A Miseducation

On the day he decided to run away, 9-year-old Coli awoke on a filthy mat. Like a pup, he lay curled against the cold, pressed between dozens of other children sleeping head-to-toe on the concrete floor. His T-shirt was damp with the dew that seeped through the thin walls. The older boys had yanked away the square of cloth he used to protect himself from the draft. He shivered.

Reported in 2008, Rukmini Callimachi of the Associated Press used the poignant story of Coli as an entree into the world of Senegal’s tens of thousands of Talibés– residents of boarding schools designed to give children without access to education a Quranic education. But as circumstances gradually forced the schools, or daaras, out of the countryside and into the cities, the tradition of educating poor boys with strong Islamic values turned into institutionalized forced begging.

Two years later, conditions for Talibés have not improved, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report entitled “Off the Backs of Children.”

Senegal was ranked on the Tier 2 Watch List of the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons Report, released in June. A Tier 2 ranking indicates that a country has not achieved minimum standards, according to the U.S., in addressing trafficking, but is making efforts toward improvement.

Senegal was cited for all the usual menaces– gold mining, commercial sexual exploitation, and domestic servitude. But the West African country also suffers from a very unique scourge that has grown out of a long and sacred tradition. Unlike many of the world’s millions of trafficked children, Coli and others like him were not stolen, or even bought. They are handed over for free, often with their parents’ blessing, to a marabout– an Islamic teacher who provides religious education to children in daaras.


Two Talibes sit in the window-breezeway between rooms in their makeshift home.

While the report acknowledges that some daaras still fulfill their mandate to educate boys in the ways of Islam, others– particularly those in urban areas– have turned the system into a form of institutionalized slavery. In a country where most people live on less than two dollars a day, marabouts can reportedly earn as much as $60,000 a year by forcing young boys to beg, demanding strict revenue quotas, and beating them when they don’t meet them.

Many of us from wealthier worlds are often told to give begging children food rather than money. But even when Talibés receive food, it often goes to the marabout’s family while the Talibés are kept undernourished and hungry in crowded rooms. When they fall sick– as often happens since disease spreads quickly when 30 uncared-for boys sleep together in small rooms– they must beg overtime to afford medicine. An 11-year-old boy who was sent to an urban marabout at seven years old reported,

Every day I had to bring the marabout 600 CFA ($1.30), rice, and sugar. Every time I couldn’t, the marabout would beat me with an electric cord. He would strike me so many times on the back and the neck; too many to count … Each time I was beaten, I would think of my family, who never laid a hand on me. I would remember being at home. Eventually I ran away, I couldn’t handle it anymore.

Talibe boys sleep on thin mats on a dirt floor, with only inches of space. Because of the close quarters, any disease is quickly spread to the other boys.

Matt Wells is the Human Rights Watch researcher who wrote the report. He spoke to Human Goods on the phone from Dakar.

Human Goods: What exactly did you see happening on the ground that prompted you to look deeper into the issue, at the rights that were being violated here?

Matt Wells: Every day that you’re in Dakar, or any of the other major cities in Senegal, you see these kids that are generally very young– the majority under 10 years old. They’re in tattered clothes, they’re often barefoot. They’re in areas of the city where there’s a high volume of car traffic and traffickers, begging all day no matter what the conditions are. And the level of exploitation is really quite astonishing in terms of the sums they have to bring back to their Quranic teacher each day. Or rather, someone who’s pretending to be a Quranic teacher but it’s not the traditional practice at all. And so being confronted with this every day and seeing an increase in the number of these kids on the streets, we felt it was necessary to take issue and to work with a bunch of local organizations that are working on this and try to push the government of Senegal to finally act to protect these kids’ rights.

HG: Where does this tradition come from, and how is it supposed to actually work?

MW: The tradition of Quranic education dates back to the introduction of Islam into West Africa and Senegal, which dates back to at least the 14th century. Quranic schools, known here as daaras, have long been a place of religious and moral learning. Particularly in villages throughout the country, it was the place where the child mastered the Quran and learned Arabic and gained a moral education that would guide them throughout their lives. It was often run in conjunction with public education, but not always, until the 1970s. There was a series of massive droughts in the 70s which forced a mass migration of Senegalese into urban areas and this included a lot of these Quranic teachers. In the urban areas particularly, the traditional practice has been twisted into a form of economic exploitation where instead of providing any Quranic education at all, teachers force kids to beg on the streets for long hours each day. Traditionally kids might go to a family in the community each day and they would receive lunch and dinner and then go back to the daara where they would eat as a community with the other kids in the school. But there was no begging in the sense that it exists now, where kids might be on the street for eight or ten hours a day in search for a set sum of money that they bring back to the marabout, who uses essentially none of it for the child’s benefit.

Talibe boys making their way to a busy street corner, for a day of begging

HG: How much money are they expected to bring back each day?

MW: The amount of money depends in a large part on the size of the city. There’s obviously greater wealth in Dakar, which leads to a higher sum that’s demanded in most daaras here. Often in Dakar you see around 500 CFA Francs which is the equivalent of about 1 USD per child per day. Greater sums are demanded on Friday, which is the holy day, a day of greater almsgiving. This means the marabout can demand more from the child on that day. When you’re talking abot 50 kids in a daara at least — it’s often up to 100 kids– in a country in which a majority of people live on less than 2USD a day, these are quite significant amounts that are coming in to the marabout. And he often not only demands a certain amonut of money each day a certain amount of uncooked wheat and sugar that is not used for the child’s benefit. I interviewed a number of kids who described bringing back one or two kilograms of rice each day, and the marabout bags it and sells it back to the community.

Talibes live off the scraps and leftovers that they are able to collect on the streets.

HG: Is this the norm for marabouts, or an exception? How many of these daaras are exploiting children in this way?

MW: We found that this level of exploitation touches at least 50,000 children in Senegal in these residential daaras. The vast majority of abuses take place in Quranic schools in which children are sent or brought to live with the marabout full time. But there are hundreds or thousands of other daaras led by marabout in villages and cities throughout the country in which this type of exploitation doesn’t take place. In fact some of the people that I interviewed that were the most outraged were Quranic teachers that take the role of providing a religious and moral education quite seriously and see what the others are doing as a subversion of Islam. They told me repeatedly that begging– much less forced begging– is against the tenets of Islam.  So a number of religious leaders– and I think you could say the “true” religious leaders of Senegal– are quite opposed to the practice.

HG: Is that confusing for parents considering sending their child to such schools? To what extent can parents be aware that this might happen to their child, and how much can they say no to someone who has religious clout in this sense?

MW: The marabout certainly has a lot of authority here. And again, most of them use that authority for good. But even those who do not are held in high esteem. And a lot of times it might be an older relative, or someone from the community, that’s asking the parent for the child.  So it’s often difficult for social reasons to say no in this society where elders are held in very high esteem. And of course often the parents trust the person they’re sending the child with because it’s someone they know, so they think that even if other children are being exploited out there, it won’t happen to theirs. You see then when these children are sometimes sent back home to villages with the help of NGOs, parents are shocked to hear the level of abuse that took place. Although, there are also some cases which struck me quite hard in which parents actually sent the child back to the Quranic teacher despite knowing the level of abuse. These kids have no outlet, they have nowhere to go if they’re physically abused or forced to beg again, which usually happens. So they run away again and have to basically take up a life on the streets throughout the country. This has led to a real rise in the number of permanent street children in Senegal.

HG: Why would parents send them back? Is it economic necessity? Coercion? Fear?

MW: A combination of economic reasons. You see sometimes that the decision is made in a particularly bad year in terms of the harvest. Or at times there’s unaffordable school fees, so sending the child away to a daara takes away the cost at home but takes away the school costs as well. A lot of times these marabouts are respected in a community, so it’s quite difficult to say no to them. It risks some level of being ostracized by the community.

HG: Are most of the families in rural Senegal, or are they coming in from other countries as well?

MW: The majority of children that are in this situation in Senegal are Senegalese, but there’s certainly a large influence from neighboring countries. Senegal, compared to its neighbors in the sub-region, is relatively more affluent, particularly in the urban areas. And so there has been a pull from Guinea-Bissau, from Conakry (Guinea), from Mali, to a lesser extent from the Gambia– these false Quranic teachers come to urban areas in Senegal where the money is and they bring the kids with them.

HG: Is it a trend unique to Senegal or does it also happen in other Islamic countries?

MW: The number of boys that it touches and the level of exploitation through the sums that are demanded in forced begging is fairly unique to Senegal, but the practice does exist in the region. One of the important things in terms of getting action from Senegal and other governments in the region is that not only does Senegal need to confront this problem full on, but we need to make sure that it doesn’t reach this level in other countries. We saw in Guinea-Bissau that just within the last half-decade there, kids have started begging particularly in Bissau itself. It was a phenomenon that didn’t exist five years ago according to people there. So without effective action quickly, it does risk exploding in other countries.

HG: Why do you believe it has gone unaddressed for so long? Is it just a lack of political will?  Or corruption?

MW:  There’s been a sense that it touches on religion and so it’s too sensitive to touch.  The brotherhoods in Senegal– there’s four of them in Senegal, it’s a Sufi form of religion in which each person has a spiritual guide that provides a lot of direction throughout their life– it’s organized into four brotherhoods here.  Two of them have a lot of political and social power, and there’s been a sense that to touch this you risk losing votes, you risk alienating these very powerful forces.  But the reality is far from that.  We have met with people high up in both of these brotherhoods who clearly recognize that the practice is a subversion of Islam and they’re quite opposed to it.  In fact, they’re looking for government leadership on the subject.  The government resistance is rather unfortunate, because the exploitation of children is never too sensitive to touch.

Disease is rampant among the Talibes, especially the youngest, whose hands show the effects of scabies.

HG: It seems that developing criminal disincentives can work in the short term.  But what needs to happen in the long term, as far as economic empowerment or creating education?

MW: There has been an introduction of prevention programs which are incredibly important, empowering villages and working to make it so that it’s far more possible for families to keep their children at home and not have the financial and sometimes social incentives that push child migration.  But at the same time there’s been a real lack of will to add accountability, justice, and regulation to the idea of prevention.  Prevention is incredibly important, but it needs to be done in conjunction with penalties for those who are clearly abusing and exploiting children.  And also the case here is that you’re talking about unregulated schools– they’re completely unregulated.  They’re entirely outside of the law, which means that anyone can open one of these regardless of his religious or educational credentials.  And that means it’s ripe for exploitation, it’s ripe for those who see it as an opportunity to make a buck off the backs of children.

HG: Last year I was reporting in India, and there are a lot of street children there as well.  I find it interesting to watch the varied responses that people have to children begging.  There are those who adamantly say to not give money because most begging children are trafficked, and that’s true.  Any money that you give ends up feeding the trafficker.  But the other option is that they don’t make their quota and get beaten.  So there are differing opinions about how we should respond to a child who begs for money.

MW: I think it’s a really tough question, and I think each individual person has to figure it out for themselves.  As you say, on the one hand the money does feed right into the system and incentivizes the exploitation.  On the other hand, that individual child, if he doesn’t bring the money back he will be brutally beaten.  Personally, I think giving food is always a good idea.  I certainly recommend that over giving nothing.  In many of these situations the kids are not fed, which leads to a ton of health problems.  But at the same time I understand those who do give money.

HG: Studying the suffering of children in such a prolonged and intense way is quite an overwhelming task.

MW: Certainly at times it’s quite difficult.  There are individual stories you hear from kids that effect you more than others do.  Sometimes it’s not even necessarily the worst things.  I can remember stories from kids who describe everyone around them with the ability to play soccer, which is ubiquitous in Dakar.  But their Quranic teacher, any time they wanted to go out to play, pulled out the whip or baton that he would use to beat them with instead.  You know, if you have time to play you have time to beg.  So they essentially had no right to be a child, to take part in those activities that defined childhood for all those around them.  This work gets you to see it in the kids’ face and see how much they recognize and feel their own abuse.

Ndom, a Talibe boy sits among many of the cans of the other boys. Inside the cans are the boys’ breakfast.

HG: Have you seen transformation in individual children who have been restored to their families, or taken to an aftercare home?

MW: I interviewed kids that were back in their villages of origin that were with their families and enrolled in school, frequently also learning the Quran as well.  You could definitely see a difference in those kids.  You could see the fact that they were finally being able to be a kid and learn to grow.

HG: What gives you hope in this situation?

MW: Two things.  One is the willingness of the kids themselves to tell their stories.  The courage to tell their stories, and the recognition of what that does.  And the second is movement, even if slow and small, and seeing government actors and others start to see the problems and start to increase the discourse among themselves to find solutions.  At times it can be very slow and frustrating, but there are times also when you see how it’s progressing.

HG:  What do you tell people when they ask you what you’re doing this for?

MW: The world has gotten so small, and at times there’s a perception that these things are too big, they can’t be tackled.  But the reality is they can be tackled.  It takes concerted action from governments, civil society, communities, families, and individuals.  But the reality is that these things can be faced. They can be improved.  They’re not intractable problems.  And there are solutions out there.

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You can read Matt’s full report at Human Rights Watch.

You can also visit the UK Talibe Project, which runs La Maison de la Gare, dedicated to improving the lives of Talibes in Senegal.

(Photography on Talibes in Senegal by Roy M. Bourroughs)

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1 Comment

  1. Sam S says:

    Interesting article–I witnessed a similar problem with kids in Talibé schools in Chad. Perhaps the problem is more widespread than just West African countries…

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