About 150 youngsters aged between two and 15 years are chatting in small groups in the Dougoy neighborhood at the heart of Maroua, the regional capital of Cameroon’s Far North Region.
AhlulBayt News Agency - About 150 youngsters aged between two and 15 years are chatting in small groups in the Dougoy neighborhood at the heart of Maroua, the regional capital of Cameroon’s Far North Region.
Some learn Arabic on wooden slates while others recite verses from the Quran. Teachers pass from group to group to supervise.
These youngsters are attending Quranic schools, like other 600 similar facilities in the region, according to a census conducted in 2015 by local authorities.
Every day they receive two hours of Quran education, either in the morning or afternoon.
Sheikh Ibrahim, a teacher at Dougoy Quranic school told Anadolu Agency about the changes which have been designed to keep children away from extremist interpretations of Islam:
"Since 2015, all Quranic school teachers have to encourage children to also attend normal schools. This is why the courses last two hours: so that the children should also have time to attend another school in order to increase their knowledge.”
These changes first occurred in December 2014 after a Boko Haram training center disguised as a Quranic school was dismantled by the region’s security and administrative officials.
The Boko Haram terrorist group is at the heart of a violent insurgency which has ravaged parts of Africa since 2009. Posing as an Islamic group which rejected government corruption and Western values, the organization went on to conduct a large-scale campaign of violence.
At the height of its power in 2014, the group controlled a territory the size of Belgium and kidnapped thousands of people in raids on local communities.
The Cameroonian school closed by the state hosted over 84 youngsters aged between eight and 15. The children were being brainwashed and trained as militants by Boko Haram recruiters who, in the eyes of the villagers, were teachers of the Quran.
Since then, regional authorities have made various changes concerning the functioning of Quranic schools, to fight against the indoctrination of children by Boko Haram.
Cameroon’s Far North Region has the lowest literacy rate in the country, at only 40 percent from a national average of just over 71 percent.
Sheikh Mamoud Ali, an imam who acts as a coordinator for Quranic schools in the region, said low levels of education is one of the causes of youth unemployment, which exposes them to Boko Haram indoctrination and financial inducements to join its ranks.
The imam further explained that each child in the school is well-known to the teachers: "We know where they come from and who their parents are. After learning, the children go home and the school is empty.”
This decision was made for the children to be educated by their parents and to minimize indoctrination, so that the pupils would not fall into the hands of fake Quranic teachers.
"It was found that in some Quranic schools, teachers traveled from town to town with children of unknown origin. These children were sent to the streets to become beggars," Sheikh Ali adds. "These are the type of kids that Boko Haram uses as suicide bombers or as information agents.”
In 2015, the region closed about 70 Islamic schools. Ali adds that they also barred radical teachers.
At the same time it was also decided that no Quran instructor would be paid for teaching the religious text.
"Teaching the Quran is now free work. We do it for God. We are not paid. I have a sewing workshop. It is sewing that feeds me,” Sheikh Ibrahim says.
While it is still too early to assess the practical results of these measures, various Quranic teachers met in Maroua by Anadolu Agency said that the children are now better controlled and in better hands.
"All the suspected child suicide bombers that we have intercepted since a year come from elsewhere. None from this region. This means that it becomes increasingly difficult to indoctrinate our children,” Sheikh Ali said.
Quranic school attendance has also increased. "Parents are reassured because they know their children are in good hands. The fact that the class schedules have been rearranged is a plus. The children do not have to choose between the Quranic and normal school. They can attend both of them,” concluded Sheikh Ibrahim.