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Talibés: Begging the Whole Day, Every Day

By  on September 18th, 2014

A talibé sits next to a blackboard covered in Qur’anic verse.  Photo by Holly Pickett / Financial Times.


Saint Louis, Senegal

When a visitor is driving around the major cities of Senegal, one image that strikes the eye is the children begging in the streets, with the majority of them holding empty red tomato cans. Known as talibés, these boys—who can be as young as 7 years old —are sent to daaras, or Qur’anic schools, to study the Muslim holy book.

In “le pays de la teranga” (the country of hospitality), the phenomenon of talibés is culturally and traditionally well established and is socially accepted as a form of socialization. Daaras have existed for centuries, and historically they were places where children living with their families in rural areas would go to study with marabouts, or teachers, in the same locality (or within walking distance) and return home afterward. During the harvesting season, the students helped the marabout harvest his farm, to provide for his family.

Talibés used to beg only to supplement the daara’s supplies when the harvest, along with in-kind donations from the parents, was insufficient to meet the daara’s needs. In the recent past, some urban marabouts continued to return to their villages for the harvest season. Over the years, however, the number of daaras in urban settings increased, and the traditional forms of support that had sustained the daaras fell out of use. Talibés were then expected to beg on a regular basis. What started as a form of education and socialization became a business and a mean of enrichment for unscrupulous individuals.

Boys served by GFC grantee Maison de la Gare.

Boys served by GFC grantee Maison de la Gare.

Nowadays, children sent by their families to urban areas to study end up enduring extreme forms of abuse, neglect, and exploitation. Instead of learning, they are exploited through forced labor. Recent studies by Human Rights Watch concluded that talibés average just less than eight hours per day, every day, begging on the streets, where they are exposed to injury, physical and sexual abuse, and even death. Talibés roam daily the streets of Saint Louis, Thiès, Tivaouane, Kaolack, and Dakar to beg for whatever they can get—whether money, sugar, or rice—in order to pay the daily quotas fixed by their marabouts.

In Saint Louis, many daaras charge from 25 to 60 cents a day, and children must come up with that amount every day, whether in cash or in kind. An unwritten contract makes it obligatory on each child to pay his quota in order to avoid being punished or kicked out of the daara. This is unfortunately true regardless of the cumulative amount “owed,” and the circumstances behind the “delinquency.” The fear of not being able to meet their quotas forces talibés to sustain even longer hours begging, to sleep on the streets, or to commit petty crimes and end up in conflict with the law.

In addition to begging, talibés have to work for food. Out of mutual gain, each has found a “family” that provides him with a bag lunch in return for cleaning the family’s house, doing the laundry, or mowing the lawn. A talibé’s bag lunch could contain anything from leftover yassa to a well-crafted tchebou. The marabouts and the older talibés serve themselves first, picking whatever bags they please, which are always the ones with the best food. Needless to say, talibés suffer from malnourishment, as well as lack of clothing and footwear, exposure to illnesses, and poor medical treatment.

Fortunately, locally based grassroots organizations have emerged that are working alongside marabouts to improve the living conditions of talibés. One of these organizations is GFC grantee partner Maison de la Gare (MDG), which for the past seven years has been working with both rural and urban communities to raise awareness on the abject living conditions of talibés, in the hope of redefining the culture and tradition of daaras.

In addition to its preventive approach, MDG directly intervenes to remove and protect talibés from unsafe environments. With support from GFC, MDG provides free primary-level education and nutritional supplements to its beneficiaries. The organization also offers psychosocial assistance, basic healthcare, library services, a playground, and showers for talibés to use. Over the years, MDG has improved its working relationships with Qur’anic schools and expanded its programs by facilitating the admission of more children into school and introducing livelihood training initiatives.

Mamadou Diallo, right, meets with Maison de la Gare director Issa Kouyaté.

Mamadou Diallo, right, meets with Maison de la Gare director Issa Kouyaté.

Unfortunately, some marabouts are categorical in their resolve to perpetuate their exploitative practices, and that makes the work that MDG does dangerous. Last December, MDG’s director, Issa Kouyaté, was physically harmed on the famous Faidherbe Bridge in Saint Louis when returning from the police station to rescue two runaway talibés. He swam out of the Senegal River and made his way back to the police, but the case went nowhere.

Having recognized that the issue of talibés is strongly anchored in Senegalese society, and realizing that most if not all of the talibés are second-, third-, or even fourth-generation talibés, MDG is putting a lot of emphasis on educating current beneficiaries about child rights and child protection, with the expectation of ultimately breaking the cycle. The organization is trying to win the hearts and minds of its program participants so that they will be less likely to send their children to daaras when they become parents.

On another front, the Senegalese government has created state-regulated daaras in order to reduce abuses, and some urban daaras with resident talibés charge the parents a monthly tuition and do not have the children beg. In “the country of hospitality,” GFC and its partners are working to make daaras more hospitable to talibés. Let’s all pitch in, not into the bucket of the marabouts, but to help daaras become what they once were: a form of socialization and education.