Facing an Illiterate Future
Senegal’s Koranic masters routinely send their pupils to beg on the streets, citing it as a part of their religious learning. Can one project improve the conditions and literacy of the Talibé children?
The mosque calls the evening prayer as five year-old Ngagne approaches the glow of the fire. A small, barefoot boy in filthy shorts and a ragged t-shirt, he curls up in the dirt, a little hunched figure leaning towards the light.
“At night I get scared,” Ngagne says. “I miss my parents so much.”
The marabout, or teacher, at this daara school will not allow photos of the rusting corrugated iron shacks engulfed in the creeping darkness; the rubble and dirt, the sheep enclosure made of wooden sticks; the wall on which someone has scribbled the word, "MARABOUT" and a telephone number. The air smells of wood smoke with the acrid tang of urine and sheep wool. A woman stirs the food that is cooking on the fire with a loud clang. However, this food is reserved for the marabout. Talibés like Ngagne must beg for their dinner on the streets or starve.
Life in the Darras
Arabic for ‘pupil’, the term “talibé” was given to the students who live in the Koranic schools, or daaras. Although Dakar’s streets are full of talibés, no one knows exactly how many girls and boys live there. Supervised by the marabout, these children will spend years reciting and eventually memorizing the Koran.
It is estimated that between 30 and 40 percent of the talibés are girls. These girls remain off of the streets at the price of having to work within the school.
While most girls are sent to daaras near their families, the boys are sent to live far from their homes by their parents. Aware of the deplorable conditions at the school, they make the socio-economic choice to leave the care of their children in the hands of a complete stranger.
By the time these children become teenagers, they will have no knowledge of formal subjects such as Math and Information Technology. Moreover, they will not be able to speak, read, or write in French - Senegal’s official language.
According to Amy Sy Diouf, Director of Child Rights and Child Protection at the Ministry of Education, “There has not yet been an exhaustive report on the subject of the talibés.” However, an estimated seven percent of primary school-aged children in Senegal are unaccounted for. These children represent the thousands of lost boys and girls who have slipped, neglected beneath the radar, to live on the street or within a daara.
“Daaras have never been formally recognized or regulated as a part of the Senegalese educational system, leaving thousands of private institutions run at the whim of the marabouts,” says Diouf.
The talibé boys on Dakar’s streets are between the ages of three and fifteen, motley clusters who swarm the pavements shaking yellow bowls at passers-by. They wear filthy, ragged clothes, fighting and loitering as boys sometimes do when they’re left unattended. But, if these boys return to the daara without a full bowl of money, they will go hungry.
At Hikma Daara in Louga, three hours north-east of the capital, the children sleep in a tiny, somber room in a hut beneath a baobab tree. The marabout seems to be a kind man, but there is no money. The most he can do is to find a town ‘aunt’ for each boy, who gives them food and washes their clothes.
“I beg every day and we all sleep here together,” says 12 year-old Pape, showing the sugar lumps and biscuits that have been dropped into his bowl. “My parents aren’t here and I miss them. If I could have one thing in the world, I’d want to repair this building, re-paint it and make it look pretty, and then I’d want to have a tent to sleep in. I’d want to fix the roof, too. Sometimes when it’s cold and raining, the water gets in and it’s damp.”
Exploitation Versus Cultural Tradition
The question of the talibés preoccupies the Senegalese social debate. On the one hand, most believe a Koranic education is vital; on the other, the majority are strongly opposed to children living in such conditions, questioning both the practice of routine begging and of sending children far away from their homes. Moreover, while traditional memorizing of the Koran is an excellent learning discipline, it is not enough to prepare these children for life in the modern world.
Khoudia Ndiaye, a 63 year-old grandmother and community health volunteer from Dakar, believes it necessary to separate the religious issue from a child’s basic right to healthy living conditions.
“Some parents think they can just get rid of their kids by sending them off to the marabout,” she comments. “Some can’t afford children so they send them to the daara. It’s all very well wanting to educate your children in the Koran, but no child should be living in those conditions. I see the children with bowls of food covered in flies in the lunchtime sun. They could catch all sorts of diseases.”
Ibrahim Ndour, Director of the Ministry of Education’s Department of Middle and Secondary Education, whose own son studies in a modern daara at weekends and in the holidays, says that the traditional village daara model has lost its way.
“Nowadays, hundreds of talibés are sent to the big cities,” he explains. “The marabouts are unable to lodge the children, so they spend the night on the streets or in makeshift shacks without water or electricity. The marabouts ask the kids to bring in $1 each day and this is exploitation. As a modern country we have a responsibility to put an end to this. It troubles the conscience to find children in the streets at midnight.”
Working with Daaras
“Traditionally, children went to daaras to learn the Koran, but also to learn a profession –such as agriculture,” says Oumar Ben Khatab Gueye from Plan Senegal. “But this is now corrupt. The talibés are now children who are on the street, in a difficult situation, vulnerable physically and mentally, and often mistreated.”
Plan has partnered with the USAID-funded Basic Education Project, which aims to introduce a formal education and better learning conditions into daaras in Louga and Dakar. The marabouts have been forward-thinking enough to agree to the idea of having the children learn French, but hygiene and access to basic education is still lacking.
While it is anchored by the Ministry of Education, the project is independent of the Senegalese government’s latest Modern Daara Project, another in a long line of state attempts to solve the daara issue. In the past, many have accused the government of being insensitive by hiding the problem.
“The Basic Education Project is a ground-breaking way of using partners on the ground to communicate with the marabouts who run the daaras. Should it succeed, the government will use the model to change the daara system,” Amy Si Diouf says.
And while Plan does not necessarily support the concept of daaras, it’s strongly advocating that Koranic schools must be provided with the means to adapt themselves to a changing Senegal, and come to terms with the co-existence of religious and formal education.
After a difficult process of debate, negotiation, and communication with the marabouts, the Basic Education Project is now in its fourth year. Since the project began, 108 daaras have enrolled in the project, benefitting nearly 5,000 students.
In addition to their Koranic studies, children between the ages of 6 and 12 are now taught a basic curriculum of French and Mathematics while teenagers are being taught the vocational skills they will need to have a profession.
Looking Towards the Future
Forward-thinking marabouts such as Imam Keba Gueye have accepted the new program and are keen to continue the project.
Since the project was initiated, ninety-eight of the enrolled daaras have been renovated, while all 108 have been provided with new teachers, school supplies, hygiene and sanitation facilities, and medical equipment.
Many of the students are excelling in the new program, achieving higher results than their counterparts in formal French schools. While many of the daaras are still without running water or electricity, they are now spotlessly clean.
All of this has been a vast improvement over the conditions that existed only four years ago.
Want to learn more about the life of a talibé and our work to improve their quality of life? Watch our video: