Are Senegal’s talibés religious scholars or child trafficking victims?
In 2013 a fire claimed the lives of religious students in Senegal. A decade on, the institution that had locked them inside is still resisting change
Ten years ago, on 3 March 2013, a fire ripped through a building in downtown Dakar, Senegal. Nine children died. Seven were talibés, young boys who had been locked in their daara, or traditional Qur’anic school, while the responsible adult was sleeping elsewhere with his family.
Talibés are common on the streets of Senegal, empty tomato tins in hand to collect alms from passers-by. Many, but not all, must beg to survive. Around 30,000 are thought to beg in Dakar, the capital city, and 100,000 in the country. But it is difficult to know how accurate these figures are.
Who are the talibés? A newcomer – as I was ten years ago – will hear two very different answers, depending on whom they ask. For some, the talibés are young religious scholars. They are walking embodiments of the Qur’an, which they are memorising under the tutelage of their teacher, the serigne daara. For others, these same boys are victims of child trafficking. Their impoverished rural families were tricked into entrusting their sons to ‘imposters’ – men posing as religious teachers – and now the serigne daara forces the boys to beg for his own personal gain.
Neither of these descriptions fully explains why talibés beg, nor why parents send their sons to educational institutions that rely on begging. But the conditions in some daaras have become a recognised issue in Senegal, and these two competing narratives have become the basis for contradictory interventions.
The results have been, almost without exception, failure. Because both frames come with crucial blind spots, neither has led to programmes that have dramatically improved the situation for talibés in the long term. However, the organisations involved have proven resistant to learning from their mistakes. Instead, they justify their failure by blaming other institutions and by switching to the alternative frame when it’s advantageous to do so.
It's time that ends.
What drives a talibé?
Economic poverty is often claimed to be the central factor driving young boys to become talibés, but there’s more to it than that. Begging has traditionally been seen as a way for talibés to gain humility and learn to cope with hardship, while learning the Qur’an has been seen as a path to improved social standing and rewards in the afterlife. While some studies have shown a relationship between inadequate primary school provision and enrolment in daaras, others have demonstrated that some families will choose traditional Qur’anic education over secular schooling even where the latter is available. The choice is personal to the parents, and the same parents don't necessarily make the same choice for all the children in their household.
Anti-trafficking initiatives aren’t concerned with talibés’ religious education, even if that’s the reason they are attending a daara.
Ignorance is also held up as a reason for why parents enrol their children in daaras, especially by those promoting the child trafficking narrative. Parents, they believe, rarely know of the hardship they are sending their children into. Anthropologists have challenged this explanation. They’ve found that parents understand how the system works, they just disagree that the daara system is tantamount to child trafficking.
Many serigne daaras, for the record, concur. Those whose talibés beg say they’re not the imposters, noting how their talibés also learn the Qur’an, or only beg before breakfast rather than all day. Many NGOs accept these explanations, and keep providing the daaras with material support. The elusive, so-called imposters have yet to be found.
A decade of attempts
The Senegalese state and NGOs have rolled out many programmes since the 2013 fire to try to improve talibés’ circumstances. These programmes are developed within institutions guided by one of the two competing narratives, and frequently work at cross purposes. As Aliou Kebe, a development practitioner based in Dakar, explained: “Each service has a little piece that it is working through, believing that they are solving the problem. But there is no coordination at the level of the government. There is no clarity.”
One stream of initiatives, spearheaded by the Ministry of National Education, is built around the narrative that daaras are legitimate schools. This sees investment in and modernisation of the daara system as the answer, but does not concern itself with the practice of begging. The second stream has led to creation of institutions such as the National Trafficking Taskforce (the Cellule nationale de lutte contre la traite des personnes), within the Ministry of Justice. Anti-trafficking initiatives tend to focus on removing begging children from the street, but aren’t concerned with their religious education, even if that’s the reason for attending a daara.
In this landscape, each structure can outsource blame for the limited impact of interventions to another, or to the lack of coordinated effort itself.
As an example, the state has, since 2017, led a series of projects intended to remove children from the streets of Dakar. This is recognised as a response to the US Trafficking in Persons reports that have downgraded Senegal to watchlist status on multiple occasions. It is demonstrably anti-trafficking. Yet, in its implementation, it seemingly forgets that if the children are trafficked, the serigne daaras are their traffickers.
In the first phase of this initiative – deemed “a bit of a fiasco” by one senior NGO worker – talibés rounded up from the street were returned to their daaras, sometimes with additional funding for the serigne daara. The second phase relocated talibés found begging to other, preapproved daaras. In neither phase did those responsible for the children’s begging face consequences. When it comes to engaging with individual daaras, the story of trafficking used to justify the project is forgotten; it switches to claiming that teachers need support, not punishment. Rather than admit this, those running the project blame a lack of support from other ministries and NGOs.
There is not always a clear line between a legitimate serigne daara and someone who exploits children.
Meanwhile, the anti-trafficking stream’s interest in stopping begging contradicts the state’s other, concurrent approach. With funding from the World Bank and the Islamic Development Bank, the daara modernisation project aims to bring a hybrid curriculum uniting Qur’anic memorisation and basic primary level education into the daaras. It would incorporate daaras into the national education system for the first time.
While the government has established a small number of new ‘modern daaras’ under this project, the move towards regulation and support of existing daaras has been stalled for years now because of a fight over the text of the legislation needed to make that project possible. Serigne daaras were involved in its production, and only agreed to sign off on the draft legislation it if a proposed clause on banning begging was removed. It was, but despite that it has never been put to a parliamentary vote. It’s not quite clear why the government hasn’t moved it to the next stage. Some say it’s because the resources to fund the daaras aren’t available, while others believe politicians lack the political will to regulate the daaras.
In any case, the removal of begging disappointed the anti-trafficking crowd. This has frustrated those leading the process, as they see the removal of begging from the legislation as a minor point in the context of the whole project. As a staff member at the Inspection des daaras put it, “begging, it’s not us”. As in the anti-trafficking approach though, this view glosses over the fact that, except in the most extreme cases, there is no clear distinction between the serigne daara of the Qur’anic schools that could be modernised, and the serigne daara that are portrayed as child traffickers.
What to do with daaras?
International mechanisms such as African Committee of Experts on the Rights and Welfare of the Child and the US Trafficking in Persons reports instruct the Senegalese government to modernise daaras and support Qur’anic teachers while also prosecuting child traffickers. This forces actors to interact in contradictory ways with the same serigne daaras and is a recipe for continued failure.
Although it is clear that the factors behind the talibés’ begging do not fit neatly into any issue-specific silo through which resources are channelled into interventions, such as education or anti-trafficking, the lack of coordination across the sector prevents any one initiative from tackling the issue. To move forward, more nuance is needed in the ways initiatives understand begging talibés and their serigne daara, along with more engagement of the parents of talibés and those who give alms to them in city streets. The idea of the impostor posing as a Qur’anic teacher needs to be put aside. Until it is recognised that there is not always a clear line between a legitimate serigne daara and someone who exploits children, the blame will continue to be placed on someone no one can identify.
Taking a unified approach towards begging doesn’t mean being against Qur’anic education. Eventually, the state should be able to take a zero-tolerance approach towards daaras that practice begging, while supporting those that provide a quality religious education. But as the last attempt to enforce the law that bans profiting from children’s begging was met with outcry by influential religious leaders and their supporters, leading the government to quickly drop the policy, sustained and serious efforts to change how begging by talibés is perceived need to come first.
Perhaps the outlook is not entirely pessimistic. There is some evidence that the impunity of the most abusive serigne daaras may be waning. Human Rights Watch have documented a small number of prosecutions (eight convictions in 2016-2019), though their sentences have generally been light and no arrests were made in 2020-2021. A USAID and UNODC funded project engaged municipal governments in several parts of Dakar to introduce byelaws forbidding begging with support from the local community. Despite these good intentions however, children continue to be seen in the streets.
Without concentrated effort to coordinate all the different interventions and move beyond oversimplified narratives to a holistic approach, as well as sustained political will to change the system, talibés are likely to continue begging.
The author’s doctoral research on this issue was made possible by ESRC funding.
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