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.

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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

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Nov 25, 2020

Portrait of Hope for Ending Talibe Child Begging

Ndèye Diodio Calloga describes four years of progress in retaining talibé children in their home villages

Young talibé children roam the streets of Saint Louis all day long, reaching out their begging pails or engaging in activities that can compromise their education, health, safety, and morals. We began the European Union project in 2016 with a complete census of these begging street children, hoping to have a major positive impact on this problem. And we did! Two parts of the project contributed to this: finding and reintegrating children living on the streets, the subject of our last report; and awareness campaigns in the towns and villages that the children come from.

Awareness campaigns in the home communities of the talibé children have proven to have enormous impact. They provide an opportunity to meet the children’s families and to better understand their living conditions and the reasons why they send their children to Saint-Louis.

We organized a total of eleven awareness campaigns throughout Senegal, with 41 sessions in some twenty areas. The choice of locations was no accident – they were the major home communities of Saint-Louis talibés including the regions of Louga, Kaolack, Kaffrine, Kolda, Matam, Podor, Tamba, Diourbel, Bambey and Saint Louis. Thousands of families continue to send their young children to Saint Louis to learn the Koran, usually in total ignorance of the fate that awaits them there. To make any progress at all in the struggle to end child begging, we must make these families aware of the lives to which they are condemning their children.

The awareness campaigns have had a huge impact. They allowed us to meet the families of the children and to better understand their living conditions and the reasons why their families send them to Saint Louis.

Our first and most striking observation was the rudimentary living conditions in the places where families live. The home visits and the many discussions and exchanges revealed that parents send their children to big cities so that they can have better living conditions, in addition to receiving Koranic teaching. We were able to better understand the real reasons for the flow of boys to large cities, and also why children returned to their homes find it difficult to stay and reintegrate. There are seldom any educational, leisure or professional activities for them other than heavy farm work, which can be very demanding.

The awareness campaigns have also contributed greatly to the work of our night rounds team in Saint Louis. It was often difficult to locate the families of talibé children found living on the street, because of the resistance and often the refusal of their marabouts to cooperate and to the vague memories of the children. The campaigns made it possible for us to establish partnership relationships with AEMOs (local offices of the Ministry of Justice) and with grassroots community organizations in all corners of Senegal. And, we established monitoring committees in several areas. These relationships now provide enormous support with family tracing, returns of children to their families, and above all in taking charge of and monitoring children after their return home.

But, how can we measure whether any real change has resulted from these efforts? Are there less begging talibé children in Saint-Louis? This was the purpose of the censuses that we carried out in early 2016 and again in December 2019.

In the first census, we catalogued all the daaras in the commune of Saint Louis.  The work was carried out by a team of ten field investigators supported by five marabout-facilitators and five supervisors. Over 95% of the marabouts responsible for the daaras collaborated in providing census information. A total of 14,779 begging talibé children were identified living in 197 daaras.

We worked closely with officials from each of the 33 neighborhoods in Saint Louis for the second census of talibé children in December 2019. They were involved both in initial information campaigns and in the actual census. Our objective was to not only to obtain the data that we needed, but also to help the officials to identify and establish relationships with the daaras in their areas so that they can exercise some oversight over them. Accompanied by these officials, our field investigators visited a total of 147 daaras and were able to identify a total of 4,973 begging talibés.

The sharp reduction in both the number of daaras and the number of begging talibés is a sure sign of progress. With your help, we will never give up the struggle to end begging and abuse of talibé children.

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This is the final of three reports presenting the dramatic advances for the begging talibé street children that were made possible by a four-year grant from the European Union, from 2016 to 2019. We are grateful for this invaluable support.

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Oct 28, 2020

Portrait of Hope for Children Living on the Street

Diodio describes four years of progress in finding and safely reintegrating boys found living on the streets

The four years of our grant from the European Union made possible a substantial improvement in the living conditions of the begging street children of Saint Louis, through our educational, healthcare, art, sports, and other programs. Our last report celebrated this progress.

A visit to Maison de la Gare’s center can be inspiring … seeing children playing like normal children, washing their clothes and brushing their teeth, and learning in their classrooms. However, one element of our work is consistently painful to accept and difficult to understand … finding boys sleeping on the streets at night alone or with one or two others. The European Union grant made it possible for us to greatly expand our efforts to find and take care of these boys, with a team of eight to ten making night rounds on the streets several times a week.

The results were more than alarming! During the four years, 984 boys were taken in from the streets including 473 minors returned to their daaras, 437 returned to their families, 55 referred to other centers and 19 who ran away from our emergency shelter.

While almost a quarter of these children were younger than 10 and a similar proportion older than 13, over half were between 10 and 13 years of age. This can probably be explained by the fact that, at this age, children can adopt a rebellious attitude. This is also the age when they begin to assert their personalities and values. They need to be listened to and understood and, if this need is not satisfied, it often leads to the talibé children running away from their daaras.

One of the unexpected challenges is the care of children who are addicted to illicit substances. We have increasingly realized the extent of the risks that street children run because they are often exploited and used by traffickers for the sale of their goods and this exposes them to use. Maison de la Gare is thus increasingly seeing delinquent children referred by the police, the courts or quite frequently by families. These children often have great difficulty in their teenage years and, without assistance and guidance, they can embark on a dangerous path and be lost forever.

When children are brought into our emergency shelter by the night rounds team, they are registered by the night staff and bedded down comfortably. In the morning, our social workers interview the children and open files for them. The children are always afraid, and it takes a great deal of wisdom and compassion to obtain their true stories. Each case is different, and often involves investigation with their marabouts and contact with their families. We work with the local office of the Ministry of Justice responsible for street children (“AEMO”) and, when appropriate, the children’s court. In many instances we are authorized to return the child concerned to their daara, or to their family which is usually in a distant corner of Senegal or, at times, in a neighboring country.

In past years, we almost never made a night round without finding several children asleep in hidden corners. Recently, however, the night-rounds team occasionally finds no children at all in the places where they usually sleep. This could well reflect an improvement in the children’s living conditions in their daaras. Ndaraw Diop, our leader of this activity taking charge of children living in the streets, identifies this with the impact of marabouts repeatedly having to deal with returned talibé children, often being brought before the court. Ndaraw quotes an expression from traditional African wisdom: “Shame kills more surely than the iron of a lance”.

 

With the end of the European Union grant in 2019, we are trying hard to sustain this critical activity. We are deeply grateful for your support, which is making this possible.

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