December 6, 2012 3:24 pm

Route out of begging for Senegal children

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Boys at a school in Saint Louis, Senegal©Holly Pickett

Boys at a school in Saint Louis, Senegal

It is past midnight on the humid streets of Saint Louis, a city in Senegal. Half a dozen boys are sleeping rough on a veranda, their spindly arms and legs piled awkwardly on top of each other. Issa Kouyaté shakes one awake and asks him his story.

The boy ducks his eyes and points to a building a few streets away. His teacher, or marabout, at the Koranic school he attends demands 625 CFA francs each day. For two days running, he has not had the money. He has fled the school, or daara, for fear of a beating.

The boy, who does not give his name or age, walks sleepily behind Mr Kouyaté, who makes regular night patrols to look for boys who have fled their daaras but are invisible in the crowded bustle of a Saint Louis day.

“They are children who should go to school and get an education. There are people who pass there the whole time and say nothing. It is unbelievable,” he says as he takes the child to his house, where he will feed and care for him. The others remain behind. Tonight he is intent on making sure at least one boy is helped.

Shocked by the number of child beggars trying to earn money for their marabouts, Mr Kouyaté started helping them in 2007. Five years on, his organisation – known as Maison de la Gare as it used to offer services in the railway station – provides food, healthcare and education to about 250 children from Koranic schools each week.

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Mr Kouyaté’s work with these boys – known as talibés – and the marabouts who teach them is supported by Global Fund for Children, which funds grassroots organisations who work with vulnerable children and is the FT’s partner for this year’s Seasonal Appeal.

Since March 2011, the GFC has given Maison de la Gare grants totalling $17,000 as well as guidance on the management of the project. In that time, Maison de la Gare has hired a nurse and a gardener, and strengthened its relationship with local social services.

His goal, says Mr Kouyaté, is securing the children a route out of poverty. “If they have good education, then they won’t stay on the street and they won’t beg,” he says.

But there are many obstacles. The plight of the talibés – derived from an Arabic word for disciple – highlights the complex relationships between Senegal’s leaders and the Islamic brotherhoods that play a crucial role in public and social life.

Hundreds of thousands of Senegalese children, mostly from poor rural areas, have been sent by their parents to town, ostensibly for an education. Most often, their parents cannot afford to pay for their food or education. The result is that boys are forced to beg to raise money for their teachers.

The transactional relationship often turns out badly. As many as 50,000 children in face dreadful abuse in Senegal’s Koranic schools, according to Human Rights Watch.

But little has been done to tackle the problem, in part because of the esteem in which religious leaders are held makes the government wary of tackling abuse, Mr Kouyaté says.

From the age of six, Arona, now 15, has fished, cleaned houses and done odd jobs in the market to find the daily 500 CFA Francs to give to the marabout, his uncle.

Every evening the 70 or so children in his daara give the marabout their earnings. “If I don’t give him money, he hits me,” he says.

His father, since deceased, made clear to him that he should study hard and earn money to give the marabout for his keep. “I made a promise. I keep the conditions.”

Over time, the marabouts have become increasingly exploitative and some are there simply to do business, says Mr Kouyaté. “There are marabout who have threatened to kill me because I see things,” he says.

For their part, marabout say the situation is not always as simple as portrayed. Providing food for the children in his care is difficult, says Serigne Seck, one marabout who gets help from Maison de la Gare.

Some teachers can indeed be abusive, he says, but so are teachers in state schools. “It is difficult to raise and discipline children without force now and again.”

Serigne Thiam, a marabout whose makeshift classroom doubles as an open air bedroom for scores of boys in his care, insists no abuse happens under his watch. But he says he is reliant on the help of volunteers such as Mr Kouyaté to care for the children. “Parents don’t help, government doesn’t help, it makes it difficult, everything comes back to poverty,” he says.

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