An untold African story

I had the privilege of traveling to Africa recently. It was somewhat a whirlwind tour of 4 countries – South Africa, Tanzania (including Zanzibar), Kenya and Ethiopia. It was full of many surprises. I hope to share some of my thoughts and feelings over the course some words in this article.
The purpose of this journey was to discover and note the Hizmet activities (commonly referred to as the Gulen Movement in academic circles). For the uninitiated, Hizmet is a loosely connected group of individuals and NGOs inspired by the ideas and ideals of Fethullah Gulen –  a Turkish Muslim scholar and thinker. The movement’s activities span some 140 or so countries occupying an important place in the field of education, intercultural dialogue, health and relief activities. The main emphasis is a selfless approach to serving all others while personally gaining God’s pleasure.

During my visit to Horizon International School in Johannesburg , which is privately funded, I met one of the teachers. He was a local young man who happened to also be a graduate of the same school to which he was now a teacher. His warm smile gleamed over his humble demeanor. He took me on a tour of the school. Many doors and windows were reinforced – unfortunately robbery was one of the common crimes in the area. Only the week before some new televisions were stolen. Like his peers this teacher was dedicated to his teaching, being a role model for each of his students – as were his teachers who only were teaching him a few years previously – now those same teachers were his colleagues. He had a great deal of respect for this school. It had taken him out of the slums of Soweto. Even more miraculous was his own personal family story.

He was kind enough to invite us to his home – now out of the slums. His mother was a pastor of a local 500 member Protestant church. What stood out in this household was the story of his missing siblings. He had fours brother. The two older were now in prison for murders, having received 40 year prison sentences . The two younger, (a sad irony) had been killed in gang fighting. He was the success story in the family. His mother, protective of her son, was the proudest mother in the neighbourhood. And pleased to have her son associated with and teaching at this Hizmet school.

The essence of these schools is typified in the above story. Taking individuals and their associated families and being a catalyst for them to shine – to remove the despair of the communities they belong to and the gruesome social conditions they may find themselves in. The school communities that are formed do not only play a positive role in the lives of its students, but as part of the wider school family touch the lives of students’ families, their relatives and friends and the neighbourhoods from which they come.  Such Hizmet schools – and it’s becomes quite fitting and appropriate that the movement calls itself hizmet meaning ‘service’ – become beacons of hope as graduates play a role in giving something back through service. This can come in the form of volunteering time, financial support – or those that are so moved by the teaching vocation, come back to teach at the school.

The ripple effect these schools have is tremendous. They provide a safe haven, a kind of ‘peace island’ – a term coined by Gulen –  for all those associated with the school. Those not directly associated with the school take comfort in knowing the school is a role model for other educational institutions. And just as important they show-case that no matter how adverse the conditions are that stories like the one above are possible and with time probable and expected. Given the conditions, the teachers of these hizmet schools have outdone themselves,. They should be proud of their achievements but yet resilient to the excesses of immodesty. Such success breeds success and in an area that can be barrain of ‘good news’ this school stands out and needs to be applauded.

And the moral to the story ? These schools are doing fantastics things in many remote places under very difficult circumstances servicing students and families that are also in great need. And this and other stories need to be both understood and told.

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