TALIBES IN DAKAR, SENEGAL
These photos were taken by me during my trip to Senegal. I’ve recently written on the subject of the talibés. Here is an excerpt from my paper:
In Dakar, Senegal’s capital, there are thousands of destitute children who litter the streets in tattered clothing. They walk in groups holding large red, tin cans, begging for money and food to any one who passes by. These children, mainly boys aged 4 to 15, have been given the reputation as a nuisance, due to their incessant soliciting, but what many in the international arena fail to realize is that their lives depend on what they collect. To the foreigner or the layman, they are known and viewed simply as “street kids.” However, to Senegalese people, and those familiar with the Senegalese culture, the children that amass the Dakar streets are known as the Talibés – students of the Koran. They are children who are entrusted to Koranic teachers, to learn the Koran in its entirety. Many talibés do not succeed in mastering the Koran, because they are forced by their teachers to beg for hours on the streets. Through this practice of forced begging, talibés risk their health and safety, and survive only on a portion of what they are able to collect. Usually it is a few sugar cubes, some rice, and if they are lucky, a few CFA francs (which equals to a few cents in US currency).
The existence and influx of these children, particularly in urban spaces, was something that spurred and evolved from a cultural-religious tradition that dates back centuries to pre-colonial Senegal. What started as an inherently religious ideal is seen today as a lethal, abusive practice, where children have and continue to die and suffer in the hands of corrupt Koranic teachers. The health of the talibés is at stake during their every waking hour. The actual begging on streets is just one of the dangers they face. Many of Senegal’s children and youth who are in the clutches of such a practice, are subjected to human rights violations, particularly rights concerning health. They suffer physical and psychological abuse, sexual abuse, sickness and disease, and death. The Koranic teachers that these children are entrusted to are the main perpetrators.
Senegal succeeds in political affairs, but is weak on the social front because it does not protect the human rights of the talibés, by continuing to allow Koranic teachers to prey on and exploit their vulnerability. The exploitative acts of these men, who are actually religious leaders and are considered to be pillars of Senegalese society, has yielded a myriad of health issues, abuses, and risks for these young children. The need to preserve Senegalese tradition and Muslim identity has blinded many people of the Senegalese community to the abuse and human rights violations that are involved in the talibé practice. Even with reported deaths of talibés, severe injuries, and contractions of diseases, not enough of a response has been made to eradicate the practice, or at the very least regulate it. The Senegalese people cannot seem to reconcile their religious and cultural identities, whilst protecting their children. It is a culture that is “stuck in their ways” in the sense that this has been a tradition that has been engrained in the country’s DNA for many years. So much so, that the country cannot seem to move forward with a progressive, humane form of religious education, that disavows the abuse and neglect of children.
Senegal’s talibé issue is delicate and sensitive, being that it deals with religion. When approaching and dealing with the talibé phenomenon, one must teeter cautiously across religious and cultural lines. However, what is at stake should make civil society, government officials, and the international community look this issue directly in the face. The lives and health of Senegalese children are being sacrificed at the expense of carrying on a tradition that has been skewed and corrupted. Arguably today, religion is an excuse for the practice to go on. It is more about increasing personal, economic gain for these Koranic teachers, rather than learning the word of Allah. It is this corrupt motivation, the abuse of tradition and the government’s condoning of the practice, that so many talibés suffer severe violations to their heath. Not only do the talibés endure pain and health problems, but they do not have access to health care because their marabouts prevent them from being treated, and the talibés are simply left out of the healthcare system.
Great read, Amy.