Friday, February 27, 2004

You Can't Eat Islam

I've mentioned before that in educational terms, northern and southern Nigeria belong in two very different worlds. Literacy rates in many of the southern states approach 80 percent, while in the north the typical figure is about 20 percent, Kano state, with an estimated 45 percent literacy rate, being the standout. Here's a Radio Netherlands article that gives an idea of just what "education" means in the Muslim north, and why we in the South chafe so badly under the prospect of being ruled by people of the North.

In Nigeria, one in five children are sent to Koranic schools. They spend at least four years memorising Islam's holy book. The pupils are often abandoned by their parents and are forced to beg on the streets to survive. Efforts are now underway to improve the lives of these children, to teach them basic subjects such as English and mathematics, and to give them professional skills.

"Most of these children are children of peasant farmers and menial labourers," says Salamatu Jibril, the director of the Women Farmers' Advancement Network, WOFAN, which recently carried out research in 60 Koranic schools. "The parents are so poor that they cannot afford modern education. Many of these parents have 20 children, so if they can send one away, it's a relief for them."

Daily routine
The Koranic school pupils begin their day with the early morning prayer between 5am and 6am. Then they start reciting and memorising the Koran till 10am. They are free till the late afternoon prayer at 5pm and then they begin to recite again. This is followed by more prayers and then recitation till late in the evening.


In 2001, Nigeria introduced mandatory universal basic education. The government is now trying to integrate secular education in the religious schools. But it hasn't been easy, according to Doreen Enadi Dodi of the Kaduna State Primary Education Board. "Initially we thought we could assign some of our teachers to give lessons at the Koranic schools. But we've encountered some resistance from the malaams who think the government is trying to take over control of their schools." It's also unlikely that malnourished children who have to wake up before dawn and study till late in the evening will be able to assimilate any of the additional lessons.

Non-governmental organizations have also noted a reluctance on the part of malaams and children to introducing Western education. Mrs Sani, the co-ordinator of Millennium Hope, a project in Kaduna, describes one setback: "We had one instance in the town of Zaria. We gave a Koranic school chairs, uniforms, textbooks and exercise books. The children literally ran away! Of the 250 children at the school, only 50 remained."

Comparing this article to some personal reminisces made by Razib about his brief study at a madrassa makes it clear that there's a great deal held in common between Northern Nigeria and Bangladesh where Islamic education is concerned. In particular, the intellectual sterility of islamic "learning" in both places is quite marked, as is the utter lack of reference to any practical subjects in the teaching material. Spending years on end cramming religious verses in a language one doesn't understand is hardly the best preparation for making one's way in the world in the scientific age.

From a strictly ethnocentric viewpoint, I'm personally less than bothered if Northern muslims react to the prospect of exposure to English, mathematics and the sciences as if they were kryptonite - all the better when the inevitable day of reckoning comes for the artificial state called Nigeria - but I have to say, is it any wonder, given the aversion of these people to all forms of modernity, that we see outbreaks of anti-western paranoia like the ongoing hue and cry about polio vaccinations being an American plot to sterilize muslims? Here's one respect in which widespread ignorance in one group can have fatal consequences for others: as long as Northern Nigeria remains a reservoir for the poliomyelitis virus, children all over the world, and not just the unfortunate offspring of a few illiterate fanatics, will continue to be at risk. Yes, my Nigerian problem is yours as well, if you have children.