I recently read an article titled: ‘Township Madresahs need a Paradigm Shift’. It outlined some recommendations on how to successfully operate maktabs in the Townships. I believe the recommendations are quite relevant and apt.
I remember a day wherein I was just going about with my own business in one Township. Suddenly I heard an elderly lady screaming to a youngster in the street dressed in ‘topi’ and ‘kurta’ headed to madresah: “uyakuphi wena? Nawe se ungena lesonto? ekini anihluphegi mos, why ungena lesonto?”
Translated as: “Where are you going? Have you also joined this church? Your family is not poor mos…, why are you attending this church?”
I think for a good few weeks, I spent lengthy moments of silence trying to unpack the statement of that lady, as short as it may have been, and as much as many may argue that it doesn’t need tafseer…, it’s not revelation, that lady had just painted before me, in a few seconds, the most vivid picture of what a Muslim in the Township, or to be more specific for the purpose our topic, a Madresah child is seen to be – poor, broken and has no sense of direction.
Many a time, I come across people who would want to know the nature of my work in the Townships and the kinds of challenges I face in trying to add value within these communities. One common question that always comes up is: “Is Islam growing in the Township? Are people taking well to it?”. I often respond by saying yes it’s growing, but also declining at the same rapid speed at which it’s growing, if not faster. Reason being…? Nobody wants to appear for the rest of their lives as being *poor, broken and having no sense of direction*. So if the child does stick around for a few years in the madresah, it’s either because he’s hanging around with his friends who happen to attend the madresah, or he/ she is just in survival mode. The minute the need for survival is over, and the basic needs for him or her to start scavenging for himself have been fulfilled, he has no reason to be seen in that ‘church’ again.
Now, someone may argue, justifiably or not, that you see, all that these people come for is food, they use us and leave us just like that. Well…, the reality is that we have created no other reason for them to come to madresah other than giving them peanut butter bread and juice. No effort was made to make the religion more relevant to them other than changing their names.
What we need to understand is that people have unique cultures of their own, they have their own social dynamics and challenges, they have their own approach in the manner in which they see life as well as the concept of religion itself. If I’m just going to dive into the Township and start teaching the child ‘alif’, ‘ba’, ‘ta’ without understanding the religious background of the child, their cultural convictions, their unique societal challenges and what type of baggage removal I have to engage in before pouring anything into the child’s mind, I should definitely not be surprised when the child is full of my peanut butter and bread and then disappears for good.
Are we not surprised as to how the Missionary colonisers got it right? They studied every social aspect of the indigenous people, gained mastery in it, and used it to permeate their theology into the communities. I remember back then when I was a Roman Catholic, it was a great matter of prestige for anyone to say they are attending Sunday school. When I compare that to the kids in the townships attending madresah today, many have to conceal their topis and abayas until they reach the door of the madresah.
Most of the time when people want to gauge the success of a Township madresah, the first question they’ll ask you is how many students do you have? To such an extent that the ‘Sheikh’ is severely lambasted if some people have to pop in the masjid and find only few students in the madresah. Due to the pressure on him to ‘manufacture’ students, the ‘Sheikh’ has mastered the art of the game and does what we call ‘crowd hire’ by gathering most of the young kids of the community just before the December jalsah or when he hears his superiors are coming to visit just to create a great spectacle in front of their eyes. I don’t blame the ‘Sheikh’, he has come to learn that the tool for survival is always in ensuring that the numbers are ‘right’, irrespective of what happens to the numbers in a year or two’s time, he can always cook up new numbers, that’s it!
A good question to ask the ‘Sheikh’ should be – out of the fifty students you had five years ago how many are still Muslims? After ten years ask, out of those who remained Musims how many are now independent and adding value to the masjid and broader community? You see…the thing is, you can have 100 students at one go in your maktab if they are all going to turn murtad in 3 to 5 years time, then we should be crying tears of blood and asking ourselves where are we going wrong, not asking how many students the ‘Sheikh’ currently has.
I once asked an imam working in the township: “Why do you work so hard to get a large number of students when you know for sure that they are just going to end up as statistics”? He turns around and tells me, “SHEIKH…, that’s my job, what can I do”?
This is what I call the “between a rock and a hard place”.
The problem is that although the conventional madresah system works so brilliantly within established Muslim communities, a copy and paste of the exact same system in the townships spells disaster.
What needs to be done in the Townships is quite different from what is done in the established Muslim communities. The madresah system is not in the DNA of children in the Townships, they need to be motivated in various ways in order for it to end up being a part and parcel of their lives.
We need to demonstrate to the parents of the kids that we care for the children holistically and not just trying to push our religion down their throats. We need to demonstrate to them that we are with them for the long haul.
Along with the Islamic studies, the madresah needs to incorporate a tuition program into the syllabus, homework assistance program, sporting activities and good quality excursion programs.
If you gauge that people in the township don’t have an affinity to the word madresah, don’t call it madresah, call it afternoon school. In this way you will be elevating the program from being in the margins into mainstream because it won’t sound foreign anymore.
Don’t give the young girls old and worn out abayas to wear to madresah, sew them beautiful, shariah compliant dresses that cover them modestly without being black and faded.
In order to gain prestige and honor in the Townships, people need to know that children who attend madresah are also the best performers at school. If we can achieve this, we won’t need peanut butter and bread to draw the children, the parents will themselves enroll the kids into our madresahs.
Ml. Ebrahim Mokgabudi
Imam Development Project Manager (Gauteng)