Koranic Schools Pose a Challenge to Millennium Development Goal Two and the Definition of a Basic Education in Potou, Senegal

Written By: Diptesh Paresh Soni

While there are 54 public primary schools in the village cluster of Potou in Senegal, there are also around 60 private Koranic schools, or daaras. The popularity of the daaras poses significant difficulties for attaining universal basic education in the area: daaras do not teach French, the official language of Senegal or use the recognized government curriculums. As such, students in these traditional Koranic schools are not accounted for in official government enrollment statistics. In Potou, survey data from year five of the program shows a primary level net attendance ratio of 54%, and a more recent survey shows little progress.

An abri provisoire, or temporary shelter used as a daara. Since daaras are considered private establishments they receive no help from the state and very little, if any help, from civil society partners.

An abri provisoire, or temporary shelter used as a daara. Since daaras are considered private establishments they receive no help from the state and very little, if any help, from civil society partners.

Focus groups conducted this summer demonstrated residents of Potou see religious education as crucial to personal formation. “Children must start at the daaras,” the father of one student told us, “the daaras give them a spiritual and religious grounding for the rest of their lives.”

A deep cultural and historical divide underlies the daara problem. For many, government insistence on French as the official language of instruction represents a long history of colonial rule. Before Senegal won its independence, French colonial authorities toyed with suppressing religious educators, and then, when they became centers of imperial resistance, coaxing them in to the administration.

The post-colonial government of Senegal, founded on secular principles, has remained resistant to fully accept the daaras. Yet a gradual process of decentralization, partially due to lack of state resources, gave religious leaders increased leverage. Development organizations and NGOs are hesitant to support a parallel educational system founded in religion, which has caused disdain amongst marabouts (religious teachers), and maîtres (daara heads), who believe they are not receiving due recognition.

Today, the presence of Islam is stronger than ever and parents want their children to learn the practices and tenets of the faith early on, hence the prevalence of daaras.

High demand for daaras also reflects a struggling public education system. Besides the lack of religious learning in some public schools, parents complain that frequent strikes seriously disrupt the students’ education and force them to spend much time at home. Moreover, since daycares tend to be sparse, particularly in rural areas, daaras act as de-facto kindergartens for infants below the official school age. As such, they absorb many young children before they have a chance to enter a recognized public school.

Young religious students, often without schoolbooks, use tablets, or aloua to write and memorize Koranic verses.

Young religious students, often without schoolbooks, use tablets, or aloua to write and memorize Koranic verses.

However it is the sheer difference in content and purpose between the daaras and the public schooling system that poses such a difficulty to educational attainment in Potou and other rural areas of Senegal. When asked whether he uses a curriculum a religious teacher is quick to respond in the affirmative. Yet when prodded further, he mentions that his curriculum is an inheritance, one that has been passed down from generation to generation, and is by no means recognized by any state structure.

The daaras instill values that parents deem indispensable to living successful and virtuous lives. They not only impress piousness and devoutness, but also constitute their own form of basic education: daaras provide an educational foundation upon which children can facilitate further learning.

But is this enough? For children to contribute to the development of their communities, their countries, and to the world at large, they also need functional literacy and numeracy. Many religious schools in Senegal provide full and validated curriculums, but the rural daaras of Potou focus predominantly on Koranic memorization. Parents today increasingly want their children to be conferred the legitimacy of a state-recognized degree combined with a religious foundation, and this is reflected in the fact that more children are attending public schools in the afternoons, after attending the daaras during the day. But a move towards the public school system inherently means a move away from the deep-seated traditional balance of community power. Such changes require a lot of time and a lot of local buy-in.

For Westerners with a notion of education rooted in the separation of church and state, daaras seem problematic, or even abusive. But in the far-flung hamlets of rural Senegal they are integral sites of community support and education. Attaining MDG2 in a place like Potou before the end of 2015 will require a new malleability to the Western concept of education, new policy instruments that cater to local demands, and a greater push from all sides – the Senegalese government, aid workers, and daaras alike – at mutual understanding and support.

About the Author:

Diptesh Soni is an Economic & Political Development student at Columbia’s School of International & Public Affairs. He spent the summer in the MDG Centre West & Central Africa in Dakar and conducting focus groups within the Millennium Village of Potou, Senegal.

To learn more about the Millennium Villages Project please visit; http://millenniumvillages.org/.

Visit our CGSD education page to learn more about our work in education.

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