By: Diletta Cosco and Luca Mattei
One of our members of the human rights team is currently working in a shelter for Talibè children located in the Dakar, Senegal. The article is an interview of Abdu Ndao (the name used is to protect the person’s identity), who has been responsible for the shelter. He talks about the exploitation of Talibè children in Senegal.
Could you explain to us who the Talibè children are and what do they do?
Talibè children are male students from five to eighteen years old generally, who attend Quranic schools called “Daara”, which also serve as the home for every child. The living conditions of the Talibè are quite critical; once they join the school, they are forced onto the streets to beg, and that is the only way where they are able to provide food for themselves. The earnings are daily directed to the Marabout, the Quranic teacher, who establishes a minimum amount of money (around 200-250 Sefa). If the child fails to provide the required sum, he might be subjected to abuse. The Daara and the forced begging is a source of income for the Marabout. The Talibè children come from Senegal itself and the surrounding countries such as Gambia, Mali and the Guineas. During their years as Talibè, children are rarely allowed to return to their home, mostly only for special occasions. However, some Marabouts strictly forbid the children to visit their families.
What are the reasons that lead parents to send their children to the Daaras?
There are several reasons that encourage parents to send their children to the Daaras. Firstly, the main purpose is religious education as parents are determined to make their children learn Quran perfectly. It is believed that by acquiring Islamic knowledge, the children will gain a prestigious education. Furthermore, even if parents are aware of the conditions of the Daara, they are quite convinced by the fact that it will be a great life lesson for their children and that in this way, they will learn how to become real men. Daaras are also considered prestigious schools, as many important men in Senegal were once Talibè students. The children unfortunately only gain a faction of the religious education at the Daraa as they only learn the Quran. Their future is quite limited to become a Marabout teacher mostly. At the end of their Daara period, they lack formal education.
What is your shelter doing and what is your relationship with the Marabout?
To mitigate this phenomenon, several shelters which provide relief are spread around Senegal. Among these, our centre is here to provide relief and assistance to the Talibè by offering clothes, food, a shower and some playtime and learning activities with the staff. Relationships with the Marabout is a sort of partnership/collaboration; it can be a constant process of mediation as sometimes Marabout are afraid that children who attend the centre will be indoctrinated by our beliefs. My job here is to convince them that our sole purpose is to provide what I have mentioned before. However, it is important that the Marabout explains his rules to all the staff and to me will be committed to respect them. It is a sort of compromise in order to reach our goal of assisting Talibè children. Rules such as forbidding the children to take a shower or change clothes frequently are two examples. Every relationship with the Marabout, though, can be different as some are radical while others are moderate. Some Marabouts are suspicious because they are afraid centres like ours have hidden missions. For this reason, in the past, some Marabout did not let the children take French classes at our centre, and I had to convince them that there was no hidden agenda. Part of my duty is to visit the Daaras to ensure they meet minimum conditions, such as the presence of mosquito nets. If this is not the case, I am in charge of distributing them as well.
What is the Senegalese government approach to this matter?
The government is fully aware of this phenomenon. There were few attempts to end it, but religion is powerful in Senegal, and Marabout are very influential in the Senegalese society (they are fully part of the political life and can even influence election results). Senegal signed the UN convention on the Rights of the Child, but it has been clearly violated. The government made several attempts and started campaigns named “Zero talibè dans la rue”, with the objective to end the forced begging of Talibè children. However, despite these attempts, not much has changed. The fear of political repercussions and damage to the government reputation is very strong. If the government pushes harder, they fear they will be accused of being against Islam by the Marabouts.
Thank you for this very interesting post. It is noteworthy that similar conditions exist in South Asia, particularly in Pakistan as well. The ‘madrassas’ (religious schools) often exploit young boys in a similar fashion. These ‘Talib-e-Ilm’ (Students seeking knowledge) were particularly exploited when terrorism became rampant in the region as older boys were often recruited from these madrassas to join terrorist organisations on the pretext that they would be ‘serving God’. Unfortunate circumstances where children are not given proper education or protection. Poor parents often are forced to send their children to these madrassas, beyond the religious motivation as mentioned in this blog, often because they are unable to provide them with food and shelter which is free at these madrassas. Government neglect has exacerbated the circumstances.