Dans leur peau (in their skin): the least favored children of Senegal (Senegal pt 2)

Outside, a windy night had settled in. Inside, watching L’esprit criminel (Criminal Minds) and playing scrabble, my host family and I took no notice. As it got dark, my host mother sent our bonne (housekeeper), Taba, to close the main door of the house. We heard her trot down the stairs, close the door with a bang, and moments later, re-emerge.

But she was not alone; a talibé stood behind her. He couldn’t have been more than six years old. Taba had found him sleeping behind the front door, shielding himself from the cold. She went off to the kitchen to find him leftovers from our dinner, while my host mother asked him some questions.

As it turned out, he was trying to escape his daara. My host sisters found a sweater for him and took him back to the daara, explaining to the marabout the best that they could to help the child avoid the beating that was nonetheless likely inevitable.

During the entire time this event unfolded, I sat there, frozen, unsure about what to do. At one point, I managed to weakly ask my host sister if I should call Issa, Maison de la Gare’s director. She, equally unsure, shook her head uncertainly.

Talibé street children are prevalent all throughout West Africa. In St Louis, they’re on the streets at all hours, begging during the day and sleeping there at night. Most of them are sent from their hometowns by their parents to daaras, Qu’aranic schools, to learn the Qu’aran, as early as five or six years of age. They’re taken out of the regular academic schooling system, thus deprived of the valuable language, scientific, mathematic, and social sciences lessons that are only so pertinent to any future.

They’re so visible, and yet completely invisible, neglected by virtually all levels of Senegalese society and governance. As a result, they’re an easy target for marabouts — the men meant to be their Qu’aranic teachers and guides on the spiritual journey — who regularly exploit them for a profit.

A typical day for a talibé consists of three things: begging, Qu’aranic recitation, and sleeping. The talibés must beg in order to make a certain amount of money each day. Begging is also another way for them to bring home food in place of money; unless you see the child actually eating the food you give him, you can be sure that he’ll pass it along to his marabout. Talibé students who have made their quota for the day can make it home to the daaras with the comfort of knowing that they’d avoided the day’s beating. There, they join the throngs of other talibés in reciting the Qu’aran, their religious “education.” At night, they fall asleep, often 50 little children cramped up in sheds or under the stars next to landfills. Tomorrow, the same cycle continues.

The night the talibé arrived at our door, I went off to bed with a heavy heart. Though I spend my weekdays working with talibe children, this event had hit far too close to home, presenting my volunteering day job, quite literally, on my door step. At MDG, we — the talibés and the volunteers — often forget that when they’re not there, smiling and playing and learning, they’re begging in the streets to simply stay alive.

I had already read up about MDG and the talibé situation, but on my first day, Issa provided me with more information. Issa has two jobs: during the day, he runs the center, and at night, he goes looking for the talibé children that have escaped their marabouts. Sometimes, he brings those children back to the marabouts, while other times, he tries to persuade the parents to take the child back. Some outright refuse. Others will reluctantly take the child back, but days later, we’ll see the child back at MDG.

The day I arrived, coincidentally, a marabout was there, waiting for Issa to discuss something. As it turned out, the marabout had a talibé run away from him two months ago and was now asking for Issa’s help in looking for him. Issa recounted the story to me, shaking his head in disgust. “Two months! After two months, he comes to me. Who knows where the kid is now?” This situation presents a paradox in the work that Issa does everyday: you have to work with all the marabouts, both the good and the bad. Issa explains, “The kids only run away from the marabouts who treat them unfairly, who hit them.” Sure, Issa could refuse to help the marabout in question, but that would be most detrimental to the talibé, not to the marabout. The police, furthermore, prefer to remain uninvolved save for the most serious, violent cases.

MDG fills the void that Senegalese society has left. In the morning, the little ones always come running in, smiling, eager to play wrestling (la lutte), bang on the djembe drums, or look through some English and French picture books. The older ones come into MDG to make use of the computers and internet. All students get access to the shower and bathroom facilities and a nurse on-site. In the evening, we give them French and English lessons. Currently, MDG is working on building accommodation, in hopes of getting the talibés off the streets. MDG also sponsors some 30 or so high-school aged students so they can attend regular schooling whilst entrenched in Qu’aranic education.

Since my arrival at MDG, I’ve gotten involved with a variety of things. The center is currently in the midst of a renovation project, so, in the morning, we’ve been busy sifting and cleaning sand, sanding down the walls to prepare for a fresh coat of paint, and decorating the walls with pictures of the MDG regulars. My first day, I also had an opportunity to visit the daaras to clean up talibés’ wounds and treat minor illnesses. In the evenings, I help the other volunteers run English class. Working at MDG is as frustrating as it is rewarding; frustrating because MDG runs on Senegal time, with staff often lethargic and slow to get started on big projects (since my arrival, I’ve noticed that most of the projects we’ve begun were volunteer-led initiatives), but rewarding because I have an opportunity to see these street children in a light that’s beyond their “talibé” stamp. In particular, many of the older talibés these kind, gentle, soft-spoken souls, always so hardworking in English class and always willing to lend a hand. Ultimately, it’s been a most humbling experience.

Yes, the problem of talibé street children feels like a heavy, hopeless situation. MDG is not the answer, but at the very least, it presents a safe haven the talibés can call home.