In Senegal, a life of begging and beatings
Officials do little to stop religious teachers who take in boys and make them seek alms.
By Robyn Dixon, Times Staff Writer
April 9, 2007
Thies, Senegal — MOUSSA Ba’s eyes shine with a fierce passion for poverty and dirt and suffering, because he believes they are good for children. He’s not ashamed to say that he is a hard man, and that each of his 30 beggar boys is terrified of his whip.
Filthy and ragged, these boys, as young as 5 or 6, scurry barefoot through the dusty streets with tomato paste cans as begging bowls, knowing that if they come back two days running with no coins for Ba, they will pay the price.
"There is no child who is less lucky than the others. There is only a child who is more cunning than the others," Ba said. "Of course it makes me angry. If I see such a temperament, then it’s a flaw in character, so I do get angry and I do beat them."
Although many Senegalese see what Ba does as a racket, he isn’t merely a modern-day Fagin. He is a religious teacher, or marabout, and the boys are his talibes, or students, sent by their parents to board and learn the Koran. Most come from distant rural villages.
In Senegal, the talibes often spend less time in the daara, or school, than on the streets begging. It is a form of child labor so pervasive and harsh that it has caused a public outcry here. The government outlawed child exploitation and trafficking in 2005, but critics say it has done little to enforce the law.
The United Nations Children’s Fund, or UNICEF, estimated in a 2004 report that Senegal has 100,000 child beggars, mostly talibes — almost 1% of the population.
"Now most marabouts are more interested in money than teaching," said Malick Diagne, deputy director of Tostan, a U.S. humanitarian organization that is working to help the beggar boys. "Sometimes you see kids late at night crying, ‘I can’t go home because my amount of money has not been collected yet.’ "
Here on the streets of Senegal’s second-largest city, the tin can boys dodge the traffic and approach cars with pleading eyes.
People often give them food and objects that are white, such as rice, candles, sugar or pale cookies, believing that this will protect the giver from evil. The boys usually sell their haul cheaply to women in the market to augment the daily quota of coins for their marabout.
RURAL Senegalese children have been learning from marabouts in Koranic schools since the 11th century, according to Tostan. But in the 1970s, drought and poverty hit rural areas and many marabouts drifted to cities and began to rely on begging.
The ragged man’s shirt that hangs on tiny Mamadou Jalo makes him look even thinner than he is. He speaks haltingly, in whispered confidences, his big, dark eyes glancing about tremulously.
He doesn’t know his age, but locals put it at about 6 or 7. He does remember his mother and the enveloping warmth of her cuddle in the days before his family sent him to Ba.
"I miss it," he said. "When I finish school I’ll go back to see my mother."
He lives in constant fear of not collecting the coins he needs to escape the whip.
"I’m sad. I don’t like the marabout. He beats me and he makes me beg for money. I have to get 250 CFA [50 cents] a day. If it’s two days running, he beats me with a whip. He beats me very hard. Everyone is beaten."
The children spend nine hours a day begging and five hours learning the Koran. At 8 a.m. the boys are sent out to beg for three hours, then they return to the shack for learning, which involves chanting Koranic verses, until 1 p.m. They beg for their lunch until 2, learn the Koran until 5, then are sent out to beg until 10.
Humanitarian agencies in Senegal have worked for years to halt the exploitation of talibes, but with little success in this overwhelmingly Muslim country where charity to beggars is a deeply ingrained part of the culture. Some agencies set up shelters or drop-in centers for the boys, only to find that within a few months they had no customers. For talibes, life on the streets is a habit hard to break.
When they finish schooling in the daara, typically in their mid-teens, not all go home, said UNICEF country representative Ian Hopgood. Many remain on the streets, begging — the only life they really know.
The government denies it has been slow to prosecute those who exploit children.
"The government is determined to stop the begging and roaming of children in the streets and their exploitation, and will enforce laws and regulations on the matter," Information Minister Bacar Dia said, addressing a meeting on the issue in October.
The 46-year-old Ba, who was a talibe from age 6 and saw his own father only twice, believes the hard, unrelenting life on the streets gives his boys an education no school can offer; it makes them tough enough to face the worst that life can throw at them.
Like most daaras, his is a half-built house where he squats for free. The rusted corrugated iron roof leaks copiously in the rainy season. The boys sleep like sardines, without mattresses. Flies swirl into the air when any of them stirs. The boys rarely wash, and don’t need to, Ba contends.
"The fact you are dirty on the surface is not real dirt. What’s real dirt is spiritual dirt," he said, brushing off the thought that poor hygiene and crowding among the talibes could cause sickness.
"Nothing like that will happen. God has an angel with a big wing. The angel lays down its wing and the talibes lie down on that wing and the angel lays its other wing over and if any illness comes, it won’t hurt them. They can even sleep on the wet ground and it won’t hurt them."
Marabouts such as Ba say they force children to beg for money for food because parents don’t pay fees.
Tostan, which is based in Thies, is working with 115 marabouts here, offering civics and sanitation classes for talibes and their teachers, providing basics such as soap and shoes, and offering small loans to enable the marabouts to wean themselves from begging. It also is encouraging townspeople to "adopt" their neighborhood talibes, to buy them food and clothing.
Oumou Sy, 75, feeds and washes about 10 talibes in her house each morning. She gives them coins for their marabout, even though she knows that perpetuates the system.
"They’re desperate," she said. "If you don’t do it as an individual, they’re going to get beaten. If you can change the life of one talibe, it’s worth it."
NOT all the marabouts beat children for failing to collect enough money. Ahmad Sow, 44, who has about 27 boys in his daara, beats those who are lax in learning the Koran.
But even in one of the better and cleaner daaras such as Sow’s, life is hard for the boys, who beg six or seven hours a day.
Ba remembers begging all day as a child. He remembers the hunger, the fear of being thrashed, and says he is now fervently thankful for that.
"Even if I was angry and frustrated as a child, I am grateful to God for that now, because look where it took me. If I was not beaten and if I didn’t live in harsh conditions, I would not be where I am today," he said, sitting amid conditions that, materially at least, could hardly be worse.
He extolled the beauty of learning as the honeyed voice of a young man reciting the verses of the Koran rose in the small dirt courtyard.
"If you take a child and he leads a soft life, he’s spoiled," Ba said. "But the talibes learn to be strong and independent."
As darkness fell on Thies, Mamadou Jalo was still out begging in the streets.
Mamadou has only one dream, a yearning that stitches together his days, makes some of them good and others terrible. It’s a dream that slips through his fingers every single day.
"My dream is money," he says softly.