Islamic education reform in Senegal: Development meets “Game of Thrones”

Anneke Newman//Anthropology//19th of March//1-2 pm//Arts C133


Development policies are often designed at international and national levels, without rigorous understanding of local contexts. While projects might have the potential to meet the demands and needs of marginalised people, they can be thwarted by powerful local actors seeking to maintain the status quo. Awareness of these processes is key to understanding resistance and facilitating positive change. In this lecture I use the example of Islamic education reform in Senegal to show how using an anthropological lens, specifically the politics of kinship conflicts, which I refer as a “Game of Thrones”, proves useful in comprehending local development dynamics. In Senegal, a predominantly Muslim country in francophone West Africa, there is a strongly embedded system of schools dating from the precolonial period dedicated to teaching the Qur’an. While this education still holds important social value, there is also local demand for improvement in the conditions of these schools, and integration of other subjects like Arabic and French literacy. Since 2000, the government, UNICEF and other NGOs have been engaged in policies of Islamic education reform to meet these needs. During my fieldwork in one village in 2011-2012 I could see no evidence of these reforms despite over a decade of implementation. Trying to understand why, I found that some Muslim leaders resist reforms to their schools seeing it as neo-colonial intervention. However, this justification masks how their positions also reflect personal interests and power struggles linked to 1) kinship conflicts around inheritance, and 2) family-based networks of patronage with local and national politicians. This application of anthropological tools to grasp the local reception of school reform development projects is useful for students of international education, as well as applied anthropology, and development studies more generally.

During her time at Sussex since 2006, Anneke has bounced between registration at IDS, and the departments of education and development studies, before finally settling on anthropology. Insights from all these disciplines have informed her approach to her PhD. Currently writing up her thesis, she has spent 18 months researching how inhabitants of one village in northern Senegal experience the relationship between secular state schools and Islamic education. She tries to balance the academic theory with practical involvement with NGO The Grandmother Project, working on girls’ and women’s health and education in southern Senegal.

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