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Islamic Society ( 18 Aug 2008, NewAgeIslam.Com)

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Senegal’s Quranic schools: a horror story

Associated Press

August 18, 2008


KAOLACK, Senegal, August 17: It hurts too much to lie on his back, so the 7-year-old has spent the past month stretched out on his stomach. His two grandmothers sit on the hospital bed beside him, fanning the pink flesh left exposed by his teacher’s whip. 

It’s progress that Momodou Biteye is in the hospital at all. It’s also encouraging that the Quranic teacher who did this to him is behind bars.


But what is most significant is that the boy’s father — a poor farmer who sold part of his harvest to pay for the bus fare to the hospital — filed the charges against the teacher himself. In doing so, this man with cracked lips and bloodshot eyes braved the wrath of his entire village, including his own father, who considers all teachers in Senegal’s Islamic schools to be holy.


In hundreds of these schools in the mostly Muslim West African country, children are made to beg in the streets and are beaten if they don’t bring back enough money. One 10-year-old was beaten to death with his hands tied behind his back and his mouth stuffed with rocks. Despite laws passed to protect children, the courts have convicted only a handful of Quranic teachers and quickly cave in the face of powerful clerics.


The biggest obstacle to justice is the families themselves, who are unwilling to speak out against the teachers. Government officials say they cannot think of another case where the family has brought charges.


“Some people may say bad things about me. Even my own village is against me,” says 40-year-old Moussa Biteye, the father of the twig-like boy. “But I think I am within my rights.”


The respect for Islamic schools comes from a centuries-old tradition of families sending their sons to study the Quran and till fields in exchange for food. In the 1970s, as drought devastated West Africa, schools moved to the cities and Islamic teachers sent children out to beg in the streets. These days, boys as young as 3 are beaten not for failing to master the Quran, but for failing to bring back enough money — a change families often are unaware of.


Almost all the men in the village can recite verses from the Quran, especially the boy’s grandfather, Baba Biteye, a wrinkled man who taught the holy book for 40 years before going blind.


The old man becomes agitated when asked about his grandson. He is angry not because of the severe beating, but because the boy’s father — his son — dared press charges against the Quranic teacher, or marabout.


A child needs to suffer, the grandfather says, to master the difficult text. It’s a sentiment that is echoed in the village chief’s hut, under the grass roofs of neighbors’ homes and on the lips of other families whose own sons are still in the jailed teacher’s boarding school.


Hitting and education are so intertwined in Senegal that the word for “to educate” — “yaar” is the same as the word for the stick to discipline students.


“See this?” says Omar Drame, a middle-aged villager, as he bends his head forward and points to an indentation on the top of his skull. “It’s my marabout that did this to me. It forged me. It allowed me to learn that I can overcome difficulty.”


At first, even the father thought his son was lying about why he was beaten. The marabout told investigators that he hit the boy for mispronouncing a verse from the Quran.


But when the father saw his son, he wept. “I knew that he would be hit — but I didn’t think he would be hit up to this point,” says Biteye.


The boy says when he arrived at the school in June, his marabout handed him an empty tin can and told him not to come back before filling it with 200 francs. The boy also had to beg for food. Some days all he got was a discarded fish head, or a spoonful of rice. By the second week, he was hungry all the time. On July 2, he begged until dark and got the 200 francs, but spent part of it on biscuits. When the marabout found out, the boy says, he got whipped until the skin on his back fell off. Hospital officials believe the whip was laced with metal.


Source: Indian Express