The Duksi is not there anymore.
Where it once stood, noisy and proud, is now a lifeless, desolate parchment of land. The abandoned Duksi (Quranic School) simmers in the oppressive heat, wishing the night breeze would come sooner to cool its weary walls. It feels empty, alone and stripped to its bare skeleton. But though the place looks forsaken, there is peace and quiet in the sound of nature. I wondered how long it has been since it heard the voices of children reciting the Quran. Or how long it has been since black ink washed into its soil. Or how long it has been since a child learned to write the Arabic alphabet in it.
I stand there, lost in thought.
I go deep into my mind to try and remember how the duksi looked, how it felt when I was a child, how it smelled back when we were children. The picture is still there- a thatched structure made of thin wooden bars and sisal leaves. It sat, almost notoriously, proudly, on this fairly large compound surrounded by a tall thorn fence. During the morning and evenings, we would sit outside while the afternoons were spent inside due to the heat. The Maalim (teacher) would sit on a wooden stool in the middle of the compound. There was a makeshift fireplace adjacent to him, which was lit when it was dark. We would gather around it, forming a circle. We would then perform the traditional chant before the learning begun:
“Maalinkeen Allah ukeen,
Maalinkiin Allah ukeen,
Inta shaffa Allah ukeen!”
“May Allah bless our Maalim,
May Allah bless your Maalim,
Those who are sick, may Allah heal!”
We would then sit down with our wooden planks (loox) and recite the verses at the top of our voices. I close my eyes and imagine how the duksi felt. The feeling of a sharp pain stinging my thigh; the Maalim’s whip landing hard and recoiling, almost snake-like. I feel its impact and its sound. I imagine the whip in mid-air, the muscles around it tightening, the veins wrapping themselves around its thick bottom, the snake tail like end arcing downwards weakly, making a hissing sound as it heads for its target, my torso. I raise my arm, hiding behind it, it acts as a shield, and the whip lands on my elbow, warping itself perfectly around it. I must have been lost in thought when it landed, or the stars.
I feel the ground beneath my feet. The soil is cold at night and hot during the day. The sand is black in colour and soft in texture. The qad (dark ink for writing) has seeped into the ground, turning its colour, as I splash my loox with water and rub the wooden surface with course sand. Beneath my feet, I feel the sand is damp, blackened and baked. I see the reflection of the sun against my loox, placed strategically on the thorn fence facing the glaring sun for it to dry off. I feel it blinding, stinging my eyes. I feel the sharp sting of the hard pointy thorn of the mathenge tree, as I pluck its leaves, and the course wooden feel of the loox as I rub the leaves against its surface, leaving it green, smooth and shiny.
I hear the sounds of the duksi- the loud, deafening recitations. I picture the veins popping from the children’s necks, perfectly forming words, loud words, battle cries almost. I hear the babies crying in the distance, and the sound of mothers laughing about something, as they prepare food for their children.
“Aress! Haha. There you are!” A familiar voice cuts the morning’s sombre silence, jolting me back to reality.
I turn around, and there is Ilka. He grins sheepishly, just like when we were children. He was the most stubborn, troublesome child of our duksi. Ilka was short and dark, and has soft shiny curly hair and white teeth. Ilka’s real name is Omar but the nickname “Ilka” (which means “teeth” in Somali) has stuck with him. The Maalim used to say his teeth were “as white as fresh camel milk served in a dark wooden bowl.” I greet him. We had spoken a few days earlier and agreed to meet here. Ilka is holding his four-year-old son, Khalid, by the hand. .
“It’s too bad, isn’t it?” I remark, a while later, as my eyes settle on the Duksi, or at least where it used to be.
“It’s too bad, we had lots of memories here,” Ilka says, as we walk into the Duksi through the gap in the fence. Little Khalid runs in before us, excited.
“This is where we used to sit. Remember this spot? This was our corner.” I tell Ilka. “And that is the mathenge tree we used to get leaves from. And this is the spot where Ali wrestled the Maalim. Do you remember?”
“Aaaah! Who can forget that fight? Ha ha!” Ilka laughs, as we sit down on a parting in the middle of the compound. “It was the highlight of our Duksi years. Ali was a legend. I remember how he came to Duksi that morning after a two-week absence and told the Maalim that he had been hospitalized for malaria. The Maalim had believed his story until Mama Aslimade a run for it, or at least he tried! But the Maalim was too fast for him. I couldn’t believe my eyes. The commotion, they were running all over us. He was bigger than the Maalim. I have to admit I was rooting for him to take the Maalim down. Ha ha.”
“To avenge us for all the beating,” I interject. “But the Maalim pinned him down and gave him a proper beating. But it was a narrow escape.”
“Proper caning. I think that was Maalim’s masterpiece,” Ilka remarks.
“Poor Ali, he never missed Duksi after that, even when he was actually sick!” I quip.
We sit there for a long time, soaking in the echoing memories of what seems like many lifetimes ago. We talk about the adventures we had here, the games we played, albeit without permission, the rivalries we had with the children of other Duksis, the nights sat under dark starry nights, and the days spent under a sun that did not feel as unforgiving as it does now.
We reminisce about the enchanting days of childhood, ephemeral as it was, when we had time and didn’t know the temptations of nostalgia. We are sitting at the heart of our childhood, the roots of our being, and the security of our private enclave where we could be free. This is probably where we all lost our first tooth. It was perhaps where we learned our first lessons about life. There were good times, and bad times and even worse times. But there was always an adventure and excitement and mischief and rivalry. But somehow I feel like a stranger in a place I used to know so well.
A lot has changed in Garissa over the last decade. Walking through the streets of Garissa town, I could see the new breed of educational institutions that seem to be taking root- the private integrated schools. In the old days, there were Duksis, secular schools and madrasas; each on its own, independent. Within every few blocks in Garissa, there is a new private integrated school. These schools combine Islamic and secular education so that children can learn both the religious education in one school.
In an effort towards the attainment of education for all (EFA) and millennium development goals (MDGs), the Kenyan government and non-governmental organizations have been involved in initiatives that support local communities in the region to integrate Qur’anic schools into secular school curriculum to give children a balanced education. There has been put forth a strong case for the formalization of this informal education system to ensure harmonization of curricula and equity in education opportunities in some of the less resourced Qur’anic schools. In January 2013, The Basic Education Act, 2013 was passed. The new law effectively integrated Islamic religious schools like the Madrassa and Duksi into Kenya’s formal education system. Although they are expensive and out of reach for less well-off families, the new integrated system is likely to replace the Duksi, if it has already not done so, at least in its strict traditional sense, at least in the urban setting.
Despite its declining influence, the Duksi has always occupied a very significant place in the Muslim fraternity and is considered a source of religious inspiration that can assist in the spiritual and sound moral upbringing of learners. Somali families have, for centuries, taught their children in the traditional pastoralist way of life. So the Duksi is cultural- it is quintessentially Somali. As a result, the new crop of schools will never be able to truly take its place.
As I look at the desolate remains of our childhood, I realize that perhaps knowing that there are children still going to this Duksi would have been consoling to us. I also realize that we cannot hold on to the Duksi forever; but some things, once known, can never be lost. Perhaps coming back here we’ve been seeking, blindly seeking for something that has remained with us all this time, though maybe not in the way we expected. I wonder whether this is more than the death of one Duksi but rather the start of the impending demise of an institution, or the birth of a new future. I wonder if the hand of time, in its ceaseless flow, will sweep it into oblivion. There is suffering here, in the golden gloom of the past, but also the bright-coloured hope of new beginnings.