While the Muslim religion dominates, Senegal is not an Islamic State. Professor Abdou Aziz Kebe, University Cheikh Anta Diop, lectured on the role of religion in the culture and politics of the country. “Senegal has had three major influences,” continues Professor Kebe, “Islam, French, and traditional [practices].” By the time the Portuguese (15th century), Dutch (17th century) and later French (18th century) explores reached Senegal’s coastline, Islam had been practiced here for a few thousand years. However, it wasn’t until the mid-twentieth century that Islam switched from being the religion of the ruling elite into the faith practiced by 95% of the population.
A serious affect of Senegal’s, to borrow Ali Mazuri’s phrase, “triple heritage” (Islam, French and traditional Africans) has been on the educational system. As Professor Larmine Kane, University of Cheikh Anta Diop, explained in his lecture, “The Senegalese Educational System: From Kindergarten to University,” these three heritages intersect at the point of education to produce a national crisis. The competition between Koranic schools verses government sponsored public schools and African verses French curriculum and instruction is made even more complicated by an official policy that encourages but doesn’t mandate the education of children. Even still, the official report puts the national literacy rate just above 60%.
But this literacy rate is as laudable as it is ambiguous because, according to Professor Kane, there is no agreement as to what it means to be literate in Senegal. Wolof is the most popularly spoken language here but French is the language of instruction and commerce. While most people can speak French, it is not clear how many can read and write it. The same goes for Wolof. Moreover, English is compulsory at the university level. So if literacy means mastery of written and spoken French, then, we’ll have a much lower literacy rate – though no one knows for sure what the rate might be.
If there is a bright side to the education system here it is in the fact that the cost for attending university (once you pass the qualifying examination) is extremely manageable. The yearly tuition fee is the equivalent of 10 US dollars. Additionally, each student receives a government stipend to cover room and board. The challenge here is finding enough space for everyone. For instance, visitors to the University Cheikh Anta Diop will be amazed to find 60 thousand students enrolled in a University build to educate 13 thousand students. I’ll let you do the math to find the student-to-teacher ratio.
Education and religion are two important aspects of creating a modern civil society. In Senegal these two modes of cultural production are in tension and we can only hope for a creative solution in the near future. With people like Professor Kane leading the charge for educational reform and progressive educational policies, it is likely that some progress will be made if only little-by-little.
In photos: Upper left, Professor Kane. Lower right, Professor Tim lake enjoying learning about tri-culture of Senegal.