Sep 10, 2020

Who are the Talibes? And Why do they Beg?

Across the globe and throughout history there have existed unjust exploitations of certain groups of individuals lacking the ability to defend themselves. And, those in positions of power have taken advantage and those who are in a position to stop it turn a blind eye.

The Senegalese talibé system in place since the 14th century has evolved dramatically since about the 1960s from a respected system of religious education and character building into a fraught system of exploitation and modern day slavery. 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 talibé children typically experience conditions of deprivation, extreme corporal punishment and are 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

Before we consider the effects of civil society and other actors on the talibé system lets examine the perpetrators of talibé abuses: the marabouts themselves. 

Many marabouts have recruitment systems that extend to villages outside of Senegal in neighbouring countries, escalating the talibé system to international child trafficking. Today many marabouts force talibés to beg for the marabouts’ own personal enrichment, but it wasn’t always this way. 

The talibé system originated as one of the first formal systems of education in West Africa, based on a trust relationship whereby 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 humility. Daaras were located 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, bathe, clean their clothes, and to spend time with their families.

Just over half a century ago when drought descended on Senegal, severe impoverishment resulted in rural villages, in particular. 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 marabouts. After the transition to cities, parents ceased to play an active role in supporting their sons. The migration of hundreds of Darras from rural villages has expanded to become thousands of Darras in cities across Senegal today, whereby marabouts use forced begging of their charges as their primary means of income.

If Marabouts had a source of income other than forcing talibés to beg, they may not have a reason to exploit children and could return to their traditional role of Quranic instruction.

CIVIL SOCETY 

Understanding the role civil society plays in perpetuating the talibé system is key to understanding why forced begging persists. Citizens of Senegal contribute to condemning the talibé system into a classic poverty trap. Senegalese people coexist daily with talibé, and are often indifferent to their distress. But even worse than indifference are the majority of citizens who generously donate to talibé begging bowls, enabling the forced begging system to exist at all. Unfortunately, for the talibés, the generosity of giving only feeds the system which exploits them.

Senegalese support of the talibé system is deeply rooted in the unique religious cultural history of Senegal. There are three primary reasons the population overwhelmingly answers the Quaranic call to give to beggars, particularly the talibés, despite the obvious abuses they suffer. First, since the 14th century Quaranic schools have been a key public symbol of Muslim identity in West Africa, and marabouts as the leaders of these schools have an unusually strong influence over the Senegalese psyche.  Second, clerical communities largely acted as safe havens during the trans Atlantic slave trade and thus Darras and marabouts are generally historically regarded positively. And lastly, the particular sufi form of Islam practiced by the predominantly Sunni Muslim population continues to preserve the corporal disposition towards Islamic knowledge. This can have the effect of emphasizing the practice of the motions of Islam over embracing the spiritual intent. In other words, individuals may give more to fulfill their Muslim duty and less out of compassion for the talibés and thus some people may give without examining too closely who or what they are really giving to. 

The focus on a corporal style of learning by rote rather then by developing comprehension is widely accepted as a normal condition. Thus, some of the abuses experienced by talibés in darras are not considered as offensive to Senegalese society as they may be to international organizations that advocate for children’s rights. Furthermore, some of the most serious abuses happen out of the public eye and are thus easy for society to overlook.

CIVIL SOCIETY ORGANIZATIONS

There are some in Senegalese society who have examined the conditions of modern talibé more closely and who consequently call for change. Some civil society groups work to spread education about the severity of the conditions faced by talibés. The work of local awareness raising groups have mainly resulted in improved living conditions for talibés rather then working towards ending forced begging. Grass roots civil society organization, Maison de la Gare is nearly alone in working to end forced begging in Senegal, in addition to improving conditions for talibés. 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 served a dual role in the perpetuation of the talibé system in that it does not effectively enforce forced begging laws, and in indirectly legitimizing the forced begging darra system as a form of education. Senegal’s Penal Code long ago criminalized forced child begging. Nevertheless, only a handful of cases in a landscape of thousands of forced-begging darras have been prosecuted.  Governmental laxity concerning the situation of the talibés has generally prevailed due to 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. 

The government could turn the situation around and become a positive leaver of change by enforcing its existing laws or investing in formal education, particularly in rural villages. However such change will take significant resources and initiative which are currently lacking. 

The international community is another actor that could play a stronger role in encouraging the state to change its behaviour with respect to the talibé system. For example, by providing funds to build schools in rural villages and pressuring government leaders with respect to human rights for children. Maison de la Gare’s support of schools in rural villages, as described in the Maison de la Gare Project Report:  Into the Bush in Search of Education, is an excellent example. The international community furthermore has a role to play in raising awareness among civil society of conditions faced by the talibés and also in supporting the few civil society organizations who actually work to end forced begging, such as Maison de la Gare.

Families of talibés are important actors as well. If parents stopped sending children to be talibés the system would fall apart. However there are complex reasons parents send their children to darras. The importance of Islamic education and the influence of marabouts as previously discussed is particularly powerful with rural, often uneducated parents. Furthermore, families have very few options if they want their children to receive an education. Due to the lack of rural school, the promise of an Islamic education in an urban darra is often the only option available to many parents. And finally, some parents are simply unaware of the severity of 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 as a whole, not just for the talibés. By visiting many rural villages in Senegal that have sent boys to be talibés in the cities I have observed a dramatically disproportionate number of girls in the villages. It is common in these villages for girls to marry as young as 13 or 14 to much older men who already have several wives.  It would seem that 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.  In fact, Issa Kouyaté, the founder and President of Maison de la Gare has long understood this and his primary objective for Maison de la Gare, apart from ultimately ending forced begging in Senegal, is to provide means for talibés youth to learn to become successful and productive members of society as they age and are able to escape the talibé system. 

The current trap the talibés experience is a result of many complex factors. Marabouts, civil society, talibés’ families, government, and the international community all are actors that play a role, either through action or lack of action in perpetuating the horrors of the talibé system. But, there is hope for positive change. Targeting civil society as a leaver of change has significant potential, as does focusing on influencing parents to keep their children at home by building schools in rural areas, and encouraging daaras to return to their rural roots. And, pressure and targeted aid by the international community on government, and, importantly for our readers, donations made effectively through grassroots organizations such as Maison de la Gare offer more than just hope. They offer the potential for real change.

A Maison de la Gare class in session
A Maison de la Gare class in session
Karate class at Maison de la Gare
Karate class at Maison de la Gare
Rowan Hughes in a rural school
Rowan Hughes in a rural school
A Maison de la Gare sewing apprentice
A Maison de la Gare sewing apprentice
Issa Kouyate and Rowan Hughes
Issa Kouyate and Rowan Hughes

Links:

Aug 26, 2020

Where Are They Now?

The stories of three talibés who refused to give up on their dreams

Maison de la Gare is a haven for the talibé street boys of Saint Louis. The organization’s center and its caring staff offer hope through education, and an oasis from the daily grind of hours upon hours of forced begging and from having to figure out a way to survive on the streets.

The hope, through education, is real. This report will provide an update on three exceptional boys who, despite years of forced begging and facing unimaginable obstacles, chose to persevere in pursuit of education.

The street boys of Saint Louis are rarely from the local region. With no parental support and no money, and subject to daily begging quotas of the marabouts who control them, formal education is barred to them. In most cases, the children lack the documentation that could otherwise entitle them to register for schools and write exams.

Arouna was Maison de la Gare’s first great success in formal education. Passionate about the possibility of becoming educated, Arouna did have Senegalese national identification (he is from the distant region of Kolda), and Issa Kouyaté, the founder and director of Maison de la Gare, negotiated with Arouna’s marabout to reduce his begging quota on certain days and allow him to be registered in school. Maison de la Gare fed him, so he would not have to spend time begging to eat, allowing more time for study. Issa and the staff teachers helped Arouna with homework, paid his registration fees and purchased his school supplies. Arouna’s journey through the formal education system was long and challenging. He faced countless incidents of discrimination and overcame multiple attempts by authorities and his marabout to derail his education.

Arouna was held back many times, in primary school and middle school, but he persevered. Eventually it came time for Arouna to write exams that would allow him to advance to high school. Alas, in an effort to continue to control him, his marabout refused to relinquish his national identity papers. During the years it took for Maison de la Gare and Arouna to obtain duplicates (nearly impossible given that his parents were both deceased and did not have death certificates, as Arouna was a child talibé at the time and unaware they had died until years later), Arouna took high school courses to prepare for what lay ahead, and refresher classes to help him prepare for the exams he hoped he would soon be able to write. All the while he lived in a daara with no access to electricity or running water, packed in with dozens of other talibé boys.

Arouna began high school in classes with much younger children, but with much hope in his heart. Again, he faced discrimination and was held back, extending his time in school. As he was beginning to repeat his final year of high school, disaster struck his family once more. His older sister died unexpectedly, and her young son became Arouna’s responsibility along with his two younger sisters. Not one to give in to despair, Arouna worked at Maison de la Gare between school hours to support his sisters and Issa Kouyate took in his young nephew, registering him in formal school to allow Arouna the relative freedom to continue his education.

This year Arouna was due to graduate. But, just months from exams schools in Senegal were closed due to Covid-19. Despite his familiarity with challenge, Arouna was devastated when it was announced he would need to repeat his final year of high school yet again. But, along with challenge comes hope. Arouna’s younger sister was married this summer, lessening his burden of support, and allowing him to double down on his studies. Today, in his early 20’s, Arouna has enrolled in his final year of high school (for the third time) and is committed to putting everything into his studies in order to give himself the best possible chance of advancing to post-secondary studies. Hope and perseverance define this fine young man.

Tijan is another talibé who continued to be driven by his passion to obtain an education. After leaving his home in Gambia to come to Saint Louis as a talibé, Tijan studied in Maison de la Gare’s literacy and math classes for years. He was finally able to return to Gambia, with Maison de la Gare’s support, to enroll in high school. A year ago, he graduated from high school, an extraordinary accomplishment for one who had spent many years as a talibé. He was very keen to apply to and begin university. But, despite sufficiently high marks he was not accepted. There were “irregularities” with his application; perhaps he had chosen the wrong program, or did not have the right prerequisites, we cannot really know the reason.

Determined not to give up on his education, Tijan spent the past year taking additional business courses that he felt would better prepare him once he was accepted to university. He applied again this spring and has recently received news that his application was successful this time. He is scheduled to begin studying management and business at the University of The Gambia in September!

A year ago, while waiting to receive news about his initial application to university, Tijan travelled back to Maison de la Gare to receive a computer that would help him continue with his higher education. While in Saint Louis, other talibés were astonished to learn he had actually graduated from high school. Tijan had become a superstar, a shining beacon of hope. Sulayman was one of those talibés whose eyes and heart were opened to the possibility of returning home to school thanks to Tijan’s example.

Sulayman had been a talibé for many years. Like Tijan, he was originally from Gambia and had national identity papers which entitled him to register in school in Gambia. But, as a talibé, the idea of education seemed impossibly remote. He did have an unspoken dream of becoming educated and had always worked to complete his begging responsibilities early to be able to attend Maison de la Gare’s classes. After years of forced begging, Sulayman left his daara due to intolerable conditions there. Even while continuing to beg and do odd jobs to survive, he continued to study in Maison de la Gare’s classes. When Sulayman encountered Tijan, his hope for an education was reignited.

Issa and other staff sat with both Tijan and Sulayman to offer advice and support in preparation for their return to Gambia. Sulayman was eligible to enroll in high school. Despite his age of 21, he was excited at the prospect of the next four years of study - in a real school! Planning to start school in January 2020, Sulayman and Tijan left Maison de la Gare together - headed toward a new future based on the educations they were about to pursue.

When Sulayman arrived home, he was welcomed by relations of his family who lived near the high school he hoped to attend. He was accepted into the school and enrolled in a math tutoring class to get up to speed as quickly as possible. Sulayman is now a high school student looking to the future!

The hope is real, indeed!

Links:

Jul 29, 2020

On a Path to Proud Self-Sufficiency

Maison de la Gare has launched a microfinance program, an essential tool for talibé apprentices in achieving financial autonomy

During the darkest days of the Covid-19 crisis, while talibé children were confined to their daaras and Maison de la Gare’s center was closed to most children, a critical new program was born there.

The framework of the new microfinance program was finalized in early May. We extended an invitation to potential participants and presented the program to them during two sessions in Maison de la Gare’s center. Six men and five women decided to continue with classes introducing them to the elements of microfinance, related basic math, accounting for a small business, and basic marketing techniques. Most male borrowers will be older talibés, but we are including other men and women in order to develop a learning community of borrowers that will be mutually supportive, benefiting from each other’s experiences.

Following this training, each of these potential borrowers submitted a simple business plan in early June, and these were evaluated by an Approval Committee consisting of the program coordinator Baye Ndaraw Diop, president Issa Kouyaté, accountant Adama Diarra, and the coordinator of the poultry farming apprenticeship program Cheikh Abdoulaye Ndiaye. Eight projects were approved for initial financing, and three others were approved later in the month following required revisions.

We have set the maximum loan amount at 200,000 francs ($350 US or 305€), although initial loans averaged 110,000 francs ($190 US or 170€). All loans are interest-free. Reimbursement rates depend on the business but are typically monthly over 9 to 18 months. A formal contract is signed with each borrower. We are committed to intensive support and follow-up with each borrower to assure their success. The program coordinator is making regular visits to the borrowers to encourage them, verify their progress and collect the reimbursement payments. One month after the initial loans were made, all repayments are on-time.

This is a beginning, and we will learn as we go. Three of our initial borrowers, Doudou, Ibrahima N. and Pape Modou, are talibé graduates of our poultry farming apprenticeship program, and each of them has started their first production cycle with baby chicks. Another talibé, Ibrahima D., has started a business selling wood charcoal and palm oil. These talibés will no longer be alone, but will be part of a community of borrowers and small business entrepreneurs.

The story of each of these borrowers is different, but every one of them is very moving. We share one of these here:

“My name is Ibrahima. I am 18 years old and I live in Balacoss in Saint-Louis, Senegal.

Before, I didn't do anything after my Koranic studies. I lived in idleness. I was almost a street kid.

In 2018, I met Cheikh Abdoulaye Ndiaye, and I told him about my journey. He integrated me into the group of young people from Maison de la Gare who were apprenticing in poultry farming in Bango.

At first, I didn't take it seriously, but when we started training I began to feel a lot of motivation. I also saw all that Cheikh Ablaye had achieved through selling chickens. So, I said to myself that I could do like him.

Today, I am trained in the different techniques of poultry farming, from start-up to slaughter. Currently, I have taken basic accounting training at Maison de la Gare’s center and, thanks to this training, I received funding from a project dedicated to young talibés and vulnerable people.

I now have my own chicken coop with fifty chicks, and I intend to go as far as possible with this funding because I can see that it is possible for me to succeed. Now, it only depends on my perseverance and my will.

I thank Issa, Cheikh Abdaye, Uncle Ndaraw, the partners of Friends of Senegal and all the staff at Maison de la Gare.”

 

Ibrahima’s example and those of the other borrowers will be a beacon of hope for other talibés.

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We are grateful to Friends of Senegal of Ashland, Oregon, who have made possible this critically important initiative. Friends of Senegal has believed in the promise of microfinance for many years, and our new program benefits enormously from their expertise and financial support.

Links:

 
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