Senegal children face modern-day slavery

An estimated 50,000 children forced hundreds kilometres away by their parents, and end up begging on the Dakar streets.

Dakar child beggars travel hundreds of kilometres from home [Assane Gueye/Al Jazeera]

Dakar, Senegal  Like thousands of child beggars in Senegal, Abdou Kane, four, is always barefoot and carrying a bowl and clothes that he wears for weeks – even months – without washing them.

Known as talibés – an Arabic word for pupil – an estimated 50,000 street children, as young as three-years old are sent up to hundreds of kilometres away from home to big cities, including Senegal’s capital, Dakar, by their parents to gain religious instruction at “daaras” – but they end up begging on the streets. 

Children spend years at the classrooms or “daaras” where “oustaz” or a “marabout” spirtual guide traditionally teach the children to read the Koran and to speak Arabic. In practice, the schools serve an additional purpose – to reduce the burden on parents caring for large families. 

Many of the talibés even arrive from neighbouring countries: Guinea, Mali and Guinea Bissau.

However, in recent years, the “daara” have been receiving increasing criticism for their harsh living conditions and also for being forced to beg on Senegal’s streets.

“The children routinely sleep 30 to a small room, crammed so tight that, particularly during the hot season, they choose to brave the elements outside. During Senegal’s four-month winter, the talibés suffer the cold with little or no cover, and, in some cases, even a mat to sleep on,” a 2010 Human Rights Watch report states.

Poor living conditions 

In Senegal, the term daara is synonymous with harsh workhorse conditions. The same 2010 HRW report likens the child beggars in Senegal to modern-day slaves.

Many social workers, including Madam Aminata Mbengue, who works for a women’s cooperative in Keur Massar, 25km from Dakar, has described most daaras as “dungeons”.

We can eat some of the food we are offered in the street, but we dare not touch the coins … they are for the marabout.

by - Ahmed, child beggar

They are mostly poorly ventilated wooden structures in the backyard of the marabout’s home, next to sheep and goat enclosures, with poor toilet facilities. As many as 45 children live there.

At dawn every day, the talibé boys are woken up and forced into the streets carrying empty bowls. They cling to passers-by to beg for food, money, and clothing.

And, as fate would have it, the traditional practice of giving alms in Senegal also inadvertently encourages begging.

Almost every family has marabout who is frequently consulted and who in turn, requests families or individuals to offer sacrifices in multiform ranging from clothing, milk, cowrie shells, candles, biscuits and even money to the talibé.

Abdou Kane’s elder brother Ahmed, 12, said, “We can eat some of the food we are offered in the street, but we dare not touch the coins … They are for the marabout.”

The marabout uses some of the money for his family upkeep and a portion of it to prepare dinner.

This routine leaves little time for marabouts to teach their pupils Arabic or the Koran.

Talibé girls, also unkempt and shabbily dressed, are kept within the daaras where they help with household chores and feed the goats and sheep.

Turning point

Incumbent President Macky Sall has repeatedly condemned the practice. 

“Strong measures will be taken to put an end to the exploitation of children under the pretext that they are talibés,” Sall said.

In an attempt to address the issue, Senegal – a signatory to the International Convention on the Rights of the Child – has made efforts to improve the situation.

But the phenomenon of child beggars is complex and has remained a bone of contention between the government, the Islamic community and UNICEF, the UN children’s agency. 

 The term daara is synonymous with harsh conditions

Human Rights Report early in 2014 points to “inadequate progress” by the Senegalese government.

For their part, the marabouts with the backing of the Islamic community, blame the government for not offering viable solutions. 

For almost a decade, April 20 has been marked as the National Day of the Talibé, a time to rally for their rights.

But pro-talibé activist groups, such as the Association Club Soxna in Dakar, also have been proliferating in different parts of the country in defence of the rights of talibés.

In March 2013, nine children in a daara in Dakar burned to death when a fire gutted the building hosting almost 45 children between six and 12-years old. That’s when the struggle for their rights reached a turning point.

The government soon after discovered that thousands of children who do not speak the local vernacular, Wolof, were being smuggled into Senegal from neighbouring countries by people impersonating marabouts, and using the kids to beg for their personal gain.

After the fire, President Sall and his then-premier, Abdoul Mbaye, announced the repatriation of all non-Senegalese talibés, and banned child begging on the streets and all daaras throughout the country.

But conflicts at the time in neighbouring Mali and Guinea Bissau forced the government to rescind the expulsion order.

Additionally, the abscence of child begging on the streets only lasted a few days though, because of pressure from the Islamic community. 

As in the past, Islamic spiritual leaders – and particularly the Mouride Brotherhood to which most of the marabouts belong – continue to exercise significant influence on Senegal’s political landscape.

Diverging viewpoints

Abdou Hadre Cissosokho, who also runs a daara, argues that Senegal – albeit secular – is a predominantly Muslim country, and as such Koranic education as vital.

He said many marabouts continue to give the children the education they deserve, but that the increasing number of kids placed in their care led to the begging and bad living conditions.

It is not a good thing for children to suffer or to enslave children.

by - Cheikh Hamidou Sow, marabout

However, for Cheikh Hamidou Sow, another marabout, the debate is about basic child rights and not religion.

“It is not a good thing for children to suffer or to enslave children. That is against human and child rights in particular, but to say it is Islam or any religion that endorses ill-treatment of children, is totally wrong and inadmissible,” Sow said. 

Ibrahima Diallo, a sociologist from the country’s Cheikh Anta Diop University of Dakar, said the problem can be solved through family planning methods, accompanied by a dose of legal measures.

He said that, since almost all of the child beggars are from the majority ethnic peulh tribe where early or forced marriages are common, it is imperative that family planning methods be instituted along with laws that will punish rape and outlaw forced or early marriages.

This will cut down the number of children who become talibés larger cities of the country, Diallo said.

“The issue of talibés will become a thing of the past when their parents are fully educated and engaged in family planning methods,” he said.