June 1986


In June 1986, the Aga Khan Foundation's Board approved a three-year project to improve early childhood educational opportunities for children of traditional Muslim communities in Mombasa, Kenya. Because the only instruction these children were receiving at a young age was religious, they were unable to compete successfully for places in primary school where simple reading and numerical skills were a prerequisite for entry into the formal school system.

The Aga Khan Education Services, which is the official grantee of the project, formed a committee of interested Mombasa citizens to determine what might be done to help these children. How could the need for secular pre-school experience be reconciled with the extreme importance the community placed on early religious instruction?

The answer was to combine the two: to open pre-schools in the madrassahs, which were often unused in the mornings, and to train young women from the local community to teach both a religious and a secular curriculum. It sounds simple, but it was not. There was no easily adaptable model of a combined curriculum and no specifically Muslim early childhood education materials. Waalims- or religious leaders - were skeptical of young women's abilities to teach the religious classes.

The project started slowly. To begin with, the leaders of the Liwatoni mosque agreed to make a room available. A mosque committee was formed to attend to details. They worked with the Project Director, Swafiya Said, an early childhood educator who is a devoted member of the local community, to make the room ready.

A young woman from the community was identified to be trained by Swafiya. All seemed to be ready, but very few children appeared. Undaunted, Swafiya persuaded one set parents after another, including her own daughter and son-in-law, to entrust their children to her care. She went to work making the Liwatoni mosque pre-school one of the best pre-schools in Mombasa.

There are now six madrassah pre-schools already functioning and a seventh being planned. The existing schools cater for 180 students, whose average age is four and a half. Twenty-three of the first batch of pre-schoolers have been accepted already for January admission to primary school, and the Municipal Education Officer has requested six primary schools near the madrassahs to consider children from the pre-schools in their selection process this fall. This is certain to have an impact on the total admissions into Standard One in January 1989.

In one community, the local madrassah committee has initiated a second parallel class. They asked the Project Director to assist in the training of the teacher and provided all the equipment and materials from their own resources.

All the teachers are being closely supervised or trained by Swafiya - who learned to drive a car last year so that she could visit all the schools regularly. The first teacher trained at Liwatoni is in the second year of the training course run by the Kilifi DICECE (and also supported by Aga Khan Foundation). Three other teachers are enrolled in the first year of the same programme. The Project Director is very pleased with the complementarity of the training they are receiving.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this experiment is the effectiveness of the new curriculum. Even to the most untrained observer, the children are busy, happy, open to new experiences, new people and new ideas. They are learning their Qur'anic lessons and prayers with a rapidity that surprises the traditional teachers and delights the parents. The Qur'anic lessons are followed by 15 minutes of lively water play and then a chorus of songs to relieve the intensity of concentration needed for recitation and questions about the prophets of Islam.

The Project Director takes the teachers to religious lectures at the mosque and covers religious as well as secular subjects in her regular afternoon classes for all trainees. The children learn Arabic and English in addition to the familiar Kiswahili, and do not seem to have any particular difficulty switching from left to right and right to left as they learn their letters.

The photographs capture something of the cheerful atmosphere of these madrassah schools. The children are shiny clean, with eager, trusting faces.

The teachers are proud to be acquiring marketable skills and new status in a community where girls their age traditionally sit at home - uneducated in any but household skills - to wait for a suitable marriage.

The mothers are also being educated as they take keener interest in their children's activities, and the Muslim community at large is taking note of the beneficial aspects of the programme. Muslims from as far away as Lamu have approached the project committee with enquiries about how to start nursery classes in their madrassahs.

Source: U.K. Ismaili

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