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A new age of African Madrasas

By Sylvia Smith for CNN
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MOMBASA, Kenya (CNN) -- It's 8 a.m. in the morning and a group of tiny tots are heading towards a simple building on the outskirts of their village near Mombasa.

The school room is near the Mosque and was built by the community. The children are dressed in green uniforms and the most of the girls have their heads covered.

A bell sounds and they hurry up in order to arrive at their Madrasa on time.

But these children are not being indoctrinated into an extreme form of Islam. They are fortunate enough to belong to a network of pre-schools that stretch throughout Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania and the curriculum they follow is close to that established in the best nursery schools in the West.

Supported and guided by Madrasa Resource Centers, these schools in the coastal areas of Kenya fiIl a significant educational gap.

Until the new pre-schools opened Muslim children were doing far worse than their Christian or Hindu schoolmates because they only attended traditional Madrasas to learn recitation of the Quran.

Because of their association with Christian missionaries the standard pre-school was boycotted by Muslim parents fearful that their children might be converted.

Although primary education is free in Kenya, competition for places is fierce and Muslim children were at the bottom of application lists because of the lack of early schooling.

This poor start was compounded as they passed through school. Many dropped out before completing secondary school. Large numbers of Muslim teenage boys were unemployed and were more likely to be fall prey to a more militant form of Islam.

The community appealed to The Aga Khan, who was brought up in Kenya, to help give their children a better start in life.

The idea behind the Madrasa Resource Centers is to get the community involved in setting up schools where child-centered learning balances a more modern approach to the way Islam is taught. The schools are open to non-Muslims.

"The local village approaches us," explains Najma Rashid, Director of the Mombasa Resource Center. "We help them set up a management committee, find a plot of land and then raise the funds to build the school."

Parents recycle local materials to create inexpensive learning tools and teachers are local girls who have a minimum of education. A three-year course run by the Madrasa Resource Center trains them to put across a broad syllabus that address religious matters in the context of everyday life.

The teaching is child-centered and the teachers dedicated. Their small allowance is paid for by the parents as part of the affordable school fees.

"We follow up how our children do in primary school," explains Najma. "Far from being bottom of the class they are now among the best pupils."

The scheme is spreading and is very popular in Zanzibar which is 99 per cent Muslim.

Mohammed Balloo, who was instrumental in setting up the system on Zanzibar, points out that as the teachers can move from one school to another, one country to another, the Madrasa Program could be used as a precedent for an East African union.

"We hear a lot about bringing the countries of East Africa together and this way of running schools and teaching children does just that," he says.

"Perhaps as well as helping Muslim children do well in school, we have also inadvertently created a model that can be replicated elsewhere. We have had teachers from DR Congo, Mali and Senegal who have come to see if they can do the same sort of thing in their countries."


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A class of children with their two teachers, outside their school in Mombasa.

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