Marching for street kids

Senegal on Friday marked the National Day for Talibes to call attention to the tens of thousands of children who ply the streets of the country begging for money.

Talibe is an Arabic word meaning “one who seeks and asks” and it also refers to street children in Senegal who are taken in by local Islamic teachers, known as marabouts, to study the Muslim holy book, the Koran. The children, in return, gather money in tin cans they hold out to pedestrians and drivers at intersections and give their coins to the teachers.

The United Nations children’s agency (UNICEF) in 2004 estimated that there are up to 100,000 child beggars in Senegal, constituting one percent of the country’s 11.4 million people. It is unclear how many of them are talibes.

"It is enough to take a survey in the streets to catch a glimpse. The problem of those children is increasing in an exponential manner," said Malick Diagne, deputy executive director of the nongovernmental organisation Tostan.

Tostan has organised an annual five-day march from the capital, Dakar, to the city of Thies 70km away to draw local and international attention to the plight of the Talibes, culminating in the National Day for Talibes.

About 100 people began the march on Monday, holding banners and chanting slogans to pressure the government of President Abdoulaye Wade to improve the lives of the Talibes. Senegal’s National Assembly in 2005 passed a law against the exploitation of children as beggars, carrying prison terms of two-to-five years and fines of up to the equivalent of US$4,000 but so far there have been no prosecutions.

"Everyone wants to get involved in dealing with it but it depends on the political will," Diagne said. "The government is playing the game on two tables. The laws are passed to satisfy the international community, but they are not being implemented to keep the marabouts happy.”

Senegal is 95 percent Muslim and Islamic leaders have considerable political influence in the country. Historically, Koranic schools, or daaras, have been located in rural areas. Parents would send their children to the schools to study Islam and in exchange the children would carry out odd jobs for the marabouts.

But in the past 50 years the marabouts have steadily migrated to urban areas, especially following periods of drought and economic constraint. Begging among the children had been considered a way to learn humility. But that goal has been corrupted, child welfare workers say.

"It is an intolerable situation," said Boubacar Diop of the Association for the Promotion and Protection of Youth (ASPJ). "The society, family, the state and everyone for different reasons and levels are responsible for this."

The family of one young adolescent, Amadou, sent him to study with a marabout. He says the teacher treats him well but he works hard to get money and find something to eat.

“We study the Koran from the morning up to midday. Afterwards the kids go out in the streets up to 3 p.m. in search of something to eat and then resume studying, which takes us up to 4 p.m., after which time we go back out to find something to eat," said Amadou, a pseudonym.

Diop said one problem is that many of the Koranic teachers take on too many students without the means to sufficiently provide for them. Child rights advocates say certifying the Islamic teachers and paying them regular salaries would help the situation.

Biran Sy, a Koranic teacher in Thies, and who has benefited from Tostan assistance, said it is with a heavy heart that marabouts send children out to beg. “But if you do not have means of eating what will you do otherwise?”

Conversely, Diagne of Tostan said there are many marabouts who exploit the children to earn money.

"If they send out about 50 pupils in the city daily ordering each to bring back 300 CFA [about US75 cents) within a month the money collected is the equivalent of a senior government official,” he said.