GUY RAZ, host:

In Senegal, the government recently enforced a ban on public begging, except near places of worship. It's a controversial move. Begging has become part of the culture in that impoverished West African nation.

NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports from the capital Dakar.

Unidentified Man: (Singing in foreign language)

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON: Blind people begging on street corners and outside mosques have for years been a familiar sight in Senegal until a government crackdown came into force in August.

What's most striking is the disappearance from downtown Dakar of swarms of taalibe, barefoot boys dressed in dirty rags and begging with their trademark tomato cans. They're supposed to be learning the Quran at religious schools, but few can recite verses. They spend their days running up to car windows and pedestrians, hands outstretched with a murmured prayer, hoping for lumps of sugar, cookies and especially coins.

These earnings go straight into the pockets of unscrupulous religious teachers to whom the children are entrusted. Those who don't deliver the daily quota face beatings and abuse.

Breaking with legal precedent, a Senegalese court handed down six-month suspended prison sentences, plus $200 fines each to seven religious teachers last month. They were convicted of forcing children to beg.

Mr. EL HADJ ABDOULWAHAB SAIDI (Chief Imam, Fass Mbaw): (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: A senior Senegalese imam, El Hadj Abdoulwahab Saidi, says while they respect the law, the custom of Muslim religious schools and education dating back centuries must continue. And that disciples soliciting alms so that teachers can feed and clothe them is part of that tradition.

Mr. SAIDI: (Through translator) We don't have any problem with the law, but we're asking the government to give us funds and subsidize Quranic schools, just as it does the Western educational system here in Senegal. If the government is prepared to do this, that's fine by us. But if not...

QUIST-ARCTON: The implied threat in the imam's unfinished sentence was that the beggar boys may return to the streets in defiance of both the authorities and the courts.

Mr. MATTHEW WELLS (West Africa Researcher, Human Rights Watch): This is a terrific first step. This needs to continue. They need to target the worst.

QUIST-ARCTON: Matthew Wells, West Africa researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch. Working together in downtown Dakar after the ban, we found new young boys begging.

Wells has written a highly critical report, warning that thousands of such children are being exploited.

Mr. WELLS: And we found that (unintelligible) nearly 50,000 kids, the vast majority under 12 years old, and they're living in just horrible conditions that amount to a modern form of slavery. Just the lack of regulation of these schools, and then the flood from neighboring countries that there's been a twisting of religious education into economic exploitation by a significant number.

QUIST-ARCTON: The Senegalese are conflicted about the ban on beggars. Social commentator Hamadou Tidiane Sy, editor of the website Ouestaf.com, says in majority Muslim Senegal, people are taught to follow their religion and their conscience and to give to the poor.

Mr. HAMADOU TIDIANE SY (Editor, Ouestaf.com): One, you have this sense of solidarity, this sense of sharing. And then you have extreme poverty, because we are in a society where you don't have social security. So welfare has always been informal.

But now, you should transfer it into an urban situation, whereby those who are in need have to go out to beg. It creates the phenomenon we have here.

QUIST-ARCTON: Sy says the Senegalese government is likely ordering the police to round up beggars, especially children now, because of growing pressure from outside, including the United States.

Ms. FATOU NDOUR: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: Lifting her megaphone to her lips to utter another prayer is this 47-year-old blind Senegalese woman, Fatou Ndour.

Ms. NDOUR: (Foreign language spoken)

QUIST-ARCTON: Ndour says the money she earns begging helps to look after and educate her eight children. She says she'll brave police raids and the government ban; otherwise, her family will go hungry.

Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News.

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