Childhood’s End

Senegal’s Lost Boys

Koranic students forced to beg on the streets of Dakar, Senegal

I’m writing this to pay a debt. In 2009, I taught at an American university in Dakar, Senegal. My students were not Americans; they were Africans, wealthy kids from all over, but mostly West Africa: Nigeria, Mali, Guinea-Bissau, The Gambia, and, of course, Senegal itself, where the first president was a poet, Leopold Senghor, and the people are known for their stately and hierarchical culture, and their arrogance, which, as Africans from neighboring countries point out, is so much like the French.

When you live in Dakar, you notice two things right away. Despite a rash of new construction along the the city’s seafront promenade, horse-drawn carts still carry supplies to shops: fruits and vegetables, cooking oil, bolts of fabric. The clip clop of horses’ hooves wakes you in the morning. It is quite romantic, even though you are already sweating because the power is out and your air conditioner is not running.

The second thing you notice are the talibés. A block inland from the mansions built by Nigerian oil wealth and the drug trade, you will be importuned by feral boys who haunt the streets dressed in rags. They are, officially, students of the Koran. In reality, they are slaves. Some are as young as five. There are 30,000 of them in the Dakar region alone, three percent of the population in a city of slightly more than one million, living in overcrowded shacks where they sleep piled on each other like puppies.

Talibé translates to “student” or “seeker.” In Senegal, the word is used for children in Koranic schools called darras. Until the late 1970s, talibés attended these schools in their home villages. But when Senegal’s agricultural economy collapsed in the late 1970s, a victim of drought, the Koranic teachers and their students migrated to Senegal’s cities.

The traditional system devolved into slavery. In modern-day Dakar, when talibés fail to make the quota their teachers set for them — roughly an average day’s wage for an adult — they are beaten with chains, strips of tires, or wet ropes. If they run away, the punishment can be worse. Human rights activists report that some darras have punishment rooms. Chained to a pole, runaways are forced to sit on their bound wrists and ankles. One Senegalese activist called it torture.

“After only an hour you are suffering, and in some darras I know, they have to stay there for a whole day,” he said. “They do it so that it hurts and so the boy won’t run away anymore.”

“When I think of it slavery comes to mind,” he added.

There are an estimated 50,000 talibés in Senegal. Their numbers are increasing as human traffickers bring boys in from neighboring countries, according to Corinne Dufka, Associate Director at Human Rights Watch. Just as my wealthy students flock to Dakar to prepare for joining West Africa’s one percent, poor children are sent to take their places in society. Talibés trafficked from neighboring countries now make up one-third to half of Dakar’s child beggars, according to Anti-Slavery International. Their enslavement is fueled by poverty, high numbers of children in families, and deeply held traditions that value humility and learning the Koran, according to Dufka.

“I believe the talibés are a blind spot in Senegal,” Dufka said. “People don’t see the abuse anymore, because it’s so common. You become desensitized because it’s so difficult to take in.

“It takes leadership to say, ‘This is is abuse and it’s happening right before our eyes.’ Can you imagine in the United States, seeing children on the streets during school hours begging, with no shoes, and some of them clearly ill? I believe the sight of these kids, so many of them over the years, has numbed the authorities who are mandated to protect these children.”

As I went about my life in Dakar, rushing to work, buying food at the roadside kiosks, I began to ignore the talibés, too. Dirty, unsocialized, gut-wrenchingly sad, occasionally threatening, there were simply too many of them. I wrote the situation off as hopeless, until a colleague introduced me to Yaya Sidibé.

Sidibé is a product of the talibé system before it went bad. A tall, fortyish man with greyhound energy, he arrived at one of Dakar’s quasi-French cafes carrying a heavily laden Targus daypack. Placing it carefully on the floor, Sidibé explained that it contained medicines, medicaments, to treat the wounds and skin diseases that talibés suffer from, caused by abuse and unsanitary conditions.

Je suis commando, he said with a weary grin.

Sidibé’s own Koranic education started when he was five. By seven, he was putting in long days attending both state-run schools and Koranic school. He worked on a farm on weekends, bringing in the harvests that would feed the Koranic school’s students. He jokes that he never had weekends, so he doesn’t miss them; it’s only his wife who wishes he was home more often.

Sidibé says that in his home village, he thrived as a talibé. But while attending vocational school in St. Louis, one of Senegal’s larger cities, he ran out of money. He was living on the streets until he found his way to a home for boys run by a Catholic social services organization. One of the priests suggested that despite his own straitened circumstances, he might want to do something for others. The priest suggested he write a letter on behalf of a prisoner in Mexico.

“Four months later the priest asked, ‘Do you remember I gave you a notice about a Mexican?’ Your letter contributed to his release,” Sidibé recalled.

Thanks to this priest, the Muslim teenager became a convert: not to Christianity, but to the cause of human rights. When he was only fourteen, Amnesty International hired Sidibé to teach high school students about their rights. He continued working for Amnesty while studying at the University of Dakar, and in 1997, he went to his superiors with a not-so-modest proposal: remove all talibés from Koranic schools.

All of them? his boss asked.

Absolutement, Sidibé replied.

Too ambitious, they said.

By 2004, Sidibé was ready to create his own organization to fight for children’s rights, but, as he tells it, “Senegal was not ready for me.” Sidibé says that he filed all the necessary paperwork with the police and prefecture…and waited. Two years later, when the authorities told him they had lost his documents, he started the process again. This time, he was asked for a bribe, which he refused to pay.

Nobody was eager to help him take on the enormous power of Senegal’s Muslim brotherhoods, whose lower-echelon teachers ran the darras. The marabouts were simply too well-connected.

K Street lobbyists, traditional healers, and con artists, Senegal’s marabouts are immensely powerful, and, despite the country’s modern appearance, they have lost none of their clout. In the 2007 novel Allah is Not Obliged by the Cote d’Ivoirean writer Amadou Kourouma, a naughty kid named Birahima tells a picaresque tale of how he was kidnapped to become a child soldier through the machinations of marabouts: Balla, the sorcerer and master huntsman who crippled Birahima’s mother with traditional medicine; the money-multiplier Yacouba, and Sekou, “a vicious crook” who performs slight of hand, pulling a “white chicken clucking out of the sleeve of his bou bou.”

Allah is Not Obliged is the archetypal tale of an orphan boy tricked by con men and criminals, a West African version of Oliver Twist, Candide, and Huckleberry Finn. But the power of the marabouts is no joke. In Senegal’s hierarchical culture, these keepers of the Koran’s secrets are so respected that an unknown marabout can arrive in a village and simply by virtue of his authority, parents will entrust their children to his care. As Sidibé said: “In Africa, kids respect adults and one kid is everyone’s kid.”

The brotherhoods’ power was visible in sharp relief after eight young talibés burned to death in a fire at the makeshift shack that served as their darra in Dakar in 2013. After the fire, Senegal’s new president Mackey Sall, who had been elected as a reformer, promised to end the exploitation of the talibés. Neighbors, local officials and activists identified four schools where dangerous conditions existed. One was closed and its students returned to their families.

But after the Muslim brotherhoods forced a meeting with President Sall, authorities dropped plans to close schools and prosecute abusive marabouts, according to a Human Rights Watch report. A 2005 law that criminalizes forced begging has not been enforced and proposed legislation that would bring the darras under state control has stalled, largely because of the political clout of the brotherhoods.

Of the country’s four brotherhoods, the most powerful is the Mouride, which counts singer Youssou N’Dour among its members. Founded in the early twentieth century by Sufi mystic Amadou Bamba, the sect enshrines non-violence and hard work. Members of the sect, who number in the millions, function as a tightly knit mutual aid society, even after its members migrate to other countries. The men selling knockoff hats, umbrellas, and knockoff Prada purses in Manhattan are part of a highly organized Mouride business.

Youssou N’Dour has argued that the precepts of Mouridism are a counterweight to the post-9/11 version of Islam, and the sect’s mystical bent has made it unpopular among hardline Islamic fundamentalists.

“In the West, you read all about terrorism,” N’Dour told a BBC reporter. “We’re all lumped together. But those of us who understand that it’s a religion of peace, love, and sharing mustn’t give up.”

While the marabouts have a dark side — child beggars are more ubiquitous than ever — Youssou N’Dour is not being disingenuous: progressive Mouride leaders are making efforts to modernize Koranic schools. A descendant of the Mouride brotherhood’s founder, Sokhna Mama Issa Mbaké, supports thirteen model darras, where boys — and girls — learn French, Arabic, science and computer literacy.

However, as in the United States, only a few children attend high-powered private schools. According to a Senegalese government study, more than half of the Koranic schools in the Dakar region provide no education other than learning the Koran. In many so-called darras, human rights activists say, children receive an hour or two of rote memorization or no education at all. The guiding principle is not religion; it is profit: it is not uncommon for unethical marabouts to make $100,000 a year off the backs of child slaves.

One Senegalese activist — not Sidibé — told Human Rights Watch that when he meets a talibé, the first thing he does is look at his back for the marks of a beating. He talked about a ten-year-old boy who had been beaten with a horsewhip. The boy explained what he did to survive.

“You just think about your home,” he said.

This activist echoed the words of many who are familiar with the talibés, saying that the best solution is for the boys to be returned to their families. But this is not a simple remedy. The countryside is poor, and the talibé tradition deeply embedded in Senegalese society. In fact, marabouts often send their own children out begging. As they get older, the marabouts put them in charge of the other boys, and they are inculcated into the culture of abuse. That includes sexual abuse.

“They say the kids are mentally sick,” Sidibé says. “No, it’s the people dressed like me,” — he grabs the lapels of his jacket — “who abuse them. They are the ones who are sick.”

Even though the talibé system has been perverted almost beyond recognition, the authority of marabouts is so deeply entrenched in Senegalese culture that unless there is strong leadership on the issue — and funding to improve conditions in the darras — increasingly numbers of boys will be subjected to the hellish conditions of Senegal’s modern-day slave pens. What staggers the imagination is the prospect of generations of damaged men, abandoned by their teachers as they reach adulthood and left to fend for themselves. Yet even Sidibé, a firebrand in nearly every other respect, is reluctant to criticize the marabouts, saying that they are merely part of a system, and it is the system that needs to change.

“I didn’t come in judgment. I came with bleach,” Sidibé says, adding, with the Senegalese version of a Gallic shrug, “I am a talibé.

A shadow crosses his face. In the silence that follows, it is clear that Sidibé was about to say that current-day talibés are not truly talibés. But he stopped himself, because times have changed. The feral, abused boys on Dakar’s streets are the real talibés now.

Update: After five boys died in early 2016, Senegal’s president ordered boys found begging on the streets to be returned to their homes. Three hundred boys were sent home. But there were still very few prosecutions of marabouts.

First-person account from a former talibé: the good, the bad, the rice.

This story is excerpted from Waiting for Charlie: Mercenary Soldiers, Failed States, and The Love That Means More Than Money, ebook $2.99 on Amazon.