Sunday, July 8, 2007

Born to Beg, Senegal

Students in Koranic schools learn the hard way

The street children huddled together like a shell-shocked platoon. Every movement was slow, unsure and uncalculated.

One boy stared at the fish vendors. One watched the woodworkers. Another looked at the sand between his toes.

Their eyes betrayed nothing. Not one thought. No plans or expectations. No fear.

Across the road, a 29-year-old Senegalese man flip-flopped into a café. From the four items scrawled in red on the wall he picked a steak sandwich.

He bantered with the owner in French and slid 300 CFA franks (about 60 U.S. cents) across the counter. Then he moved outside to eat.

“What’s your name?” the young man with sunglasses on his head asked a street boy who lingered after the others had come and gone.

“Idy,” he replied. His shaved head rocked awkwardly on his shoulders. He looked to be about seven years old, in an adult-length T-shirt.

“What’s your last name?”

Idy looked down and mumbled, “Diallo.”

The man's feet sat flat on his sandals. They talked in Wolof, a local language. Idy spoke nothing else.

“How much money do you have to collect?” he asked.

“250 CFA.”

“What happens if you don’t bring that much?”

He had Idy’s attention. Idy laughed as the man repeated his question.

“He whips us,” Idy said.

“Why do you laugh?”

Idy’s eyebrows twisted. “Ask anyone, they’ll tell you,” he said in a sudden whimper.

“Where does he hit you?”

Idy paused, then bent over as if being whipped. He removed his shirt. His back was dry and scratched but not scarred.

“What does he use?”

“A wire.”

The young man slid two coins across the table and Idy stretched open his hands. It was a day’s wage. Without a word, he dashed away with the money, then stopped in the middle of the road.

Restraining his excitement, he spun around, threw his hands in the air and unleashed a smile so big it almost knocked him in the sand -


Sand that has been making headlines in Senegal since the 1960s. Dunes in the north have slid south.

The sand flows under trees set far apart. It ripples across roads. It eddies around big rocks and crawls into the agape mouths of dead livestock. In one town, the houses are made of sand. Adrift in an arid sea they are almost invisible. Only one building rises above the clutter. It’s a mosque. It’s concrete. It’s green and yellow.

The first big drought on record hit the southern Sahara, known as the Sahel, in 1968 and killed 250,000 people, according to reports from IRIN, a UN news network.

People fleeing to the coast were funneled onto Cape Verde peninsula. Here, where they could run no further, they lost the quiet of the countryside for the chaos of Dakar, West Africa’s most western and Western city.

Ramshackle huts give way to modern architecture around the zone Camberene II. Peanuts, mobile phones, tennis shoes and pint-sized bags of purified water bob up and down the streets in the hands of peddlers. Taxis with praises to Allah rainbowed across their windshields speed between buses and colorful horse-drawn carts.

Families in Camberene II live together in complexes with courtyards where meter-high jugs of water and grain are kept in the shade. A smooth stucco finish hides strong, cinderblock construction. The houses have beds and couches, glass windows and wood doors – except one.

Its owners have moved away but the house isn't vacant. Its doorless and windowless façade reveals boys in every room, clothed in rags, silently scrambling to put away their Koran-inscribed planks.

It’s a boarding school out of a nightmare. It’s a smoked-out, roofless, crumbling ruin. It’s a daara.

The recitations of the Koran end almost as soon as they begin and the students, called talibes, quickly return to a life of begging on the streets. If they don’t find food, they go hungry. If they don’t collect 250 CFA for their teacher, they are beaten.

Their families almost never know, according to Annie Ciolfi, the vice president of a French nonprofit called Les Gones de M'Bour that provides basic health and human services to the talibes. Their parents, if they are still alive, are most likely hundreds of miles away on a drought-ravaged farm.

Traditionally, children attended daaras in their villages. According to Beuz Camara, a former talibe, they studied the Koran under the supervision of a religious leader called a marabout and supported him by working in his field and collecting donations from neighbors. They returned to their families at night. It was a lesson in hard work, humility and perserverence, valuable life lessons in the Sahel.

But when the farms dried out, the marabouts moved the daaras to the cities, far away from the supervision of parents or rural restrictions. Schools sprung up wherever unoccupied buildings could be found and education took on new dimensions.

"There are many that abuse the system," Ciolfi said, through a translator. "Money is easy to make in the city. Now anyone can become a marabout."


Some marabouts make their students beg for ten or more hours a day, according to Ciolfi. They use the money to support their own families; the talibes receive nothing. The kids, mostly five to ten-year-olds, live by their wits, vulnerable to abuse. No job is too menial if it means food, water, clothes or money for the marabout. Koranic lessons are kept short. Life lessons are long.

In spite of this, marabouts are still revered. There is no more honorable occupation in Senegal, according to many. People daily seek out marabouts to give them gifts in exchange for counsel, a word from the Koran or a blessing.

“The daaras have always been places where our most positive values have been perpetuated,” reads one 2006 report by the Association for the Development of Education in Africa.

Pictures of marabouts adorn every shop in Camberene II. When one patron enters, he approaches a picture of marabout Amadou Bamba in reverence, stumbling over his words and touching the picture with kisses.

The most famous of marabouts, Bamba established the Mouride Brotherhood at the turn of the 20th century, a now prominent Sufi order of Islam that prioritizes submission to a personal marabout in the search for salvation.

“I love my marabout,” the shopper, Moctar Gueye, said. “I love, love my marabout.”

Alpha Mayoro Wele, a local artist, paints nothing but pictures of Amadou Bamba.

“Everywhere in Africa has war. Why not in Senegal?” Wele asked, and answered, “We don’t believe to have a nice house. We believe in God.”


The house is nice where Canadian volunteer Jennifer Blanchard is standing, on a balcony that overlooks a small daara in Sali, a town adrift in sand and plastic bottles 50 miles south of Dakar. Maybe because it's too dark in the daara, the talibes have huddled in the entryway to recite their verses.

“They are so eager to learn,” says Blanchard. The chanting grows louder and more broken as the boys surge in and out of cadence with each other.

"But you see how their clothes are torn ... ” Blanchard cries. The boys are almost yelling now.

Cries because she knows most of the kids don’t remember where they are from. Cries for five boys who were hit by a car last August and turned away at the hospital because they had no money. Cries for a kid named Musa who came to Les Gones de M'Bour with an inch-deep cut on his back. Cries for the talibes’ future. Almost all the boys say they want to be marabouts someday.

The Geneva-based International Organization for Migration has people working in Senegal to return mistreated talibes to their villages. The UN’s International Labour Organization recently completed a program, called the Time Bound Programme, targeting the “worst forms of child labour," including begging, in the country.

Several nonprofits are helping the talibes receive training in math and French, Senegal’s national language, to prepare them for work as an adult. But steps have been small, many have reported, due to unchanging cultural attitudes.

A federal prohibition against begging is rarely enforced, Ciolfi said, because Muslim law requires believers to daily give alms. And with extreme poverty making it difficult for parents to support their children in the villages, students are often sent to Koranic schools in the city in the hopes of finding a better life.

According to a 2004 UNICEF study, 100,000 children currently seek that better life on the streets in Senegal.


Musa Bah, a 14-year-old talibe, says life was better when he lived in Liberia, 700 miles to the south. Everything about him speeds up when he lists the things he could get from his father's shop in the capital city of Monrovia.

But a civil war - in which tens of thousands were killed, many at the hands of child soldiers - forced them to flee in 2003. His family eventually returned, he said, but “there were no more schools,” in his words. His father made the long journey with him to Senegal and enrolled him in a daara.

Does he miss his parents, two brothers and two sisters?

“Of course,” Musa says.

Does he ever go hungry?

“Of course,” he repeats, looking at the football field.

Does the marabout beat him?

He jerks unnaturally and puts his hand high on the back of his neck.

“Of course,” he says and then tells how he grabbed the wire during his last beating and how he has not been beaten since.

But Musa’s daara is changing, according to Ciolfi and others. Musa begs only half the day. In addition to Koranic lessons and bowls of porridge in the mornings, Musa attends French classes at a nearby public school twice a week.

He wears white sandals on his feet. He says he wants to be a president.

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