“Five Americans are tantamount to forty Senegalese children!” Islamic schooling for migrants’ children in Senegal

Hannah Hoechner est post-doctorante à l’Université d’Anvers et enseigne également à l’Université Libre de Bruxelles. Ce rapport d’étude est issu de ses terrains de recherche en Afrique de l’Ouest.

For my doctoral research, I spent a year’s time of fieldwork in Kano in northern Nigeria, trying to find out how young boys experience their enrolment in Qur’anic schools there. A major challenge was to make the children open up to me and talk. Wider norms on the appropriate behaviour for juniors encourage children to be coy and demure in the presence of adults. Collecting data on children’s opinions required me to be patient, to have as unobtrusive a presence as possible, to learn from observing, and to find research formats that allowed my research participants to talk to each other rather than to me, for example by conducting tape-recorded ‘radio interviews’ among each other in my absence.
The situation I encountered coming to Senegal to study Islamic schools receiving children from the Senegalese ‘diaspora’ – including many children born and raised in the United States – could hardly have been more different. Here, the ten-year-olds scrambled to be ‘selected’ for an interview, talked a mile a minute, and were upset when I told them it was time to return to class as we had already overstayed the time their teacher had granted us. Here the challenge was not to make children talk, but rather to find a breathing pause in their word flow to slip in my questions. “Five Americans are tantamount to forty Senegalese children!” one of the teachers confided to me exhausted after a day’s work of trying to tame the buoyant crowd of ten-year-olds. Profound cultural differences between children raised in a West African setting and youngsters having grown up in Western contexts had implications not only for me as a researcher, but also for the teachers dealing with them every day in class.
About a third of the students in the school described here are children from the Senegalese ‘diaspora’, mostly from the United States, but also from France, Italy and Belgium, where institutions offering full-time education based on the Islamic faith are both rare and expensive. The rest of the student body is made up of Senegalese middle and upper class children as well as children of other nationalities whose parents work in Dakar as diplomats.
The students study secular subjects, modelled on the American curriculum, as well as Arabic, Islamic studies and the Qur’an. Many of the children and youth enrolled could not have received a similar faith-based education in the countries they grew up in. Yet, this is not the only problem this school seeks to provide a solution for. Many Senegalese migrant families in Western countries find themselves trapped in the bottled-up social misery of north American inner cities and European banlieues. Gang violence and drugs, failing public schools, and experiences of racism and Islamophobia push many Senegalese parents in Western countries to search for alternative ways of bringing up their children. Finally, many are wary of seeing their children become all too ‘Americanised’ and want to make sure they are taught to show respect for their elders. A growing number of private schools in Senegal respond to this demand.
Bringing together migration and diaspora studies as well as scholarship on Islamic education, my research endeavours to understand this demand of the ‘diaspora’ for Islamic education in Senegal. What are the conditions in the ‘host’ countries of the Senegalese ‘diaspora’ that nurture this demand? How has the education market in Senegal responded to it? And importantly, what are the experiences of the children and youths sent ‘back’ to Senegal? How do they adapt to an environment that many of them have limited prior experience of? How, in turn, does their environment adjust to them? How do teachers and fellow students relate to the ‘Americans’? What do the sojourns of foreign-born/raised children in Senegal imply for their future trajectories? Are their parents right to bet on Islamic schools in their homeland as an avenue for future social mobility in the West or elsewhere? These are the principal questions my research seeks to answer.
After having conducted research in Dakar during five months from August to December 2016, for the next stage of my research I will spend five months in New York reaching out to Senegalese families there from July 2017.

I am grateful for your comments and questions!



photo : copyright Alamy

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