Choosing Medersa: Discourses on Secular versus Islamic Education in Mali, West Africa

Dianna Bell. Africa Today. Volume 61, Issue 3. Spring 2015.


One day, a donkey went to visit a lion in the forest. The donkey said, “Oh, lion! You’re so pretty and I want to look like you!”

The lion replied, “You have long ears. You can’t look like me.”

The donkey went home and cut his ears. The next day he returned to the lion and said, “Look! I cut my ears in order to look like you.”

The lion sighed and told the donkey, “You still don’t look like me, and now you don’t look like you either.”

I heard this Bambara folktale on many occasions during annual field research in southern Mali between 2007 and 2014. Residents regularly invoked it as a metaphor for the risks of Western influences across West Africa. Taussig (1993), Bhabha (1994), and their inheritors recognize and playfully celebrate mimicry and hybridity in their postcolonial studies, but throughout West Africa, sociocultural mimicry often leads to anxiety among residents, who view it as reducing the key reference points for African identity to the point of vanishing (Soares 2005a:91). Accordingly, whenever I heard the story of the donkey and the lion, I bypassed Taussig and Bhabha’s studies in favor of returning to and reflecting on Mudimbe (1988) and Fanon (1963). Mudimbe, citing Foucault, compares development efforts in former colonies to the painting of a portrait, arguing that Africa has become a canvas that, in the end, will celebrate and resemble the North Americans and Europeans who had painted on it (1988:2-6). Just as the donkey wound up looking ridiculous after trimming its ears, Fanon worried that Africa would transform itself into a caricature, rather than a replica, of Europe (1963:119).

Through artistic imagery, Foucault, Mudimbe, and Fanon give a useful starting point for thinking about cultural change and outside influences in the republic of Mali, yet in the early twenty-first century, to think about Mali-or Africa in general-as a triple heritage or medium that North Americans and Europeans exclusively mold or paint on seems a mistaken simplification, given that Malians live among multiple forms of modernity. Since Mali gained independence from France in 1960, plenty of other groups have affected the cultural landscape of southern Mali in profound ways, including Wahhabi and Salafi Muslims worldwide, Cold War-era Soviets, upper-class Africans, the global entertainment and media industries, Libyan oil tycoons, human-rights groups, Catholic and Protestant missionaries, rural populations, Maliki jurists, migrant communities of diverse origins, the United Nations, peanut and cotton traders, the African Union, mining companies, Chinese investors, foreign politicians and militaries, the Arab League, and a myriad of international nongovernmental organizations.

This array of influences at work in Mali makes understanding public life a seemingly complicated proposition, yet a Bambara proverb reminds us, “The Mande will undulate like the water in a large calabash, but the Mande will not spill” (Mande bè lonpolanpa i ko filenba rò ji, nka Mande tè bò) (Kone 1995:iv). Accordingly, Malians’ narratives, as demonstrated by portions of life histories shared throughout this article, reveal that Malians have elegant and systematic understandings of how the interplay of varied ideals affects their lives.

The amalgamation of international and local influences is especially reflected in Mali’s education and literacy programs. Malians seeking education and literacy have an array of esteemed options to choose from, including studying Arabic or French and learning to write local languages using ajami, the Latin alphabet, or N’Ko (an increasingly popular indigenous script, developed by Souleymane Kanté in 1949 for writing Mande languages) (Hellweg 2014; Oyler 1997, 2005:117-28). It is against this backdrop of systems of education that this article surveys education and literacy in Mali’s colonial and postcolonial era with a focus on Qur’anic schools and medersas. Here it bears reviewing the way that the terms Qur’anic school and medersa have become increasingly conflated in Bambara vernaculars, though there is an importantly recognized difference between these types of Islamic education. Both are independent institutions, but Qur’anic schools in Mali have historically focused on Qur’anic recitation, while medersas have incorporated advanced Arabic, Islamic history, and legal studies, and most since the colonial era have included Western curricula. In the twenty-first century, these systems have been reversed in certain cases, as many Qur’anic schools have begun to introduce components of a secular education, especially literacy, and conversely some medersas have turned their focus to Qur’anic recitation (Brenner 2001; Kavas 2003; Sanankoua 1985). In this article, I conservatively use the term medersa to refer generically to systems of Islamic education unless otherwise indicated, as did everyone interviewed for the project.

Medersas in Mali continue to constitute a significant and growing part of the country’s education system. In 2008-2009, the MEALN’s statistical database listed 1,631 medersas in the country, with a total enrollment of 240,579 students at the primary level. The annual growth rate of medersas has continued to increase between 13 and 15 percent in recent years, whereas the total number of public schools in the country has grown only between 4 and 6 percent a year (MEALN 2010:8). In addition to considering the logistics of colonial and postcolonial medersa operation, this article focuses on exploring what motivates Malians to seek out and value Islamic education over public schools after the European education system.

Twenty-five years ago, Mbiti lamented that, though education across Africa officially advocates the noble aims of eliminating poverty and increasing obedience to and involvement in one’s government, “on the African scene one does not see signs of being put into concrete and practical application” (1989:254). Regrettably, the state of present-day public education in Mali provides current support for the continued sustainment of Mbiti’s concern. In fact, Amadou Sanogo, leader of the 2012 coup d’état in Mali, prominently condemned the dysfunctionality of the public education system in Mali in his list of justifications for the coup (Whitehouse 2013:10). Malians are aware of the unemployment and underemployment rates in their country and fully understand the discriminating effects of corruption, nepotism, and cronyism, which operate in the job sector. Outsiders often ignore or undervalue these factors when examining the effect of increased education on economic advancement and social mobility, making a realistic analysis impossible and yielding overly optimistic assessments and misguided efforts. This is not to suggest that Malians cynically disregard the worth of education: it is only to show that material motives are far from exhaustive in analyzing what motivates the pursuit of education.

In this article, I emphasize that most Malians had fairly modest expectations for social and economic transformations within their lifetimes, and that education is more than a teleological process, which moves to an endpoint of perfect Western modernity, or else it has failed (Ferguson 1999). Here, I show that rural and urban working-class civilians assess education largely through religious and political discourses, rather than imaginings of economic development and social progress. Muslims particularly evaluate education in terms of its potential to generate baraji (merit), which they can apply to their aim to acquire the unspecified amount of baraji that God requires for a person to enter paradise in the afterlife. Thus, this article argues that as we cannot grasp education solely for its secular and economic values, we have to look deeper for the greater political discourses and religious principles in which education systems engage to understand properly how the worth of education is measured in Mali.

This article highlights the complexities of education and literacy in present-day Mali by surveying the educational programs available to rural and urban Malians alike, with a focus on medersas. Drawing inspiration from the story of the lion and the donkey, it focuses on depicting what medersa education looks like in southern Mali, given the influences that Muslim and Western education systems have on schools. It draws from archival research in Bamako, written sources, life-history studies, and ethnographic fieldwork conducted primarily in the ethnically diverse municipality of Ouélessébougou, a town of approximately seven thousand residents located eighty kilometers southeast of Bamako in the Kati administrative unit (cercle). Analysis of these sources traces the extent to which the colonial and postcolonial education systems that pervade southern Mali are bound up in religious culture and popular attitudes toward national politics. This research offers a more contoured depiction of how rural civilians have responded to the all-too-often dispiriting tyranny of colonial and postcolonial periods. With a focus on medersa education in rural Mali, this work stirs us, as Ochonu (2014) has encouraged, to move beyond wondering whether the subaltern can speak to a more detailed consideration of what motivates the underrepresented masses in Mali to act (Spivak 1988).

To achieve these goals, this article is organized into two sections. To begin, it looks at colonial-era medersa education in Mali. It explores the practical, religious, and political motivations that prompted parents to enroll their children in Islamic education programs during that era on the basis of such an education-generating baraji while exploring how medersas operated and changed during that time. It then examines the present-day medersas and explores the increased popularity of the European education system, alongside common public concerns over aspects of medersa education. This section similarly considers the criticisms and political and religious implications of such an education. Both sections draw heavily on the life and perspectives of an elderly Fula man, interviewed extensively during field research. His experiences and opinions about education offer an opportunity to portray aspects of political and religious discourse on education through the case of an individual’s life narrative.

Medersa Education in Colonial and Postcolonial Mali

Since the mid-twentieth century, Muslim parents in Mali seeking education for their children have faced the decision of whether to send their children to medersas or schools modeled after the Western education system. There are, naturally, some country specificities, but the issue of balancing religious and secular schooling is quite similar and hotly debated across the Francophone Sahelian countries. To contribute to an emic understanding of how Muslims in southern Mali measure the worth of education beyond its potential to bring improved economic circumstances and secular opportunities, this section shows that Malians meaningfully appraise educational systems based on their potential to access units of baraji-usefully translated as “divine reward” or “recompense”-to access paradise in the afterlife (Bailleul 2007:31; Soares 2005b:166-67, 1996:744).

To summarize the Qur’anic basis and role of baraji for Mande and Fulfulde speakers in southern Mali, dogmatic conceptions of the importance of acting with an ethical awareness figure prominently into expectations that behaving with good conduct results in physical merit, which will ultimately be weighed to determine whether or not one attains paradise. The basis in Mali for understanding baraji rests soundly in the original Arabic content of the Qur’an, as the prominently used Arabic words adjr, jaza- ‘, thawa- b, and baraka collapse together to express the persistent theme and united concept of reward, repayment, or merit. Regarding baraji earned, surah 50:17-18 details that God keeps a clear and precise register of baraji by commissioning angels (mèlèkè) to sit on the right and left shoulders of every human being. God credits, according to 6:160, ten good deeds for each ethical accomplishment while counting every evil deed as only one demerit.

The organizing principle of baraji symbolizes an image of proper religious and social expression and holds a definable worth that Malians attribute to their behavior in daily life and education. Muslims in southern Mali believe that, on their day of judgment, God will physically weigh their baraji against their sins to determine whether they will spend their eternal life in paradise or hell. People care deeply about the number of baraji credited to them, and daily life reflects an obvious effort to accumulate more through Islamic observances-prayer, fasting, paying alms-and other supererogatory actions, which include seeking out education and cultivating a serious work ethic. The relationship among education, work, and merit, as well as the ways that Malians use education to express political dissent, became especially apparent during extensive interviews conducted with an elderly Fula man named Amadou Diallo, who grew up in the village of Npièbougou near Markala, north of Segou, in the 1940s—a time when France formally occupied Mali as part of its vast Soudan Français colonial empire.

I met Amadou in Ouélessébougou, where he had lived for all his adult life. He had come to the region as part of a significant migration movement during the Sahelian famine in the 1960s, wherein rural Fula in the northerly zones of Mali moved to rural regions in the south in search of improved environmental security and employment possibilities in cattle husbandry (Franke and Chasin 1980). Within Ouélessébougou, various currents of Islam claimed the town’s (90 percent Muslim) populace, ranging, most significantly, from conservative Wahhabism to adherents of local African reform movements, such as Ançar Dine. Amadou admired the knowledge of Islam that Wahhabi Muslims tended to possess, but he liked Ançar Dine and the sensibilities of the group’s leader, Chérif Ousmane Madani Haïdara, and even went to hear him speak on some occasions, yet Amadou did not identify with either movement and rather broadly identified himself as Muslim (silamè).

Amadou served as an ideal collaborator in this project, owing to his varied experiences and changing outlooks on education throughout his lifetime. In sum, he studied and lived long-term at a medersa as a boy and reflected on this experience as an important part of how he had learned to acquire merit while expressing his Muslim identity against the role of French nationals and the French language. He eventually changed his mind about the value of secular education, demonstrated in the way that he sought to learn French in a newly independent Mali. Though he valued all forms of education on the basis that they instill a work ethic conducive to earning baraji, his life history shows that he spoke openly of the dispiriting effects of nepotism, corruption, and unemployment and continued in his old age to question the efficacy of education to advance development and alleviate poverty.

Before continuing, it is useful to address the scholarly significance of meeting a single man and experiencing something of his own education and feelings living under colonial rule and in postcolonial Mali. Of course, anthropological enterprises have long endeavored to understand how people experience themselves, their lives, and their cultures, but it is increasingly difficult to do so in homogeneous ways (Bruner 1986:9). Jackson (1998) has called life stories the “connective tissue” that make understanding the varied and complicated social worlds that we live in possible, yet these histories are often ignored in favor of hubris and bending or dismissing narratives to demonstrate that, “while the world may not be subject to administrative order, it can at least be domesticated through logic, theory, and academic argot” (1998:33). Taking stock of such faults, this article gives weight to Malians’ personal and everyday experiences. Amadou’s life history lends itself to refract how education systems and attitudes toward them have changed in colonial and postcolonial Mali, and it is against this backdrop that we can better understand the state of education in Mali in the early twenty-first century. Given the significance of life history, this section uses the portion of Amadou’s life story dealing with his experiences studying as a child in a medersa to explore themes of colonial education in West Africa, as well as the complicated relationship of medersas in challenging and sustaining French colonial and postcolonial interests.

The colonial era brought considerable social, political, and economic changes for Muslim and non-Muslim civilians living throughout Mali. Colonial rule imposed new systems of law and taxation, changes in production, and the end of slavery and forced labor, which many Malians resented (Soares 2005b:70-71). French officials faced skilled adversaries, such as El Hadj ‘Umar Tal and Samory Touré, who used Islam as a cementing force to unite West Africans and inculcate distrust for foreign invaders (Franke and Chasin 1980:64). Amadou remembered that during his early childhood, his father and mother had often expressed contempt for the French, finding colonization and the critique of African culture that went along with it demoralizing. As a child in the 1940s, he saw adults in his community reeling from the disappointment from broken promises of independence. During my fieldwork, many elderly people, including Amadou, continued to lament that the Atlantic Charter of 1941 had guaranteed Mali an early but unrealized independence from European powers, owing to the number of West Africans who had fought on behalf of France in both world wars (see Mann 2006).

Amadou’s mother, Ina, had reminded him on many occasion to shield himself from his colonizers, saying, “If you become powerful because of the French, dislike them; if you stay powerless because the French, dislike them” (Ni se b’i ye, i t’u fè; ni se t’i ye, i t’u fè). In addition to uniformly judging Europeans as cunning and deceitful, Amadou’s parents cultivated Muslim religious habits in him from an early age, and he grew up afraid that the non-Muslim French could eternally damn his soul by drawing him into a life devoid of baraji. Many old men and women who had similarly been raised in colonial Mali recalled that French colonization, and the education system they advocated, threatened their Muslim beliefs and sensibilities. Amadou had heard stories from his playmates that the French would nab children and force them into schools (lèkoli). “My neighbors told me that Europeans studied everything except God in their classrooms,” he recalled. From a young age, he reasoned that studying this type of curriculum would undoubtedly stunt his acquisition of baraji and send him to hell.

Given the warnings that Amadou’s parents had given him against the French, it is unsurprising that Amadou developed fear and revulsion for French people long before he had direct contact with colonizers. He remembered that many French settlers had lived in nearby Markala, most of whom were primarily involved in a major project from 1933 to 1949 to build a road bridge across the Niger and an irrigation dam that diverted water into networks of man-made canals (Marie, Moran, and Njim 2007:35). Through domestic chores, he experienced his first contact with the French settlers he had grown up fearing. His mother had arranged to sell a liter of fresh milk each morning to each of several French families living in Markala, and he would walk daily the nearly four-mile distance to Markala to deliver the milk to them. Nervous at the prospect of meeting a European settler, he was surprised that these customers received him with kindness and appreciation, even offering him his first tastes of sugar cookies and mashed potatoes, to thank him for the journey he was making on their behalf.

Though Amadou came to like the French he met in Markala, he continued to distrust the spiritual values and secular focuses of their education system. When he was eight years old, he gladly agreed when his parents decided to send him north for approximately ten months a year to a medersa operated by his cousin, Abdoulaye, in the town of Diafarabé, an inland delta situated along the Niger River near Mopti. Between the ages of eight and eleven, he lived in Abdoulaye’s compound with other pupils who had similarly traveled to learn to read Arabic and recite the Qur’an with Abdoulaye.

Amadou’s aversion to French education and favor for medersa schooling was certainly typical for its time. Scholars have noted that colonial rule prompted the widespread standardization of Islam and unification of Muslims across southern and central Mali, and that French colonizers had early on became suspicious of Qur’anic schools and readily recognized the potential for Islamic leaders to use education to cultivate anticolonial resistance (Brenner 2000; Soares 2005b:69-77). Colonial officials consequently sought to instate and oversee a secular curriculum and establish secular medersas to produce African leaders who would transmit French values and subvert the potential for unmonitored medersa teachers to produce students who might pose a threat to colonial authority (Brenner 2001:52-54). Consequently, beginning in 1906, colonial authorities began to found French medersas, located primarily in Djenne and Timbuktu, schools they purposefully designed to develop higher Muslim education while teaching upperclass young Muslims to speak and write French to enable them to work for colonial administrations (Brenner 2001:41-49; Kobo 2012:85-88).

Colonial-era French medersas have had a lasting impact. At present, most medersas in West Africa partly model themselves after Western forms of education and balance teaching secular curriculum and French alongside the Qur’an and Islamic studies (Kavas 2003; Launay 1992:88; Sanankoua 1985:360-61; Sanneh 1996:165-67). They offer a practical alternative to a purely secular education, and many parents entrust their children to them over public primary schools modeled after the French education system; they report that much of their satisfaction comes from confidence that their student will earn copious baraji as a result of their resolve. In fact, enrollment in primary schools in Mali dropped by 10 percent in 2011, while enrollment in medersas continues to rise (INSTAT 2011). The popularity medersas enjoy can be tied to two related issues. First, teachers at medersas go on strike considerably less often than instructors in public schools, and parents rightly feel that the consistency that medersa education offers is more conducive to successful learning. Second, owing largely to continual strikes and lack of resources, most students who go through the public education system come out undereducated, as demonstrated by the fraction of students who actually pass the annual baccalaureat exam (Whitehouse 2013:6). In Ouèlessèbougou in 2014, of the 107 students at one public school who took the baccalaureat exam, only thirteen passed. Students publically cried over the humiliating news of their failure, showing that getting children to enroll in public school is a smaller problem than getting them through it (Villalón 2012:177-201). In the present day, education at medersas offers an appealing alternative. Medersas provide opportunities to learn French, mathematics, and European history alongside Muslim principles, scripture, and history, helping children grow into adults who will live in accordance with the accepted precepts of Islam.

Students in colonial and postcolonial medersas have typically paid fees to receive their education. Because of Amadou’s kin relationship with the school director, Abdoulaye, Amadou did not pay tuition or fees for his education, but he recalled that other students had paid to study at the school. As happens everywhere in Muslim West Africa, however, Amadou supported his teacher (karam g ) by helping extensively with Abdoulaye’s farming affairs and other household tasks (Mommersteeg 2012:36, 44). While developing an understanding of Islam, students learn to focus on the value inherent in completing daily chores and assignments. Ritual prayer and fasting represent the primary ways that young Muslims earn baraji, but Muslim leaders emphasize that Qur’anic studies serve to make Muslims cognizant of the potential to acquire baraji through everyday dealings. Amadou recalled that he had learned to earn baraji by preserving forests and participating in gift-giving relationships. Students in medersas thus learn the supererogatory (farida) aspects of Islam and techniques for earning superfluous merit external to observance of the five pillars of Islam to ensure salvation. Teachers routinely emphasize that responsibility, vigor, and hard work produce baraji, and that commitment to honest work is as essential to salvation as observing the five pillars. Living at a medersa obliges students to devote their time almost exclusively to chores and classroom studies, and Amadou detailed that students at these schools had abruptly stopped participating in childhood trifles, such as singing, dancing, and playing sports upon their arrival at the school. He admitted, however, that he had secretly indulged in playing soccer, recalling that he and the other boys would sneak into the forest, roll and tie their shirts together to make a ball, and play quick matches whenever they could.

Amadou recounted that medersa students in Diafarabé, who had usually been between the ages of six and fifteen, had developed manifold skills during the years they had spent studying, including the ability to read and write in Arabic, transliterate indigenous languages using the Arabic script, recite the Qur’an, recount Muslim history, and correctly perform rituals and live daily life in accordance with the basic precepts of Islam. Advanced students had studied esoteric Islamic sciences and Maliki jurisprudence.

Children receiving elementary education in medersas ordinarily focus on recitation and copying from the Qur’an in Arabic, though they may not understand the meaning of what they are writing, and memorizing portions of the Qur’an by heart for recitation (Mommersteeg 2102:36-40; Sanankoua 1985:362; Sanneh 1996:47). Amadou similarly described these processes and the stress Abdoulaye had placed on memory. Though Amadou had occasionally practiced writing Arabic on a small wooden board (walan) with charcoal, as paper and other writing surfaces and utensils had been scarce and costly, most of his studies and memorization had been transmitted orally (Launey 1992:92; Sanankoua 1985:362). Abdoulaye had assigned his students to memorize long passages from the Qur’an, and Amadou’s fear of being chosen by Abdoulaye to recite this material in front of other schoolchildren had motivated him to work diligently on internalizing his writings and memorizations.

Students at medersas often become devoted to their teachers, but with this respect comes a tremendous amount of trepidation and social shame (maloya in Bambara, semtennde in Fulfulde/Pulaar) that they might disappoint or make a mistake in front of their teachers, prompting their teachers to beat them (Sanneh 1996:151-56). Abdoulaye had regularly called on select students to recite or write assigned portions of the Qur’an and would interrupt, correct, and strike his pupils whenever they had made a mistake. Amadou remembered, “I would stand in front of my teacher and say in a soft voice: ‘Bismi Allahi arrahmani arraheem Alhamdu lillahi rabbi alameen’ and as I began to forget what came next, I would brace myself to be whipped. Then WHACK!”

The types of physical punishments that teachers dole out in medersas-and in public schools across West Africa-when students make mistakes have been noted. Scholars researching Islam in Africa have produced contemporary studies of West African Islamic schools (Brenner 1985, 1993, 2001; Cissé 1992; Drame 2011; Gérard 1997; Lange and Diarra 1999; Mommersteeg 2012; Sanneh 1996; Weyer 2011), and understanding of curriculum and policy in medersas comes from reports commissioned by international developmental agencies, such as the World Bank, UNICEF, UNESCO, and the US Agency for International Development (Boyle 2004:18). Such studies by developmental agencies typically yield one-sided characterizations, which diminish the educational merit of medersas, characterizing the schools’ focus on memorization as mindless and obsessive, reinforced through inappropriate physical abuse, and a rote exercise used to indoctrinate children (Boyle 2004:18-28).

Ethnographic studies of memorization exercises employed in medersas across West Africa counter such negative reports and argue that teachers require early memorization of the Qur’an as a first step in a lifelong attempt to embed the content of the text more deeply in the whole of the mind and the body (Boyle 2004; Drame 2011; Mommersteeg 2012; Sanneh 1996:146- 47; Ware 2014:1-3,67-69). Ibn Khaldoun, the fourteenth-century Muslim historian, purportedly wrote that instructors use children’s submissiveness and ability to memorize easily to impress the Qur’an in their consciousness for use and understanding later in life (Bouzoubaa 1998:3; Boyle 2004:85; Sanneh 1996:147). Memorization also takes place using translational readings, which give students a foundation in understanding the content of the Qur’an its original Arabic while expounding on the meaning of each verse in the local language (Tamari 2013:126).

Amadou remained grateful that he had had the chance to attend a medersa as a child and recalled that most of his friends and kin had never had such an opportunity. In addition to its value in enhancing his understanding of Islam, studying in a medersa had improved the writing skills he had relied on throughout his life. Most notably, he had retained and used his knowledge of Arabic to write in Fulfulde and Bambara through ajami-a practice whose popularity and impact across Mande West Africa scholars have largely ignored (Donaldson 2013:19-36). Field experience from this project supports that the reason for such an oversight comes largely from the buried public status of ajami in predominantly Mande societies. Fula and Mande peoples in Mali treat it largely as a personal, rather than public, form of literacy. Amadou, owing to his knowledge of it, had been able to accomplish many useful tasks in his adolescence and adult life, such as keeping vaccination records for his cattle, documenting memories and dreams, and organizing phone numbers, yet ajami in Mali is typically not used in advertisements, newspapers, and information flyers, or for completing government paperwork.

Like Amadou, many elderly men who had similarly studied at medersas during Mali’s colonization tout their education as a means of expressing their dissent against the French, but after Mali’s independence from France in 1960, when Malian politicians retained French as the country’s official language, thereby reprising colonial patterns by methodically excluding huge swaths of the population from meaningful participation in politics at local and national levels (especially women, the elderly, and rural populaces), people began to realize the intransience of the French language across West Africa. As a child, Amadou had feared that learning French or studying in a French school would betray his Fula and Muslim identity and damage his soul by stunting his acquisition of baraji. As a teenager, he reasoned that his fears had been irrational and studying and working hard in any subject or pursuit, even a secular one, would please God and earn baraji. After all, according to a well-known Bambara proverb, “God gives us a brain, but it’s up to us to add to it” (Ala bè hakili di anw ma, nka anw yèrè bè fara a kan).

For several months in the early 1960s, Amadou regularly attended evening French classes offered for free in his community. Motivated by a work ethic cultivated since early childhood, he learned how to count in French. After mastering French numbers, he turned his focus to the French alphabet. Learning the alphabet was more difficult and frustrating for him, and tired from his workday, he often chose to skip his French lessons at night. As an old man, he retained his knowledge of French numbers, which allowed him to use a telephone with ease, but said he did not regret stopping his French lessons. Like many others interviewed for this project, he disliked that French remained Mali’s national language, instead of indigenous Mande and Fulfulde languages.

Despite widespread complaints about French as a national language, French has continued to drive public life and discourse, and in postcolonial Mali, most seek to attain at least an elementary grasp of it. In colonial Mali, most civilians had limited access to French lessons, especially in rural areas, but since the 1960s, secular schools that operate in French pervade the country. The next section looks at how medersas operate alongside these schools, focusing on how the increased popularity and demand for French has begun to overshadow Arabic literacy and Islamic education in West Africa and how medersa directors have responded to these challenges.

Medersas and Public Education in Postcolonial Mali

Curious to contrast Amadou’s colonial-era experiences with medersa education in present-day Mali, I visited medersas in Ouélessébougou to witness how these schools operate. As with colonial-era hybrid medersas, most had willingly integrated secular subjects into the core curriculum during the regular school year, with many of the materials needed to teach this curriculum bought by donations from international aid organizations. In Ouélessébougou, students enrolled in traditional Qur’anic schools (those that focused only on Qur’anic recitation and do not include secular studies) continue to balance their studies with performing regular chores for their teachers, and these students typically work as child beggars (garibu) on their teachers’ behalf: they walk around their neighborhoods about three times a day, typically at mealtimes, carrying hollowed gourds or large, empty, red tomato-paste cans as bowls and reciting passages from the Qur’an in exchange for donations of money or food (Kavas 2003:55-59; Mommersteeg 2012:44-46).

Amadou, drawing from his recollections of begging while living in Diafarabè, said that begging is difficult and humbling (majigin), but it serves the collective good by promoting the Muslim standard of self-effacement and bringing such ideals to life. He remembered that some had mistreated him as a child when he would go begging, by ignoring or harassing him, yet he continued to see mendicants as an opportunity to serve others and their own interests because begging offers an opportunity for laymen and laywomen to attain extra merit for salvation. As charitable donors hand coins or place food in a beggar’s bowl, angels (mèlèkè) record the moment as an action deserving baraji. Beggars earn baraji by reciting the Qur’an in Arabic and pronouncing benedictions while soliciting donations.

In the early twenty-first century, the practice of begging in predominantly Muslim countries in West Africa became controversial, as many Africans, along with European and North American interlocutors, were finding the system exploitative (Dickinson 2006; Ware 2014:2-3). It is, of course, important to remember that begging predates widespread commercialization and capitalism in West Africa, though this is the primary lens through which it is now evaluated. Critics classify the practice as dangerous and question the wisdom behind sending children out alone to beg. In urban West African cities, beggars aggressively stand at hectic intersections and recite the Qur’an in Arabic while dodging traffic. As population growth in West African countries increases, the number of child beggars rises. Many vehemently complain that an increase in begging has ruined the region’s image and made it impossible to travel in towns in peace (Dickinson 2006; Sengupta 2004; Ware 2014).

Those who criticize begging normally speak with compassion for the children but malign teachers who profit and even became wealthy by taking advantage of their students. People regularly say that teachers who invoke begging become wildly rich, but such charges hardly seem accurate on the whole, especially in the rural areas, where people give food, rather than cash, to beggars. Despite increasingly harsh public reviews of mendicancy and suspicions that teachers profit greatly from the system, the practice endures. Even Muslim critics recognize value in the principles the begging perpetuates-mainly that it instills modesty and humility in children and offers a chance for adults to help the unfortunate.

Children enrolled in French-speaking schools and most hybrid medersas do not beg as a component of their education, and many Malians find these schools more consistent with contemporary European childrearing standards. Education in schools modeled after European schools can be primarily appraised for its potential to encourage meaningful participation in political affairs. Early Malian leaders retained French as the country’s official language. Well-educated Malians officially couched this decision in ideals of equality and fairness, arguing that using a select local language in an official capacity would result in ethnic favoritism and a loss of transnational ties, yet by using a foreign tongue as the official administrative language, political and business leaders ensured that power and prosperity in Mali would stay in the hands of a small number of elites. The use of French safeguards the ability of France, the oft-recognized gendarme of Europe in Africa, to maintain its interests and control over the region.

Young students might place aspirations of economic prosperity on their education, but their parents tend to have more modest, but perhaps more ultimately fruitful, expectations in terms of the baraji that they mention serious study warrants, and that this merit goes on to benefit the living and the dead. Parents of students explain that they enroll their children in schools to have someone to translate the news from French and represent the family at the local mayor’s office and in other government matters. As bureaucrats, civil servants, technical experts, and administrative personnel involved in the running of the affairs of the economy and the state have been educated almost exclusively in French-language schools that the state promotes, Malians looking for increased political awareness and involvement in state affairs recognize that such a goal calls for a command of French (Soares 2005a:83-85).

Many parents in southern Mali choose not to send their children to school and instead educate them in the family’s profession, such as herding or farming, often justifying such a move by, again, invoking idioms of baraji and the way that God rewards hard work and effort. In Ouélessébougou, such choices are made despite nearby public schools, but people interviewed for this project remarked that their concerns about the education system had shifted since Mali’s independence, when, in rural areas, “building schools was not attractive to villagers, for they knew that there were no teachers to operate them” (Hopkins 1969:465). This problem has flipped over the last fifty years. Schools now dot Mali’s landscape, yet attending is often unattractive to many Malian parents. Amadou said that he knew that jobs were nearly always reserved for the rich, who would pay for private schools and then go abroad for higher education. The decision to teach farming, herding, and other trades seemed sensible, given that students who had attended schools usually disliked manual labor and had unrealistically high occupational aspirations in view of the slim chances of finding prosperous employment after having gone through the public education system (Villalón 2012:185-89; Zolberg 1976:126).

Efforts have been made to correct the imbalance in opportunity that pervades Mali. At the dawn of Mali’s independence, many citizens supported socialism to offset the inherited problems of class structure and limited access to education. The ubiquity of Che Guevara emblems in present-day Mali shows that many Malians continue to esteem principles of equality and revolution. In western Mali from 1964 to 1965, Amadou initially viewed socialism as a system in which everyone was equal and had the right to participate in the administrative and political aspects of society (see Hopkins 1969). In the 1960s, the Soviet bloc aggressively and formally encouraged a socialist transformation through the Union Soudanaise of Mali, a political party. Soviets and Chinese judged that Mali, a country “hundreds of kilometers from the sea, deprived of significant mineral reserves, with a population nine[-]tenths peasant … where at the moment of independence not a single capitalist enterprise existed,” would benefit from pursuing a noncapitalistic path (Legvold 1970:298; Tarasov 1967:5). Education factored prominently into socialist leanings in Mali, and the Soviet government arranged for the perpetuation of socialism by investing in disadvantaged rural residents, specifically by sending scores of Muslim Malians to universities in the Soviet Union (Legvold 1970:179-80). This investment has had lasting effects in broadening the social backgrounds of the educated upper and middle classes. Fieldwork for this project traced shifts in attitudes about education back to the pivotal time of the 1960s, as Malians began to value the role of education in cultivating an international political identity. Amadou’s attitude toward the European education system began to soften and change once Mali had received its independence and ordinary, disadvantaged Muslim Malians had begun to enjoy increased opportunities to study abroad.

Amadou continued to recognize that hard and honest work produce merit, and studying secular topics could thereby benefit Muslims in preparing for their day of judgment. Therefore, he ultimately came to value all educational systems, but not necessarily for their potential to break the cycle of poverty. Take, for example, neighboring Niger where (like Mali) most educated young professionals are “either jobless, trapped in part-time low-level jobs, or working in the informal economy and unable to secure stable employment” (Masquelier 2013:470). In Amadou’s mind, education offers a chance for Muslim students to earn baraji by applying themselves to work with serious focus and serving their community by interpreting French. Despite this support, however, many Muslim Malians worry that religious knowledge and literacy in Arabic have become increasingly marginalized in Mali. Their fears have led to a revived interest in Islam and an increased popularity of Islamic youth and student associations, most significantly the Ligue Islamique des Elèves et Etudiants du Mali and the Union des Jeunes Musulmans du Mali, principally to promote Muslim standards in public education (Kruis 2010; Launay 1992:92-101).

Amadou’s life shows that colonial attitudes toward education have shifted in such a way that pupils can receive an education from a French school without compromising their Muslim and African identities, but problems in the quality of and efficiency in education remain. Malian parents have practical and immediate expectations for their children’s education. I was drawn into multiple conversations with Amadou and his elderly friends, who all said they wanted their children and grandchildren to learn French to have access to local mayoral and commandant offices to ask questions about taxes and local governmental services available to them; register to vote; and record births, marriages, and deaths. Employees at the local governmental offices in Ouélessébougou all speak Bambara, the interethnic lingua franca in southern Mali, but they are often reluctant to speak it in their offices. Some complained about the air of superiority that issued from governmental offices, saying the staff would refuse to help residents unless they spoke French. Amadou and his friends said they wanted their children to understand and translate for them the news, mostly broadcast in French over the radio and on television.

Many reacted with impatience and pulled their children out of school when these expectations were not met within a few years of their children’s beginning their studies. Though the cost of education factored into such decisions, adults who had not attended school themselves often regarded the private study and practice required to read and write efficiently in French as passive and antisocial, and it made many uneasy, especially in comparison to learning to recite the Qur’an, seen as an activity that builds up a person’s memory, rather than destroying it. As with Plato’s Socrates, many parents and grandparents in Mali often challenged the worth of reading and writing by asserting that the practices weakened the mind and destroyed a person’s memory and social skills (Ong 1982:78-116).

As an old man, Amadou nurtured additional doubts about the types of Muslims his children and grandchildren would become in the absence of formal Islamic education. Upon his death, he explained that his comfort in the grave, while he would be awaiting judgment, would be improved by his kin’s ability to acquire baraji efficiently, and he increasingly worried about their ability to do so as he advanced in age. Some wealthier families resolved these types of anxieties by hiring a holy man (mori) to live in their compounds during the summer months for the purpose of teaching their children how to recite the first sura of the Qur’an, pray, fast properly, and perform other basic Muslim rites. Amadou could not afford such an arrangement, and so he tried to balance Islam and secular studies by routinely moving his children back and forth, year to year, between public schools and medersas, as part of the “relatively free flow of students between state [secular], modernizing, and traditional Islamic schools” (Tamari 2003:104). Like the donkey that wanted to look like a lion, Amadou continued to feel anxious about what people in Mali would look like as they increasingly westernized themselves. Anxieties over the role of Islam in a modernized Mali seems to ensure that medersas throughout Mali will continue to amass pupils as these schools continue to offer an opportunity for people to assert their Muslim identity.


The range of external and internal influences at work in Mali makes understanding education an especially complicated endeavor. Through this account of colonial and postcolonial medersa education, this article highlights the ways that motivations for attending these schools are bound up in the aim to acquire merit (baraji) while expressing Muslim and African identity, in contrast to a French colonial legacy. Amadou’s life history, offered as an example here, reveals a man who had originally preferred Islamic education while mistrusting and devaluing the European education system. He eventually came to concede its worth, but we should not understand this concession in our own economic terms, as the value that Amadou ultimately came to place on education cannot be understood for its potential to bring families out of perpetual poverty.

Throughout southern Mali, people recognize the principles of corruption and nepotism that govern who will become wealthy and successful and have access to opportunity. Many value education because they see its potential to give children opportunities to serve their families and communities while earning baraji by applying themselves to their education with focus and seriousness that Muslims trust God will recognize and repay. As instructors at medersas continue to incorporate the European education system into their curriculum, it is important to assess the expectations that students and parents have for such education. The schoolrooms and teaching techniques may feel familiar to us, but we may benefit from recognizing that the reasons that children fill these classrooms are actually quite foreign.