Background: Rabiétou Cissé and Alioune Ndiaye are the founder and director, respectively, of a private Franco-Arabic school in a suburb of Dakar, Senegal. In May 2016, Lauren Herzog and Wilma Mui of WFDD sat down with Ms. Cissé and Mr. Ndiaye to discuss their educational approach and the unique qualities of a Franco-Arabic school. In this interview, they speak about their passion for providing children with a bilingual, values-based education that opens up various paths for the children and prepares them to be productive members of society. They reflect on the paths that led them to open the school and share their vision for the future. They also give their thoughts on the modernization of the daaras (Qur’anic schools) and the importance of religious instruction in a quality education.
AN = Alioune Ndiaye
RC = Rabiétou Cissé
To begin, could you introduce yourself?
RC: In the Name of Allah, Most gracious, Most merciful, may salutations and blessings be upon the Prophet Muhammad, on his family, as well as on his companions. I am very pleased with this meeting and I welcome you. In terms of our training, we learned only Arabic and the Qur’an. Afterwards, we began to work in a school called Ittihad Djam’iyyât al islamiyyat, which is in Dakar.
Then, we worked at the Zakat House for 13 years. We’ve also worked with structures that help orphans; it was remarkable work that we accomplished. But after that, we decided to open a daara (Qur’anic school). It’s now been 16 years that our daara has been operating. I worked in Dalifort for eight years. And now, we’ve just opened a new daara in Keur Massar. God made it so that we love to teach because the Prophet said, “The best among you is he who studies the Qur’an and teaches it.” That’s what’s motivated us to most in establishing a daara and teaching there.
We’ve had remarkable results because it’s education that makes the dignity of a person; God cares greatly about man. And since the children will be the men of tomorrow, it’s essential to prepare them well for future challenges. And that comes from education, especially in the boarding school where the children live.
What are your other activities?
RC: It’s important to note the work of Islam is vast because its purpose is human development. Regretfully, we see mothers aged 50 to 65 without any knowledge. What we do for them is to teach them and train them for years so they’re able to read and write. Then, in turn, they teach their peers, their children, and their grandchildren. This is really important, but there must also be economic development because we know that the world is ruled by money. And God planned for money long ago; that’s why He instituted zakat in the Qur’an.
I worked in zakat with the Kuwaitis and have a lot of experience in this domain. Sadio Cissé, the deceased Al Hadj Abdallah Mar Gueye (may God have mercy on him), and I worked on zakat for 13 years. We have participated in the development of many orphans. We assumed responsibility for them, educated them, and cared for them when they were ill. During the holidays, it was also us who clothed them. That’s why, when I left that job, I thought to open something similar.
I created an organization for zakat and aid in Senegal that I’m the president of. The zakat that we collect goes directly to the people who have a right to it. When we distribute zakat, it’s almost always those who are well off who are the first on the scene and the first to claim it instead of those who are needy. That’s why we have a team that collects zakat up to a certain amount. Then, we go through all the people who are registered to receive by doing a social inquiry. We go to the homes of those who are registered to see their social situation and to see if it’s critical.
There are a lot of people who live in precarious situations. When we meet people who are truly in need, we give them a certain amount of money. This money isn’t solely intended for cooking because it won’t last for long.
What is your approach?
Our approach is to first have discussions with the zakat beneficiaries, especially the women, to care for them, because this money is theirs—it’s God who gives them this money. Our objective is to train them. We have already trained them to transform grains, fruits, and vegetables. They’ve also learned to make soap and bleach to sell. Even the pharmacists buy this soap because it contains medicine and other not insignificant properties. This allows the women to no longer look like beggars asking for help or buying on credit.
Through these actions, the women work properly, they have qualifications, and they receive lots of orders. During the hot season, they receive orders for fruit juices. And also when there are ceremonies. The work allows them to earn enough money during the holidays, which represents an important change. Before this, the holidays were distressing times for these women. Islam is a religion of knowledge and also a religion of development. Islam advocates economic and social development and wants each individual to be able to live with dignity from the fruits of his or her labor. As such, there won’t be any disturbances, thoughts of fraud, delinquency, or crime. This is the social impact of the work we’ve done.
Besides that, we’ve brought together the female teachers who are responsible for the daaras in an association called the Union of Women for the Promotion of the Modern Daara. The objective is to modernize the daara so that in the end, there will be no children begging or in the streets with dirty clothing or rags, but every children will be able to be able to focus on their studies. We already have all our paperwork and we’re doing remarkable work.
What are your objectives for the education that you provide the students?
RC: The education and instruction that we provide to the students will make it so that they’re able to care for themselves in the future, but also and especially that they’ll be useful to the community, in accordance with what the Prophet said: “Les best people are those who are the most helpful to others.” So, it’s not sufficient to be able to take care take care of just yourself and stop there. The education that we provide to the children produces the same effect because, as soon as the child leaves our school, he’ll be able to work It’s very important to be able to work because, by working, you don’t need to put your hand out to ask for charity or a loan—or, even worse, be a swindler and end up in prison.
The work of Islam stays away from all these vicissitudes because you have many blessings when you live by the sweat of your brow and live in a lucid way. As such, education allows a person live harmoniously within the community. That’s what we enjoy the most about working in education, even though it doesn’t pay well. We feel great pride watching the children we’ve educated have value in society. We especially hope for divines rewards and recognition that these children will have regarding us.
You have a Franco-Arabic school. As there are many types of schools here in Senegal—daaras, modern daaras, etc.—can you explain what distinguishes your school from the other types of schools?
The difference is not enormous because at the daara, you learn the Qur’an and you memorize it. This is also what we do. But after the child has memorized the Qur’an, he or she must stay to learn Arabic and French. That’s where the Franco-Arabic part comes in. And it’ll be easier for the child, who will do three years in primary school instead of six. That means that the child will do CI and the CP in one year and CE1 and CE2 in one year. In CM1, the child will complete the certificate of primary education. That requires effort, but the Qur’an will be part of the curriculum right up to the baccalauréat (academic qualification at the end of secondary studies obtained by passing exam).
Are there differences between the private Franco-Arabic schools and the public ones?
RC: Even if there are differences, they cannot be large because it’s the same program, that of the State.
Why do you think that parents opted to place their children into a Franco-Arabic school?
RC: In making this choice, they keep in mind the evolution of the world because the world is advancing and changing. We’re in an era where it’s important to be multidisciplinary. It’s necessary to master several things at the same time because those who will go the farthest will be those with the greatest intellectual baggage. The Qur’an is the basis of all science. That’s why when we teach the Qur’an, we also teach Arabic and French, so that someone who is more interested in Arabic can easily adopt it and someone who decides to specialize in French won’t be handicapped either. Everything is important because if I only master Arabic, I risk having difficulty if I’m in a place where English or French is spoken.
You have spoken of Arabic, French, and Qur’anic studies. Are there other subjects taught here, such as mathematics and computer science?
RC: French is already integrated into the program, but we also want to integrate English at the primary level. Then, we’ll have the Qur’an, Arabic, French, and English, as the main subjects. There were already computer classes for the children. We had computers, but they’re no longer operational. We hope to obtain new computers so that the children can continue their computer training because we think that’s really important. We have a computer room with 15 machines, but little by little, they’ve stopped working.
The children study here up to what age?
RC: We have a preschool here, as well as the primary level up to entry into sixième (sixth grade). We have students take an exam to obtain a certificate of studies in Arabic and in French. And we also intend to open sixième (sixth grade) and cinquième (seventh grade) classes and have this curriculum up to the baccalauréat. For now, we’re going to establish sixième and cinquième classes so that the children can staye here until they reach age 15.
The children come to us at the age of five. They go through the first year of preschool and then move into the middle year or the final year of preschool or into CI (first year of primary school). It all depends on the child and their intellectual abilities. There are boys and girls, but the dormitories are separate. The girls are upstairs and the boys are downstairs.
AN: We have 150 students.
After their studies, what do the students do?
RC: After their studies, we train them in work. The girls do the work that is expected of them: they will know how to cook, clean, and dress well. Because work isn’t limited just to leaving home in the morning and returning in the evening. A girl must know how to take care of herself and the home. Likewise, we teach the boys to take care of themselves through many activities. On Saturdays and Sundays, they go to workshops to obtain a qualification.
AN: We put a lot of effort into this school. We have really dynamic staff members who do this important work, although it’s often very difficult. But as we put in consistent effort, God has helped us and we’ve had a lot of positive results. We have congratulatory letters that go from the Minister to deserving schools. Last year, we had an 85 percent success rate in French and 100 percent in Arabic. The year before that, we had 100 percent on the CFEE (Certificate of Completion of Elementary Studies) and also 100 percent in Arabic, which earned us the congratulatory letters from the Keur Massar inspectorate in 2014 and 2015.
We’re currently in the process of preparing for the June 2016 session. We’re completely ready, but we’re just waiting for the exam date. We want to do again what we did the year before last because that’s what attracts the students’ parents. As we’re a private school, we need to do our all to remain at a high level so that the students’ parents have confidence in us. As such, we can’t let up on our efforts, even exercising our creativity to innovate so that the parents always have the utmost confidence in us. So, we spare no effort for the academic success of the children.
What paths do students take when they leave here?
AN: We generally direct them to other schools. For example, for those who did their preschool and elementary school studies here up through the primary school certificate, we direct them to other schools. As you know, we don’t have a secondary system. We often direct them to the Franco-Arabic schools that do provide secondary education so that they can continue with their curriculum. They can go to public schools or remain in private schools until they receive their baccalauréat in Arabic or French.
What are the advantages that a Franco-Arabic school offers compared to other types of schools?
RC: A child who comes out of a Franco-Arabic school will master Arabic, religion, and Islamic education. The children who have been in “classic” schools will only be francophone.
AN: With respect to us, we don’t get any profit or advantage. It’s the students who are the big winners. Because the children who come out of a Franco-Arabic school with certainly be different than the children who have followed the French public school curriculum. Mentally, a student who comes out of a Franco-Arabic school is more capable because he’s mastered the Qur’an in two or three years and then has the general French program. That’s why he earned his diploma. He’s clearly different than a student who just did the State program.
In 2002, several hours of religious education were integrated into public schools each week—but on a voluntary basis. What do you think about this? It his sufficient?
RC: That’s not sufficient. And the State established public Franco-Arabic schools in light of the results that the private Franco-Arabic schools were producing. The number of hours for children in public schools is nearly insignificant. Certainly, there’s religious education in the public schools, but an Arabic instructor can have six or 12 classes to teach in a public school, something that’s not feasible because he’ll be tired.
Did the State create public Franco-Arabic schools because parents weren’t satisfied with the instruction in public schools?
RC: Yes, that could be one of the reasons. There was great demand. Many parents refuse to put their children into schools where there’s no Arabic and religious instruction.
AN: They recommended that Arabic teachers not only have their diplomas—baccalauréat at a minimum—but also that they be authorized to teach Arabic. They really insisted on these two important points. Last year, the State organized Arabic baccalauréat exams, a first in Senegal.
In the daara modernization program, French was introduced. What is the difference between the modern daaras and the Franco-Arabic schools? Are the daaras going to become more like Franco-Arabic schools? What does modernization mean to you?
RC: They speak of modern daaras as if they should be Franco-Arabic schools. At the beginning, the daaras had programs, but each Qur’anic instructor has his particular program that might be different from those of other Qur’anic instructors. Now, the State wants to organize it in such a way that there’s a single program for all the daaras of Senegal. That’s the aim of the modernization of the daaras. As such, the State would be able to easily do monitoring, give them grant, control their work, etc. Through this, the State wants the children to stays in the daaras so
they don’t go out to beg. And to do that, the State is making a commitment to subsidize the daaras and pay the Qur’anic instructors.
Concerning the standardization of the educational program taught in the daaras, there’s a bit of a problems because the Qur’anic instructors are asking the State to involve them in developing this unified program. But they refuse to let the State impose a program on them that it put together with its own team or experts. The Qur’anic instructors want—and for good reason—to participate and give their input on the development of the unified program that the State wants to impose on the daaras. The daaras produced tangible results before the State came; the children memorized the Qur’an without a problem. When you enter a daara, you see that the children are memorizing the Holy Qur’an and speak Arabic.
If the State wants to put together a unique program for all the daaras, the very least it can do is to have the Qur’anic instructors participate in the work so that the resulting program is the program of the Qur’anic instructors. But it’s not a question of the State coming to impose a program on the Qur’anic instructors because, before the State came, the daaras produced significant results. All of our great religious figures are the pure products of the daaras. Mame El Hadj Malick, Mame Serigne Touba, etc… Today, they speak about the modernization of the daaras as if the daaras didn’t produce results, something I won’t agree with. It’s important to recognize that there were results and there still are today.
What do you think of the State’s program and its vision for modernizing the daaras?
AN: It could be that with the pressures on the State that it wants to do something else. But it’s important to not lose sight of the fact the these great men had their philosophies and their vision. They knew what led to change in people and the way in which they did it was noble. Mame Abdou said to allow the children to beg because there was a secret virtue in it. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people who didn’t understand they way in which he was approaching the issue. Those people said that begging is awful and reductive simply because they don’t share Mame Abdou’s perspective.
RC : Begging then is different than begging now. There was a time for begging: children would go out at 8 a.m. to get their pittance and then, at 9 a.m., they would return to the daara. Today, the children spend all day in the streets. Sometimes, you even see them outside during the night. There’s a big different between the begging that Mame Abdou was advocating and the begging today. What Mame Abdou was looking for through begging was to educate children so they would be simple and modest people who would know how to share and live with others. But what we see today is very different. The children today are constantly in the street, poorly clothed, without shoes, sometimes very insolent, etc. We ask ourselves if they are really talibés (students) who are learning the Qur’an. Because there are actually children who beg without even begging talibés.