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.
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.