Senegalese children forced to beg by renegade teachers` betrayal of principle
December 10, 2012
Talibes holding begging bowls on the outskirts of Senegal`s capital Dakar
The venerable tradition of Senegalese children studying with marabouts is being distorted by a wayward minority who illegally exploit their young charges to turn a profit. Misha Hussain reports
An estimated 50,000 children in Senegal are forced to beg on the streets and give the money they earn to religious teachers, despite a 2005 law forbidding this exploitation. A stone`s throw from Île de Gorée, a symbol of colonial slavery lying off the coast opposite Dakar, another form of bondage threatens children from impoverished families in Senegal and throughout west Africa.
Ablaye is a talibé, a young boy forced to beg. Beaten, starved and hundreds of miles from home, he is one of tens of thousands of children who have to bring in up to 1,000 west African francs ($2) a day for their religious teachers, known as marabouts.
“We have to bring back around 450cfa every day, 500cfa on Fridays. If we don`t get enough money, the marabout asks the older talibés to hold our hands and feet together while he beats us,” says Ablaye, from Kolda, a small town in the poor Casamance area of southern Senegal.
Oumar, 12, another talibé, was trafficked from Guinea-Bissau by a marabout who was a friend of the family. Oumar`s father is a carpenter who has two wives and eight children, two of whom he gave to a marabout for Qur`anic education. After a year on the streets in Dakar, he and his brother ran away to Empire des Enfants, a shelter that returns lost children to their parents. “We were sent to the daara [Qur`anic school] to learn the Qur`an but, instead, we learned how to beg,” says Oumar.
Originally, talibé meant student or disciple. For centuries, Senegalese parents have sent their children to marabouts to study in daaras. One aspect of the education provided is the lesson of humility, learned partly through begging and usually in exchange for prayer. However, the current practice of forced begging is not accepted by Islam or by Senegalese culture, and is strictly prohibited by law.
“We need the money. The children come from extremely poor families and the state doesn`t provide us with any support. Who is going to pay the rent, the bills?” said one marabout in charge of about 50 children in the capital. He refused to disclose the income from begging or how the profit was spent – but it is not towards the wellbeing of the children.
Despite years of effort by international organisations, the talibés-marabouts system remains deep rooted in Senegalese culture. Poverty is the main driver, with many parents sending children away to ease pressure on the household. However, ironically, it is the Islamic tradition of charity that maintains the system, explains Anta Mbow, director of Empire des Enfants.
“Zakat [charity] is one of the five pillars of Islam. Muslims in Senegal give money to the talibés first thing in the morning so that they will be rewarded with good luck for the rest of the day. The talibés make sure they are on the streets to collect,” says Mbow.
Forced begging is a relatively recent phenomenon in Senegal. In the early 1970s, the country`s peanut oil industry struggled due to stiff competition from the sale of palm oil. Furthermore, the region suffered one of the worst droughts of the century. People lost their livelihoods and struggled to pay for their children`s Qur`anic education. Increasingly, the daaras moved to affluent cities where they could easily sustain their day-to-day costs. No longer under the watchful eye of a small, rural community, some of themarabouts began to abuse the long-held tradition of begging to turn a profit for themselves.
The marabouts belong to one of four Sufi Muslim brotherhoods that wield immense political and economic power in Senegal. These brotherhoods have failed to speak out against the actions of some of their leaders, and the government has turned a blind eye, says Mbow. “The politicians often need the marabouts as lobbyists for their own agenda and vice versa. Religion and politics has become all mixed up, and that`s not right,” she says.
In 2005, under international pressure, then-president Abdoulaye Wade passed a law (pdf) effectively prohibiting people from making a profit from children by forcing them to beg, with a maximum sentence of five years` imprisonment and a fine of up to 2m cfa (£2,500). In 2010, for the first time, seven marabouts were convicted for forcing boys in their care to beg. They received six-month suspended sentences and a 100,000cfa fine. Almost overnight, the number of talibés on the street decreased.
However, these steps were undermined by Wade himself, who in the runup to last year`s elections told his cabinet that – to appease the marabouts – the law would no longer be implemented. Some of them can make up to $100,000 (£62,500) a year, according to Human Rights Watch, which reported in 2010 that a marabout in Guédiawaye made $116,000 in one year from more than 150 talibés.
Wade`s government also developed a daara curriculum and modernisation plan, but these were placed on the backburner and received little attention.
The new government of President Macky Sall, who took power in April, has shown no inclination to take action. However, the Platform for Protection and Promotion of Human Rights (PPDH), a consortium of Senegalese NGOs, hopes to reignite the talibés debate and force the relevant ministries to confront the problem.
Sall`s administration is charged with failing to enforce laws on child begging and reprimand those who have exploited children for profit, says Mamadou Wane, spokesman for PPDH. The NGOs say daaras must be bought into the formal education system by continuing to develop the modernisation programme.
“By bringing the daaras into the formal education system, we can make sure that children are learning instead of begging, that they are not beaten, that they have access to clean water and sanitation, that they eat properly, and that they are not exploited for profit,” says Wane.
The current administration has distanced itself from the brotherhoods. And the public are becoming increasingly aware of some marabouts` exploitative practices. Consequently, Sall`s government may be able to reconcile human rights and traditional practices.
Twelve-year-old Oumar`s ambition is to become a government minister. Asked what his first objective would be, he replies: “I`ll find all the talibés and return them to their parents, and if any marabouts say anything I`ll throw them in jail.”
© 2012 Guardian News & Media Limited. All rights reserved
Why The `Talibe` Problem Won`t Go Away
January 04, 2008
Talibes holding begging bowls on the outskirts of Senegal`s capital Dakar
Dakar, Jan 04, 2008 (UN Integrated Regional Information Networks/All Africa Global Media) -- Empty cans used for begging line the entrance of a house in the overcrowded neighbourhood of Grand Yoff in the Senegalese capital, Dakar, where a `marabout` [Koranic teacher] and 10 boys rent two mosquito-infested rooms.
The boys sleep together on the concrete floor. Each morning they get up, take the empty cans and head onto the street to beg for breakfast.
These boys are `talibes`, followers of a `marabout`, to whom they were entrusted by their families to learn the Koran. But their `marabout` - like many others who are caretakers of an estimated 10,000 children in Dakar and up to 100,000 across the country according to UNICEF - does not have the means to support them.
Thousands of `talibes` spend hours each day walking the city in search of scraps of food and begging for money to meet a daily quota exacted by their `marabouts`, or face beatings, talibe children told IRIN.
Often with ripped clothes, barefoot and filthy, the children move alone or in packs. Many never learn the Koran, officials from non-governmental organisations (NGOs) say, and rarely do they attain adequate schooling that will lead to jobs when they become adults.
Despite the efforts of NGOs and government agencies to tackle the problem, it continues and may, according to some aid organisations such as Samusocial Senegal, it may be growing.
NGOs Worldvision and Tostan and government officials from the Ministry of Solidarity cited three main obstacles to solving the problem: persistent poverty, an inadequate response by the government and the power of `marabouts` in Senegalese society.
“The [`marabout`] system goes above the president,” said Ann Birch, communications leader for World Vision Senegal, and a photographer who has documented `talibe` children.
People consult `marabouts` on family matters, money questions, for professional advice, and even guidance on how to vote, Imam Mamadou Ndiaye, director of teaching at the Islamic Institute of Dakar, told IRIN. They are influential in all levels of society.
`Marabouts` demand that their `talibes` give them a daily average minimum of 350 CFA francs (77 US cents), according to various children IRIN interviewed. That is a considerable sum in a country where over half the population lives on less than two dollars a day.
“The economic stakes are enormous,” explained Isabelle de Guillebon, director of Samusocial Senegal, one of many local NGOs working with street children in Senegal.
“People are making more money off [child] begging than they would if they had jobs,” said Mouhamed Cherif Diop, programme coordinator for the local NGO, Tostan, which helps to reintegrate `talibes` with their families.
A hesitant government
In 2005 the government passed stricter laws against begging, including stronger sentences for mistreating children. But what is missing, many NGO representatives told IRIN, is government-wide regulation of the Koranic schools.
According to Tostan`s Mouhamed Cherif Diop, “until the government regulates the thousands of informal Koranic schools so that not just anyone can open a `daara` [Koranic school] the problem will not go away.”
The government is currently creating `modern daaras` in which children do not go out to beg. But “there is lots of talk and very little action,” says Isabelle de Guillebon, director of NGO Samusocial Senegal. “These steps are more for show and the anti-begging law isn`t being enforced.”
Some officials in the government even blame the persistence of `talibes` on elected politicians, whom they say are unwilling to tackle the issue. “The state does not want to commit itself to solving the problem because it touches on religion,” Amadou Camara, head of non-conventional learning at the Ministry of Solidarity, told IRIN.
“In every big city, there is a religious leader who has disciples in high places in the social administration.”
Some officials said the solution is to help `marabouts` generate revenue so they do not need their pupils to go out and beg.
The government Ministry of Solidarity has funds to support up to 100 `daaras` every year to try to reduce `marabout` dependence on begging for income, said Camara, adding that some schools could come away with 500,000 CFA francs a year (US$1,105).
Some NGO officials do not see that as a solution. “It endorses an abnormal situation,” said Mouhamed Cherif Diop, programme coordinator for Tostan. But Camara said: “If you give absolutely nothing, it`s even worse.”
NGO officials admit that their programmes are too small and uncoordinated to address the problem. “We do [all we can] with our limited means,” Samusocial Senegal`s de Guillebon said, “but little actions we do of returning three or four children [to their families] is not going to solve the problem for 10,000 child beggars in Dakar.”
Some NGOs have tried to encourage `marabouts` in Dakar to return home to their rural villages and find alternative incomes. With support from the UN Children`s Fund (UNICEF), the NGO Enda has helped one `marabout` and 47 `talibes` return to his [the `marabout`s`] home village of Pout, where he now grows vegetables and no longer sends his pupils begging.
But “actions are not systematic or on a big scale,” ENDA`s resource coordinator, Moustapha Diop told IRIN. “There needs to be a much more global approach.”
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
© 2008 AllAfrica, All Rights Reserved
`This Is My Life`; Thousands of Senegalese Boys in Koranic Schools Forced to Beg
The Washington Post
March 21, 2004
Sitting on an empty tomato-paste can on the sidewalk, arms folded around his head to shelter him from the blistering sun, Abou tried to catch up on his sleep.
The young boy`s day had started well before dawn, with a 90-minute hike to the center of Senegal`s capital, Dakar. The frail and malnourished child, dressed in dirt-blackened rags, had walked all morning barefoot on baking roads, begging for food and a few coins to take back to his teacher and guardian.
“This is my life. I have no choice,” Abou said. Then, to a concert of honking horns, he rushed across the road to pick up a coin thrown from a car window.
Like the other children with whom he begs, Abou was placed in the care of spiritual guides, or marabouts, to be taught about Islam and its holy book, the Koran.
Abou has a mother and father, but was turned over to the school too young to remember them. He doesn`t know his age but looks no older than 9.
These tens of thousands of boys, some as young as 5, are known as talibes, meaning “disciples” in Arabic. They come mostly from families struggling to feed too many children in Senegal`s arid countryside.
Koranic schools, a tradition in Muslim West Africa, began appearing in Senegal`s northern Fouta region in the 11th century. The schools were generally held in esteem, and many of Senegal`s leaders graduated from the schools.
About 95 percent of Senegal`s 10.5 million people are Muslim, living under a constitution that defines the nation as a secular state.
Today, urban sprawl, population growth and rural poverty mean Senegal has more of the schools than ever -- but comparatively fewer that give the boys a future in exchange for their childhood.
Increasingly, marabouts are using the children as their workforce -- legions laboring for the teachers at the unskilled job of begging, in the name of learning humility.
“How can I possibly take care of all of them?” demanded Pape Seck, 25, a marabout at a Koranic school on the outskirts of Dakar, kicking a boy about 4 years old in the head when the child dozed off during a morning study session.
“Their parents keep sending them to me even though they know I can`t afford to look after them,” Seck said. He had a rubber whip slung over his shoulder.
Every day, Abou and the roughly 30 other boys under Seck`s care must beg at least 300 francs for the marabout. That`s about 50 cents, roughly enough for two loaves of bread.
From dawn to dusk the boys stand at streetlights, traffic jams, market stalls and restaurant entrances, imploring passersby for coins or scraps of food.
“Tell her what happened to you,” Abou said, smiling and pointing at a slightly older companion named Alpha.
“One day, I was short of 100 francs -- and for that, I was beaten so hard with a rubber whip that I could not sit or sleep on my back for days,” Alpha said, lifting his T-shirt to show his scars.
The United Nations Children`s Fund estimates there are 100,000 forced street beggars in Dakar. The great majority of them, like Abou and Alpha, are children at the Koranic schools.
Senegal`s talibe system is complex, deeply entrenched and in need of urgent reform, said Roberto Benes, a UNICEF child protection officer in Dakar.
“The situation is totally unacceptable,” Benes said. “At this very moment, a child is out there begging, another is probably being beaten or in deep suffering.”
Senegal`s government has launched several initiatives and made begging a punishable offense. But spiritual leaders are respected and influential, and no government leader wants to challenge Islamic institutions, so the child beggars continue to multiply.
Some humanitarian groups, spearheaded by Enda Tiers Monde, based in Dakar, are supporting the more reputable Koranic schools by offering vocational training, health care and a varied and more practical educational curriculum.
One of the better regarded is the Saara Ndiougari School in western Senegal`s Kaolack region. It is among the few that give talibes a standard education as well as religious instruction.
Among its alumni are young men pursuing degrees at Dakar University, including one studying French literature, said Ibrahima Hann, the school`s director.
But the vast majority of talibes have never been taught to read or write, and likely never will be.
At their school, the 30 talibes recite Koranic verses by heart in a shack built of plastic bags and wooden sticks. Lunch is leftovers piled in their tomato-paste begging cans.
Come nightfall, the boys pile up in two cockroach-infested rooms with no lights and no beds -- just flattened cardboard boxes on the floor.
Fun and laughter come from playing soccer with an empty can by the road.
When childhood ends around their mid-teens, the boys enter the adult world with no trade, no education and no connections.
Their choices then: unemployment, or becoming the next generation of marabouts and their aides.
Abou, however, has a better future in mind.
Standing outside a primary school, watching the well-dressed schoolchildren as they play at recess or enjoy an ice cream, Abou said he hoped to return home, somehow, one day.
“Then I can become one of the big men driving a four-wheel drive,” Abou said. “And this time round, I`ll be the one throwing coins.”
© Copyright 2004, The Washington Post Co. All Rights Reserved
Gov. Gen. Michaelle draws attention for declaring slavery an ongoing practice in Africa
BY ALEXANDER PANETTA
The Canadian Press
April 16, 2010
GOREE ISLAND, Senegal – First she drew attention in Africa for bluntly declaring that slavery remained widespread, and then Gov. Gen. Michaelle Jean visited a dungeon with a dark past to illustrate her point Friday.
Jean`s statement about the plight of children in Senegal was widely reported by media in that country, where an in-depth survey has concluded that at least 50,000 boys are being exploited and frequently beaten at their religious schools.
Her sentiments are supported by a new report from Human Rights Watch, an organization that also describes as “slavery” a common Senegalese custom: Islamic schools that send children out to beg for money all day, then often beat them when they don`t return with enough cash.
The country`s so-called talibes, boys as young as four, can be seen wandering through traffic in tattered clothes and pleading for money. Because charity is considered a religious duty, people hand over enough donations to make the schoolmasters wealthy by local standards.
Jean`s visit made the front page of several newspapers Friday.
“Exploitation of Children In Senegal: Michaelle Jean Calls It Slavery,” was one headline in Le Quotidien newspaper, the day after Jean surprised some journalists at the presidential palace by making that assessment at a joint press conference with the country`s president.
Human-rights groups estimate that as many as 27 million people live in modern-day slavery _ and that there are more slaves in the world now than at any point in human history.
They include unpaid labourers who work for room and board, women forced into the sex trade, underage soldiers, and child workers who are paid a pittance.
The UN`s High Commission on Human Rights has suggested a variety of means to fight the problem, including product boycotts and mandatory labelling of goods in industries – like carpet-weaving – where child exploitation has been a problem.
This week`s report on Senegal by Human Rights Watch urged the Senegalese government to better regulate religious schools, which are popular because they offer the promise of a free education.
As she visited a former slave-trading centre Friday, Jean used the occasion to illustrate her point for the second day in a row.
She was received jubilantly by dancing and singing locals on Goree Island. Now a pastel-coloured tourist destination and UN World Heritage Site, the French used this island to imprison slaves traded for guns and alcohol.
Jean toured the former prison where slaves were once chained to walls by their necks; where children were crammed, in the words of her tour guide, “like fish in a sardine can,” with 150 kids crowded into a separate dungeon half the size of a bowling alley; where men were sold for the price of a barrel of rum, while women fetched the same price if they had attractive physical attributes.
“These captives were not considered human beings,” said Jean`s guide, Eloi Coly.
“They were considered merchandise.”
People had their names taken away, and were assigned a number. They were marched down a stone hallway through the infamous “Door of No Return,” then loaded onto ships that carried them on a three-month – often fatal – journey to the new world.
A teary-eyed Jean, after the tour, said descendents of former slaves and former slave-owners can work together today on a common cause: ending modern-day slavery.
“This place is not about the history of black peoples. It`s about us all,” Jean told Canadian and Senegalese journalists.
“Whether we are of European descent, and probably related to those who committed that crime of slavery and slave trade, or whether we are of African descent, we all belong to that history.”
She delivered a similarly contemporary message four years ago during a visit to Ghana. During a visit to a similar prison there, she knelt on the ground and broke into sobs, then waved off a question about what special meaning the place carried for someone like her, the descendant of African slaves.
Jean repeated Friday that it would be a mistake to view slavery uniquely through the prism of African history.
“It`s about us all. And it`s about how life can triumph over barbarism. And we must stand together today, to really fight every situation that denies rights, dignity and humanity to people in the world today. Slavery is still a fact today, in so many different ways,” she said.
“Human-trafficking, injustices, are still a reality today. But we are together – and we can say no to it. It`s a responsibility.”
On Friday, Jean also addressed a school where Canadian aid money has helped train young Senegalese journalists over the years and, on the second full day of her 10-day trip to Africa, she met with a women`s group after touring Goree`s House of Slaves.
Just outside that old prison, young Amadou Guisse spends the whole day working. He started three years ago, when he was only 10. Guisse follows tourists onto a ferry and, to earn a few dollars on the ride back and forth from the capital, Dakar, he goes around the boat urging tourists to let him shine their shoes.
Guisse shook his head when asked whether he keeps any of the money he earns.
“It`s for my family,” he said. “Everything.”
© 2010 The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.
A girl (R) winces in pain after being hit on the head with a stick by her instructor (C) at a Dara, or Koranic school, in Pikine on the outskirts of Senegal`s capital Dakar, May 7, 2008. Often runaways, Islamic students beg on the streets collecting alms for a marabout, or religious leader, in return for food, accommodation and Koranic learning as part of Senegal`s Mouride sect of Islam. REUTERS
Cali Xoosh Mohamed, a Koran teacher from the Sufi Ahlu Sunna faction, teaches his students while armed with an AK-47 assault rifle at a madrasa, or Koranic school, in Dhusamareeb, central Somalia, December 16, 2012. REUTERS/Feisal Omar