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Encountering the self as a Black Muslim African Woman in Cambridge

This week, I attended a talk on black Muslims entitled “Beyond Bilal” – Bilal with reference to the first Muezzin of Islam, a black man who grew up as a slave in Mecca. To say that this talk filled my heart and elevated my spirits is an understatement. Being a Black African Muslim Woman in a place like Cambridge can be challenging – always navigating around edges and pushing back at narratives from the margins. It is also a privileged space to be because when with seating at the margin comes the opportunity to grow constantly and to expand worlds, yours and others. This is where I seat.

The talk “Beyond Bilal: Black History in Islam” by Mustafa Briggs was one of the first talks in my three (3) as a student at the University of Cambridge where I saw myself represented in my fullness, a Black Muslim African Woman whose father is from Boboye and the mother with roots cast, across the Sahel, as wide as the Sokoto Caliphate – one that drew its progressive policies on women from Islamic teachings brought to that context by the teaching of Nana Asma’u. This does not diminish the power and value in (de)construction that other talks have provided. However, with identities as intertwined and as complex as the ones I embody, few “Venn Diagrams” bring to life the colourful and unique experiences, perspectives, insights, “manques”, and ideas. The “Venn Diagram” is in a never-ending quest for layers upon layers – that is, it’s very nature.

I learned so much from Mustafa Briggs’ two-hour lecture. And to me as a researcher, learning is deeply intertwined with “quest”, a genuine search for something that becomes sweeter with the search despite the sweat. Here are a few things that have rekindled my hope and belief in the power of genuine research and inquiry to humanise, to validate, to elevate, and to acknowledge.

Briggs’ work acknowledged the invaluable contributions of Black people in building Islam and the Islamic identity in a contemporary context of racism, classism, and imagined hierarchies amongst ad between Muslims, particularly towards their black brothers and sisters. Needless to cite examples here – if you need examples, talk a Black Muslim or ask google. Race sadly matters in a religion that has draws its fundaments on elevating all humanity. In his final sermon in the year 632, the Prophet Mohammed (SAW) said,

All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over black nor does a black have any superiority over a white except by piety and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood. Nothing shall be legitimate to a Muslim which belongs to a fellow Muslim unless it was given freely and willingly. Do not, therefore, do injustice to yourselves.

It is a beautiful message that we need to hear more and more because it is more relevant today than ever before. There is a history of scholarship created, beautified and solidified by Black Muslims and communities – this should be known as a given but it is not – especially when listening to some of the discourse around “Islam” or what is commonly referred to as the “Muslim World”. By serendipity, “Beyond Bilal” led me to “Beyond Timbuktu” by Professor Ousmane Oumar Kane. These “beyond”s are a call to demystify and deconstruct our default references when thinking about the contribution of Africans, particularly Black Africans, in building the identities of the religion of Islam. It is a call to recognise and see those voices that are overshadowed, overlooked, silenced, or marginalised in a discourse that has failed to validate certain voices.

It was was a walk down memory lane, an invitation into re-imagined futures, a whisper unto the crowns over the head of the Muslim black African woman, cornrows or headscarf or Afro, a call for “not settling” – one that ultimately led to the Cambridge UL to contemplate the portraits of Black Cantabs pioneers who have left their marks on the world or are redefining spaces they find themselves into or are recreating new spaces. It is a continuation but also a finality in the humbling quest for wholeness.

Thank you to the Islamic Society organising this talk.


There is “no data” in Africa… really?!

This sentence drives me crazy, and I have heard it from many researchers – Africans and non-Africans alike. I recognise and acknowledge many of the challenges related to compiling, accessing, and storing (digitally and manuscripts) data in many African countries. These challenges must be addressed so that we do not lose valuable contribution to world’s history, mathematics, economics, etc. The challenges must be addressed so that knowledge seating at the periphery could also become mainstream.

During my doctoral research, I have conducted some work in the national archives of the country and found “treasures” that debunk the overly repeated notion, “there is no data in Africa”. These findings further question the validity of the transactional nature of some fieldwork, especially in non-western contexts. How can you find data (in any form) when some fieldwork lasts at times lasts one or two weeks? There is a wealth of data, often unexplored or seating at the periphery of conventional sources of knowledge. Some of the most reliable sources of information are the libraries within old traditional palaces where the works of the likes of Nana Asmau laid “dormant” to the rest of the world until uncovered by contemporary scholars.

The sad truth is that when repeated, this notion about the unavailability of data becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, which impacts what we think we know and how we engage with certain places. This impacts even the very nature of what we teach and learn. If enough researchers repeat “there is no data in Niger”, for instance, then surely, it becomes acceptable when certain extrapolations are made… even if untrue.

Researchers need to stop being lazy and stop perpetuating single narratives about research in Africa based on their inability to search deeply, patiently, and differently. Furthermore, this is one reason why we need people with personal stakes to also research these issues because they would (hopefully) do it with their whole heart, settling for nothing but the very best, searching until they find (or at least try really hard), being patient with the challenges however long it takes…

To all researchers, especially venturing in a context that is not your own, before you utter the infamous “there is no data in [cite any African country]“, ask yourself some critical questions: Have I looked long enough? Have I looked in the right places? Did I ask the right people? Have I asked local researchers? Have I looked outside of what is usually considered a “source”? Am I doing justice to this community that has existed for centuries when I dismiss their forms of creating knowledge by saying ‘there is no data’? In what language(s) did I look for that data?


Niger Archives

I took this photo from a file in Niger’s national archives. In 1920, there were 455 students in total in the entire country; 712 students in 1921. In 2010, there were 1,554,102 students in primary schools alone.



The cost of women’s leadership… in Niger

Some of the changes that I see in Niger are encouraging. In recent years, an increasing number of women, young and old, are making a valuable contribution to the construction of our country, in different fields in public sphere. However, everything is far from perfect as many challenges remain. Any honest discussion with some of these women brings to light fears and sacrifices they have had to endure in a society that prescribes often rigid gender roles.

No human being succeeds alone. There is a common adage that says, “Behind every great man there is a great woman – behind every great man there is a great woman”. A telling example is the Obama couple where Michelle put her full weight behind her husband’s ambitions, not without major sacrifices of her own. She knew she had to be the perfect woman for her husband to gain power in a society that still has deep misogynistic roots (Hillary Clinton knows something about it). This adage is especially true for women who aspire to leadership positions, especially in Africa. Behind every great woman is a great man or a man who could not handle it and missed out on growth. How many African men, or in this case Nigerien men, would be ready to support their partner in their professional development? How many will do it without “punishing” the woman in one way or another? How many would do it without forcing her to massage their ego, sitting on their own insecurities?

Many African women leaders suffer: more than any other, they find themselves in situations that require impossible choices and constraints they must assume … Those who ignore these constraints choose to live in “social isolation” by default. We must teach our brothers and sons that their greatness does not lie in the suppression of their partner’s dreams – quite the contrary. The lack of active support is also a suppression because no one succeeds alone. Models exist – known or hidden, historical or current. Here in Cambridge, a friend from another country had an exceptional scholarship to do her doctorate – her husband took a momentary leave to come and support her by keeping the children, still small. When I tell her story in Niger, people ask if her husband is normal or if he is white. It is joint sacrifices and compromises that make a balanced and fulfilling professional success for the individuals who make up this family. It is very common to see women who follow their husbands for study, for positions outside, etc. But a woman, in general, even tries not to “aspire” to many opportunities for fear of …. (complete with what you already know)

For those who would like to build a family one day while having personal aspirations that go beyond traditional roles, one of the most important choices is choosing one’s partner. Conference after conference, discussions after discussion, women who are older, who have managed to combine family life and exceptional career, or who admit to having failed in one or the other explain that the key lies in the type of support that we have (or do not have) at home. When work challenges you, when your drive to have a significant impact asks for your commitment as a young Black African woman, what do you find at home? A partner who relieves you in tasks and supports you or someone whose support does not go beyond rhetoric? A partner who will be happy to see you bury your dreams or someone who will not be afraid to make sacrifices for your dreams are as valid as his own? Certainly, there is never any guarantee, but it is one of the innumerable unknowns that the Nigerien woman who wants to see her professional dreams flourish juggles with. And for those who like mathematics (like me), we know that in a multivariate equation, interdependence is key.

I salute these Nigerien women leaders who, in their moment of calm, find themselves in the changes they have brought about despite the challenges; I salute these women who have challenged social norms that were thought to be irremovable; I salute these women who, in their fight, have taken a lot of blows and get up defeat after defeat; I salute these women who have been called all sorts of names, simply because they also wanted to build their community and their country in addition to the important work they do in their homes; I greet those women too, who felt obliged to bury their dreams. Leadership is also transmitting one’s dreams, in our struggle, our silences, and our sacrifices, to future generations.

Les coûts du leadership féminin en Afrique… au Niger

Je suis fière de voir les changements qui sont en train de s’opérer dans nos sociétés nigériennes. Tout est loin d’être parfait – d’ailleurs beaucoup de défis restent à relever. Mais le constat que j’ai fait depuis quelques années est qu’il y a de plus en plus de femmes, jeunes tout comme plus âgées, qui apportent leur valable contribution à la construction de notre pays, dans différents domaines. Mais toute discussion honnête avec ces femmes font ressortir des craintes et des sacrifices dans une société qui leur prescrit des rôles, souvent rigides.

Aucun être humain ne réussit seul. Il y a un adage commun qui dit, « Behind every great man is a great woman – derrière tout grand homme il y a une grande femme ». Un exemple parlant est le couple Obama où Michelle a dû mettre ses ambitions de côté pour faire briller celles de son mari. Elle savait qu’elle devait être la femme parfaite pour que son mari puisse accéder au pouvoir dans une société qui a des racines misogynes encore profondes (Hillary Clinton en sait quelque chose). Cet adage est d’autant plus vrai pour les femmes qui aspirent à des positions de leadership, surtout en Afrique. Behind every great woman is a great man or a man who could not handle it and missed out on growth. Combien d’hommes africains, ou dans notre cas nigériens, seront prêts à soutenir leur partenaire dans leur épanouissement professionnel ? Combien le feront sans « punir » la femme d’une manière ou d’une autre ? Combien le feraient sans la forcer à masser leur ego, assis sur leur propre insécurité ?

Beaucoup de femmes “leaders” Africaines souffrent : plus que toute autre, elles se retrouvent dans des situations qui exigent des choix impossibles et des contraintes qu’elles doivent assumer… Celles qui décident de faire fi de ces contraintes sociales choisissent par défaut de vivre en isolation. Nous devons apprendre à nos frères et nos fils que leur grandeur ne réside pas dans la suppression des rêves de leur partenaire – tout au contraire… et le manque de soutien actif est aussi une suppression car personne ne réussit seul. Les modèles existent – connus ou cachés, historiques ou actuels. Ici à Cambridge, une amie d’un autre pays a eu une bourse exceptionnelle pour faire son doctorat – son mari a pris un départ momentané pour venir la soutenir en gardant les enfants, encore petits. Quand je raconte son histoire au Niger, les gens demandent si son mari est normal ou s’il est blanc. C’est des sacrifices incroyables qui font une réussite professionnelle équilibrée et épanouie pour les individus qui forment cette famille. C’est très fréquent de voir des femmes qui suivent leur époux pour des etudes, pour des positions à l’extérieur, etc. Mais une femme, en général, essaye même de ne pas « aspirer » à beaucoup d’opportunités de peur de…. (compléter par ce que vous savez déjà)

Pour celles qui aimeraient composer une famille un jour tout en ayant des aspirations personnelles qui dépassent les rôles traditionnels, un des choix les plus importants est le choix de son partenaire. Conférence après conférence, discussions après discussions, les femmes qui sont plus âgées, qui ont réussi a combiner vie de famille et carrière exceptionnelle, ou qui avouent avoir échoué dans l’un ou l’autre expliquent que la clé réside dans le type de soutien que nous avons (ou pas) à la maison. Quand le monde du travail te secoue de défis, quand être femme noire Africaine et jeune qui aspire à avoir un impact conséquent dans sa communauté demande ton engagement, que retrouves tu à la maison? Un partenaire qui te soulage dans les tâches et te soutient ou bien quelqu’un dont le soutien ne dépasse pas la rhétorique? Un partenaire qui sera content de te voir enterrer tes rêves ou bien quelqu’un qui n’aura pas peur de faire des sacrifices pour tes rêves soient aussi valides que les siens? Certes ceci n’est pas la garantie mais c’est une des inconnues innombrables avec lesquelles jongle la femme nigérienne qui veut voir ses rêves professionnels fleurir. Et pour ceux qui aiment les mathématiques (comme moi), on sait que dans une équation à plusieurs variables, l’interdépendance est une nécessité.

Je salue ces femmes nigériennes leaders qui dans leur moment de calme se retrouvent dans le type de changement qu’elles auraient apporté malgré les défis ; je salue ces femmes qui ont défié des normes sociales qu’on pensait inamovibles ; je salue ces femmes qui, dans leur combat, ont pris beaucoup de coups et se relèvent défaite après défaite ; je salue ces femmes qui ont été appelées par tous les noms, tout simplement parce qu’elles voulaient aussi valablement construire leur communauté et leur pays en plus du travail important qu’elles tiennent dans leur foyer ; je salue ces femmes aussi qui se sont senti dans l’obligation, avec des regrets peu exprimées refoulés naturalisés, d’enterrer leur rêve. Le leadership, c’est aussi transmettre ses rêves, dans notre combat, nos silences, et nos sacrifices, aux générations futures.


L’éducation dans la langue maternelle est-elle une solution miracle? (1)

De nombreux pays ont des problèmes sérieux dans leur secteur éducatif – de l’accès à la qualité …. Au Niger, les taux bruts de scolarisation à l’école primaire sont de 72,5% et même plus bas pour les filles (66,8%). Pourtant, même si les élèves entrent en plus grand nombre dans les écoles, la qualité de l’apprentissage est faible – beaucoup atteignent le CM2 avec un niveau du CP2, incapables de lire ou même d’écrire leur propre nom. Les pays se tournent vers l’éducation dans la langue maternelle comme un moyen de relever le défi de la «qualité» et d’utiliser ce qui reste l’un des principes les plus fondamentaux de la pédagogie, «passer du familier au nouveau». Certains considèrent même cela comme la dernière frontière dans les politiques éducatives pour les pays africains – enseigner aux enfants dans leur langue maternelle et l’apprentissage suivrait … mais est-ce toujours vrai?

Des recherches et expérimentations au Niger prouvent que l’éducation en langue maternelle, lorsqu’elle est bien faite, pourrait être un outil puissant pour transmettre des connaissances et raviver les esprits des enfants. Une expérimentation commencée en 1973 (“écoles expérimentales”) a été revue et a montré des résultats remarquables dans le passé. Des pays comme la Tanzanie ont été encore plus révolutionnaires – l’enseignement primaire est en KiSwahili – malgré la résistance de certains parents qui voient dans la langue «étrangère» une échelle pour la mobilité sociale. Au-delà des résultats d’apprentissage immédiats, ce que la langue maternelle fait, c’est qu’elle réifie l’importance de cette langue dans son contexte et la valide comme moyen d’apprentissage. Si l’introduction des langues maternelles peut garder les enfants à l’école plus longtemps avec de meilleurs résultats, alors cela devient une question de justice sociale.

L’éducation en langue maternelle n’est pas une solution miracle … En fait, si elle est mal faite, elle produit des résultats catastrophiques. Certains résultats préliminaires de mes recherches en cours, de mes observations et des tests d’aptitudes dans les écoles bilingues au Niger montrent des résultats d’apprentissage peu rejoignants. Une étude récente menée dans 10 pays africains montre que 91,5% et 92,4% des enfants nigériens au CM2 n’atteignent pas le minimum de «compétences requises» en lecture et en mathématiques respectivement (voir le tableau ci-dessous, PASEC 2016). Comme quelque chose qui semble être un recours désespéré pour relever les défis d’une population scolarisable en croissance rapide (le Niger a la population qui croît le plus rapidement dans le monde), le pays a adopté une éducation bilingue dans les écoles primaires publiques. Cela sera déployé progressivement et est déjà mis en œuvre dans 5000 écoles à travers le pays. Cela pourrait fonctionner, si le suivi et la mise en œuvre sont bien faits … et pourrait en fait ouvrir des possibilités d’apprentissage pour les élèves, laissés en marge.

Des études menées dans diverses régions d’Afrique dans un ouvrage intitulé “Optimisation de l’apprentissage, de l’éducation et de l’édition en Afrique: le facteur linguistique” montrent que si l’éducation en langue maternelle favorise l’apprentissage, elle peut avoir des effets désastreux si la transition vers la seconde langue est faite trop tôt ou faite de manière inadéquate. Mes recherches doctorales montrent des résultats similaires. Les élèves des écoles bilingues ont des résultats inférieurs à ceux de leurs pairs dans les écoles «classiques» en calcul et en lecture. Cela ne veut pas dire que l’éducation bilingue ne doit pas être faite. Cependant, si nous devons nous engager sur cette voie, il faut que ce soit bien fait. Sur la base de ce que j’ai vu sur le terrain, il y a beaucoup à faire pour produire le type de changements positifs que nous espérons.



Figure from PASEC (2016). PASEC2014 – Performances du système éducatif nigérien : Compétences et facteurs de réussite au primaire. PASEC, CONFEMEN, Dakar. 


Is education in mother-tongue a silver bullet? (1)

Many countries have serious issues in their educational sector – from access to quality…. In Niger, gross enrolment rates at the primary school level are 72.5% and even lower  for girls (66.8%). Yet even as students enter schools in greater number, the quality of learning is low – many reach 6th grade with a 2nd grade level, unable to read or even write their own names. Countries are turning to mother-tongue education as a means to tackle the ‘quality’ challenge and use what remains one of the most basic principles of pedagogy, “going from the familiar to the new and the unfamiliar”. Some even view this as the last frontier in educational policy in African countries – teach children in their mother-tongue and learning would follow… but is this always true?

Recent fieldwork in Niger proves that mother-tongue education when done right could be a powerful tool to impart knowledge and rekindle minds. An experimentation started in 1973 under “ecoles experimentales” has been reviewed and has consistently shown remarkable results in the past. Countries like Tanzania have been even more revolutionary – primary education is in KiSwahili – despite resistance from some parents who view in the “foreign” language as a ladder for social mobility. Beyond the immediate learning outcomes, what language in mother-tongue does is that it reifies the importance of that language in its context and validates it as a means for the quest of learning. If introducing mother-tongues could keep children in school longer with better outcomes, then it becomes a matter of social justice. But does it always?

Mother-tongue education is not a silver bullet… In fact, if done ‘badly’ it can severely backfire. Some preliminary results from my ongoing research, observations and (non)cognitive skills tests in the bilingual schools in Niger show abysmal learning outcomes. A recent study done across 10 African countries shows that 91.5% and 92.4% of Nigerien children in 6th grade did not reach the minimum “required competency and skills” in reading and math respectively (see Table below, PASEC 2016). As something that seems like a desperate last resort to meet the challenges of a fast growing school population (Niger has the fastest growing population in the world), the country has adopted bilingual education in public primary schools. This will be rolled out gradually and is already effective in 5000 schools across the country. It could work, if done well… and could in fact open up learning opportunities for underserved students, left at the margin of learning.

Studies in various parts of Africa compiled in a rich book entitled “Optimising Learning, Education and Publishing in Africa: The Language Factor” shows that while mother-tongue education favours learning, it could have disastrous effect when the transition to the other language (in the case, French) is done too early or done in an inadequate manner. My PhD research shows similar results. Students in bilingual schools perform poorly and less than their peers in “conventional” schools in numeracy and literacy. This is not to say that bilingual education must not be done. However, if we are to embark on that road, it has to be done right. Based on what I have seen on the ground, there is much to be done to produce the type of positive changes we are hoping for.



Figure from PASEC (2016). PASEC2014 – Performances du système éducatif nigérien : Compétences et facteurs de réussite au primaire. PASEC, CONFEMEN, Dakar. 

200 days since Nguelewa… Do all lives matter equally?

Today marks 200 days since 39 young women and girls were kidnapped by Boko Haram militants in the village of Nguelewa in the region of Diffa in Niger. It was the first Boko Haram mass kidnapping in Niger. It is a tragedy that 39 women and girls would be violently removed from their families for an uncertain fate, probably ending up as slaves, abused sold or married off by force. What is also tragic is the silence surrounding the disappearance of these women in international as well national media. All those lives that disappeared, are they not human? Does one need to be French, American, Norwegian or a schoolgirl to garner international outcry when you disappear? An Amnesty International report found that in the span of a year (2014-2015), over 2,000 women and girls have been abducted. I could not find current numbers on how many have been kidnapped since the conflict started in the early 2000s. This testifies of the sheer difficulties associated with tracking who has been kidnapped and who has returned when so many of these movements go unheard. We rarely hear about them – they are women and girls (but also men and boys) from villages spread across the Sahel region and at the margin.

I recently attended an interesting talk by a friend and colleague from Adamawa State (Nigeria). She argues that Boko Haram casualties in schools is not a bi-product of the crisis; in fact, schools, as sites, are at the heart of the struggle. When looking at the outcry garnered by the kidnapping of over 200 girls in Chibok, I couldn’t have agreed more with her. Militants know that they make a clear statement, not only about their ideology but also about their power, when girls in school are involved. However, when the group wants to grow its ranks and make revenues, they simply kidnap women whose lives have institutionally been left at the margin of their societies. Women and girls in rural areas are often the poorest, the least educated (speaking here about formal educated), and the least embedded in formal political processes. They are also the ones most affected by the lack of basic services from health to education and water access. Therefore, when they disappear, it shakes their families, their villages…. but sadly, not more than that. The multiple marginalisations they face in their daily lives and the institutional inequalities they endure daily translate into a deafening silence when their lives are curtailed forever.

It is true that Security renders any analysis much more complex because security concerns are so dynamic and therefore often unpredictable. There are large scale efforts such the newly formed UN-backed G5 Sahel Force involving Burkina Faso, Chad, Mali, Niger, and Mauritania (like you, I was shocked that like Nigeria was not part of the ‘GX’ Sahel Force…. but that’s a topic for another day). However as many experts point out, these military efforts must be matched with social development programmes and most importantly with creating a counter-narrative to militant groups with speech, action and real alternatives.

If women are being kidnapped, enough men, especially young men, are joining in the ranks of these groups swayed, for some, by their targeted messages or ideology but most because the grips of poverty are so dire on their daily lives and future prospects that they see joining a militant group that pays them a regular income as the only alternative. In a way, some of the forces leading African youth to pay significant amount of money on an uncertain journey on through the Sahara desert to the shores of Italy or Spain are similar forces throwing them into the hands of militant groups: poverty and lost hope that they can “make it” there.

While I am cognisant of the fact that the issues will not be solved on a one-to-one or village-to-village or even country-to-country basis, when such tragedies happen, when 39 lives (and with them families) will never be the same again, our collective responsibility is to never forget the ones who have gone and break this politics of silence when certain African lives suffer. None of these women will read this, but someone in their family might and must know that their lost ones are ours too. #JeSuisNguelewa



Why has Chibok captured the imagination of the world while the women and girls of Ngualewa seem lost in a whisper of demands by the relatively small Nigerien twitter community?