Senegal's Koranic Schools Seen as Haven for Beggars

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Students of traditional Koranic schools once garnered respect in the Muslim world. But that image is under threat in the Senegalese capital Dakar. There, students are increasingly viewed as beggars instead of diligent disciples.


This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.

In a few minutes, we get a look at the latest handheld gadgets on the market now.

But first, a look at an institution that frowns on Western-style consumerism: Muslim religious schools. In the majority Muslim West African nation of Senegal, there are concerns about the reputation of traditional Koranic schools. Mass urbanization has tarnished the image of these once-respected village schools. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports.


Coins clinking in a large, red tomato paste tin can is a familiar sound on many street corners in downtown Dakar, the Senegalese capital. That's the tell-tale trademark Begenfo(ph), slung around the necks of young boys known here in Senegal as Talibae(ph), or disciples. These children are meant to be studying the Koran, but most of the barefoot boys with runny noses and dirty, ragged clothes are not learning the Muslim holy book. The Talibae spend long days trudging up and down the streets of Senegal's cities with their hands outstretched as they approach you for a little money with a whispered prayer. Begging for a coin or two, they say the collections are for their marabu(ph), their teachers.

Unidentified Boy #1: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: These boys say they've come from far, all the way across the border from Guinea-Bissau and neighboring Mali to Senegal. For some unscrupulous adults, the Talibae make excellent business sense. Some of the boys say they get beaten if they don't deliver a daily quota, sometimes as much as a dollar, and that's a princely sum in Senegal. But when asked to recite the Koran, they can barely do so.

Unidentified Boy #2: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: Ian Hopwood is the head of the United Nations children's agency UNICEF in Senegal. He says the child beggars are a growing problem, with an estimated 100,000 in a country of 10 million. That's about 1 percent of Senegal's population.

Mr. IAN HOPWOOD (UNICEF): It is extremely emotionally distressing to see these children in these streets living in these circumstances and having a childhood totally ruined and destroyed. What sort of adults, what sort of future is there for these children, who are away from their families in a situation of poor health care, poor nutrition, bad treatment and exploited through these daily activities?

QUIST-ARCTON: The issue of these beggar boys remains socially sensitive in this predominantly Muslim nation. It's a problem the Senegalese government does not publicize. But journalist and commentator Amadu Ticanci(ph) says just about everyone is talking about the Talibae.

Mr. AMADU TICANCI (Journalist): It was accepted in traditional societies that these boys who are learning go to beg but--just to infuse humility, but it has been corrupted, deeply corrupted by the urban societies, transformed in the way that some teachers have now found wealth. I think the number of beggars in the streets gives a bad impression, but it also shows the poverty. It's not only the Talibae factor, but it's a general picture of how far poverty has taken root in this country.

QUIST-ARCTON: About an hour's drive east of the Senegalese capital, 20 young boys are studiously reciting the Koran from their wooden handheld blackboards in a sandy-floored classroom. This is a conventional dara, a Koranic school near Lushisque(ph).

Unidentified Teacher: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: They're learning the Koran, Arabic, linguistics and Islamic law and sciences from their unsalaried religious teacher, Hustasmanso Gai(ph). He's deeply concerned that what he calls charlatans are giving a bad name to genuine Koranic schools like his.

Mr. HUSTASMANSO GAI: (Through Translator) It's very painful to see. It brings our profession into disrepute and tarnishes our image as marabu. People are saying religious teachers are no good and we only want to make money. But we're making great sacrifices to teach, guide and look after the children in our care.

QUIST-ARCTON: Back in Dakar, the tomato tin can boys say they must beg to survive. Ian Hopwood, UNICEF's country director in Senegal, says meanwhile they're struggling to reverse the worrisome trend of child street beggars.

Mr. HOPWOOD: The problem is big, so we're trying to work with the Senegalese government to put an end to this problem, this exploitation. We're also working with action groups who are very much concerned, so we're trying to build this public debate, which will help Senegal as a society to say, `We have to put an end to this.'

QUIST-ARCTON: UNICEF says everyone in Senegal must understand that children should be protected and not exploited. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News.

BRAND: More coming up on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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