DAKAR (AFP) – On a tiny island a 20-minute ferry ride from the Senegalese capital Dakar, holidaymakers congregate around tour guides at the Maison des Esclaves museum to learn of the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade.
Yet few realise that in the religious schools dotted among their hotels modern-day slaveholders are abusing and starving thousands of west African children who are forced onto the streets to beg for their unscrupulous masters.
At least 50,000 boys known as talibes — the vast majority aged between four and 12 — are forced to beg in Senegal’s streets most of the day, every day, by often brutally abusive Koranic teachers known as marabouts.
“Senegal should not stand by while tens of thousands of talibe children are subjected every day to beatings, gross neglect, and, in fact, conditions akin to slavery,” Georgette Gagnon, of Human Rights Watch, said on the release of a report into the practice.
In the Muslim-majority nation where these religious leaders wield enormous social and political power, children have long been entrusted to marabouts who educate them in residential Koranic schools, called daaras.
But research by HRW shows that in many city daaras, marabouts are using education as a cover to send the children out to beg, inflicting severe physical and psychological abuse on those who fail to meet daily quotas.
The charity interviewed 175 current and former talibes for its 2010 report and documented numerous cases of beatings, and several cases in which children had been chained, bound, and abused.
A marabout typically collects up to 1,000 francs ($2) a day from the boys’ begging — with some amassing upwards of $100,000 a year — in a country where, according to the World Bank, a third of people live on less than $1.25 a day.
“Every day I had to bring the marabout 600 francs, rice, and sugar. Every time I couldn’t, the marabout would beat me with an electric cord,” said an 11-year-old quoted by HRW.
A typical daara is an abandoned or half-built residential block where children sleep as many as 40 to a small room and disease is rife.
The dismal living conditions were brought to the fore in March when a fire ripped through a Dakar-based daara housing dozens of children, killing nine who were trapped in their room, unable to escape.
Exhausted by continuous abuse and near-total deprivation, more than 1,000 boys run away from daaras each year, with Dakar’s many street children the defining legacy of the most exploitative residential Koranic schools.
Empire des Enfants (Children’s Empire), a shelter opened in 2003, was Senegal’s first response to the crisis.
The organisation provides a safe haven where around 50 boys are housed, fed, educated and supported, staying for anything from a few weeks to a year while researchers try to track down their parents.
“Most of the children come from the street… and many are foreigners from Guinea-Bissau, Mali, Guinea and Gambia,” said Anta Mbow, who founded the centre.
“They are victims of abuse and victims of trafficking. The people who exploit them… take them from a village in another country and bring them to Dakar, put them together and make them beg all day.”
Modou Fata Touray, now 23, stumbled across the centre aged 14 when he was living on the streets after escaping from a Koranic school in neighbouring Gambia.
“When I found Empire, I was so tired,” he said.
“You do not eat. I saw children going to school and I wanted to be like them. I had to find a solution to be like them.”
The west African talibe-marabout relationship has not always been so controversial.
Top Senegalese politicians, including former leader Abdoulaye Wade who styled himself “the first president-talibe”, studied the Koran with a marabout and rely today on the advice of these holy men who still hold tremendous sway.
Indeed for centuries, rural Senegalese families selected a male child to send to study the Koran with a marabout, often in a neighbouring village away from the family to help them focus on their studies.
In many cases the children were required to ask neighbours for food once a week, an accepted way to teach the Islamic tenet of humility.
But as drought gripped Senegal in the early 1970s and farmers slipped into poverty, unable to feed their families, they began sending their boys to live and study in daaras in Dakar.
Unregulated and away from the scrutiny of close-knit rural communities, the lessons in humility quickly turned into the forced begging which is now so deeply rooted in Senegalese culture.
In 2005 then-president Wade passed a law banning people from making a profit from forced begging, with a maximum sentence of five years’ imprisonment, and in 2010, for the first time, seven marabouts were convicted.
His successor Macky Sall also pledged better enforcement of the law after the Dakar fire.
Nine years after coming to Dakar as a street child, Touray believes opportunity rather than the law will play the biggest part in turning around the lives of talibes, however.
During his time at Empire he attended acrobatics and juggling lessons which led him in 2010 to found SenCirk, the country’s only circus which now runs workshops for vulnerable groups and schools across Dakar.
He works as a trainer and performer for SenCirk, and recently took part in a prestigious run of performances in Dakar’s Grand Theatre, playing to almost 4,000 people over three nights.
“In the future, if I have the money I’m going to buy trampolines, juggling balls, acrobatic equipment and that sort of thing, and I’m going to put it all somewhere for children to play with,” he said.
“I like helping children. Their parents can pay and I’m going to teach them acrobatics, circus skills and everything like that. I’d like to create a space where children can play.”