As soon as you step out of Léopold Sédar Senghor airport in Dakar, Senegal’s capital, you don’t have to walk far to see groups of barefoot begging boys dressed in tattered clothes. These boys are known as talibés, followers of a `marabout,’ to whom they are entrusted by their families to learn the Quran. While the talibé system was originally intended to be a nurturing environment based around a Daara (Quaranic school), today the talibé system has been corrupted by illiteracy, child abuse, and neglect. Voices of Talibés Foundation Inc. is a nonprofit organization with a mission to spread awareness about the issue of child trafficking in Senegal and advocate for the rights of these street children. Ayiba’s Akinyi Ochieng spoke to President Fatou Diouf about the plight of the talibés and how the Senegalese government and global community can help.

What motivated you to become involved in fighting for the rights of talis?

Being from Senegal, I always had inkling that I wanted to do something for these children. I came to the States when I was twelve. The first time went back home, at age nineteen, it shocked me to see so many children on the streets. I really wanted to do something about it after going back and seeing how normal it became for everyone to see these children begging.

I learned about Zeyna and Fatou Cisse, who started Voices of Talibe, following the 2013 fire in Medina, which killed many children. I thought it was better to come together in solidarity rather than start my own organization, so I joined as a member and eventually became president.

For those who aren’t familiar with the term, how would you describe the talibé system? How do kids enter this life?

If we look at talibés historically, they are supposed to be Quaranic students. Back in the day, they were given by their parents to a marabout for an education. During the colonial era, when the French were in West Africa, this provided guidance and a sense of identity for West Africans losing their identity to the colonizers. As time went by, the system grew. Parents would give their children to the marabout, which is essentially their guardian. But after independence, a shift started. People from rural areas who were doomed to lives of poverty started giving their kids to the marabout. It stopped being purely about the Islamic education ⎯ these people really couldn’t take care of their kids.

It became a means of escaping poverty.

Exactly. It became a socio-economic issue. There were a ton of kids who were given to teachers who could not take care of them. In the past, begging was a means of teaching humility and hard work.

So, originally it wasn’t about needing money. Instead, it was focused on fulfilling Islamic principles.

Now, you have people who are trafficking these children. Kids from different countries like Guinea, Gambia, and Mauritania now are traffickers into Senegal.

Has there been a growth in marabouts who are frauds?

There’s good and evil everywhere. There are marabouts who are still fulfilling their Islamic duties and taking care of the kids, but there are those who are really trying to get money. They traffic the children and they give them away to a false marabout who exploits the children in order to gain money. The children go begging. Some teachers put a quota on them ⎯ for example, $1 per day. Let’s say you have fifty talibés who each bring back $50, which, in Senegal, can be a large amount of money.

That’s where we, the Voices of Talibés Foundation, come in. We want to raise awareness about these children’s lives, how they are being trafficked and abused. There’s abuse from marabouts and the older talibés, who often trick the younger ones. Often there’s sexual abuse between the older and younger talibés.

Are talibés usually exclusively boys?

Talibés are usually exclusively boys, but now you see that there are parents who are willing to entrust their girls to the guardians. This is a new phenomenon that is rising. They are typically young boys between the ages of three to sixteen seeking an Islamic education from a guardian.

What typically happens after a talibé “ages out” of the system at around sixteen?

Most people don’t realize that you’re not a talibé for life. There are two different paths. Among the true marabouts, their focus is on immersing these children in the Quaran. From three to sixteen, you are expected to learn the whole Quaran and be able to recite any suras. Once you finish this process, you go to an institution of higher learning to deepen your Quaranic knowledge. From there, you can do more schooling to become a serigne, a marabout, or an imam. A talibé’s purpose is not to be a beggar on the street, but to be a student of Islam. The system is meant to be a career path. The serignes are typically former talibés.

But for those who don’t follow the religious path afterwards, there are many things you can do. I had an uncle, for example, who was a talibé but now has his own business. He learned French on his own and moved to the US to head his own company. Talibes are fighters and hard workers. My grandfather was also a talibé but he was able to have a family and educate all his children. If we have a structure in place, we can ensure that all daaras are focusing on what they should – giving these kids an education and immersing them in knowledge that will help them grow as people.

Do parents know that their children are at risk of abuse when they send them away?

Absolutely. From the moment you step into Senegal from the airport to go to the city, there are talibés flooding the streets. It’s well known that there is abuse, but the government isn’t doing anything about it. Human Rights Watch has written numerous reports about the talibés to suggest solutions. It’s an issue that has become a cultural norm, which means that we expect to have talibés in Senegal.

It’s a way of life that people have resigned themselves to and see no incentive to change.

Islam is so prominent in Senegal. More than 90% of Senegal is Muslim, so it is expected that you would obtain an Islamic education.

Do you think that there’s a way to fight against the marabouts who abuse the talibés without losing the talibé system itself? It sounds like such a noble concept to dedicate your life in service of God.

That’s exactly Voices of Talibés’s mission. Our goal is not to eradicate the daaras. Daaras are needed. Where are you going to put the over 54,000 kids who are talibés if you take away their daaras? These are kids who the government isn’t taking care of and the parents aren’t taking care of. The marabouts that are doing their job ⎯ whom I salute ⎯ are taking good care of these children by providing a home for them as well as food, clothing, and an education. Daaras are needed, but we just need to eliminate the fraudulent ones. We must have a system in place where you can eliminate those who are abusive and neglecting the children.

For the marabouts and serignes (guardians) that are doing it for the right reasons, they are truly invested in the well-being of those children. For example, we have four daaras that we have adapted to Diamaguene, Rufisque, Medina, and Keur Massar (which actually has girls). Those daaras take care of the kids because they feel that they were put on earth to give them an Islamic education. The teachers live there with the kids even if they have their own families. They face the same impoverished conditions. All they are asking for is help to be able to help these children. It’s not easy to have fifty kids, a wife, and your own children with the limited resources of an imam, a serigne, or a marabout. We try to help support their needs ⎯ mattresses, blankets, health care.

What conditions do talibés often live in?

None of these kids are going to the doctor to get checked. We have no idea what diseases they carry. They don’t take showers. They’re walking on the street with no shoes. You can imagine the streets in a developing country – glass, syringes, etc. They get terrible wounds. They often don’t have roofs. These are the conditions we are working against.

In December, we provided solar panels to our daara in Rufisque. They didn’t have lights, so at night, they would study by candle which would turn the walls black. They would breathe in the smoke. The incident in 2013 when those children died happened when there was blackout and they had to use candles. We make sure that we provided a form of lighting where they would not have to pay for the lighting and they could have lights any time they wanted, even at night.

Is there is a system of registration that exists?

No. There are 54,000 talibés, but we have no idea how many daaras there are. There’s a daara inspector but he only has eight workers. Not only is his staff tiny, but how can he inspect when he has no idea what he’s inspecting?

How can the government make a change?

It’s in their hands. For any system to take place, they need to partner with NGOs to establish effective relationships with the daaras. They must work hand in hand with marabouts to come to a mutual understanding about what is expected. There have to be rules, regulations, and penalties. You cannot regulate anyone you haven’t been talking to because you won’t understand their problems.

If we can do this for Senegal, we can do it elsewhere. As the #IAMTALIBE campaign spread, we got so many responses. People from Nigeria told us that they had a similar system in northern Nigeria. In Asia, the same thing. They have a different name, but they are all street children. This issue is not just a problem within Senegal, but Senegal can be the model for other African nations.

How did the #IAMTALIBE campaign start?

It’s a social media campaign meant to spread awareness at an international level. Nowadays, we know that social media is so important in our generation. It is one of the easiest and fastest ways to educate and spread awareness ⎯ to get everyone involved. We want everyone to know what’s going on, but also combat myths. There are really good serignes and marabouts. We need to support them and have their backs. We must give a voice to these children and ensure that they are taken care of.

Children are the future. We need to give them everything. They are our greatest treasure. They are the ones who will run the country when we are gone. How can we deny them of their own rights ⎯ the right to freedom, to childhood, to an education, to a future? I want to see a world in which talibés are allowed to live out their dreams.

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