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They are a constant presence on the streets of Dakar and the main cities of Senegal, impossible to ignore. Most of them go barefoot, wearing second-hand T-shirts a couple of sizes too big imported from the West and now in tatters, showing their skin ravaged by years of scratches and disease. Over one arm an empty tomato paste bucket, with only one aim for the day: to beg for as much food and money as possible and take the amounts demanded back to their teachers. And if they fail, the punishment can be severe.The lever exploited is zakat, the religious obligation of purification from riches prescribed in surah 2.43 of the Qur’an, Al Baqarah, one of the five pillars of Islam. In other words, every good Muslim has to give a part of his income in alms for the poor.
Such is the life of the talibés, children between the ages of 4 and 16. In Senegal they are entrusted by their families, often living in extreme poverty, to the teachings of a marabout of the Qur’an, whose task is to take care of them and instil the precepts of Islamic religion. The schools where many of them live, the daara, are often unhygienic insanitary nightmares. Their education all too often takes the form of mechanically memorising the Qur’an in fear of the teacher’s brutality.
The violence is usually triggered by failures to memorise the Koran, or simply to produce the daily quota of food and money requested by the marabout. The principle is that the students and teachers should share whatever has been collected during the day, but this is true only of the food. Often most of the money is kept by the teachers, who spend it on themselves without caring about their pupils’ living conditions.
According to Human Rights Watch, the number of talibés out begging in the busiest streets in Senegal totals between 50,000 and 100,000 children. But the exact number is difficult to determine because the Qur’anic teachers and the families themselves fail to collaborate. The families often hear no more of their children after entrusting them to the marabouts, some of whom lack any kind of religious qualifications. Hence they have no interest in making known the existence of their “schools”, which would consequently be illegal.
“I don’t know, I can’t understand why parents continue to send their children here,” says Elhadji, a volunteer from the local orgnization Maison de la Gare which provides assistance to students begging in the city of Saint-Louis in northern Senegal. The orgnization’s activities include monitoring the city’s daara, which is Elhadji’s task. One of the schools we visit is in appalling conditions. It is an open-air courtyard that serves as an enclosure and school for more than 60 children. The incessant strong sour smell of urine and myriads of insects give some idea of the living conditions. In one corner are some dusty backpacks, a gift from a Western NGO, and copies of the Qur’an even though none of the pupils can read. The marabout is absent, while his replacement, an older student, is asleep in a corner on a battered mattress under the only mosquito net present. Upon Elhadji’s arrival, all the children swarm around him as he opens his bag and takes out his first aid kit. The majority of the boys have sores from scabies on their skin. One has his knees completely ravaged by the parasites, and has to be held down by the others to allow Elhadji to treat him. “There may be a case of malaria,” Elhadji observes, “but we can’t take the child without the marabout’s permission. All we can do is leave him here, hoping he survives until the teacher returns in a few days.”
The teachers’ violence and their neglect of the pupils prompt many children to run away from the schools. To see what this means, all you need to do is explore the city at sunset. Some five minutes after starting our search we find a dozen of them sleeping under fishing nets in the harbour. Together with them are a dog and some goats, while the other side of the street is glowing with the light from a tea room between four plywood panels. One of the boys is Mohamed, a child about 12 years old from Kaolack, 300 km away. He fled from the violence of his marabout. He still wears his best clothes and a toy watch that no longer works. He has nothing else. “I’m afraid to go back home,” he explains. “If I do my father will give me a harsh beating.” He has been living on the streets for months now and earns his living by helping the women wash dishes at the port where they make thiebudhienne, the local dish made with rice, fish and palm oil, for the fishermen of the Guet Ndar quarter. ”If you come with us, we will take you to a place where you can have a bed, and we can help you find your family. Or we will find you another one,” explains Boubacar, a social worker whose job is to monitor the situation of these street children. “Convincing them isn’t easy,” explains Boubacar. “There’s too much distrust. They’re smart kids, they know how to survive better than you and me. After years of violence in the daara, and months on the streets, they’re convinced there’s no other place for them.” After a lengthy discussion, Mohamed lets himself be persuaded to be taken to the child care centre, but this is not the end. “We’ll try to track down the family and see if they will take him back. However it doesn’t always work: for many families, entrusting a child to a marabout means one less mouth to feed,” he explains. “They’re not always happy to see them come home. And they often refuse to believe their stories of the violence they’ve suffered.”
“The problem is social. And it won’t be solved quickly,” says Issa Kouyaté, director and founder of the organisation Maison de la Gare. For years he has been offering health assistance and legal support to all the talibés in the city who need it, as well as training courses to enable them to be reintegrated into society. For his actions in 2016 he was awarded the title of “Hero” by the US State Department. We meet him in working clothes in the courtyard of his organization. Not far away, dozens of children aged 8-10 are washing their tattered clothes and learning how to use soap. Behind him are murals of the boys who managed to return to society after leaving their Qur’an schools.
“ A few months ago there were four deaths here in Saint Louis,” he says, distraught. “Two of tetanus, and two of malaria.” And all due to the carelessness of the marabouts. Two boys died of tetanus because they were not vaccinated before ritual circumcision, and the other two because the teacher ignored their high temperature, one of the first symptoms of the illness.
“The problem is that there is no political interest in dealing with the situation, since this is mixed up with religion. Because there is a lot of money coming from abroad for social aid purposes. Do you think the same would happen if the children were well dressed and had good living conditions?” he comments, sarcastically.
On paper, Senegalese law forbids exploiting minors to beg for alms, potentially curbing the phenomenon. Yet many marabouts continue undeterred to exploit the image of the children and the alms handed out to them to keep their schools going and in some cases enriching themselves. But others have converted their schools so as to use offerings given by their neighbourhood rather getting the children to beg for alms. These are called ‘modern daaras’ and begging is no longer part of the religious education imparted.