Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us


Protecting the Child Beggars of Senegal

• February 24, 2011 • 5:00 AM

When they beg for alms, are Senegalese “talibés” supporting Quranic schools — or being exploited? The government begins a fitful program of regulation.

Emerge from your train, bus or plane in Senegal, and you could see them: the children with big, pleading eyes who approached with hands outstretched and palms upturned, carrying large cans around their necks to collect donations. They lingered at major intersections, bus stops and outside the market. They were boys in dusty clothing, often barefoot and often skinny. And if they happened to pass you, be you foreigner or native, they stopped and held out a hand. Some people ignored them. Some people gave a coin, some powdered milk or a few sugar cubes.

I first spied Samba Balde and his buddy, Omar Sadie, skipping along a crowded street on the outskirts of the capital, Dakar, a couple of days before the high Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha, or Tabaski as they call it in Senegal. A man had emerged from a shop and flagged them down to give them a coin or two. They didn’t even have to ask.

Samba and Omar told me they beg on the streets from the morning until the afternoon. They were both about 10 years old and came from Kolda in the south of the country, near the border with Guinea-Bissau. I asked them what they did with the money. “I give it all to my marabout,” Samba said.

Marabout is a term for a holy man — a healer and sometimes a teacher. Samba’s reference to a marabout marked Samba and Omar not as orphans or runaways or street kids; they were talibés, students at a traditional boarding school called a daara where boys (mostly) go to receive religious training. Every morning, Samba and Omar’s marabout sent them to the street to beg for alms and told them to bring back 500 West African francs each, or about $1. And every afternoon, they returned to the daara to memorize and study the Quran.

March-April 2011 Miller-McCune Talibés like Samba and Omar leave their families when they are 6 or 7 years old and go to live at a daara for several years. As far as daaras go, there are highs and lows, says Mamadou Ndiaye, a professor of Arabic at the University of Cheikh Anta Diop and director of teaching programs at the Islamic Institute in Dakar. Some schools teach the Quran, he says, but also teach other subjects — Arabic grammar and morphology, science, math and French. Others teach the Quran on a part-time basis, through something like a Sunday school, to accommodate children who go to regular state schools. Still others teach the Quran full time and nothing else. There are hundreds if not thousands of daaras all over the country, in rural areas and urban ones. Ndiaye says that talibé begging is mainly an urban phenomenon, though. “If you go out into Dakar today, you are going to see talibés begging,” he said. “And for those talibés, is their main mission to learn the Quran, or is it simply to beg?”

That’s a question many people in Senegal — from the government and international advocacy organizations like Human Rights Watch and Save the Children to ordinary people on the street — are asking themselves. A 2007 study by the World Bank, UNICEF and the International Labour Organization found that some 90 percent of the children seen begging on the streets of Dakar claim to come from daaras. The researchers also learned that the children spent almost a whole work shift on the street — an average of six hours daily — leaving them little time to learn the Quran.

Of the 10 percent of Senegalese child beggars who aren’t current talibés, many used to be. On a hillside in Pikine, a poor suburb of Dakar, I met one of them, an 11-year-old boy named Modou Gueye decked out in a bright orange soccer jersey with a UNICEF logo. Modou is what they call a fakhman, a runaway. Modou didn’t run away from home, though. He ran away from a daara. He said the teachers beat him, so he left. But he didn’t go home to his parents in Touba, an autonomous religious city in the interior of the country; he had his reasons. “If I go back home, my parents will send me back to the daara again,” he said. “So, I decided to come to the streets.” Modou told me he’s been afraid to go home for the last two years.

Eventually, I met others like him. Alpha from Guinea-Bissau came to Dakar to study the Quran and ended up here. Mo Ndiaye from the Sine Saloum Delta did the same, and so did Baye Zaal Faye, and so on. They were all kids who traveled to the big city to go to school and ended up living on the streets.

Of course, not all daaras send their students to beg. And not all daaras that send their students to beg stiff them on their education or beat them or abuse them. There’s a lot of gray here. But there’s enough going wrong for all eyes to turn to these schools.

Mamadou Kebe, the coordinator of a Senegalese Ministry of Family program that focuses on child labor and exploitation, said that something has to change and soon. “Today there truly is a social movement to fight against that, against child begging,” he said.

That fight is easier advocated than accomplished, though.

Souleymane Bachir Diagne, a professor of philosophy at Columbia University in New York who studies Islam in Senegal, says there are many political barriers to reform. Senegal is a secular state, but the government often yields to the authority of the country’s religious leaders. It has no choice. Leaders of Sufi groups called brotherhoods have an enormous amount of political and economic power in the country. And so far, those brotherhoods have not used their influence to back substantive reforms.

 

The Islamic Institute’s Mamadou Ndiaye told me that reformers have to tread lightly. Most of the leaders of the Muslim brotherhoods attended daaras and have fond memories of their experiences there, however difficult those experiences were. Many also lived through the colonial period when daaras were often under attack. Ndiaye says daaras have existed in Senegal almost as long as Islam has — some 1,000 years — but were unpopular with the French. “The colonial administration fought against them, since they were an obstacle to the expansion of the French language,” Ndiaye said. The schools and the deeply religious citizenry that they created were an obstacle to the expansion of the French government’s power, as well.

Columbia’s Souleymane Bachir Diagne thinks colonial history plays a large role in the reluctance to take action. “You have people who are still resisting calling this [talibé begging] exploitation,” he says, “because they don’t want it to be a general term applied to all Quranic schools.”

Many merchants, traders, movers and shakers come from daaras. They may not get jobs in the government or big nongovernmental organizations, but these are the people who make the country run. Moussa Sow, a marabout in Saint-Louis, an old colonial city near the Mauritanian border, said he has trained many shopkeepers, businessmen, plumbers, taxi drivers and even marabouts who start their own schools.

Sow said he doesn’t send his talibés to beg. He also doesn’t ask for a tuition fee, since many of the children come from poor families who are unable to send much money. “Sometimes if the parents come to see us, they give us something or give the child something,” Sow says. He says they just scrape by, but he is not worried. “God said in the Quran that if you believe in him, he will protect you. He will give you everything,” he says. “Me, I believe in God.”

Diagne says that in the old days talibés would work in the fields to help out the marabout. Many talibés would also get food from local families so there was less stress on the daara’s resources. And if a child took up a begging bowl, it had a different purpose. “Quranic schools are not just about teaching the Quran,” Diagne says, “but also [about] teaching them to become fully accomplished human beings. Teaching them humility was part of the general education. And humility would come from having to beg.”

But as many of the daaras moved from the countryside to the big city, talibés no longer worked the fields, and many of them applied themselves full time to begging for food and money. Cheikhouna Lo teaches at a daara that his ancestors started nearly 100 years ago just outside of the holy city Touba. His daara prohibits talibé begging. But he said they need the government’s help to survive. “Quranic schools are the choice of Senegalese people,” Lo said. “We pay taxes, and it is from these taxes that the state does its work and develops programs. We have a right to all of that, too.”

But sheer logistics make it difficult for the government to either help or regulate daaras, because many daaras go under the radar. Diagne said it’s easy to open a daara. “To have a Quranic school would mean just to come and see a few families and say you will teach them the Quran,” he says. “And they will bring their children. It’s very hard to control that and to measure this.”

A 2010 Human Rights Watch report quoted a government official who said the number of daaras almost doubled between 2002 and 2009 in the coastal town of Mbour. That report also called for the Senegalese government to crack down on forced talibé begging, some of which is associated with child trafficking. And the government did; in August 2010, the government started to round up talibés and abusive marabouts to enforce laws against public begging and against forcing minors to beg, laws that had been on the books since 2005. A judge later sentenced seven marabouts to probation and gave them fines of $200 for abusing their talibés.

Although Human Rights Watch reports a decline in talibé begging since the crackdown began, it’s not clear where the talibés have gone. As it is, the government sweeps may have just pushed the talibés further underground, forcing them to beg at night. Corinne Dufka, the senior West African researcher at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement that while the actions by the government are a good first step, the response is incomplete. “The crackdown should be making life difficult for those abusing the children, not the victims, themselves,” she said.

The Senegalese Ministry of Education says it is trying to address these problems by starting a daara inspection unit. The goal is to integrate daaras into the national system of education. Amadou Mbaye works in the unit, which launched in 2008 but is still in a preliminary phase. He said they are establishing standards to determine who can open a daara. They would also like to make sure that more daaras teach subjects in addition to the Quran, like French and math. In return, he said, the religious schools should have access to food programs and other forms of financial assistance.

Mbaye acknowledges that the criminal element — those marabouts who use their talibés to make money for themselves — may persist. But he believes this program will help good marabouts who are desperate to support their schools. The daara inspection unit’s attempts at regulation, therefore, shouldn’t concentrate on crackdowns and arrests, he says, but on helping vulnerable daaras. “The government has a responsibility to guarantee access to quality education to all children,” Mbaye says. “Now, if someone wakes up one day and decides to open a daara, the government has the obligation not just to help him, but to control what he’s doing. It’s up to the state to see what he’s doing.”

Mbaye says the government will rely on daara associations, now sprouting up all over the country, to help identify religious schools that exploit their charges. He thinks the government and the religious schools can work together to improve conditions for talibés. But the daara inspection unit is still, clearly, a project in the works, and marabouts in far-flung places have yet to feel its influence.

 

“Like” Miller-McCune on Facebook.

Follow Miller-McCune on Twitter.

Add Miller-McCune.com news to your site.

Subscribe to Miller-McCune

Jori Lewis
Jori Lewis is an award-winning freelance writer and radio journalist based in Brooklyn, N.Y. She has reported for numerous outlets, including Public Radio International's The World, the Online NewsHour and Salon.com.

More From Jori Lewis

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and PSmag.com, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

November 25 • 4:00 PM

Is the Federal Reserve Bank of New York Doing Enough to Monitor Wall Street?

Bank President William Dudley says supervision is stronger than ever, but Democratic senators are unconvinced: “You need to fix it, Mr. Dudley, or we need to get someone who will.”


November 25 • 3:30 PM

Cultural Activities Help Seniors Retain Health Literacy

New research finds a link between the ability to process health-related information and regular attendance at movies, plays, and concerts.


November 25 • 12:00 PM

Why Did Doctors Stop Giving Women Orgasms?

You can thank the rise of the vibrator for that, according to technology historian Rachel Maines.


November 25 • 10:08 AM

Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.


November 25 • 10:00 AM

If It’s Yellow, Seriously, Let It Mellow

If you actually care about water and the future of the species, you’ll think twice about flushing.


November 25 • 8:00 AM

Sometimes You Should Just Say No to Surgery

The introduction of national thyroid cancer screening in South Korea led to a 15-fold increase in diagnoses and a corresponding explosion of operations—but no difference in mortality rates. This is a prime example of over-diagnosis that’s contributing to bloated health care costs.



November 25 • 6:00 AM

The Long War Between Highbrow and Lowbrow

Despise The Avengers? Loathe the snobs who despise The Avengers? You’re not the first.


November 25 • 4:00 AM

Are Women More Open to Sex Than They Admit?

New research questions the conventional wisdom that men overestimate women’s level of sexual interest in them.


November 25 • 2:00 AM

The Geography of Innovation, or, Why Almost All Japanese People Hate Root Beer

Innovation is not a product of population density, but of something else entirely.


November 24 • 4:00 PM

Federal Reserve Announces Sweeping Review of Its Big Bank Oversight

The Federal Reserve Board wants to look at whether the views of examiners are being heard by higher-ups.



November 24 • 2:00 PM

That Catcalling Video Is a Reminder of Why Research Methods Are So Important

If your methods aren’t sound then neither are your findings.


November 24 • 12:00 PM

Yes, Republicans Can Still Win the White House

If the economy in 2016 is where it was in 2012 or better, Democrats will likely retain the White House. If not, well….


November 24 • 11:36 AM

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it’s relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.


November 24 • 10:00 AM

Why Are Patients Drawn to Certain Doctors?

We look for an emotional fit between our physicians and ourselves—and right now, that’s the best we can do.


November 24 • 8:00 AM

Why Do We Elect Corrupt Politicians?

Voters, it seems, are willing to forgive—over and over again—dishonest yet beloved politicians if they think the job is still getting done.



November 24 • 6:00 AM

They Steal Babies, Don’t They?

Ethiopia, the Hague, and the rise and fall of international adoption. An exclusive investigation of internal U.S. State Department documents describing how humanitarian adoptions metastasized into a mini-industry shot through with fraud, becoming a source of income for unscrupulous orphanages, government officials, and shady operators—and was then reined back in through diplomacy, regulation, and a brand-new federal law.


November 24 • 4:00 AM

Nudging Drivers, and Pedestrians, Into Better Behavior

Daniel Pink’s new series, Crowd Control, premieres tonight on the National Geographic Channel.


November 21 • 4:00 PM

Why Are America’s Poorest Toddlers Being Over-Prescribed ADHD Drugs?

Against all medical guidelines, children who are two and three years old are getting diagnosed with ADHD and treated with Adderall and other stimulants. It may be shocking, but it’s perfectly legal.



November 21 • 2:00 PM

The Best Moms Let Mess Happen

That’s the message of a Bounty commercial that reminds this sociologist of Sharon Hays’ work on “the ideology of intensive motherhood.”


November 21 • 12:00 PM

Eating Disorders Are Not Just for Women

Men, like women, are affected by our cultural preoccupation with thinness. And refusing to recognize that only makes things worse.


November 21 • 10:00 AM

Queens of the South

Inside Asheville, North Carolina’s 7th annual Miss Gay Latina pageant.


Follow us


Geography, Race, and LOLs

The online lexicon spreads through racial and ethnic groups as much as it does through geography and other traditional linguistic measures.

Feeling—Not Being—Wealthy Cuts Support for Economic Redistribution

A new study suggests it's relative wealth that leads people to oppose taxing the rich and giving to the poor.

Sufferers of Social Anxiety Disorder, Your Friends Like You

The first study of friends' perceptions suggest they know something's off with their pals but like them just the same.

Standing Up for My Group by Kicking Yours

Members of a minority ethnic group are less likely to express support for gay equality if they believe their own group suffers from discrimination.

How Old Brains Learn New Tricks

A new study shows that the neural plasticity needed for learning doesn't vanish as we age—it just moves.

The Big One

One in two United States senators and two in five House members who left office between 1998 and 2004 became lobbyists. November/December 2014

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.