Monday, September 28, 2020
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An Interview with Maalim Idris: The Greatest Educationist in Northern Kenya

Editor’s Note: Since WardheerNews is committed to the dissemination of topics that are interest and beneficial to humanity especially in the current ongoing, Education for all and Millennium Development Goals that is a universally accepted commitment for eliminating illiteracy globally, our pursuit of traveling the extra mile aimed bringing forth an inspiring people with fascinating knowledge of untold pastoral nomadic pedagogical and narrations in Kenya has finally come to fruition. The interviewee who was born in a peripatetic community during the British colonial administration is a Kenyan of Somali descent. The tough-talking, ever-smiling and jovial pedagogue educated high profile figures in Kenya’s public and private sectors. In a long interview that will hopefully inspire those who value the significance of infusing together Islamic and secular education. We feel honored to share with you the views and ideas of Maalim Idris Mohamed, a man who was verbally given the distinction “teacher” on the first day of students registration for formal education by one of the members of the selection team for being a “guardian” or “memorizer” of the Qur’an.

The once young livestock herder who was raised in a salubrious landscape that was devoid of overpopulation, hostilities, land degradation, and other manmade hostile activities, finally found himself ushered in a novel world when colonialism, villagization, and urbanization reigned supreme. Now a retired Septuagenarian whose children are entirely graduates, Idris, whose name is synonymous with Islam’s second prophet after Prophet Adam, tells it all to our own Adan Makina who took the arduous effort of retracing his educational footsteps. We hope this interview will be fascinating and attractive to our readers.  


WardheerNews (WDN). Welcome to WardheerNews, an online news magazine “that is intended for the Somalis in the Horn of Africa and the world at large as well as other interested individuals and organizations. It has been designed to provide reliable up-to-date news reports, studies and analysis on current issues and problems of concern to the Somali people encompassing political, social and cultural fields.”

Maalin Idris Mohamed Farah

Maalim Idris: Thanks WardheerNews for giving me this golden opportunity.

WDN: Could you please share with us your background, the nature of your social upbringing, and your educational qualifications?

Maalim Idris: Asalamu Aleikum. My full name is Idris Mohamed Farah. I was born in a pastoralist family that reared camels, cattle, goats and sheep. I first trained as a secondary science teacher with a secondary teacher diploma (S1) at Kenya Science Teacher’s College which was at that time under the management of Swedish government education program in Kenya where most of the teaching staff were seconded from Uppsala University. After teaching for a number of years, I went to Bristol University for my Bachelors in Education degree from the 1979 to 1982. In terms of credentials and professional development, I attended the Royal Institute of Public Administration (London) and Harvard Institute of International Development (USA). As a gratitude to my service to the education sector, I was awarded by the President of Kenya, the Silver Star Medal. 

WDN: How old were you when you started schooling and to place a smile on the faces of our readers, tell us anything humorous you encountered as you proceeded to school?

Maalim Idiris: One of my humorous, reminiscing stories is when I was brought to school by my father in the company of the then senior chief Maalim Muhummed Stanbul, may Allah grant him Jannah, in his short chassis Land Rover by the late Yussuf Laag as the driver in the year 1961. I was about 12 years, plus or minus two because of the way the age was counted in the nomadic life was that every long and short rain will be counted as one year. However, even as I say plus or minus two years, yet it could be either more or less. One thing that is for sure is that I was too tall to start standard one and when my cohorts and I were paraded in front of the admission team that comprised of the three senior chiefs of the district: Chief Muhummed Stanbul of the Abdiwak sub-clan, Abdallah Chief Omar Shuriye and Chief Qaar Duale of the Auliyahan respectively. However, the three doubted my height in regards to my age.

WDN: Were you given the name “Mwalimu” from the Kiswahili word ‘teacher’ that evolved from the Arabic word that implies pedagogue, school teacher or educator because you were an Islamic teacher prior to enrolling in primary education or it popped up during your pursuit of secular education?

Maalim Idris: Contrary to what many people think, my name “Maalim Idris” was not from the fact that I was a high school teacher. I acquired my name because my father informed the admission team that I had memorised the entire Quran which could make it easier for me to skip some classes. The other members of the admission team that included a European District Officer (DO) and the Head Master of the school, Sharif Salah Kahtan, who worked previously with Sharif Shibly in Isiolo Primary, were of the same opinion and were in support of my admission. So I was tested by Sharif Salah at the same venue solely to proof my knowledge of the Qur’an. He asked me to recite the second surah of the Holy Qur’an that is Suratul Baqra (the cow), which is the longest chapter with 286 verses.

When I recited it perfectly with everybody listening, he again added a middle surah of the Qur’an, surah Al-Kahf (the cave surah), a Meccan chapter with 110 verses. After completion, he asked me to recite Suratul Mulki (The Kingship) which is the 67th surah and almost the last part of the Qur’an. When I finished the recitations, the headmaster Sharif Salah remarked “this boy is Maalim Idris” and that is how I acquired the name Maalim Idris meaning teacher in the Qur’anic perspective. In Arabic etymology, I was both a teacher as well as a Hafidul Qur’an, meaning “guardian” and “memorizer” of the Qur’an.

WDN: When you embarked on your quest for public education, was it the Zanzibari system or the British colonial educational institution structure?

It was the British educational structure which was 8-4-2-3. It was 8 years of primary education, 4 secondary education (form one to four) and two more years of higher secondary (form five and form six). The last 3 was reserved for baccalaureate degree seekers.

WDN: Upon graduating from your institution of higher learning, where and what was your first new posting?

Maalim Idris: I was posted to Mombasa to teach in Allidina Visram High School which was mainly populated by Asian students for one term and thereafter I was taken to Garissa Secondary School as the first local teacher from the district to teach the sciences and Geography.

WDN: Could you please shed light on the system of education that was unique to the region you hailed from starting from the time you got involved in primary, secondary and university level? Apart from the community in the northern regions being a pastoral nomadic society, were there enough institutions and teachers to cater for the ordinary citizens living in permanent settlements?

Maalim Idris: The schools were few, both secondary and primary, such that the only secondary school in the region was in Wajir where I started secondary school. All the children from the region such as Garissa, Wajir, Mandera and Isiolo districts came to pursue their secondary education in Wajir. That gave us the opportunity to meet and coexist as students from all the four districts. This was the beginning of very strong bonds between those who schooled together, bonds that went beyond ethnicity, clans and home districts. These relationships have lasted to date for those still alive.

As for the number of teachers, compared to the present day, we were lucky such that when the teachers from “down Kenya” resisted to come to the region, the Government had put arrangements in place where they had to seek teachers from anywhere who were willing to come to that part of the country. Such that the teachers teaching in the Primary school were mainly from Zanzibar and coast province while the ones teaching at the secondary school were expatriate from England such as Mr. Clifford from England, Mr. Pritt’riatte and others from India such as Mr.Choldry and few from other parts of the country who were daring and committed such as Mr. Ojwang and Mr. Mwangi and the likes. We all remember them fondly for their support and contribution to our learning.

WDN: Going by the adage “we remember the past in order to make the present tolerable and the future worth waiting for”, if you don’t mind, give us the names of the number of high profiles of the past and present of the public and private sectors that you educated or mentored during your prolonged educational tenure.

Maalim Idris: I taught many students, some might not be prominent, but have contributed significantly to the development of their community and country. However, just to name a few, of those that I taught secondary education include:

  1. The current Governor of Garissa County, Ali Bunow Koran
  2. The former Governor of Garissa County, Nathif Jama
  3. Former chairman of IEBC, Ahmed Isaack Hassan
  4. Retired Major General Bashir Haji Yusuf
  5. Retired Colonel Khalif Aden Shabel
  6. Retired Kadhi Osman Sheikh Abdi
  7. Siyat Muhumed Omar (Makina), a committed Medic
  8. Dr. Dabar Abdi Maalim (Commissioner for Ethics and Anti-corruption)
  9. Hassan Sheikh Muhummed (the former Chief Executive of the National Integration Commission)
  10. Aden Sheikh Abdullahi, the retired North Eastern Regional Education Coordinator
  11. Habat Sheikh Abdi, Director of Basic Education at the Ministry of Education
  12. Former Minister Mohammed Elmi (Fai), a doyen in Kenya politics
  13. Professor Ahmed Osman Warfa, the Vice-Chancellor of Garissa University
  14. The first military pilot and retired Kenya Army Major, Mohamud Ismail
  15. Aden Daud, former Headmaster of County High and professional lawyer
  16. Lawyer Ali Daud, brother to Aden Daud who is current advisor to the Kenya government on environmental issues
  17.  Dr. Ibrahim Abowe, former CEO, Kenya Wildlife Clubs
  18. Ahmed Abdi Arab, Public Health Expert with Garissa County
  19. Abdullahi Abdi Iyar, former Provincial Director of Education and the best student at Garissa Secondary School. His Grade Point Aggregate (GPA) has never been broken since 1978.
  20.  Ibrahim Mohamed Salat, former Member of Parliament (MP) for Fafi Constituency.

WDN: Family issues aside, what were the most painful experience(s) that you encountered administratively and managerially that you felt contravened your leadership style and academic preferences that would have created significant changes had they been implemented to your satisfaction?

Maalim Idris: At the time when I started teaching in Garissa secondary I was the only local teacher among 9 to 12 teachers at different times. This situation improved later with other local teachers joining. The commitment level of some of the teachers from outside the region had a lot to be desired, even though they may have encountered environmental hardships that they were not used to. This made me always to want to put in extra effort in both teaching and in appealing to the students to raise their awareness that the future of our communities required success in academic excellence. This also included requiring higher standards and efforts from the teachers a situation that made me to appear as if I was challenging the other teachers for not doing well.

Often, I had to teach at night, which was not a requirement on the part of the school administration. I was similarly following the students outside the study period to find out what they were up to since Miraa chewing (Kat) and other malpractices were bound to distract some of the students from their studies hence they gave me the nickname ‘Liibow’ meaning the Lizard, who is always around, looking over the students. Many of them, at later stages in their personal and professional lives confessed to me at how ignorant they were towards their success and responsibility. Others wished the scale of balance could be tilted or the wheel could be turned round so they could start all over again.

Read more: An Interview with Maalim Idris: The Greatest Educationist in Northern Kenya


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