Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The tomato can kids: When an army of young beggars comes knocking, what to do?

The Associated Press recently ran a story about a young boy from Guinea-Bissau named Coli, whose parents sent him to live in Senegal with a marabout, an Islamic teacher, where he spends his day begging for food and money and his evenings learning Koranic verses. Coli eventually tires of spending his days on the street as a talibé and attempts to make the journey home to find his family.

As IRIN reported a few months back, this West African tradition of talibés sprung out of people giving alms to beggars (one of the five tenants of Islam), which expanded into a way to pay for religious teaching. In today’s tougher economic times, the cultural practice has been mostly stripped of value and has become a form of institutional begging. A Senegalse NGO simply refers to it as child exploitation. Other supporters claim that walking a few years as a beggar will provide a person with proper appreciative outlook as an adult.

These kids are seen everywhere, known throughout West Africa for carrying around large tomato paste cans on string.

The rub for most people is that for the marabouts, having an army of youngsters begging for you has become big business. From the Associated Press:

There are 1.2 million Colis in the world today, children trafficked to work for the benefit of others. Those who lure them into servitude make US$15 billion (€9.5 billion) annually, according to the International Labor Organization.

It's big business in Senegal. In the capital of 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 US cents (45 euro cents), reaping their keepers US$2 million (€1.3 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 Quran and over nine hours begging to pad the pockets of the man he called his teacher.

Another IRIN story explains that breaking this tradition – at least in Senegal – has proved very difficult. First, the twin issues of poverty and large families helps keep the tradition alive. (Coli was sent away because his parents could basically no longer afford him.)Also, marabouts hold extensive social and religious influence in society, and many of them do not have much to do with talibés. Thus, the government of Senegal is very reluctant to regulate these informal Koranic schools. (You can often see the talibés – called garabouts in Burkina Faso – sitting around their marabout, singing Koranic verses at night. It’s quite a sight.)

In a weird piece of personal history, I once taught at an engineering school in Ouagadougou that accepted students from all over West Africa. A former student of mine came from Senegal and spent three years as a talibé, an incredible biography not the least because he was about to earn a higher degree in engineering and become a very high wage earner. He looked back on the experience as being mostly positive, but admitted his parents had him live with a nearby uncle instead of being at the home of the marabout.

Tostan, the Senegalese NGO mentioned above, is lobbying Senegal’s government to regulate the Koranic schools, providing these Talibés with a stronger curriculum and reducing the need to beg.


Adrian said...

Nice story, I posted the link over at Soob du Jour.

Nasir Baba said...

Wonderful piece. I was under the impression that abusive practices are only common with Koranic schools of Northern Nigeria and some parts of Niger. Its really sadly enlightening to learn that the practice is so pervasive in west African countries, and bearing common trademarks. These children are really victims of a cultural response to biting poverty and ignorance existing among muslim populations in these countries.

subadei said...

Interesting to read some insight into the practice.