Sunday, June 3, 2012

The Talibé

Where do I even begin. I see them everywhere with their tomato cans! And yet I don't. For a long time I just turned away.  Walked quickly by them. Looked over their heads or responded to their outstretched hand "pas maitenent" <not now>  or "ce n'est pas possible" <it's not possible> when they ask for money.  What I'm really thinking is  <no> or <I know I have the funds but I won't contribute>.  And at the beginning when I was thinking this I really did not know much about them or their plight.  But with time and a much more open mind I have learned more.

From World Vision - Who are these children called? - The Talibé

<<The term talibé is derived from the Arabic word meaning “follower or disciple.” In Senegal, it refers to boys who have been promised an education but forced to work as professional beggars on the city streets.
  • The cycle of entrapment begins when poor parents send their young boys to the city to receive an education, studying Islam and memorizing the Koran.
  • In reality, these pupils spend little time studying and are forced by their teachers (Marabouts) to beg on the streets for cash and food.>>
When you see them you notice their clothes at times are oversized and extremely dirty, un-bathed and many walk around with no shoes as they weave between the taxis and the people in colorful boubous on the street. It's actually quite heartbreaking now that I understand the whole picture beyond the direct interaction on the streets.

These boys come out in droves at the end of the school day at Parker and Addison's school. They know the parents have coins. They know the children do too. There are a few food and toy vendors outside the front of the school gate - so they do their begging in a very prime spot. Inside the cans I've noticed they are full of sugar cubes because apparently along with money they are also to collect the cubes, as it’s considered good luck to give them the sugar. Honestly I'm not sure what they do with the sugar. I think I read there is a daily quota they are to bring back to their Marabouts along with the money. I do wonder if they are eating or sucking on some of the cubes.  I'm sure it becomes part of their  "nutritious" intake only to exacerbate any tooth decay they have and already poor health.



The hardest part on one level is knowing that on this street where my kids go to school in Plateau there are actually 3 elementary schools on the same street and the Talibé boys attend none of them. They are not in school when all the school kids are. They are begging. It's a sad state of affairs for the boys and the country itself.  It's a lifestyle that their parents have directed them into under false pretenses that is hard to escape. I included an article and a link to two videos (10 minutes each from the BBC that is a must watch!) below that gives a more in depth picture.

Why am I able to get focused on this blog post now and not earlier? - because it took a number of people for me to cross paths with over time here to understand the Talibé story and to learn what some organizations and individuals are doing to change how they interact with them. Despite their circumstance, I've now come to see who they are - young, innocent human beings.

Those that I met that made me think a bit more were -  
  • members of DWG who volunteer for "Village Pilote," an NGO that provides food, shelter, education, and vocational training for runaway Talibés  and street children,  
  • a German man whom we met at Zebrabar, here for 3 months with "Project Abroad - Talibé Center" in Saint Louis, and 
  • a Peace Corp volunteer, April, who lives in Dourbel that I had the pleasure of meeting and learning about her projects but came across her blog. It was her blog post about the same Talibé subject that challenged her as well. I quote her here "My service is coming to a close in a few months, so it’s not realistic to think that I’m going to take on a Talibé project that will have any real effect, but I have started to implement a simple approach that someone suggested will make a difference--stopping to greet the boys when I see them and just simply asking them their names.  This brief interaction can have a significant effect on them psychologically and validates them as people, not just beggars".  
 Needless to say her post hit me hard.

 And lastly there is 
  • Jane, another DWG member and mother of boys who made some comment about handing out vitamins to the Talibé boys in her neighborhood.  I thought to myself now THAT is brilliant. She said she got the idea from another mother. 
Why vitamins?  It's easy to distribute and provides some sort of nutrients for the day.  (From E.How on the internet) - <<The body needs a wide array of vitamins to function properly, to fight off illness, to prevent diseases, to regulate metabolism and for energy. When the body is lacking in vitamins, the lack will show up myriad ways. Hair, skin, nails, mood, thought, vision, weight, activity levels, breathing, sleep and teeth will all suffer at the hands of insufficient vitamins in the body. There is no question that vitamins are vital for a healthy and happy body and mind.>>

So the perfect opportunity presented itself to me when my friend Andrea decided to come for a visit.  I asked he if she could bring over oodles and oodles of children's vitamins.  When I explained why I was making the request she thought the idea brilliant too that she shared what she was doing with her neighbor Teri. Teri wanted to help too so they both contributed to the purchase of the vitamins and between them both she was able to bring over 1000 vitamins to support our family project.  It's had to say if that seems like a lot of vitamins or not, but given that we advised Andrea she should  come over with only a carry on - all of a sudden her space was now being carved out with all sorts of things we were asking her to bring.  (Including some additional reading books for the boys, some more computer equipment  for Manning's school volunteer project and Peets coffee for me and Manning.)

Jane made clear - not the gummy bear kind as they can get a little mushy and stick together if left inside a vehicle given the heat here. In my case I knew I'd more likely be handing them out while walking on the street than from inside a taxi or a car. But I wanted also to be in a position to hand over the vitamins to Jane if we are not able to dispense them all.                             

So there is something we can do in our last 2 months!  We'll look at those boys faces, ask them their names (because at birth we've all been given names)  and give them a vitamin. It's simple in Wolof - Nanga tudd? (which when phonetically said is "no to do"). This brings back something  very important I learned 25 years ago - Dale Carnegie Secrets of Success Principle #6: Remember that a person's name is to that person the sweetest and most important sound in any language

Manning, Parker, Addison and I will  give out vitamins each time we see the boys alone or in the little packs together wherever we go.  Especially when we pick P/A up after school. We know that one vitamin upon a random meeting isn't going to have a significant impact in a change in their health, but we hope it will make some kind of impact.   We have our goal - just over 1,000 vitamins. I think we can do it!

We've already started to give them away.  I tried to give one boy his vitamin and I kept saying "manges, manges" but it was clear even with pantomiming he wasn't sure.  He didn't know French.  It goes with the territory of not having an eduction in the traditional sense in Senegal, where French is the language used in school and government.  And yes, I forgot to ask him his name, but this nice  street vendor helped explain, in Wolof, to eat the vitamin.  With a thumbs up to what I had done he insisted on me taking a photo of both of them.

It's a small start. So, when you find yourself traveling to an underdeveloped country you'll likely come across a small out stretched hand that would be happy to eat a Fred, Wilma, Pebbles, Barney, Betty, Bamm-Bamm or Dino. When you pull out the packing list - don't forget the children's chewable vitamins!


Other references - that are worth the time to read and watch. The videos by the BBC are exceptional in summarizing more of the challenges and issues between the marabouts and the government - they are short and worthy of the 10 minutes each they play.

--->  BBC - God's Beggar Children 1 of 2 - Video
--->  BBC - God's Beggar Children 2 of 2 - Video
--->  Off the Back of Children - Human Rights Watch Review - Article
--->  Talibe: The Least Favored Children of Senegal - Documentary (but I could not find a link to it. So maybe it can be found in a library?)

 ** The videos and this accompanying article were done in 2010. 
It's now 2012. It still feels the same **

Senegal school abuse: Ismaila's story

Ismaila's brothers say he now has "an old face"
Ismaila is just nine. When he was four he was sent to a daara, or Koranic school, in the Senegalese capital, Dakar.
He has just escaped. He lifts his shirt to show us the scars on his back, some from insect bites, others from beatings by a teacher.
"He asked us to bring rice, sugar and if ever we didn't bring anything, we were beaten severely. He used a 'gourdin', the club you use on sheep or goats".
There are thought to be 50,000 boys like him. They are called talibes (from the Arabic for student) and they are forced to beg by their teachers.
In every town in the country, you see them. Little groups of boys in filthy clothes clutching yellow bowls, moving from car to car and house to house. Some are as young as three.
"They didn't give us meals in the daara, we just begged for food in houses around. If they had some, we ate. If they didn't, we just remained without eating anything," Ismaila says.
Rubbish and smell The daaras once had a proud reputation: They used to educate the leaders of the future, and asking for food taught them humility. But crop failure, economic crisis and mass migration to the cities has corrupted that practice.
An older boy flogs younger students  
Younger children are regularly flogged for not being focused enough
Some still honour the tradition, but many are now just scams to make the teachers rich on the backs of child labour.
Last week, seven teachers were found guilty of forced begging in the first such case in Senegal. None, however, went to prison.
Human Rights Watch workers say it is a step in the right direction, but abuse is still widespread.
As we approach a daara in a Dakar suburb, the first thing we hear is the rhythmic chanting. Inside, a weather-beaten wooden door on a muddy sidestreet gives onto a small courtyard. It is no secret what goes on here.
About 50 boys sit on the dirt floor, chanting over the Koran. Rubbish litters the ground and the toilet is just a patch of gravel at the back of the yard. The smell is almost overpowering.
The children live and sleep here, their dormitory is a squalid room with bare floors and some corrugated iron.
As they chant, an older boy walks among them with a length of car fan belt in his hand. He occasionally stops and hits any child who he thinks isn't concentrating.
The marabout, or teacher, says the boys are not mistreated. He rails against the government which won't fund his, and most other daaras, so he sends them out to beg.
Going home So why do parents send their children to daaras?
In part because of religious duty, as some don't know what goes on there, and - for others - a child in the daara is one less mouth to feed.
Inside two of Senegal's daraas - one exploitative, one good
After Ismaila ran away from the beatings and the squalor of the school, he was rescued by a social worker.
When we meet him he is about to go home for the first time in five years. He has had no contact with his parents in that time.
"I missed my parents a lot, it was very difficult to stay there without ever seeing them," he says.
"I'm very happy to go back home, I think my parents will be very understanding and loving, they won't beat me."
We are given permission to go with him and the family know we are coming.
We arrive at the meeting point and wait. Then his father appears, but he refuses to even look at his son. A limp handshake is all that is offered - the smile falls from Ismaila's face.
When we arrive at the house, the boy trails miserably behind his father. He then sits on the floor in the main room of the house, and puts his head in his hands.
A Daara student begs on the streets of Dakar The students are supposed to learn humility on the streets
Then his mother arrives - surely she'll be pleased to see him? But she walks straight past.
Again, a brief handshake is the only contact after five years. She sits down and ignores Ismaila.
Several men in the room talk very fast, in the local language Wolof, and we have no idea what is going on. We fear Ismaila is going to be punished.
But then the men reach some kind of decision, get up and walk out.
And everything changes: Ismaila's mother hugs and kisses him, she caresses his hands, as if to make sure he is real. The other women in the room laugh and clap their hands.
Then they explain what had happened.
Men rule the Senegalese home: His father and uncle had sent him away and Ismaila's mother wasn't allowed to see him. When she tried to get him back, she was threatened with divorce.
But now his grandmother, who dominates the room, declares that he'll stay with her - he won't go away again.
Ismaila starts to smile, and soon he is playing with his brothers: He gives his cousin a playful thump.
Finally we leave, but make sure to keep in touch.
The family have accepted him back, he's safe. A charity is now paying for him to go to a good local school.
Breaking the link But he carries with him not just the physical scars on his back. His brothers say simply that "Ismaila's got an old face now".
Ismaila's story shows just how complex resolving the problem of the talibes will be.
The government says it is now an urgent priority. It is building new daaras and running high-profile education campaigns. But prosecutions of the worst teachers simply won't be enough.
The authorities have to somehow break the link between poverty, faith and exploitation.
If they can't do that the talibes will still be forced to beg on the streets of Senegal.


  1. Hilary, I'm so proud of you! God bless you all. - Julie

  2. Thanks Julie - It's very touching to give them the vitamins - I only wish it could really fix their long term situation. When I see them now - they offer up quite beautiful smiles. It's really tragic to see these kids have no 'childhood' and the exploitation of them by adults seems even more horrendous. I can all only hope one day a radical change will occur in this country to end their plight.