Early in the morning, I visit Yelpha in his Koran school. It is on the ground floor of a beautiful traditional building.
The building looks as ancient as time itself but was only built in 1978 by Yelpha’s late father, the Imam of Djenné. Outside, there is a myriad of little shoes – one cannot enter the sandy floor of the school without first removing one’s footwear.
In the semi-darkness inside sit about 20 little talibés, literally students, all with wooden boards on which they have written down in Arabic a verse of the Koran given them the day before to learn by heart.
One by one they recite the phrases to Yelpha who listens, sitting cross-legged in front of them while fingering a black leather whip. He wields it now and then in a light-hearted way, giving a pretend lash to any talibé who has not mastered his phrases correctly. It may well be that elsewhere there is real punishment meted out, but the Yelpha I know is a gentle man who would not harm a fly.
The talibés do not understand what they read. It is only after several years of study, when they are able to recite great portions of the Koran by heart, that they are slowly allowed to understand the meaning of what they read. “But why, Yelpha?” I ask in my Toubab way. “Because knowledge has to be earned and should only be given to those that deserve it,” he says.