Kenyan school offers Somali refugees a modern – and moderate – education

Fathu Rahman Primary School is a rare source of moderate Islamic values in a community riven by war.

Scott Baldauf/The Christian Science Monitor
Tolerant: Somali boys and girls at Fathu Rahman Primary School in Nairobi, Kenya, study secular as well as Islamic subjects.

Nestled in a quiet little compound in the gritty, noisy streets of Eastleigh – a suburb of Nairobi – Fathu Rahman Primary School looks like any other public school in Kenya.

Its students – all Somali refugees – learn a mixture of secular subjects like math, science, and English, along with a more traditional dose of spirituality, including classes on the Koran. In a refugee community displaced by war and famine, divided by clan identity, and preyed upon by brutal warlords and radical Islamists alike, Fathu Rahman is a gentle reminder of what Somali society used to be like – tolerant, peaceful, pragmatic – and what its founders hope it can be once more.

"This is a battle for the minds of Somali children," says Sheikh Mohammad Moallem Hussein, a moderate Islamic cleric and principal of Fathu Rahman. As an Islamic scholar and practitioner of Islam's Sufi sect, which emphasizes a deeply emotional and personal love for God, Sheikh Hussein worries that Somalia's Sufic culture is fast being replaced by alien teaching, particularly the Salafist teaching espoused by militants like Osama bin Laden.

"We are trying to pull back the students from the Salafist-sponsored schools, which used to be the only education that poor Somali children could afford, but we are small and we have little money," he says. "This is just one school, and they [the radical Islamists] have so many madrassas. That is why we have to expand. To save our culture."

With millions of Somalis living outside of their country, forced out by war and famine, it's hardly surprising that the same contentious issues that have torn their country apart for nearly 20 years would follow them into exile, and even into their schools. Today, a looming clash between radical and moderate Islamists seems all but inevitable, as radical Al-Shabab militias take town after town throughout southern Somalia, and as a newly elected president espousing moderate Islamic values returned to Somalia last week. But no matter what happens on the battlefields of Somalia, educators and preachers are already fighting for dominance with the minds of the next generation of Somalis.

"People are clearly disquieted by the terrible version of Islam these people [the Salafists] want to impose," says Rashid Abdi, a Somalia expert for International Crisis Group in Nairobi. "Al Shabab had a 13-year-old girl stoned for adultery after she had been raped. No Somali wants to have an al-Shabab regime."

But al-Shabab's simple message of reviving Islam in its primitive form does have an odd attraction to Somalis nonetheless, particularly for a traumatized younger generation that craves simple answers and a reliable sense of law and order, as well as justice.

"After years of anarchy, the younger generation has become alienated from older traditions and attracted to any demagogue who gives a simple idea," says Mr. Abdi. "The first instinct of a Sufi is to negotiate. For the Salafists, the first instinct is to pick up a sword and cut off a head."

Here in Eastleigh, adherents of both schools of thought have found their way to Kenya, setting up businesses or taking odd jobs and sending money to keep alive those family members too sick or poor to leave Somalia. The neighborhood, once prosperous, now has a feeling of neglect, as the increased number of trucks carrying smuggled appliances from the port of Mombasa ground the once-paved streets into potholes and dust.

Clan rivalries occasionally erupt into gunfire on the streets, and Kenyan newspapers portray Eastleigh as a kind of gangland. Pedestrians and shoppers converse distractedly, constantly eyeing the crowd for a possible threat.

But at Fathu Rahman Primary School, those problems are left at the door. Students in the cramped classrooms, boys on one side, girls on the other, study subjects that will prepare them for work in a foreign land – and preserve the values their families left behind.

"Today, we are learning about place values," says Isaak Miruka Akuru, himself a Kenyan Muslim. He writes out a six-digit number and shows where the ones are, the tens, the hundreds, the thousands, and so on. He asks a student to read out the number, in English. A tall girl, wrapped in a white chador scarf, says, "Sir, that number is six hundred, twenty-five thousand, nine hundred and seventy three."

Fathu Rahman was set up, says Isaak, because "when people came to Kenya, they could not match with the local people, because of the large cultural differences. So they found it necessary to be in an integrated school, where they continue their religious education, but adapt the Kenyan national curriculum to fit this generation into Kenyan society."

Since many of Fathu Rahman's students came from more radical madrassas, school founder Sheikh Hussein feels like much of his work is taken up with deprogramming his students. Seeing a female student hide her face from a stranger, the sheikh gives her a stern reprimand.

The school has grown fast in its first 1-1/2 years, and now has 107 students in Grades 1 to 6. But money is a struggle, and the school relies entirely on donations from rich like-minded Somalis.

"The money we get from the student fees can't pay for the rent of this house," he says, pointing to the large walled compound where Fathu Rahman is based. Last month, the Muslim teachers on staff didn't get paid, and non-Muslim teachers were paid only half their salaries.

For now, the first-graders are getting something their older brothers and sisters couldn't have: a safe, modern education.

"Who wants to read for me this sentence?" asks a teacher, pointing to a sentence written in English on a chalkboard. All 15 students, boys and girls, raise their hands. "Fine," says the teacher with a smile, "then let's read together."

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