A Discussion with Imam Mouhamed Cherif Diop, Program Coordinator at Tostan Senegal
July 31, 2014
Background: The welfare of children attending many of the numerous Quranic schools in Senegal has attracted international attention. Imam Mouhamed Chérif Diop, program coordinator at Tostan in Dakar, Senegal, focuses on child protection, particularly of children in Quranic schools. Outside of Tostan, he hosts a radio show on religion in Senegal. In July 2014, Lauren Herzog and Hannah Fitter of WFDD spoke with Imam Diop about Qur'anic schools in Senegal. The discussion highlights Tostan’s work; the historical and social origins of the Qur'anic schools; society’s views of these schools; the role of parents and the government; and the future of the system and its students.
Could you tell us about your training?
I was born in Saint Louis. I grew up and studied there as well. I moved to Dakar to continue my higher education and then began working here. I still travel between Dakar and Saint-Louis often. I completed studies up to university. I was trained in daaras [Quranic school] until university as well. At university, I studied languages, Arabic, African civilizations, and mass communication. In Saint-Louis, at the same time that we went to French school, we did parallel studies in the daara [Quranic school].
Have you completed religious studies?
I am Muslim. I continued my studies to the point of specializing in the Qur’an and universal rights, as well as human rights in relation to Islam. This is really my specialty, the Qur’an and Islamic rights.
Do you belong to a certain confrérie [Sufi order] in Senegal?
Yes, it is through my guide that I did my spiritual training like all good West African Muslims. In Senegal, we all belong to confréries, which are places of exercising community solidarity. If that changes, then that means we have deviated from the right path.
What is your title and role at Tostan?
My role here is two things. First, it’s to guide and advise on all things religious with respect to our programs. I make sure that there are not any points of conflict between the programs and religious principles. Second, I currently coordinate the child protection program. I used to supervise the radio program here. I have been working in this position since 2000.
You mentioned that Tostan hosts radio programs. What themes do you cover?
Tostan has thematic programs that focus on the content of our programs—for a positive change of social norms—for example female genital cutting, community development, governance, etc. We have regional branches where our various hosts lead weekly programs. It’s this program that I used to manage.
Independently of that, I have my personal radio show that I host each week on state radio. This program has nothing to do with Tostan. The goal is to give purely religious teaching. It occurs in a mixture of French, Wolof, and Arabic. I speak a little in each language in order to reach the maximum possible audience.
In terms of your personal radio program, which themes do you discuss?
On all topics. For example, I recently spoke on the education crisis in Senegal. Often, I take my themes from the questions that people send to me. So, if someone sends me a question, I will give the adequate response growing from the issue. I take your question and I turn it into a program, but in a much more detailed way.
I just spoke on a show about spousal abuse—it was a woman who asked the question. I also do shows on international news and world affairs. The themes that I take on are always social issues, but from the religious point of view. It is in this way that I give the point of view of Islam in my program.
At the level of Tostan, what brought you to this role?
I did a show that drew comparisons between the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights and Islam. In this program, I took each individual right and pointed out where the Qur’an has bestowed these rights upon people before this declaration came about. In reality, it is not the United Nations that has given these rights, but these rights are the ones that God has granted us in the sacred texts. Molly [Melching] and Malick [of Tostan] heard the show on the radio when they were in a taxi. They searched for my contact, found it, and they discussed their work with me. This is how our collaboration began.
Tostan works on the subject of daaras. Could you explain the origin of daaras in relation to Islam?
The first revelation says, “Read! In the name of your Lord!” Everyone needs to read and to learn. So, as soon as you are given the order to learn, you are given the order to put into place the structures for learning and instructional systems.
From the beginning, the Prophet of Islam (PBUH) [Muhammad] gathered with his disciples and instructed them on religion in a house. The house was called Dar Al-Arqam ibn-abil-Arqam. Dar means house. Afterward, we named our schools daaras in reference to the first school of Islam.
The important point here is that it is necessary to learn religion. We do not limit religion to simple acts of worship, such as prayer, fasting, etc. But, we understand that religion is a social vehicle. It is a form of organization based on the fundamental texts, and it is necessary that there are appropriate structures in place. Thus when Islam arrived in Senegal, it developed through schools. The first people who learned put schools in place for instruction. And they named those schools daaras.
Today in Senegal, one speaks of “religious families.” All of the religious families come from the daaras. This means that the ancestor created a school and taught there. This has been passed down from father to son until now. Their role is to teach and diffuse the message by teaching from the Qur’an and religious sciences. Thus in Senegal, we do not have an Islam of conquest or combat, but an Islam of teaching and learning. Throughout Senegal, you see people replicating this system. But the intention is always to teach, diffuse the message, and train.
How has the daara system evolved?
In the traditional, precolonial Senegalese society—Senegal was colonized by the French—solidarity was the base of social relations. Families handed over their children to Quranic instructors who were not paid in money. The contribution of families consisted of giving food to the children during the lean season. It was only during these periods (just before the harvest, or when crop yields were poor) that the children would go beg for food. Otherwise, if everything goes well, it is the fields of the daara that allow the Quranic instructor to manage the expenses of the daara. I will also signal that each family took care of its talibé child’s clothing. There was a rigorous system for taking charge of the expenses of students. Parents contributed until colonization broke up traditional organization and ancestral solidarity.
Although the system changed, people maintained the same mechanisms of giving the child to the Quranic instructor without paying. Social norms do not allow marabouts [Quranic instructor] to refuse to take children because he does not have the means. Social norms certainly do not allow the marabout to demand a financial contribution from the family. If he were to refuse the children or demand a contribution, he would be socially sanctioned.
So, he takes the children that are brought to him even if he does not have the means to feed them. And this marks the beginning of begging to feed the children. Then, when children brought in money, certain marabouts began to see that it was in reality a source of revenue for their own needs. One thing led to another, and this slid toward forced begging uniquely for money and nothing other than money.
And it is there that things really began to deviate. Society did not understand that the situation had changed and that it was also necessary to change attitudes. It was also necessary for the Qur’anic instructors to change the management of the daaras. But that has not happened, and the lack of such change has created what we see now—talibé children more and more in the streets, unhappy, abused, and exploited.
For the Quranic instructors who do not have the means, how do they justify agreeing to take on these children?
There is no justification other than the fear of social sanction simply because the Qur’an says: “Allah does not charge a soul except [with that within] its capacity.”[i] I always say to a marabout that if someone entrusts you with a child, it is necessary to first determine if your resources allow you to manage. If not, taking in the child would compromise the chances of providing him with a quality education. But the marabouts often respond by saying, “My dignity, my relations with the parents, the confidence of the parents in me, etc. does not allow me to refuse any child.” Or they say, “My roles is to teach religion. If I refuse to teach religion, how will people learn?”
In your opinion, do the parents of these children know what really happens at the daara?
The parents know well what happens in certain daaras that have deviated from the standard. Because a child who remains in a daara for five years, who nonetheless sometimes cannot read—that ought to alert the parent. But sometimes, the parents close their eyes to the situation. Certain parents have fulfilled their responsibilities and paid the marabout for the child’s studies. Others, however, think that this manner of treating the child constitutes part of his character building.
In our program, we raise awareness among parents. We give them the most information possible so that they understand the reality in case they were not informed. We know that parents naturally always put their child’s interest before all else. Even if, as some say, parents give their child to a marabout because of poverty, they still always think about whether their child is thriving.
Are there still many parents that are not aware of the situation in the daaras?
I don’t think so. I believe that the information has been transmitted to everyone. It is not only Tostan that works on the ground, but there are an impressive number of organizations working on this problem of child protection. I don’t mean only the non-governmental organizations, but the government itself, has taken on this question. In the media—on the radio, television—each day that passes, you see reports on the situation of these children. So, I do not think that there is any parent today who can say, “I do not know” or “I am not informed.”
People today—honestly, the entire world—is informed. Now, it is up to the parents to decide to obtain a good religious education for their child or to throw up their hands. But everyone is informed. That is my sense. Look at everything that we have done on the ground, look at how the information has been passed, and look at all the organizations working toward a solution. The information is out there, that’s for sure.
After finishing their studies at the daara, what happens to the children?
In the current daaras, the only paths are to become Quranic teachers themselves or to enter into informal commerce. When we do questionnaires, the children often say that they want to establish their own daara. But the main path is teaching.
Do some children return to their village after their studies?
Yes, the children always want always to return to their parents. Each time that a child finishes his studies, he returns. Sometimes, though, the child flees and returns home before finishing his studies. The tough conditions in the daaras make it so that children naturally want to return home to their parents. That is an issue that we work on and that we call confiage [common, informal practice of parents entrusting care of their child to someone else]. Confiage creates a lot of frustrations for the child, so much so that children return home to their parents after finishing their studies.
What do you think of government actions concerning the daaras?
I think that the government has a good initative with the project to modernize the daaras. But what we find regrettable is the lack of political will. Because with the current slow pace, this is starting to make this problem a political spectacle. And Quranic instructors think that this is only to be able to say to international bodies, “Yes, we’re making efforts like the reports that we’re giving you show.” And in this way, they are tapping into the money of donors and giving a good image of the country. But concretely, there is nothing being done on the ground.
Despite this, the government’s modernization program is very good. That’s why, at Tostan, we’ve chosen to promote it. But in my opinion, national politicians, who must be the ones to initiate it, are not ready to do two essential things to resolve the problem. First, it requires that the funds given by either the Islamic Development Bank or other institutions go to the grassroots level. Second, it requires a legal framework that says clearly that child begging and mistreatment are prohibited. This framework would outlaw child begging and outline the standards for daara management. Laws must be put in place to enforce that.
Concerning these laws, I think that the government is reluctant because of the sensitive nature of the decisions to be made. But if this program were to be realized, in six months, you would no longer see children in the streets. But for that to happen, what’s necessary now is great political courage.
You mentioned that there is a lack of political will. Is this issue sensitive because the daaras are tied to religion?
No. When our politicians want to get things done, they always find a way without speaking of its sensitivity. It is no longer sensitive when religious ceremonies transform into political meetings. But each time that they need to do something useful and advantageous, they say, “Oh, it’s too sensitive. We can’t get involved in that.” At the same time, though, it’s they who are supposed to manage the country. And in any country, there can’t be people doing whatever they want or treating children however they want. It’s the government that says how children must be treated. But if the government just says, “No, no, no. It’s sensitive, I abdicate my responsibility,” nothing is going to change and people will do what they like.
What is Tostan’s approach to taking on this subject? What kinds of activities do you have on the ground?
We have a community approach based on rights. At the community level, we encourage communities to put Community Management Committees into place. And on the question of modernization, improvement of quality of life, or begging, we do trainings that provide information on health, hygiene, psychology of the child, pedagogical approaches, problem solving strategies, governance, management of revenue generating activities, etc. Afterward, participants put together action plans so that the whole group can come to a consensus to change negative norms and practices, as well as reinforce positive norms and practices.
Our role is limited to accompanying communities in carrying out their action plans for the daaras. The communities come up with little development projects, such as revenue generating activities. The profits from these activities allow them to help, for example, poor parents who can’t pay for their child’s studies. The profits also help make the program sustainable.
With these projects, we can help those families, parents, and children, as well as manage the daara from a community approach. They advocate for change before their local authorities. They go to see their local religious authorities and get them involved. It’s these types of activities that we carry out at the community level. In short, I would say that we only do scaffolding. We accompany the communities by reinforcing their capacities so that they can carry out nonaggressive, positive change.
In your opinion, what are your greatest challenges and successes?
The greatest challenge is to solve the problem. I mean so that we no longer see children in the streets, but only in the daaras, learning properly. This is a great challenge. When we succeed in getting the children off the streets, we’ll see the other categories of street children who are hiding behind the talibés.
I think the greatest challenge today is to arrive at the point that we can get children off the streets. Thus we would have properly functioning daaras, parents who take responsibility for their children, and communities that no longer accept this visible misery of children. This is our principal objective.
We are proud that through these activities we have succeeded in bringing a good number of Quranic instructors to accept that this is not a normal situation. Before, they treated us like infidels. They accused us of wanting to fight Islam under the guise of sensitizing activities. But, today in 2014, the Qur’anic school instructors themselves use the same language that we had at first. There was the National Federation of Quranic School Teachers [la Fédération nationale des maîtres coraniques] that works on the same issues as we do. We encourage them. Really, this is what we have always encouraged—for people to organize themselves and take their destiny into their own hands.
What are the best strategies for resolving the problems that you describe in the daaras?
It is the collaboration of actors through a participatory approach. That calls for the collaboration of all those who work on this question. Everyone must gather around the state. Because this is the role of the state. We do activities, but this is only to support the state in carrying out its responsibilities. If the program of the state is good, all of those working on this issue—national organizations, international organizations—need to stand with the state to reach a quick solution. But if there is a dispersal of actors and a lack of coordination of activities, we will never resolve the problems. Without coordination, we would be part of the problem.
Are there mechanisms that support collaboration among organizations working on this issue?
There is no regular framework for dialogue. Each of us is active in our own project zones. We can work and achieve incredible things without anyone knowing or benefitting from our experience so that they can improve their own work. If we like, we can work in an area for the whole year without submitting a single report to the village head or any government officials. State representatives never ask to see what we are doing in their districts. It’s the same for other organizations. The state needs to take initiatives to put an end to this anarchy. The state knows, in principle, all of the organizations that are working on the issue. But the state never involves them in the development of programs or strategies. It’s necessary for all of us to work together, and the state must be the referee. They need to say, “Tostan, because you’re involved in training, you will coordinate the activities of the NGOs for all training.” They could say, “You, because you do logistical support, you coordinate everything logistical.” Otherwise everyone will do the same thing with the same targets in the same communities. Anti-Slavery does the same thing, the World Bank comes to do the same thing, the Islamic Development Bank comes to do the same thing that you just did. This is a problem, not a solution. We are not working harmoniously.
There are a lot of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and centers working in the same field, directed by both Senegalese and foreigners. Does each organization or center’s work provide benefits?
There is anarchy in this field, and I think that this contributes to the problems. Everyone does the same thing without dialogue or analysis. All of the structures support the daaras. The marabouts have developed strategies to capture support and assistance. We realized this when we did an evaluation of our talibé program in 2009. We provided daaras with discreet material support, and we remarked that everywhere that we did the program, more and more daaras would come set up in the area. They were hearing, “Yes, Tostan is doing something in Guédiawaye. I’m going to leave Saint-Louis to come to Guédiawaye so that I can join the program.” So the more you work, in the end, you see that you’ve hardly resolved anything. And all that because there is no framework for dialogue. It’s the role of the state to coordinate efforts.
At Tostan, we try to remedy this damaging situation. We encouraged the creation of a dialogue framework that is called CAINT (le Cadre d’appui à l’initiative nationale en faveur des talibés, or the National Support Initiative in Favor of Talibés). CAINT tried to bring together all of the organizations working on the question of the daaras. We identified all the recommendations that were lying dormant so that they could be applied on the ground. We were fought against so much that the structure practically disappeared. Yes, people do not really like to be practical and work concretely to find solutions. I suspect that certain NGOs benefit from the problem to gain funding. They do not really want to see an end to the phenomenon that allows them to have funding.
And that is the great difficulty in Senegal. The partners that support these programs need to be more cautious about what happens on the ground. They also need to require a minimum amount of collaboration and dialogue between those working at the grassroots level. Without collaboration, with respect to the activities, it will continue as if we are throwing water in the sea.
Has your own religion inspired you to work in this domain?
Yes, of course. It is the work of the prophets to lift people out of their difficult situations, reduce poverty, maintain harmony and balance in society, and reinforce solidarity. In this sense, the Prophets put systems in place. For example, if you look at Christianity, why are there churches? If Christians get together every Sunday at church, they will end up putting in place systems of mutual aid and decision-making. It is the same with Islam and any other religious group that respects itself and the recommendations of God.
Zakat, for example, is a pillar for solidarity because it encourages the rich to help the poor. As this is an obligation, not doing it is committing a sin. But money is not for the afterlife, it is for sorting out problems in this world. The role of religion is really to create connections between people, to identify problems, and to give people the possibility of taking their destiny into their own hands in dignity and the respect of all. That is religion. It is only when we do not correctly understand the meaning of religion that it becomes a weapon and an object of war, abuse, and division. It is a shame that it is this deformed image of religion that is imposing itself on the world.
Take any prophet. Moses, for example, guided the Jewish people to remove them from the misery of slavery and to give them their liberty from the Pharaoh and all dictators. He did not say, “Pray, pray, pray! Fast, fast, fast!” He said, “It is necessary to leave misery so that everyone lives in dignity.” It is the same with Abraham (PBUH), Noah (PBUH), and Jesus (PBUH). It was the same with the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH). In any case, if such is the task of the prophets to lift humanity from misery, we cannot close our eyes to the suffering of others. Above all, if we share the same community space, market, soccer field, mosque, church, or vessel according to the parable that the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) gives us on human society, how can we not enter into social relations with each other and invest in finding solutions to the challenges that face us if we are true believers?
Senegal has experienced many social changes. Are there certain events that have pushed the daaras to evolve?
The drought of 1980 was a major turning point. We experienced a decade of a grave economic crisis. Senegal is a country that lives essentially on agriculture. We are an agricultural society where industry has not developed. When there was a crisis in the rural world, the people migrated to the cities. The rural exodus toward the cities came because neither men nor livestock were able to survive in the countryside. There were no pastures or water: no rain. People farmed without rain, and there was no irrigation.
People left with all their baggage, and the daara was part of that baggage. When they came to the city, they maintained the same system of the daara as there was in the village. They wanted to maintain it here, and it was not viable in the city, which had abandoned the system of solidarity that existed in the village. This created essentially this disruption that we see. The daara always moves from the village to the city. But it is rare that you would see the daara leave the city for the village.
Now, the fact that people from other countries immigrate with their talibés to Senegal, this is cultural. This is because the Senegalese have a deeply engrained cultural norm: give alms. Out of the entire sub-region, it is Senegal that has the largest basket of offerings. If you go to any country and beg, you will not earn a thousandth of what you can earn here. Go to The Gambia, Mali, or Niger to verify this. People realize that with begging, you can earn 10,000 francs, 15,000 francs, minimum 5,000 francs. It is rare that a civil servant would even earn 5,000 francs a day. So people have come here so that they can receive aid and this financial godsend.
What is the role of immigration and confiage in the daara system? Are there children who are truly memorizing the Qur’an?
Confiage is a cultural trait. In the education of children, here in Senegal we think that if I myself educate my children, I have little chance of educating them the right way. But, if I entrust them to my sister or their uncle, they will be better trained and educated. That is the reason that people gave a child to his uncle. It is this system of confiage that was the system of education. Because if you entrust your children to me, it is an honor for me when the children succeed in life. If they do not succeed, you will say, “Yes, I entrusted my child to my brother, and he spoiled him.” So I will do everything possible for the child to succeed. You will do the same thing. It is the normal system of education.
This same system was applied to the marabouts. Parents entrusted their child to the marabout to learn and be educated. It is this rule that prevents marabouts from refusing to take children even when they don’t have the means. And the change of situations made it so that marabouts turned to child begging. In the daaras where begging occurs, children can go years without learning to read or write. With this situation, you might say that the child is at the daara only to beg. Especially if the child is in the streets from 5 o’clock in the morning until nightfall. I think that there are cultural traits that have proven to be the cause of the problem.
Often, the word “education” means that a child learns to read, write, and think critically. But in Senegal, the meaning of “education” is broader and more social. A child must also learn how to behave well in society. Does this concept work with the modernization of the daaras?
Education in Senegal is a transfer of values and good behavior to the student. This is not in any way a problem for modernization. What is modernization? It is searching to improve. One improves in the areas of education and in the social domain in guarding the positive values that are already there. When I speak about a value, I mean modesty, generosity, hospitality, courage, dignity, etc. These are the values that we want to instill in our children. And these values can be spoken about in any context. Modernization, in my opinion, is going to further organize how to manage children. This will permit faster results. Modernization will make the content of training and the length of training more efficient. Modernization seeks only to create conditions that are more favorable to having such education for children.
Certain people said that modernization will eliminate everything that was good in the system. But that is not the case. In the village, you live in a hut. But today in the village, you live in a sturdy, permanent house. For light and cooking, you used to have, a wood fire, but today you have electricity. Things have changed, but in positive ways. Life became easier. He who has a tractor will have a greater harvest. It is the same thing with modernization. We want them to have the tools of modernity. We are in a modern world where we cannot live outside of this modernity. But what purpose do the pedagogical materials serve? To have more results that cannot be had without these means. But the values remain the same: we give knowledge and train the child in the values of human society. Moderization is not going to attack the values of society. If modernization attacks them, this is not modernization. This would be the demodernization of the daara. You could say that modernize equals remedy.
It is thus that we work in communities and explain the issues of modernization.
Does Senegal’s project for the modernization of the daara take girls into account?
Yes, girls are a part of the plan. Effectively, the modern daara takes children of all genders into account. There is no gender discrimination in addressing the situation in the daaras.