Jan 27, 2021

The Struggle Continues

Issa Kouyaté reports on the rescue of 28 talibé boys abandoned in the street

At the height of the shut-down in Saint Louis due to Covid-19, Maison de la Gare rescued talibé children from the street in the Leona district of the city.   These children originated from the town of Kaffrine in central Senegal and from a neighboring village.

The daara involved in this story has always been a source of concern because of the harsh education system used with its talibés. Many runaways whom we have recovered from the streets in recent years have come from this daara. As a result, the prefect of Saint Louis ordered that the daara be closed. The marabout responded by moving to another location in the same neighborhood.

The new location that the marabout found was in a building under construction. He rented this half-finished house, and the children themselves paid the rent from the proceeds of their begging. The walls were ready, but there were no windows or doors and no electricity or water. The house was deteriorating day by day and the landlord gave an ultimatum to the marabout to find another place, because he wanted to finish the construction.

After six months, the owner forced the children out. He barricaded the house because the talibé children, now abandoned by their marabout, had no other place to stay and always returned, jumping over the fences to sleep there at night. The marabout had returned to Saloum in southern Senegal to tend to his crops there, leaving the children to their own devices. They relied on neighbors to give them leftover food.

It was at this point that a concerned neighbor called Maison de la Gare to inform us about this desperate situation and to urge us to come to the aid of these children. We went to the premises and, to our great surprise, recognized many children whom we had found on the streets in the past and had registered as runaways or as victims of abuse. We first called the marabout who told us that he was absent from the city and that the older talibés, the assistant marabouts, would take care of the situation.

However, with the risk of Covid-19 and the desperate situation of these children, we could not leave things as they were. We invited all the children to join us at our center. At the same time, we filed a complaint with the authorities, informing them that these children had been abandoned by their marabout.

Maison de la Gare decided to take care of the children until they could be returned to their families.  After the marabout had been charged by the authorities, we were granted a temporary custody order. 32 street children were entrusted to us and, of these, 28 were to be returned to their families. The four talibés who were not returned were sons of marabouts who did not want their children to return to the village. The 28 children spent 21 days living in our center before the court issued an order for their immediate return to their families.

Issa and our street educator Mamadou Gueye accompanied the children for the return trip, which turned out to be a 23-hour journey. This return trip was organized with the support of the Saint Louis public prosecutor, who took care of the security of the convoy and provided instructions for where each child was to be taken. They also contacted authorities in Kaffrine and the village for case-by-case follow-up.

The village chief welcomed the children, as the families had not travelled to meet them. All documents confirming transfer of responsibility for the children were stamped by this village chief. However, after we had returned to Saint Louis, we learned that the families had rejected allowing their children to remain in the village.

 

The marabout returned to the village about a month later and, with the parents’ consent, once again took charge of most of the returned children. He travelled back to Saint Louis with them, and the children returned to begging for him on the streets.

But all is not lost. The marabout now knows how far we can go to protect the children, to the extreme if we must. The prosecutor ordered that the former premises be closed, and this was done. The marabout has rented a new site where basic sanitary and safety restrictions will be respected. Also, we are now in regular, direct contact with the children of this daara, and they no longer feel desperate to run away. The marabout is following the measures ordered by the authorities for the children’s protection.

These children now understand what abuse is, and they know what they must do if they are abused.

Links:

Jan 8, 2021

Karate Gives the Gift of Discipline, and More

Six years ago a young Canadian volunteer and karate black belt, Robbie Hughes founded the karate program at Maison de la Gare. Karate was Robbie’s passion, and he wanted to share it with the children of Maison de la Gare when he visited to volunteer with his family. 

Over the years Robbie has returned many times to Maison de la Gare, to train with the talibés, expand the karate program, and to identify and register talibé children who were developing a similar passion for karate and who were ready to advance their skills, at the local dojo, Sor Karate with sensei Ignéty Ba.

In Robbie’s words: 

While the karate program at Maison de la Gare offers strength and agility development and teaches kids important self defence skills, its main objective is to promote and facilitate the discovery of discipline, confidence, leadership and sportsmanship.

In my opinion the greatest accomplishment of the Karate Can Kick Hopelessness project is the ongoing development of discipline. Discipline isn’t only important to karate, it is an essential factor to learning how to progress regardless of the challenges we face, and to eventually leading a productive and fulfilling life, no matter who you are or where you live.

Discipline unlocks an individual’s ability to be their best self. It teaches one how to get things done, how to have the courage to move forward when life feels hard. Sometimes there are days when I don’t feel like getting out of bed at 6:00am to do a workout or to go to work after a full day of classes. But years of training karate and the example of my senseis gave me the discipline to do what needs to be done. We all have little hills we need to climb from time to time. But the talibés have mountains to climb each and every day. They leave their daaras before the sun rises. They spend hours each day begging on their own on the streets, they do not have parents or teachers to encourage or lead them and they never have enough to eat. They return to their daaras in the dark, not to beds, loving parents, and a hot meal, but to a cold floor, a hand held out to receive their begging quotas, with grumbling stomachs. Mountains. Every day.

When you give someone the opportunity to pursue and learn difficult things, they can learn something unique about themselves from accomplishment as well as failure. They can learn that they have the ability inside of them to overcome the hard and seemingly impossible challenges in life. Such as the challenges talibés face every day of their lives. Overcoming challenge and learning skills also gives a person the opportunity to become proud of themselves. Like myself, for many of Maison de la Gare’s karate kids martial arts has been the catalyst for a deeper realization of individual ability, self worth, and understanding of the discipline needed to overcome life’s challenges.

Until now Robbie has given annual presentations at his home dojo in Ottawa to encourage  families of his fellow karateka to sponsor talibés in Senegal to also be able to join and train in their local dojo, and has encouraged donations when attending WKC World Karate Championships as a member of Team Canada. Unfortunately, this year due to Covid-19 Robbie has not been able to encourage donations and sponsorships in person as he usually does. The talibés karatekas of Maison de la Gare-Sor Karate need your help so their dojo memberships can be renewed and so new talibé karateka who are ready to join the dojo are able to register.

Donations to the karate program through GlobalGiving allow the talibés who have grown to love karate the ability to continue to practice the sport they love, to continue to grow in their independence and confidence and skill. Your donations will offer the gift of martial arts to more talibés, more opportunity for talibés to feel seen and supported by the world. More opportunity to learn confidence and discipline. And, more opportunity for them to shine and be celebrated as individuals, to become heroes and role models to other talibé children.

Instructor, Bouaro with Maison de la Gare karateka
Instructor, Bouaro with Maison de la Gare karateka
Maison de la Gare -Sor karate class
Maison de la Gare -Sor karate class
Tournament winner, Sedou
Tournament winner, Sedou
karate class at Maison de la Gare
karate class at Maison de la Gare
karateka wearing a donated uniform
karateka wearing a donated uniform

Links:

Dec 30, 2020

Who are the Talibes? Why Do They Beg?

Rowan shares her understanding of this complex issue, after eight years involved with Maison de la Gare and the talibé children  

Across the globe and throughout history, certain vulnerable groups have been unfairly exploited. And their exploiters in positions of power have taken advantage of this and the law has turned a blind eye.

The Senegalese talibé system has its roots in the 14th century but it has evolved dramatically since about the 1960s, from a respected system of religious education and character building into a fraught system of exploitation. Today, predominantly rural families entrust their sons to urban-based Islamic teachers known as marabouts. However, instead of receiving the anticipated Islamic education, tens of thousands of these “talibé” children typically experience conditions of deprivation, extreme corporal punishment and being forced to beg for daily quotas of money as well as their own food for 8 to 10 hours a day.  The United Nations considers the talibé system today to be a form of modern slavery.

Marabouts

Marabouts are the principal perpetrators of talibé abuses. Some of them have recruitment systems that extend to villages in neighboring countries, escalating the talibé system to international child trafficking. Many marabouts force their talibés to beg for their own personal enrichment, but it was not always this way. 

The talibé system originated as one of the first formal systems of education in West Africa, based on a trust relationship in which marabouts were responsible to and supported by local populations. All talibés, whatever their origin or family wealth, practiced a moderate amount of begging, not to enrich the marabout but rather to teach them humility. Daaras were in the community or a nearby village where their proximity to home allowed talibés and their families to remain in close contact. Families made small financial contributions to the daara and children regularly returned home to eat, wash, clean their clothes, and to spend time with their families.

Just over half a century ago when drought worsened in Senegal, severe impoverishment resulted in rural villages. This induced many marabouts to move their daaras to relatively more prosperous cities. Rising poverty in the villages made it difficult for families to continue to financially support the marabouts and, after the transition to cities, parents ceased to play an active role in supporting their sons. This migration of daaras from rural villages has expanded to become thousands of daaras in cities across Senegal today, where marabouts use forced begging by the children as their primary means of support.

Civil Society

Civil society’s role is key to understanding why forced begging persists. Senegalese citizens contribute to condemning the talibé system to be a classic poverty trap. They coexist daily with the talibés and are often indifferent to their distress. Even worse, most citizens donate generously to talibé begging bowls but, unfortunately for the talibés, this generosity only feeds the system which exploits them.

Senegalese support of the talibé system is deeply rooted in the country’s religious and cultural history. Koranic schools have been a key symbol of Muslim identity in West Africa since the 14th century and marabouts, as the leaders of these schools, have an unusually strong influence. An emphasis on rote learning and Muslim duty reinforces individuals giving to the talibés less out of compassion than from societal expectations, without examining too closely who or what they are really giving to. Some of the abuses experienced by talibés in daaras are not considered as offensive to Senegalese society as they may be to international organizations that advocate for children’s rights. Further, some of the most serious abuses happen out of the public eye and are thus easy to overlook.

Civil society is a critical lever of potential change; if individuals stopped giving to the talibés, the system would quickly come to an end.

Other Actors

The state has had a dual role in perpetuating the talibé system: not enforcing forced-begging laws, and indirectly legitimizing the begging daara system as an educational system. Senegal’s penal code long ago criminalized forced child begging. However, only a handful of cases have been prosecuted in a landscape of thousands of daaras where children are forced to beg.  This governmental laxity reflects the political influence of the marabouts, the overwhelming scope of the problem, and scarce resources. Despite political rhetoric, enforcement of forced begging laws remains elusive. 

There are many in Senegalese society who call for change. Some civil society organizations, Maison de la Gare being a leader among them, work to educate people about the severity of the conditions faced by talibés. These organizations have had an important impact in improving the children’s living conditions and prospects for the future, and they advocate tirelessly for an end to the talibé begging system.

The international community is another actor that could play a stronger role in encouraging the state to change its behavior with respect to the talibé system. For example, by pressuring government leaders with respect to human rights for children and supporting the civil society organizations that work to end forced begging, such as Maison de la Gare.

Families of talibé children are important actors as well. If parents stopped sending their children to be talibés, the system would fall apart. However, the importance of Islamic education and the influence of marabouts are particularly powerful with rural and often uneducated parents. Furthermore, when there are no local schools, families have very few options if they want their children to receive an education, and the promise of an Islamic education in an urban daara is often the only option available. Finally, some parents are simply unaware of the severity of the conditions of deprivation, forced begging and abuse experienced by their children. 

 

The unintended consequences of parents sending their boys from rural villages to the cities are far reaching and severe for society, not just for the talibés. A visitor to many rural villages in Senegal that have sent boys to be talibés in the cities will observe a dramatically disproportionate number of girls. It is common in these villages for girls to marry as young as 13 or 14 to older men who already have other wives.  The lack of schools in rural villages not only encourages the talibé system but promotes polygamy, child marriage and female illiteracy.

Another distressing unintended consequence is the inability of talibés to become productive members of Senegalese society.  Issa Kouyaté, Maison de la Gare’s founder and president, has long understood this. His primary objective for Maison de la Gare, apart from ultimately ending forced begging in Senegal, is to provide means for talibé youth to learn to become successful and productive members of society. 

What can we do?

The trap that talibé children experience is a result of many complex factors. Marabouts, civil society, the talibés’ families, government, and the international community all are actors who play a role, either through action, or through lack of action that perpetuates the horrors of the talibé system. Influencing parents to keep their children at home by building schools in rural areas and encouraging daaras to return to their rural roots have significant potential, as does pressure and targeted aid from the international community.

We can also work to establish an effect collaboration between parents, marabouts, talibé children, civil society, and organizations like Maison de la Gare. Direct communication between all these stakeholders is essential if we are to achieve true protection for the children. Together, we can dismantle the illegal practices of the exploiters. Only such a collaboration can bring about real change for these thousands of abused children.

Importantly for our readers, donations made through grassroots organizations such as Maison de la Gare offer more than just hope. They offer the potential for real change.

_____________

Rowan Hughes first visited Maison de la Gare in 2012 at the age of 14. Since that time, she has made nine more trips to Saint Louis as a volunteer and is now completing a degree in International Development at the University of Guelph in Canada.

Rowan heading to school with talibe Arouna in 2014
Rowan heading to school with talibe Arouna in 2014
Talibe children in a Saint Louis daara
Talibe children in a Saint Louis daara
Literacy classes at Maison de la Gare
Literacy classes at Maison de la Gare
Happy moments at Maison de la Gare
Happy moments at Maison de la Gare

Links:

 
WARNING: Javascript is currently disabled or is not available in your browser. GlobalGiving makes extensive use of Javascript and will not function properly with Javascript disabled. Please enable Javascript and refresh this page.