- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 24, 2008

DAKAR, Senegal (AP) — On the day he decided to run away, 9-year-old Coli awoke on a filthy mat. Like a pup, he lay curled against the cold, pressed between dozens of other children sleeping head-to-toe on the concrete floor. His T-shirt was damp with the dew that seeped through the thin walls. The older boys had yanked away the square of cloth he used to protect himself from the draft. He shivered.

It was still dark as he set out for the mouth of a freeway with the other boys, a tribe of 7-to-9-year-old beggars.

Coli padded barefoot between the stopped cars, his head reaching only halfway up the windows. His scrawny body disappeared under a ragged T-shirt that grazed his knees. He held up an empty tomato paste can as his begging bowl.

There are 1.2 million Colis in the world. Children are trafficked to work for the benefit of others. Those who lure them into servitude make $15 billion annually, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO).

It’s big business in Senegal. In the capital, Dakar, alone, at least 7,600 child beggars work the streets, according to a study released in February by the ILO, the United Nations Children’s Fund and the World Bank. The children collect an average of 300 African francs a day, just 72 cents, reaping their keepers $2 million a year.

Most of the boys — 90 percent, the study found — are sent out to beg under the cover of Islam, placing the problem at the complicated intersection of greed and tradition. For among the cruelest facts of Coli’s life is that he was not stolen from his family. He was brought to Dakar with their blessing to learn Islam’s holy book.

In the name of religion, Coli spent two hours a day memorizing verses from the Koran and over nine hours begging to pad the pockets of the man he called his teacher.

It was getting dark. Coli had less than half the 72 cents he was told to bring back. He was afraid. He knew children who failed to meet their daily quotas were stripped and doused in cold water. The older boys picked them up like hammocks by their ankles and wrists. Then the teacher whipped them with an electrical cord until the cord ate their skin.

Still, Coli slipped away, losing himself in a tide of honking cars. He had 20 cents in his tomato can.

Three years ago, a man wearing a skullcap came to Coli’s village in the neighboring country of Guinea-Bissau and asked for him.

Coli’s parents immediately addressed the man as “Serigne,” a term of respect for Muslim leaders on Africa’s western coast. Many poor villagers believe that giving a Muslim holy man a child to educate will gain an entire family entrance to paradise.

Since the 11th century, families have sent their sons to study at the Koranic schools that flourished on Africa’s western seaboard with the rise of Islam. It is forbidden to charge for an Islamic education, so the students, known as talibe, studied for free with their marabouts, or spiritual teachers. In return, the children worked in the marabout’s fields.

The droughts of the late 1970s and ‘80s forced many schools to move to cities, where their income began to revolve around begging.

Not all Koranic boarding schools force their students to beg. But for the most part, what was once an esteemed form of education has degenerated into child trafficking. Nowadays, Koranic instructors net as many children as they can to increase their daily take.

“If you do the math, you’ll find that these people are earning more than a government functionary,” said Souleymane Bachir Diagne, an Islamic scholar at Columbia University. “It’s why the phenomenon is so hard to eradicate.”

Middlemen troll for children as far afield as the dunes of Mauritania and the grass-covered huts of Mali. It’s become a booming, regional trade that ensnares children as young as 2, who don’t know the name of their village or how to return home.

One of the largest clusters of Koranic schools lies in the poor, sand-enveloped neighborhoods on either side of the freeway leading into Dakar.

This is where Coli’s marabout squats in a half-finished house whose floor stirs with flies: Amadu Buwaro sleeps on a mattress covered in white linens. The 30 children in his care sleep in another room with dirty blankets on the floor. It smells rotten and wet, like a soaked rag.

Mr. Buwaro expects the children to beg to pay the rent. But their earnings far exceed his rent of $50. If the boys meet their quotas, they bring in around $650 a month in a nation where the average person earns $150.

When Coli failed to return, Mr. Buwaro was furious. He called another marabout on a flashysilver cell phone and asked him to add Coli’s name to a long list of names of runaway boys.

Coli jumped on the back of a bus. He made his way to a neighborhood where he had heard of a place that gave free food to children like him. The shelter’s capacity is 30 children, but it usually houses at least 50.

In 2005, Senegal made it a crime punishable by five years in prison to force a child to beg. But the same law makes an exception for children begging for religious reasons.

Weeks after Coli arrived at the shelter, his marabout came looking for the runaway boys. He had discovered the center’s legal paperwork was not complete, and threatened to close it if it did not hand over 11 boys.

To save more than 40 others, the shelter handed over the 11. Coli was on the list.

Back at the school, they beat the 9-year-old until he thought he was going to faint. Three days later, he ran away again. When he arrived at the shelter, he said: “I want to go home to my mom.”

To find Coli’s mother, aid workers broadcast his name on the radio in Guinea-Bissau.

Over the past two years, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) has returned over 600 child beggars to their homes. Several had been hit by cars. Some had scars on their backs. One 10-year-old was so hungry he ate out of the trash. Soon after he returned home, he vomited worms and died.

Almost all the boys had begged on behalf of Koranic instructors in Senegal.

“Cultural habits have been manipulated for the sake of exploitation,” said the IOM’s Laurent de Boeck, deputy regional representative for West and Central Africa.

Two months went by before a shelter worker told Coli his parents were alive. The 13 boys from Guinea-Bissau piled into a bus, and then onto a plane back home. As they arrived at a shelter, a few of the 12- and 13-year-olds recognized their families. Coli’s mother was not there.

A judge told the parents they would be jailed if they sent their children away to beg again. They were asked to sign a statement promising to protect their boys from traffickers.

But the conditions that made these families send their children to hell still persist.

Many of the villages do not have enough food. Few have schools. In one, the schoolhouse is a bamboo enclosure that doubles as an animal corral. Some of the children returned in previous months now work as bricklayers and goatherds. Others have already been sent back to the marabouts by their parents.

With each passing day, more parents and relatives came, but not Coli’s. On the third day, the shelter paid for another radio address. By the fourth, half of the 13 children were gone.

Early on the fifth morning, a woman in a pressed peach robe walked up to the shelter. Coli rushed outside. He stood a few feet away as tears streamed down his cheeks. She covered her face with her veil and wept.

Coli’s mother said it took her several days to reach the shelter because she didn’t have $2 for the bus fare. For more than an hour, Coli cried. She stood up and wiped his chin. Then they left, crossing the dusty boulevard.

Soon after Coli left, his marabout traveled to Guinea-Bissau. He angrily demanded to know why Coli had run away. Ashamed, Coli’s father promised to make up for the boy’s bad behavior. He is sending the marabout two more sons.

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