I started a pointless conversation today about a pointless practice. I don’t know what tempted me into it, I knew the futility of it from the outset. Every Gambian school has an Ustas, a Koranic teacher. Nothing wrong with that, this is after all an Islamic country, you might say. Stands to reason that the government and the people would want their children to know a little something about their religion, however unreasonable you might consider that religion to be.
The pointless conversation begun with me inquiring whether there was any point in getting 6 year old children, or for that matter 11 year old children, to chant vast swathes of Koranic text in Arabic in unison ad nauseum when none of them understand a word of what they are saying. I proposed to our Ustas that this practice wasn’t teaching the children anything about what was in the Koran and what it means to be a Muslim. It was merely teaching them how to be vacant chanting puppets. I left out the last sentence, not wanting to stoke any fires I might not be able to extinguish. The Ustus looked incredulous at first, then quietly chuckled in reply,
“Of course it is teaching them to be good Muslims. being a good Muslim is saying your prayers.”
“Even if they don’t understand the meaning” I retorted, mirroring his initial incredulity.
“The meaning is in the words if they say it.” he explained as if to a small child.
“But they don’t understand it. They’re not really learning the meaning.” I said simply, masking my exasperation with fraudulent serenity.
“Allah. He understands the meaning.”
I smiled back as though I now comprehended, whilst I burried another small piece of hope I had for this country inside me.
In the interests of fairness, and a s a protection against accusations of Islamaphobia, I feel I should point out that I find the presence of any religious indoctrination in schools deplorable. I once worked at a Church of England primary school on a housing estate in North West London, admittedly only for a week. But a week was enough to show me that the preying on defenseless young minds by religion seems a highly immoral act, especially when perpetrated by a government institution whose remit is to educate children – not brainwash them. I also think back to the pointlessness of hymn singing and the huge amount of time it took up of my own education. Opening up irrelevant hymn books whilst sullenly mumbling along, I believe, brought nothing to my education, and only served to exasperate teachers and instil a resentment of religion in schools in me, which I doubt was the intention of the activity.