Tambacounda and the Imams

We had a meeting with approximately 30 imams and maîtres coranique Thursday morning and afternoon at the regional government seat in Tambacounda.  Since 99.9% of the imams don’t speak French, these meetings are always conducted in Wolof.  So that gives me lots of listening comprehension practice, and from time to time my colleagues also get to hone their live translation techniques.  Imam Ousman Samb presented verses from the Koran and various hadiths that talk about the responsibility of parents and adults towards children, violence (in and out of the family unit), begging, and the safety of children.  UNICEF and PARRER commissioned him to work on a document in French and Wolof on those same subject that they, along with the Senegalese Ministry of the Family, just published last year and he used a lot of that in his presentation.  Since we’re asking imams around the country to address the dangers associated with child begging, he also prepared a model sermon that they can use in their meetings should they chose to do so.

Something that I still have a little trouble understanding is the shock that crosses their faces when we tell them that when parents confer their sons to itinerant marabouts – many of whom end up taking them from their villages located throughout Senegal and moving them to Dakar – the children end up spending the grand majority of their time on the street rather than learning to recite the Koran.  Instead, many become victims of various forms of violence and pedophilia.  Many imams, even those in Dakar, don’t believe that when we tell them.  It’s such a well documented fact that it’s hard for me to wrap my mind around the fact that they’re not aware of it.  Their ignorance (and I don’t mean that in a negative sense) stems from the fact that many do not have access to the internet, it’s rarely brought up in all its horrors on national TV, and newspaper stories are superficial at best.  In fact I’m not at all impressed with the press here.  But that’s a story for a different time.  The statistics come from Western organizations and while the government is aware of the issue, the strong influence that religion has in politics causes people to skirt around it.  You know the expression “the elephant in the room”?  Yeah, well this is an ENORMOUS elephant, the granddaddy of them all, and no one has had enough courage to effectively enforce child trafficking laws that they ratified back in 2005.  (I’ve written several academic papers on this aspect, so while I’m not citing references here I will gladly do so if people would like to read up on the subject).  Another reason why disbelief runs rampant is that a generation or two ago, those ills weren’t associated with Koranic education in any way, shape, or form.  So today’s imams only have their effective, and in many cases holistic, perspective and experiences to draw upon.  It doesn’t even enter their mind that something like child rape, the heavy usage of illicit drugs, etc occurs.  A sad commentary on our times.  Oh, how the world has changed.

So their first reaction to our presentation is resistance – many of them think that we’re fighting against Islamic tradition, specifically that of teaching young boys to memorize the Koran.  But we’re not.  We’re asking that since anyone can proclaim themselves to be a Koranic teacher, that, as well-respected individuals in the community, they as imams effectively caution parents to be wary of men who masquerade as Koranic teachers.  The second most common thing they say is that federal funds need to be set aside for Koranic schools, not just for the French system (again, that is another topic for another day), and that it’s the government’s job to hold those men accountable and convict them in courts of law.  And they’re right.  The government absolutely needs to step up to the plate and stop cowering behind the status quo and the way things used to be.  But these imams often forget that they have a role to play, too.  And quite frankly, so do parents.  And our team is working with all three parties.  A third thing that often comes up in these meetings is denial.  “Oh, that doesn’t happen in our daaras (Koranic schools).  Our talibés (students) are happy and aren’t mistreated at all.”  It has always surprised me that my superiors and the big-wig imams who are working on this project don’t call those individuals out on the carpet.  Because it does, and they are.  And there are scores of documentation in the offices of various local and international NGOs that prove it, not to mention those of the United States Departments of State and Labor and the United Nations.  Maybe it’s my hard-nosed, stubborn, in-your-face streak that gets my dander up because I would have absolutely no problem calling their bluff and calling a spade a spade.  Stuff like that ticks me off and I don’t have any tolerance for it whatsoever.

So you can imagine how hard it was to fight my urge to stand up and clap when one NGO leader that works in this region did what I’ve been wanting to do ever since I arrived in this country.  One imam fed us the line about how well their daaras are run and this guy looked him straight in the eye, pointed his finger at the imam and effectively said, “That’s not true and you know it.”  And he went on to say that on December 31st (just last week) he met a young talibé who had fled his daara because of the abuse to which he had been subjected.  The director took compassion on the boy and he took him into his own house and he’s staying there until arrangements can be made to send him back to his parents.  You should have seen everyone’s faces.  They’d been called out and they were totally feeling guilty.  We got a lot further with them after that.

Side note: I’m so grateful for the organization of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and all of the planning, intellectual and financial efforts, standardization of teaching materials, and training that our general leaders invest in making sure that the doctrine remains pure.  I’m also grateful that individuals who grossly stray from it are held accountable.  So many problems that are tied to this child begging issue could have been avoided had efforts been made to ensure that their practices (Islam in general and Sufi Islam specifically) are the same across the board.  Other cultural practices add to the problem, but by and large it goes back to religious doctrinal standardization and accountability.

After our meetings one of the more receptive imams took us to the homes of three other imams so we could meet with them and ask them for their support.  Evidently they hold a lot of religious and political clout, but due to their age, they weren’t able to come to our meeting.  It was very interesting to be in their homes.  They were in some of the poorer areas of town, they were quite simple, and they were often surrounded by family and neighbors who had lots of little children.  We had to take our shoes off before entering the sitting room, the women didn’t speak other than giving the customary greetings, so the whole affair was done between men.  I noticed that out of respect to the imam, no one looked him directly in the eye (except for me before I realized what was going on – it kind of unnerved the first one we met with).  The conversation was spoken in either Wolof or Pulaar and no one except for the oldest member of our group spoke to him directly.  It was all done by a spokesman.  When the imam wanted to tell us something, he told the spokesman and then the spokesman relayed it on to us.  At the end the imam prayed for us and the success of our mission.  Later Bamba told me that all three of them said that they would address the issue that night at the Friday night prayer.  That’s a big deal because the Friday prayers are the most important of the week.  At dinner Imam Ousman Samb, the big-wig imam ratib from Dakar who is part of our team, told me that the third imam that we visited said a beautiful prayer over us before we left his house.  It was a very long prayer – that’s basically all I got from it – but Imam Samb said that the language he used was quite beautiful.  Evidently that imam is considered as one who has devoted his life to God so completely that he has achieved the status of one who “sees and knows hidden things.”

In the course of 90 minutes of silent observation I learned scores of things about the cultural and religious customs of Senegal – very interesting stuff.

Everyone was exceptionally pleased during our car ride back to the hotel because all three of them agreed to help us and encourage the imams he presides over to read the materials we created and address the issue in their sermons.  So it was a good day and quite effective.  Here’s hoping that our efforts and training aren’t abandoned and left by the wayside.

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Sociologist Mamadou Wade, the imam, the spokesman

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Bamba (in the olive colored robe) giving the imam the materials addressing child begging

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