Escaping militant Islam in Eastleigh

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Escaping militant Islam in Eastleigh

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In the heart of a seemingly hopeless ghetto is a school that is saving lives

Source: TeachandLearn/Flickr Creative Commons

Every country with large, unregulated slums uses nicknames to refer to them: Jamaica has its “shanty towns,” Brazil its favelas, or morros (“hills”), South Africa its “townships.”  In Kenya, they are known as “informal settlements,” and some of the most notorious of these are found in the eastern Nairobi suburb of Eastleigh.

Populated largely by Kenya’s Somali diaspora community, it is a hotbed of gang activity, prostitution, drugs and, increasingly in recent years, jihadist recruitment via the Somali based al-Shabaab militia. Yet, in the heart of this seemingly hopeless ghetto is a school that is saving lives. The Maina Wanjigi Secondary School in Eastleigh is offering its young charges an opportunity to escape from the desperation that drives many into the hands of the militia. Although lacking funds, the school fights hard to create an environment of discipline, aspiration and unity among the suburb’s diverse youth.

The approach to the school is wrought through barely traversable roads that look more like sinkholes flooded by stinking, muddy water and open sewers.  I have been invited to attend a fundraising and prize-giving event at the school. My host, Sheikh Hassan Omari, who sits on the school‘s board, first has a meeting with the rest of the faculty. While I wait for him, I see a boy in his late teens standing outside the school gates and offer him some money to show me around his area.  His name is Hussein. A Muslim, he is one of the few indigenous Kenyans living there.

Although some sections of Eastleigh are bustling market places—with numerous stalls selling new clothes, electronics and books amid the squalor—I ask him to take me to the most deprived parts.  As we walk around, he shows me how people there eke out a living by selling things they have salvaged from landfills: ancient parts of mobile phones, pots and pans, old wires and tattered shoes.

I ask him about life in the worst parts of Eastleigh. “There is nothing here, that’s why you see all these people. They drink and take drugs to escape this, but the escape is not real.” Hussein wants the true, tangible escape of education and achievement and has aspirations to be a mechanical engineer. As we walk and talk, I only just avoid trampling a family of the filthiest ducks I have ever seen, their white feathers barely visible under layers of sticky dirt as they scavenge for food in small piles of rotting trash. We speak to other young, mostly Muslim residents of the area, and the message is overwhelmingly one of sheer desperation. “My brother, we are hungry, we have nothing except Allah,” says Abu Backar, a surprisingly well-dressed twenty-something who latches on to Hussein and me early on into our walk.

Al-Shabaab has taken full advantage of the abject conditions in which many of Kenya’s Muslims live. Hussein explains how, despite having been driven underground lately by Kenyan police counter-terrorism operations, it continues to attract many of his friends. “They take one or two quotes from the Koran, and twist them to justify killing people, Muslim and non-Muslim,” he says angrily. “They are ruining my religion.”  Along with religious “education” focused entirely on violent jihad, recruiters promise a salary of US$500 per month (around four times the national average), and a programme of support for fighters’ families once they leave for the Somali battlefield. For many young male Eastleigh residents, who are often barely literate with no steady job and no stake in their society, this is very appealing.

Around here, the motivation to join al-Shabaab is more likely to come from the need to feed one’s family than jihadist ideology. A number of activists who rehabilitate former al-Shabaab members told me that even non-Muslims are offering their services to the group. Like any regular military service in the world, the militia offers steady work and the guarantee of food and pay. The only problem is that, here in Eastleigh, the recruitment centres belong not to the Kenyan Defence Force, but exclusively to its enemy.

I assume Abu Backar would be seen as an ideal candidate: young, relatively fit, unemployed, and Muslim. “No way, brother!” he shouts, when I ask him about the lure of jihad. “Did you see what they did in Moi [a main shopping high-street in central Nairobi which was attacked with grenades in May of this year]? These are things that make us cry. Shabaab are not real Muslims, they are killing Muslims!” He is also aware that al-Shabaab rarely keep to their end of the bargain. Six former recruits told me that young men and even small boys are taken to the Somali battlefield, only to find that the promises of cash are usually empty, and deserters are executed.

Hussein and I now find ourselves in the Good Samaritan Children’s Home in the next door slum of Mathare. Why doesn’t the government help? I ask Mother Mercy, the owner. “Because there are no voter cards here,” she responds. With a group of curious toddlers in tow, she takes me on a brief tour and proudly shows me around the establishment she has managed for over 20 years. Her small compound of corrugated iron roofs covering small bedrooms housing around 60 at a time (roughly eight per bed) has saved the lives of many children during that time. She often finds babies dumped in rubbish heaps or abandoned at the door. I ask her if she receives financial donations. “Money is evil”, she tells me, clearly aware of the decades of corruption that have crippled large sections of this continent. Instead, she prefers physical donations such as livestock, and shows me the vehicle she was given by “a lovely Canadian man,” which is used to take the children to school. The time for the Maina Wanjigi event is fast approaching. Hussein and I say our goodbyes and make our way back to the large blue gates of the school.

“The government has no incentive to do anything here,” says Sheikh Hassan when we are reunited. “Even with the terrorism that is bred in the area, we have seen very little from them.”  He later shows me one of the area’s only paved streets. Incredibly, not even this was provided by the government, he says: “the people here had to build it themselves. It cost 5m shillings.”  He thinks Eastleigh is neglected “because the residents are Somali, and Muslim.” This is a view shared by almost every Muslim I meet in the area. Tensions have been building across the country between the majority-Christian government and the large Muslim population, as well as between indigenous Kenyans and the Somali diaspora community (the vast majority of government posts are held by native Kenyans).  Notwithstanding this criticism, the Kenyan government does subsidise 75–80 percent of the pupils’ school fees, aware of the importance of this investment.

Once inside I am confronted by rows of young Eastleigh students, being marched, military style, by a group of teenage cadets who also attend the school: “Left, right, left, right…abooouuuuut face!” The marching leader carries the Kenyan flag, which Sheikh Hassan tells me is used to instil a sense of national unity in a school that is three-quarters Muslim, tribally mixed and fairly evenly divided between Kenyan-Somalis and indigenous Kenyans. Discipline is clearly the order of the day, and it seems to work: one of their students was recently accepted to medical school in Turkey, while a number are off to domestic and foreign universities.

The principal, Zahura Rajab-Ali, is a physically imposing Kenyan Muslim woman whose strictness is betrayed only by her soft eyes and comforting smile.  She speaks with pride about being able to offer the students practical knowledge and skills that they can use alongside an academic syllabus offering Christian and Islamic studies for all of the students. “Many of them need practical subjects,” she says. “When they do things with their hands, they really like it.” She is determined to keep the students busy: “We teach them to farm, and grow their own things—when they plant a tree, it gives them something to be proud of; when they see it grow, they become very excited.”

The young man who earned a scholarship to study medicine in Turkey is understandably the hero of the hour. Rajab-Ali tells me how she came across an advertisement for the placement, and brought him to the office to apply online. “For us, to have somebody go to do medicine”—she stops and smiles—“it is a big achievement because this is a child who has grown up in Eastleigh, with all the challenges of Eastleigh. But he was a very disciplined student.”

The event gets under way three hours after the scheduled time. (Sheikh Hassan explains to me that I must get used to “Africa time.”)  After some motivational speeches by, among others, an official from the Kenyan ministry of education and the CEO of the Kenyan Literature Bureau, which provides the school with textbooks, I help to hand out the prizes.  The children line up excitedly to receive their gifts of books and clothes; Sheikh Hassan tells me this is aimed at rewarding them not only for academic achievement but for staying the course and not disappearing into the slums mid-way through the semester. Then comes the impromptu dancing session to wrap up proceedings. My attempts to avoid the inevitable invitation are thwarted by one of the students. She drags me into the circle to the uproarious amusement of the onlooking students, and before I know it I am breaking it down with the principal, along with most of the staff.

Many of the students are either orphans, or supported by the remittances sent by parents living abroad. “Most of them live in the slums, without their parents, and about four or five to a room,” I am told by Pastor Martin, one of the counsellors at the school. As he says this, it suddenly occurs to me how small the parents’ seating area is for the event. He speaks to kids who have experienced traumas he cannot bring himself to describe.  “Some of these kids, you would not recognise them if you saw them outside school. You would be scared of them—I’m scared of them.”  He, like Principal Rajab-Ali, wants to see boarding facilities on the school grounds, though the 2m Kenyan shillings required to achieve this makes it a distant objective.

Many of the children seem to crave the order and discipline which their lives have for so long been without. I stop one of the senior-looking cadets—his name is Yusuf—and ask him how the uniform feels. “I love it!” he exclaims. “It gives me purpose and ambition, and makes me proud.”  He savours every moment he is able to stay within the safe confines of the school grounds, and is dismayed at having to go back to the slum every night.

Sheikh Hassan, a vocal critic of the growing Saudi-Wahhabi inspired jihadist movement in the country, oversees the Islamic studies classes. He, along with a number of other anti-extremist Sheikhs, ensures that the syllabus for Islamic studies is not, as it is in many African countries, taught with textbooks supplied by the Saudi ministry of education. The focus is on shared Kenyan values and religious co-operation. “Look around you,” he says, pointing to groups of students now playing in the grounds after the event. “Can you tell which one is Muslim and which is Christian?”  Apart from some girls with headscarves, I cannot.  He explains to me that the school seeks to instil values that make the children resilient to the sectarian messages used by extremists to recruit cannon-fodder for the front lines in Somalia.

In Kenya, crime and Islamic extremism continue to thrive. An increase in domestic terrorism appears very likely. In institutions like Maina Wanjigi, the government may find the best possible blueprint for a response, and groups like al-Shabaab may find their most formidable enemy yet.

For more on Maina Wanjigi Secondary School, and to enquire about donating, please click here.

For more on the Good Samaritan Children’s Home, click here

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Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens

Alexander Meleagrou-Hitchens is a Research Fellow at the International Centre for the Study of Radicalisation, King's College, London where he is also a PhD candidate. 

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