Story by JEFF OTIENO
Publication Date: 8/17/2007
Children recite the letters of the alphabet under the watchful eye of three youthful teachers.
It is the first day for a number of children who seem to be mesmerised with all the work and play, but it is business as usual for others who have spent almost a year at the institution.
That is a typical day at Istiqama Nursery School, about 14 kilometres from Mombasa Town.
The school, the size of a standard two-bedroom house, accommodates 70 children aged between two and eight years
They are the beneficiaries of the Madrasa Pre-School Programme, which has helped to transform education among the Muslim population in East Africa.
The programme was initiated by the Aga Khan following a request for help by Muslim leaders in Coast Province after years of poor performance in national examinations.
Since its inception, first in Kenya and later spreading to Tanzania and Uganda, the programme has benefited thousands of children.
A teacher gives a lesson to pupils at a Madrasa Pre-School centre in Mombasa. Photos/WILLIAM OERI
The programme, currently in its 25th year, has come a long way since the idea of establishing a unique system of education to act as a bridge between secular and religious education, was initiated back in the early 1980s.
The programme’s silver jubilee coincides with the golden jubilee celebrations of the Aga Khan as the head of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, a responsibility bestowed on him on July 11, 1957 at the tender age of 20 years.
The Madrasa programme was set up after a team appointed by the Aga Khan to look into ways of improving education standards traced the cause of poor performance to difficulties encountered at the primary school level.
According to Mr Masoud Ali, Kenya’s project director of the Madrasa Resource Centre, the programme was first started at a small mosque with only four children.
What makes the education system unique is that, unlike the Quranic Madrasa, the pre-school programme combines religious studies with conventional education to ensure a smooth transition from nursery to primary school.
“We used to have problems in that children who joined primary schools from the strictly Quranic Madarasas could not keep up with the pace as they did not have the necessary background of conventional education,” Mr Ali explained.
At Istiqama, teachers Bahati Hussein, Wanajuma Suleiman and Eunice Kimeto not only teach the children English and religious studies but also basic concepts in mathematics, hygiene and history.
“The programme does not discriminate against children on the basis of religion although it is initiated by Muslims,” said Ms Kimeto, a non-Muslim who joined the school’s staff early this year.
Mr Ali said the programme has in the recent past seen an increase in enrolment of children from Christian families.
“We believe that by accepting students from other religious backgrounds, the programme is playing an important role in integrating and promoting mutual co-existence between people of different religious backgrounds,” he said.
The director added that whenever a new facility is opened, the resource centre signs an agreement with local residents to support the project. They are required to contribute half of the total cost of putting up the structures. It is the community that pays the teachers and ensures that the schools operate as required.
To ensure that the local people manage the projects professionally, the programme trains them in leadership and management skills.
Several kilometres away is the Aga Khan Academy, the first centre of education excellence in East Africa.
The institution falls under the Aga Khan Education Services, one of the agencies under the umbrella body, the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN).
AKDN was founded by the Aga Khan and comprises a group of development agencies dealing with health and education, architecture, culture, micro-finance, disaster reduction, rural development, promotion of private-sector enterprise and revitalisation of historic sites.
According to the director of academies, Mr Salim Bhatia, the institution in Mombasa is one 18 such institutions expected to be built in Africa and Asia to provide quality education to young people.
“The academies will be built in 14 countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East and south and central Asia,” said Mr Bhatia.
The Aga Khan’s objective in setting up the academies in developing countries is to produce young graduates who are well prepared to face the challenges of the modern world.
“Our education system not only looks at the importance of passing examinations, but also at other skills a student might possess like leadership and the ability to tackle social problems, and among others,” he explained.
The Aga Khan Academy in Mombasa follows the International Baccalaureate (IB) system of education merged with the local curriculum to produce graduates well prepared for higher education both locally and overseas.
Mr Bhatia says each school will have an average of 1,200 students and will form one education community under the AKDN.
“All the institutions of excellence will be networked and there will be an exchange programme among students from different academies. We believe it is important for students to have a wider view of the world,” he says. Elias Okwara is one of the students at the Aga Khan Academy currently taking a fully sponsored IB diploma course. The young student already has his future planned. He intends to study law at an overseas university, then come back to Kenya to serve the public.
“I want to be the Attorney General and, God willing, become the President of Kenya,” he adds.
The unique architectural designs of the schools are aimed at creating a perfect environment for studying. Facilities range from libraries stocked with the latest educational materials and well equipped science laboratories.
According to Mr Simon Otieno, the principal of the Mombasa Aga Khan Academy, the school offers both primary and secondary education. It expects to open its doors to boarding students next year when the construction of the residential campus is completed.
Mr Bhatia said the academy would establish networks with various organisations and individuals countrywide to help select talented young men and women to study at the institution.