- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 4, 2004

DAKAR, Senegal — Sitting on an empty tomato-paste can on the sidewalk, arms folded around his head to shield from the blistering sun, a boy named Abou is trying to catch up on sleep.

His day started well before dawn, with a 90-minute hike to the center of Senegal’s capital, Dakar. The frail and malnourished child, dressed in dirt-blackened rags, has walked barefoot all morning on baking roads, begging for food and a few coins to take back to his teacher and guardian.

“This is my life. I have no choice,” Abou said. Then, to a concert of honking horns, he rushes across the road to pick up a coin thrown from a car window.

Like the other children with whom he begs, Abou was put in the care of spiritual guides, or marabouts, to be taught Islam and its holy book, the Koran.

Abou has a mother and father, but was turned over to the religious school too young to remember them. He doesn’t know his age, but looks 9 at most.

These tens of thousands of boys, some as young as 5, are known as talibe, meaning disciple in Arabic. They come mostly from families in Senegal’s arid countryside struggling to feed too many children.

Koranic schools are a tradition in Muslim West Africa, appearing in the 11th century in Senegal’s northern Fouta region. Until Senegal’s independence from France in 1960, the schools were held in esteem. Many of the country’s leaders graduated from the schools.

About 95 percent of Senegal’s 10.5 million people are Muslim, living under a constitution that defines the nation as a secular state.

Today, urban sprawl, population growth and rural poverty mean that Senegal has more of the schools than ever — but comparatively fewer giving the boys a future in exchange for their childhood.

Marabouts increasingly are using the children as their work force — legions laboring for the teachers at the unskilled job of begging, in the name of learning humility.

“How can I possibly take care of all of them?” asks Pape Seck, a 25-year-old marabout at a religious school on the outskirts of Dakar, kicking a boy of about 4 in the head when the exhausted child dozes off during morning Koran study.

“Their parents keep sending them to me even though they know I can’t afford to look after them,” Mr. Seck complained. He has a rubber whip slung over the shoulder.

Every day, Abou and the roughly 30 other boys under Mr. Seck’s care must beg at least 300 francs for the marabout. That is about 50 cents, roughly enough for two loaves of bread.

From dawn to dusk, the boys stand at streetlights, traffic jams, market stalls and restaurant entrances, imploring passers-by for coins or scraps of food.

“Tell … what happened to you,” Abou says, smiling and pointing at a slightly older companion named Alpha.

“One day, I was short of 100 francs — and for that, I was beaten so hard with a rubber whip that I could not sit or sleep on my back for days,” said Alpha, lifting his T-shirt to show scars.

The United Nations Children’s Fund estimates that there are 100,000 forced street beggars in Dakar alone. Most of them, like Abou and Alpha, are children at Koranic schools.

Senegal’s talibe system is complex, deeply entrenched and in need of urgent reform, said Roberto Benes, a UNICEF child-protection officer in Dakar.

“The situation is totally unacceptable,” Mr. Benes said. “At this very moment, a child is out there begging, another is probably being beaten or in deep suffering.”

Senegal’s government has undertaken several initiatives and made begging a punishable offense. But spiritual leaders are respected and influential, and no government leader wants to challenge Islamic institutions, so the child beggars continue to multiply.

Some humanitarian groups, spearheaded by Dakar-based Enda Tiers Monde, are supporting the more reputable Koranic schools by offering vocational training, health care and a varied and more practical curriculum.

One of the better regarded is the Saara Ndiougari School in western Senegal’s Kaolack region. It’s among the few that give talibes a standard education as well as religious instruction.

Among its alumni are young men pursuing degrees at Dakar University, including one studying French literature, said Ibrahima Hann, the school’s director.

But the vast majority of talibes — like Abou and Alpha — never have been taught to read or write, and likely never will be.

At their school, the 30 talibes recite Koranic verses by heart in a shack built of plastic bags and wooden sticks. Lunch consists of leftovers piled in their tomato-paste begging cans.

Come nightfall, the boys pile up in two cockroach-infested rooms with no lights and no beds — just flattened cardboard boxes on the floor.

Fun and laughter come from playing soccer with an empty can by the road.

When childhood ends around their midteens, the boys enter the adult world with no trade, no education and no connections.

Their choices then: unemployment, or becoming the next generation of marabouts and their aides.

Abou, however, has a better future in mind.

Standing outside a primary school, watching the well-dressed schoolchildren play at recess or eat ice cream, Abou says he hopes to return home, somehow, one day.

“Then I can become one of the big men driving a four-wheel drive,” Abou said. “And this time around, I’ll be the one throwing coins.”

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