Amid years of talk and sleek publicity campaigns about getting children – Koranic students – with their begging bowls out of Senegal’s streets, women in the Pikine neighbourhood of the capital Dakar have quietly been doing just that.
The recent conviction – under a 2005 law – of several marabouts (Islamic leaders and teachers) for forcing children to beg, as well as a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), spotlighted the situation of those Koranic students who are exploited and abused by their teachers.
Despite an apparent crackdown by the authorities in recent months, including ads on the front page of the state newspaper and colourful billboards reminding that forcing someone to beg is a crime, the young students, called ‘talibés’, are everywhere, in torn clothes and often barefoot, weaving in and out of traffic, begging cans in tow.
In one area of Pikine a group of talibés know where they can find meals, clean clothes and soap and water to bathe – with neighbourhood families who, despite their own poverty, do what they can to help the children, whose parents are far from Dakar.
While religious study is customary and honoured, many poor families – throughout Senegal but also in neighbouring countries – send their boys to Senegal’s cities to learn from marabouts simply because they cannot afford to support them at home, according to the NGO Tostan. HRW says families generally think their children face a better future under a marabout’s care, as the teachers are expected to feed and look after their students.
As their own
“If you’ve got a heart, you’ve got to consider each child you see as your own child,” Thioro Fall, one of the Pikine women who help the talibés, told IRIN.
Most women in her association – National Women’s Union for the Development of Senegal – are divorced, widowed or have been abandoned by their husbands and are raising their children alone. But they take the talibés as their own.
“I’ve got four children and one talibé,” Adama Ndiaye told IRIN.
The women told IRIN since the global financial crisis, Dakar’s poorer residents are lucky if they eat one good meal a day. “We prepare just one meal daily,” Mariama Niass said. “It wasn’t like that before.”
The women said they chip in weekly to a fund that can be used in an emergency like a serious illness in the family.
“We get by, and each does what she can to help a neighbour in need and [to help] the talibés,” Fall told IRIN. “Here, it’s pure solidarity. With the little we have we help the children. Hey – you can’t let a child die of hunger! I’ve got nothing, but I’m a humanitarian.”
The women collect what is left from the day’s meal and put it in a common bowl for the talibés. They also wash the children’s clothes and give them soap and water to bathe at the family home. Fall said a youth in the neighbourhood teaches the children to read and write for small change or other goods the women can spare from time to time.
“If every household in Senegal helped a talibé like this, the number of children begging would decrease,” she said. “One household, one talibé.”
A pink and blue washcloth cradling a bar of soap hangs on a window shutter at Fall’s home. It is for Djibi, about 13 years old (he’s not sure), whose parents are in a village in southern Senegal and who along with scores of other boys studies at the nearby Koranic school, or daara.
“I always eat well thanks to Tante [aunt] Theoro,” Djibi said. “If this wasn’t here, I would have to start early in the morning begging door to door for something to eat.”
The daara, a meagre mud-brick home, is a quick walk around the corner on Pikine’s sandy streets. The head marabout, Momar Gning, said the women provide an immeasurable service.
“These children do not beg,” he said. “Any evening you come here you’ll see the children eating a good meal and it’s because these families shared what they have.”
Gning, who said he studied in Saudi Arabia, showed IRIN stacks and stacks of books in his room, alongside wooden plumes and containers of ink the children use to write Koranic verses on wooden tablets. In addition to the Koran he teaches the history of Islam and geography, he told IRIN. He said, given the cases of child exploitation by some marabouts, media coverage of daaras generally focuses on the negative, but that there are many positive aspects of daara education.
Commitment to the children
Senegal has daaras where families pay high tuition and children receive all they need, but many daaras remain poor, Fall said. “These daaras need support so all children can learn well and be healthy.”
Community solidarity or not, in the end the marabouts’ commitment to the children’s learning and well-being is paramount, experts say. It has long been common in some areas of Dakar for women known as ‘marraines’ (godmothers) to feed talibés and provide other support. But the help covers only a small minority of the children, HRW researcher in Dakar Matt Wells said. More importantly, even with this assistance some of the teachers nonetheless send the children out to beg and many abuse the children.
“The marraines’ contributions mean that the boys won’t go hungry and will have a place to wash themselves and their clothes,” Wells said. “And in better-run daaras, where the marabout prioritizes Koranic education, the boys will no longer be sent out to beg. All too often though, economic exploitation continues – while the boys no longer beg for food around mealtime, they still must return a daily sum to the marabout, or face severe physical abuse.”
[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]