Moussa doesn’t know how old he is or how long he has been in Dakar begging for money to keep his Muslim schoolteacher from beating him. But he knows what he wants to be when he grows up – a white man.
Malnourished children stretching out their hands for a coin are a common sight in many African cities, but in this most western tip of the continent, it is not poverty driving them onto the streets but adults.
Moussa is one of thousands of Senegalese boys, plucked from their rural roots and sent to moderate religious schools – daaras - in the cities to learn about Islam and memorise its holy book, the Koran.
Yet the pupils, known as talibes or disciples, learn little, forced to spend 10 hours a day trudging the streets for coins so they can pay their marabout teachers and for scraps so they can feed themselves.
“I have to take 200 CFA (36 cents) back to my marabout every night,” Moussa mumbled, digging in a tomato-paste tin for that day’s collection of coins.
It is early evening in one of Dakar’s more affluent suburbs and the boy, who looks no older than seven, doesn’t have even half the required amount. “If I’m short, the teacher hits me with a stick,” Moussa said resignedly.
He rubbed at a red scar on his forehead from a beating last week as he explained how there was only one thing he wanted to be when he was older.
“I want to be a white man.”
Some marabouts argue that they have no other way of providing for the boys, that they had the same upbringing and that begging teaches the children humility. But these reasons don’t convince everyone.
“Obviously we’re not talking about all marabout teachers, but for some it has reached the point where children are a business,” said Lahad Ndiaye, who works for the Synapse Network Center, a Dakar-based group that has tried to help the talibes.
“It’s exploitation pure and simple. You see kids who can’t recite even two verses of the Koran. They don’t have time to learn because they’re on the street all day.”
The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimates there are up to 100,000 child beggars in Senegal – about one percent of the population – and “talibe children are the vast majority”.
“I think the problem is growing,” Mamadou Wane, a UNICEF child protection officer, said in an interview in his Dakar office.
“Poverty is hitting rural areas ever harder here, meaning more kids in the city daaras,” he continued.
Daaras have been around since the seventeenth century and in their original incarnation were based in villages. Parents would send their children to work the marabout’s fields in return for a religious education.
But in the last 50 years or so, bad droughts shrivelled crops to dust, the national economy spluttered and the marabouts joined the exodus to the cities. There, riches proved equally elusive, and for some sending their pupils to beg was a neat solution.
“The marabouts have no salary and they have to support 20 to 30 kids, it’s impossible,” said Babacar Sene, a Muslim elder in Ouaka, one of the outer suburbs of Dakar.
Sene is well known in the local community, where a number of marabouts operate but refused to discuss their operations.
“I don’t agree with begging, it’s irritating. But it’s a thorny problem to solve. What else can the marabouts do?” added the 76-year-old, who chose to send his 23 children to French-speaking schools and teach them the Koran at home.
Senegal is a religiously tolerant country where many Muslims even celebrate Christmas and Islamic militancy is limited to the odd Osama bin Laden T-shirt.
But even so, when some 95 percent of the population is Muslim, tackling the talibe problem is a delicate business.
“The fact that people can talk about it now, that’s already progress,” said UNICEF’s Wane.
The UN group has been involved in projects since the early 90s. It has worked with village chiefs to set up 40 community daaras so children can stay close to families and has developed a French and Arab curriculum for Koranic teachers to use.
Other organisations like Dakar-based development organisation, ENDA have set up contact points in the bigger towns where the child beggars can eat, get access to water and interact with different adults.
“It’s about giving them a variety of reference points, beyond the marabout,” one of the organisers Moustapha Diop explained.
For while some talibes like Moussa dream of nothing but escape, others have adapted to the early-morning hitch-hike into town, begging for most of the day, squeezing in study late at night and having to sleep on flattened cardboard boxes.
The aid workers at Synapse Network Center, a locally based Non governmental organisation, discovered first-hand how difficult it can be to break the talibe habit when they set up a drop-in centre. Within five months, the boys had all dropped out.
“They had already got the taste for the street, they had the notion of liberty while out begging… and they had got used to keeping any extra money they collected,” said Ndiaye.
I want to be a marabout
A group of talibes squatting in the midday sun by a bench in Dakar’s main square illustrate the point. They admitted missing their parents, and living in worse conditions now then when they were at home but said they were happy.
“We’re lucky, we get to keep some of what we earn on the street, not like some talibes. I want to stay here and learn until I can be a marabout myself,” 10-year-old Umar said with a grin.
His friend Seydou, sporting a digital watch and fashionable if dirty shorts, announced proudly how he had been at a French school three years ago and then left to join the daara: “It was my own decision. I like the Koran more and I want to be a marabout.”
But as UNICEF’s Wane points out not every talibe can become a marabout.
“To have a future they need to learn agricultural skills or Wolof or French,” he said.
“There needs to be an institutional response. Koranic schools should be recognised… then transformed so they have to provide a basic general or professional education,” he said.
The government, conscious of the country’s secular status, is currently grappling with reforms. According to newspaper Le Soleil, it wants to “give all schools a structure which produces an educated and competent citizen who has religious values and is ready to participate in his country’s development.”
For Cire Kane, another Synapse Network worker, the talibe problem should be a priority.
“When these kids grow up they won’t have the skills to find work and they’ll stay on the streets. Senegal is preparing a time-bomb for itself.”