Claim - the USA is supporting madrassahs in Mali?
GAO, Mali (Reuters) - There must be at least 80 children in the classroom, the desks packed so tightly together that I wonder how those at the back have squeezed their way to their places.
Adjusting from the glare of the sun outside to the dark of the mud-brick room, I can barely make out the boys in the furthest row.
But shafts of light through the windows -- holes in the wall, without glass -- catch the dazzling colors of the girls' dresses and headscarves. The faces are black African, but the writing on the blackboard is in Arabic -- a difficult, foreign tongue to the 600 children at the Soullamou Islamic school in eastern Mali.
They are learning it to study the Koran, the holy book of Islam, in this desperately poor west African nation where 90 percent of people are Muslims.
"Why have you come?" a girl of about 13 asks me.
The truth is that I have never seen an Islamic school and am curious to compare the stereotype with the reality. In countries like Pakistan, Koranic schools or madrasas have often been viewed with suspicion in the West, and even portrayed as academies for al Qaeda.
Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld once famously asked if the United States was eliminating more terrorists every day than the madrasas and radical clerics were recruiting.
But in Mali, where most adults cannot read or write, the growth of private Islamic schools or medersas shows "a hunger for numeracy and literacy" in a state that lacks the means to educate all its people, U.S. ambassador Terence McCulley said.
He told me the United States is even supporting some of them through development aid -- a "soft power" counterpoint to its military training program, in which U.S. special forces are teaching Malian soldiers to fight militants in the desert.
We are using tax $$ for training the illiterate to memorize by rote the Quran? And we call this soft power?