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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Diodio shares Maison de la Gare’s remarkable story as a beacon of hope for the talibé children over the past four years
A little over four years ago, we reported on “A New Chapter for the Talibé Children”, a four year grant from the European Union which made it possible to strongly reinforce our educational, health and hygiene, sports and arts programs for the begging talibé street children, to dramatically expand our efforts to take charge of children found living on the street, and to raise awareness in the children’s communities of origin of the dehumanizing conditions that they are subjected to when they are entrusted to marabouts in distant cities.
This grant ended in December 2019. This report is the first of a series of three that will look back at what has been achieved over the four years and highlight the challenges ahead.
Talibé children come to Maison de la Gare’s welcome center to benefit from the health and hygiene programs, educational, social and sports activities, and much more. Over the four years from 2016 to 2019, an average of 855 different children visited the center each month, a total of 3,165 visits per month. Most of these children (60%) were between 10 and 17 years of age, while 27% were younger, as young as 4 years old, and 13% were older. 64% of the children are from different regions of Senegal, the rest having been trafficked from neighboring countries - Gambia, Guinea, Guinea-Bissau, Mauritania, and Mali.
Medical Assistance - Maison de la Gare offers care and medical assistance to talibé children participating in its programs, as well as to talibé children in their daaras. On average, 427 children per month were treated in the infirmary and in daaras over the four years. The main pathologies include acute respiratory infections (cough, cold), abdominal pain (constipation, diarrhea, parasites), dental diseases, conjunctivitis and other eye conditions, and skin conditions such as scabies. Also, cuts, abscesses, headaches, infections, and burns are common.
We are increasingly convinced that prevention is key to health care. Many of the children use the hygiene facilities in our center to shower, wash their clothes and brush their teeth. We established a major program for the prevention and treatment of scabies in partnership with the Saint-Louis health district and the Red Cross. And we have completely treated and renovated certain daaras where the children’s living conditions were particularly unhealthy.
Education - Our educational programs, through literacy training, math and life lessons, arouse the children's interest in learning, even if their integration into formal schooling has proven to be difficult due to the resistance of the marabouts. The teachers explore with the children the rules that govern society through practical exercises, simulations, exchanges, and discussions. An average of about 30 children have attended classes regularly each month, while a total of just 17 have been successfully registered in formal schooling.
For the older youth for whom formal education is not an option, our apprenticeship programs have become increasingly important. 55 youth graduated from our agricultural apprenticeship program in Bango during the four years, learning all the elements of establishing a successful market gardening plantation. We added a poultry farming apprenticeship program in 2017. 30 apprentices have completed a training program including several production cycles of 125 chickens each, mastering preparation, feeding, hygiene and security, butchering, and marketing. Several of these youth have successfully established their independent operations, most recently with the support of our new microfinance program. Since 2018, our new tailoring apprenticeship program is providing another possibility for youth working to become self-sufficient.
Based on our experience over these four years, we are thoroughly rethinking the educational programs, to make them more in line with the talibés' most pressing needs. Integration into formal schooling will be deemphasized. We will focus on providing the children with practical language and computational skills as a bridge to successful participation in our apprenticeship programs and other routes to becoming financially self-supporting.
Sports and Arts - The sports program not only promotes good health; it allows children to express themselves through leisure activity that provides a rare release from their hard lives on the streets. The children love competing in soccer tournaments which bring them together through their shared passion. 74 inter-daara tournaments were held during the four years, in addition to hundreds of unofficial matches involving huge numbers of talibé children.
Also, many children and youth continue to benefit from our karate program. 46 of them are now enrolled at our center and at a local dojo, and are making enormous progress. In 2019, one of the talibé youth successfully earned his black belt!
Art and music are powerful tools for communication and self-expression, providing children with an important means of psychological development. They are a key element of our activities, animated by our teachers, volunteers and other staff.
We are grateful to the European Union for the reinforcement of our programs for the talibé children that their grant has made possible. The children have benefited enormously, and our staff members have renewed their commitment and effectiveness.
Although it is difficult to limit or reduce the number of daaras in the Saint-Louis area, learning conditions for the begging street children have improved considerably over the four years. The marabouts who control their lives are now more cooperative and Maison de la Gare has reached a threshold of knowledge and visibility that facilitates the children's access to its services.
Now that the European Union grant has ended, we are more dependent than ever on you, our precious supporters, to sustain our life-giving programs.
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