The religious schools making millions out of child begging

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The boys hold out their arms to show lines of deep scars. The beatings were relentless and brutal, sustained during their time as pupils at Senegal’s infamous Koranic schools – institutions renowned for forcing children onto the street to beg.

Unable to leave, the youngsters would sleep on the floor of these daaras in deplorable living conditions. Malnutrition, disease and even death were common – but it did not matter, as long as the pupils worked hard and lined their masters’ pockets with coins.

Those who managed to escape the Islamic schools have since taken refuge in the shadows of Dakar, the capital of Senegal, camping out in abandoned buildings, begging for food and money, and long separated from their families. 

Samba Mbaye is one of them. “I was in the daara from the age of eight to 13,” he says. “There were more than one hundred boys at the school. We slept on the floor in tiny rooms, packed together like sardines. The master beat me. I had to leave.”

After fleeing his daara in Koki, a village in northwest Senegal, Samba now lives with around 30 other children in an old medicine factory on the edge of Dakar. All tell tales of horrific abuse and forced labour at the hands of their former masters.

At a makeshift camp for runaway talibés, teenagers show the scars inflicted on them by their marabouts. Some say they had been whipped

Credit: Sam Bradpiece

Human rights groups have long lamented the physical abuse inflicted on talibés within the largely unregulated daara system. Those who are unable to collect enough money are frequently beaten and some have even been killed

Credit: Sam Bradpiece

Experts say that parents from the countryside are not always aware of the suffering that will be inflicted on their children in far-away cities like Dakar

Credit: Sam Bradpiece

Across Senegal, an estimated 10,000 children are living in daaras, which practise strict Islamic teachings. Most of the boys, known as talibés, are sent to the schools by their parents who cannot afford to look after them and hope they will get a good education.

But human rights organisations have accused some daaras of being little more than a racket where young Senegalese kids are forced to beg for money to enrich their Koranic masters.

“It is a business,” says Seydi Gassama, director of Amnesty International in Senegal. “Children are forced to beg to feed themselves but also to sustain their teachers.”

Isolated from their families

Earlier this month, a report by the NGO found that there are more than 2,000 daaras in Dakar which collectively rake in an estimated £7.3 million per year from forced begging – a criminal offence in Senegal, for which very few people are prosecuted.

Amnesty’s report also documented widespread human rights abuses, inhumane living conditions, a lack of healthcare, shackling, beatings and fatalities.

In January, a 10-year-old talibé died of his injuries in Touba, Senegal’s second-largest city, after he was beaten by his Koranic teacher for not learning the day’s lesson. Some pupils self-harm in the hope they will be tended to by healthcare workers and rescued.

The outlook for runaway students, known as talibés fumeurs, is bleak. The children living in the abandoned medicine factory spend their days begging in central Dakar and group together for protection. Some have turned to sniffing glue to forget their trouble and pass the time.

Many of the young men have lost contact with their parents, an outcome which civil society organisations blame on the daaras. Jean-Charles Mané from Samu Social Senegal, a charity that works with street children, says that the Koranic masters – otherwise known as marabouts – deliberately try to isolate kids from their families.

Dozens of runaway talibés live in an abandoned factory in a Dakar suburb. There is no electricity or running water

Credit: Sam Bradpiece

The living conditions at this makeshift camp for runaway talibés are scarcely worse than those of the daaras they have fled from

Credit: Sam Bradpiece

“Marabouts go into poor areas of the countryside and tell parents that they will take care of their children, some as young as six years old, and teach them the Koran,” he says. 

“In Dakar you find children from Kolda, Sine Saloum, Touba and even from the subregion – countries like Guinea. The children are taken so far from home that they don’t know how to find their way back. Their parents don’t know the reality.”

One talibé on the streets of Dakar told The Telegraph that if he wants to speak to his family, he must first earn the money to pay for phone credit by begging. The eight-year-old was brought to Dakar from Casamance, a region over 300 miles away, by a marabout in October.

He is forced to beg for around £2 in the morning after his Islamic studies before he can return to his daara in the Mbackyou Faye district of Dakar. After three hours on the streets, he had the equivalent of only 90p to his name and a single loaf of bread.

Securing access to the daaras is almost impossible. Many of the marabouts are hesitant to speak to the press and the schools themselves are considered by many Senegalese to be sacred places of Islamic learning that should not be questioned.

A strict hierarchy running from the marabouts to ‘lieutenants’ to talibés means that the Koranic master is aware of everything. 

From the outside, Lamine Seck’s daara resembles a junkyard. Dozens of young talibés sleep in corrugated iron shacks inside. There is no electricity or running water

Credit: Sam Bradpiece

Talibés are typically instructed in Islamic scripture and law – to varying degrees. Many also learn Arabic

Credit: Sam Bradpiece

Despite the difficulties, The Telegraph managed to secure entry to a daara in the western district of Dakar, which was home to more than 30 young talibés.

There was no running water or electricity at the school, a shabby collection of corrugated iron huts, with the pupils expected to sleep on the floor of their classroom at night.

Although the marabout would not let The Telegraph speak to the children, he was keen to put forward a more positive image of the Islamic institution.

“We are volunteers who are working hard to give kids an education when their parents and the state cannot afford it,” says Lamine Seck, a former talibé who rose up the ranks to become the daara’s marabout. “If the daaras were not here in Senegal providing Islamic education the country would be in very bad shape”.

The 43-year-old religious leader says that his children study in the morning and afternoon but are sent out to the streets for a few hours each day to earn enough money to buy food. Some of the money is stored away in “a fund” to pay for when the kids get sick and other emergencies.

Lamine Seck is a former talibé who rose through the ranks to become a marabout

Credit: Sam Bradpiece

He believes that begging is a necessary evil to provide kids with an education in a poor country. However, he concedes that some marabouts are “materialists” who take advantage of the system for financial gain and “are not serious about education”.

Alongside the begging and human rights abuses, the school’s marabouts do not have to pass exams or hold any qualifications to teach. They are completely unregulated – casting serious doubts on their ability to produce good learning outcomes for their students.

The only requirement to become a marabout is excellent knowledge of the Koran, and in reality this is the only subject many talibés are taught. As a result, children who leave the schools usually go on to work unskilled jobs such as street hawkers or shopkeepers.

Ibrahima Sall, 33, lived in a daara in Dakar for 14 years. He says that he only learnt basic Islamic education and decided to join the army when he left the school.

“It was not a good environment to learn. We were hungry and every day there were fights. I even know people who were attacked with knives,” he says.

Koranic schools exist in almost all African countries with sizable Muslim populations, having been first introduced to Senegal and the wider western region in the 11th century by Arabs who crossed the Sahara Desert to trade and spread Islam.

In Dakar alone, tens of thousands of talibés take to the streets to beg for money every day. Whatever sum they are able to gather in their plastic pots, their Koranic master often takes the biggest cut

Credit: Sam Bradpiece

However, daara attendance varies considerably from country to country. In Somalia, 33.5 per cent of primary school children are enrolled into Koranic schools, compared to only 1.5 per cent in Côte d’Ivoire. In most African countries there is a dual education system: one formal Western-based, and the other non-formal and religious.

The standard of education in Koranic schools varies dramatically, too. Education levels range from only learning the Koran to well-funded private daaras that teach students a variety of subjects.

The informal nature of the Islamic institution is why many education experts in West Africa want to bring the schools under the control of education ministries. But attempts to do so are often viewed by Koranic teachers and Muslim citizens as anti-Islamic attacks.

In 2018, the Senegalese government bowed to pressure from human rights organisations and drafted a law which aimed to incorporate daaras into the national education system. However, the bill has come to nothing after being blocked by religious leaders.

As the debate to reform the daaras rumbles on, children like Samba continue to slip through the cracks. The 17-year-old dreams of being a plumber but without any formal education, work experience or family he doubts he will get further than being a beggar.

When his friends ask him to show the “deep scars” on his back from his Koranic master, he nervously scratches his arm and looks away into the distance. “Just leave it,” he says, as the painful memories of abuse come flooding back.

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