance fees have to be included. The other banks in Kenya, the non-Islamic banks, give loans with up to 15 percent interest rates. Twelve percent is the absolute best you can find. Our local partner charges five percent service charge to administer the loan, but some people ask, ‘Why is it five? Why isn’t it nothing?’ A lot of times people don’t understand why they have to share their profits. The religious leaders are able to explain the principles through religious teaching, but also frame them within the Kenyan context. They show the communities why all parts of the sharia concept need to be adhered to, even if it means sharing profits.

We also use the religious leaders to keep the people honest through an auditing system. Some people try to hide their profits and exploit the sharia principles. The religious leaders are trained on how to conduct and audit and every quarter they audit the people who are in the sharia compliant microfinance program. Their work is completely voluntary. They don’t get paid and show great dedication.

Who enrolls in the sharia compliant microfinance programs?


One of the main groups is the parents/guardians of the children in our orphan sponsorship program. Some of those beneficiaries are offered initial loans to start small businesses. We actually have two ladies who came to us and said they don’t need the orphan sponsorship anymore. They have the capacity to take care of their children with no extra assistance. They wanted us to offer the money to someone else! We have some great success stories from this program.

The response from the communities has been so great that the bank opened new branches in Mandera. So, the program is helping the bank grow and is opening up opportunities for the communities. And, we are continuing to develop the program to be better. In December, we launched software (MIS) to help people manage their loans and money.

The Mandera, Wajir, and Garissa counties struggle with food security, in part, due to the effects of climate change. Is Islamic Relief active in climate change programming?


Yes, we have a project called Climate Change and Adaptation funded again by DFID. Through this we focus on resilience building so that livelihoods are not lost due to climate change. A lot of this involves transitioning communities from pure pastoralism to agro-pastoralism. We have initiated irrigated agriculture which also provides water for the livestock. In some areas, we are also piloting dry-land farming approaches and establishing green houses to help build food security. But a large part of our work is mainstreaming a community-driven early warning system to encourage disaster risk reduction. The religious leaders have been crucial in mobilizing the communities to establish these systems.

How does the community-driven early warning system work?


It starts by working with communities to identify potential risks and disasters. We establish a network which can quickly inform the entire community of a sudden event or mobilize the community to help mitigate the effects and recover from that disaster. These disasters can be natural or man-made, so we also really work with communities to build peace. We have developed a conflict system toolkit that helps communities identify potential conflict triggers. Once the triggers are known, the community can work together to prevent conflict by increasing conflict sensitivity and employing dialogue.

It sounds like you engage religious leaders in a lot of your programs?


Yes, they are well trusted in their communities. Sometimes there is a credibility issue with development organizations and local administrations because these communities have not seen meaningful development in a very long time. The religious leaders are interconnected with the communities at the local grassroots levels. This is not to say that there are never any doubts here and there. But, in general they can be pivotal in community mobilization.

Is Islamic Relief engaged in peacebuilding work between the clans?


We’ve not been doing that, but we have programs that have integrated aspects of peace and conflict sensitivity. However, over the last two years since the elections, clan conflict has really affected our projects. So, we are moving into more peace programming. We believe it is important to do more peace work because the root causes of most conflicts here in Kenya are linked to development and resources.

It is too early to tell exactly what the peace programs will look like, but we know we want to focus on conflicts around shared resources, particularly water. We are also talking about pre-election programming which would involve religious leaders in helping to facilitate peace meetings and dialogue sessions among the communities. In the Muslim communities, the stories of Prophet Muhammad’s abilities to bring warring peoples to meet together in peace can be very influential. We will be supporting those sorts of initiatives.

As Islamic Relief, we recognize that different faiths have unique capabilities to mobilize toward meaningful resilience, emergency response, and long-term development. So, we continue to look at how various concepts within religion can improve our projects and lead to more community-owned and sustainable development. We continue to align ourselves with the international standards and help people regardless of religion or ethnicity. But we believe that religion, especially within families and communities, can play a part in mobilizing the certain unique capacities that people have to bring themselves out of poverty.

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