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Gambian Girls Handpicked for Muslim Camps


In the small, impoverished nation of the Gambia hundreds of young girls were handpicked this summer to attend educational Islamic camps funded in part by Saudi Arabia. The camps aim to promote a conservative religious lifestyle, raising concerns among some Gambians about a growing influence of Islam in their society.

Dozens of girls sing an Islamic song at this camp just outside Banjul.

They were picked from different neighborhoods of the capital city. Some of the brightest primary, high school and university students were among those selected.

"The main goal of this youth camp for females is to inculcate in the participants Islamic religious education," said Jaimaba Dibba, the camp's organizer. "Islam covers everything. It has left no stone unturned. Islam is a way of life. We want to inculcate in the youth who are going to be the leaders of tomorrow Islamic religious education."

How to pray, read the Koran, manage the family, or even clean the house are some of the courses being taught.

One of the teachers Omar Secka says teaching Islam is important.

"It is very important because Muslims today we need all the time our religion and cannot just stand there without teaching about religion," said Omar Secka. "This is very important all over the world, and particularly in the Gambia."

Islamic teachers say provocative dressing, as well as rampant child prostitution on the fringes of the Gambia's beach tourism are some of the realities Islam can help control.

One of the girls at the camp recites about the importance of wearing the hijab, or head covering.

At least three other such camps were started in different parts of the Gambia in the past few months, funded by non-governmental organizations receiving most of their money from Saudi Arabia. The kingdom has been especially generous in contributing to Islamic teaching in sub-Saharan Africa.

Before starting classes at the camp outside Banjul, two of the girls told VOA what they were expecting.

"My expectation of the camp is to know more about the way of life of Muslim women, how Islam gives honor to women, how we should wear the veil and many things," said one.

"My expectation from this camp is to be able to read some verses from the Holy Koran and to be able to recognize Arabic script and to have more discipline in the Islamic way of life," stated the other.

The organizer, Ms. Dibba, says she hopes that, when they are finished, these girls will teach others.

"We hope that they will disseminate the idea when they go back home to their peers, [and] to their family members if they are not doing it, " she said. "We also tell them that whenever you are disseminating Islamic ideas you should do it with wisdom."

A prominent Banjul journalist, Demba Jawo, is worried, however, about the conservative Islam being taught in the schools. He, like many other social commentators in the Gambia, says this trend should be examined very closely.

"Yes it is a kind of a trend, actually it's just beginning to be evident in this country," said Demba Jawo. "It has never been the case."

He says teachers at the camps bring their ideas from other countries and import concepts that may not be suitable for the Gambia.

"We're getting a lot of Gambians going to the Arab world for education - Islamic knowledge - and when they come back, they are always eager, actually, to introduce new things here, things that they've seen in the Arab world," he said. "They have a feeling the girls, the young people in this country are actually being led astray and they feel that they should do something to reverse the trend. That is why they are coming up with all these things."

Mr. Jawo says some Gambians have expressed a concern the new Islamic teachers will help create friction between Muslim and non-Muslim communities.

"Even though, the Gambians, the majority of the people in the Gambia are Muslims, but [before] there was very little distinction between Muslims and Christians when there is a Christian feast like Christmas or other Christian feasts everybody tended to join in the feast," explained Demba Jawo.

Now, he says, the girls at the camps are being told to ignore non-Muslim celebrations.

He warns Islamic hard-liners could turn from educators into a vocal and violent political force for the establishment of Islamic law in the Gambia.

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