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In the West African nation of Senegal, at least 50,000 talibes — young boys studying the Koran — beg for food and money to pay their master. Some of these boys left home so young they don’t know where they came from, and suffer brutal punishment when they fail to make their quota. Kira Kay of the Bureau for International Reporting visits some organizations that are trying to help.
And we travel now to Senegal, considered one of West Africa's rising nations, home to a stable democracy with plans for universal health care and education, but where a troubling human rights crisis persists.
Kira Kay of the Bureau for International Reporting has the story.
In a sandy courtyard in the city of Saint-Louis, a group of young boys begin their evening prayer studies. They are talibes, meaning students, and they have come 200 miles from their home villages to live with this Koranic master, called a marabout.
But their studies have only come at the end of a long, hard day's work begging on the streets. You see Senegal's talibes weaving in and out of traffic with their little yellow tubs or rusty cans. It's dangerous, dirty work, up to 10 hours a day. Along with morsels of food, they are hoping for money. They owe their marabout a quota of about a dollar a day.
Begging is used to teach talibes humility and resilience. But this marabout admits it's also a matter of simple economics.
ALIOUNE SECK, Koranic Teacher (through interpreter):
You have to buy these books, medicine, water, electricity, everything you need in life. And the government doesn't give it to us. That's why they beg.
Talibe aid worker Issa Kouyate says what he sees is more sinister.
ISSA KOUYATE, Maison de la Gare:
The society knows that these marabouts treat these boys like slavery. The government knows these marabouts treat these boys like slavery. Most of the marabouts abuse these boys.
The talibe system is unique to West Africa, and is rooted in centuries-old tradition, says Imam Mouhamed Cherif Diop.
MOUHAMED CHERIF DIOP, Coordinator, Tostan (through interpreter):
It is assumed that I am not capable of giving my children their necessary education because of my affection, that I will tolerate things that I shouldn't. And so we have entrusted our children to the marabouts, who live in another village, to create this distance to permit a good education.
But Diop agrees the system, so valued in this 95 percent Muslim country, is now being exploited, with at least 50,000 young boys, mostly from poor families, forced to beg.
MOUHAMED CHERIF DIOP (through interpreter):
It's a staggering number, a huge number who are begging. And they have moved to the big cities, because marabouts who want to use begging as a source of revenue know that's where you will find the most donors.
Some of these boys left home so young, they don't remember where they came from. They sleep on cement or dirt floors, dozens to a room. And for boys who don't make their daily quota, the punishment can be brutal.
Social worker Abdou Fode Sow is caring for an 11-year-old whose marabout beat him with a shred tire.
Abdou Fode Sow, Intermondes (through interpreter):
With those strips, the boy was hit until he bled. And each time that he came back without money from begging, he was hit again, even though his injuries hadn't yet healed.
This talibe, named Arouna, told me he has been beaten more times than he can count. He became a talibe when he was only nine. Now 17, he resents the years he's been kept a virtual captive by his marabout.
AROUNA KANDE (through interpreter):
They called me to tell me my mother had died. I wanted to go home, but my marabout said, no. Then my father died, and again he refused to let me leave. I still have three sisters at home, and if I can get money to buy phone credit, sometimes, I will call them.
I met Arouna at Maison de la Gare, a rare safe haven for boys like him. Here, they can wash their clothes, take a shower, get medical attention, and otherwise take a break from their rough lives. And, for that moment, those street-hardened boys briefly become the children they should be.
The center is run by Issa Kouyate. He offers local marabouts incentives like a new roof or some sleeping mats in exchange for allowing the boys to visit his center in between their begging rounds. But despite years of this work, Kouyate still finds conditions that shock him, like this school, just feet from the town's reeking garbage dump.
It's really difficult for me to just understand why he's just living here. I don't know the words how to explain this. It's just like people who are living here are just rubbish.
Kouyate notices a boy from the center scratching from lice, despite the clean clothes Kouyate gave him three days before. He tries to convince the marabout to move the school before the rainy season floods it with garbage.
But Kouyate admits it will take much larger forces to end the talibe begging system. A year ago, a candle tipped over in a Koranic school in Senegal's capital, Dakar. Eight boys died in the fire. You can still see their begging bowls in the rubble.
Matthew Wells of Human Rights Watch says this tragedy should have been a turning point.
MATTHEW WELLS, Researcher, Human Rights Watch:
In the aftermath of the fire, the president of the country and a bunch of other leaders, they came and they said, this can't happen again. We have to take action to stop this type of abuse.
And what's stopping the government from taking that action?
I think, up to now, there's been a — really a lack of courage. I don't think there's a better word. There's a lack of courage from the government to follow through. It's been thought of as too sensitive, too complicated. And so every time it starts to act, there's a certain group of Koranic teachers who react and say, the government's attacking Islam. It's attacking religious education.
But there are also lots of religious leaders who spoke up after this event and said, it's time for the government to take action. So I think, really, religious allies are there to support the government and now it needs to follow through and take action.
AMINATA TOURE, Prime Minister, Senegal:
That is true, that we have to — we can accelerate things, but at the same time, you have to handle things in such a way that they don't backfire on you.
Aminata Toure is the prime minister of Senegal.
The estimates are that there are still 10,000 kids begging just here on the streets of Dakar alone.
What would we do? Just take all the 10,000 kids, send them back to their families? They would come back one week later. You have to understand that you're talking to the deep and the core believing of people.
One of the policies that we're trying to implement is to come up with the idea of upgrading the Koranic schools, giving them a curriculum where we would mix Koranic teaching with modern teaching, with math and French, and try to give training to the teachers.
This school is considered a model. Besides Koranic studies, it offers regular academics, with the goal of advancing its students to high school. The school includes girls, not just boys. And, best of all, these students don't beg. Their parents pay a monthly boarding fee. The fees from the richer kids supplement those of the poorer.
This pilot program is overseen by Mamadou Basse from the Ministry Of education.
MAMADOU BASSE, Ministry of Education, Senegal (through interpreter): When we visit a school, we look first at the physical condition: Is it clean, does it have proper bathrooms, do the children have access to medical care?
And then we look at the marabout: Do they meet the necessary requirements to teach? All the schools that fail to comply with the new laws will be completely closed. The schools that do not practice begging will be promoted by the government.
But Basse has only eight staff and two vehicles to inspect the tens of thousands of Koranic schools in the country. Basse is now waiting for a new law to be passed that could give his department more of the support it needs.
Meanwhile, it has fallen to religious leaders like Imam Diop to sway local attitudes. He has partnered with the grassroots group Tostan to bring a message directly to parents and community leaders: that child abuse is un-Islamic, no matter where it takes place.
The Koran is here to help people. It is a good thing for everyone who studies it. But to study it, must I live in bad conditions and wear rags? No. I should live in conditions as noble as the Koran is for a Muslim.
And he's going door to door, convincing marabouts to endorse and join the government's modernization program.
If the state wants change, but the community refuses, it won't work. If the community wants it, but the state doesn't follow, that also won't work. We have to combine the efforts of both the community and the institutions.
Back in Saint-Louis, another glimmer of hope. With the help of the talibe center, Arouna is now attending a regular school a few hours a day. He wants to become a history or geography teacher, one boy perhaps rescued from a life on the streets, and a role model for more to come.
This report was produced in collaboration with students from New York University's Carter Journalism Institute. You can visit our Web site to watch another story from the project, on Senegal's promising gender parity law.
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