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 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’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.
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
Talibe children in a Saint Louis daara
Literacy classes at Maison de la Gare
Happy moments at Maison de la Gare