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