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by Mary Soderstrom

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Monday, 23 September 2013

Siege in Nairobi: Why We Support the Aga Khan Foundation

Twelve years ago this week I was getting ready to go to East Africa to research my novel The Violets of Usambara. I've been thinking of that sadly this weekend as I followed the siege of a shopping centre in Nairobi.  As it happened, I spent a couple of days in that city, both at the beginning and the end of my trip, and I was able to look around a bit.  Most interesting, but that's another story.

What I kept turning to this time was the description of the Shabab, the besiegers, as a militant Islamist group, one of several now operating in Africa.  That was not the brand of Islam that I saw  in Tanzania, next door to Kenya.  In several villages I saw schools run by the Aga Khan Foundation, the charitable organization of the Ismaili branch of Islam,  where girls and boys studied and played together.  There were clinics too, and mother-child health programs. They appeared to be well-run, grass roots organizations without the proselytizing mission that most of the NGOs I saw that were run by Christian groups.

An Ismaili Muslim friend who had been born in Kenya told me about the foundation and the Ismaili brand of Islam when I got back.  Ismailis hold that if  a family can only educate one child, that child should be a girl, he said.  Looking a little further, I found that the Foundation says on its website that the four educational objectives of the programs it supports are:  "ensuring better early caring and learning environments for young children; increasing access to education; keeping children in school longer; and raising levels of academic achievement. In common with other donor agencies, the Foundation intends that girls, the very poor, and geographically remote populations should receive special attention."  (The picture is of graduates at a Aga Khan Foundation-supported secondary school in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania.)

In a world where fundamentalist Islam is finding converts and supporters in many places, an organization of moderate Muslims should be encouraged, I think.  That's why, when we figure out how much money we can donate to various groups at the end of the year, the Aga Khan Foundation is on our list.

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