Begging for change

As Harry and Meghan revelled in their recent engagement, the BBC shared the public reaction. The usual cross section of our society offered words of encouragement for the happy couple.

Two old biddies, wearing their M&S finest couldn’t wait to get their bunting out again. A male Londoner confessed he thought that ‘Melinda was pretty tidy’. Names clearly aren’t his strong point. But my favourite, from a dour-faced ‘cup-half-empty’ Brummie;

‘It’s nice for us Brits to have something to look forward to in these bleak and uncertain times…’

Call me skeptical, but I sincerely doubt this woman has ever clapped her eyes on the true meaning of the word. Because most of the time, we Brits don’t appreciate how good we’ve got it.

Talibés represent bleakness in its bleakest form. These young boys, roughly between the age of 5 and 15, roam the streets of Senegal. They are invariably barefoot and dirty, clutching a standard issue begging bowl. Threadbare clothes hang from little threadbare bodies.

They are sent away from home in their tens of thousands, to live and study at Quranic boarding schools, known as daaras. Some find themselves hundreds of miles from their families, in a city with a different dialect. The practice is grounded in religious and cultural tradition; a religious education is considered a parent’s obligation and some are acting in good faith. But for many parents too poor to look after their children, the daaras are a way out of financial crisis. A means of escaping poverty.

Sadly corruption lies at the heart of it.

Over the past fifteen years, Quranic teachers have taken advantage of this unregulated education system to exploit and mistreat the children in their care. A finger-in-the-air estimate predicts that there are 50,000 talibés living in Dakar alone, however the problem stretches the breadth of Senegal and some children are even trafficked between neighbouring countries. The youngest I’ve met was just four years old.

Try to imagine 50,000 children begging on the streets of London, Birmingham or Manchester. I can’t even begin to conjure the picture.

The teachers, or marabouts, are expected to teach the children how to memorise the Quran, and learn everything there is to know about their religion. But instead the boys are forced to meet a daily begging quota for money, rice and sugar. Should they fail, they are subjected to horrific physical and psychological abuse. Children have died as a result of serious assault and neglect. Many visibly suffer from severe malnutrition, scabies, injury, and other illnesses. During the rains and winter season, the boys are freezing in insufficient clothing.

But ten hours of begging, brings in a serious amount of cash. Anywhere between 500 to 2,000 CFA a day (£1 to £4) is deemed an acceptable haul, per child. And in a country where this daily quota matches many adult wages, you can see why talibés have become a very profitable workforce. It is estimated that the Dakar talibés alone, generate the marabouts an annual 6 million pounds a year. In Senegal this is an extraordinary amount of money.

So what’s being done?

Last year, a program was introduced to “remove children from the streets. Known locally as the “retrait des enfants de la rue,” it intended to eradicate forced child begging, and in the months that followed, there was allegedly a notable drop in talibé presence. But a lack of legal follow through has ultimately led to a rebound of the status quo.

Abusive teachers have skipped free of investigation and as prosecutions have failed to materialise, marabouts have continued to send the boys out to beg. I regularly see them with their bowls outstretched in front of police, gendarmes and along main roads in plain sight; they go seemingly unnoticed. Not to mention, in the absence of any form of registration, the exact number of talibés, daraas and marabouts seems to be unknown.

As a recent mother to two little girls, I find the thought of them falling into such a system unimaginable. These are other women’s babies. They don’t know where they are. Who they’re with. How badly they’re abused. Are they even still alive. Talibés are a stark daily reminder that life here is very different from our privileged Blighty.

The local advice urges you to buy the boys necessities and to keep your coins to yourself. I keep a glovebox full of snacks, but even so, I often find myself torn. Handing over a bag of peanuts might keep hunger pangs at bay, but it certainly won’t prevent the boy before me from being beaten. I regularly find myself financing the system out of worry for what will happen to him. Yes, my actions will perpetuate the problem, longterm. But maybe to that young boy, right there in front of me, it will make a difference. It’s a daily debate.

After speaking with a few experienced expats, I have learned some essentials when meeting talibés.

Smile. Never forget, they are children; some as young as four and five. Ask their name and tell them yours. Introduce them to your own children. Make them feel (even just for a few minutes) that someone cares and they’re not invisible.

Sustenance. ALWAYS look for your nearest vendor and buy them something to eat and drink. Talibés have to beg for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and pounding the pavements all day makes for empty tummies. The advice is to try and ensure they eat in front of you, in case they sell their prize to raise the daily quota… I recently bought a pizza for two boys and they scarpered with the box unopened.

Shoes. If there’s a flipflop vendor nearby, get over there tout suite. Many talibés are barefoot, walking the streets of a dirty, developing city for around 60 hours a week. My feet are screaming just thinking about it.

What difference can be made for the future? Will people be talking about talibés in another hundred years? Longevity breeds apathy, and without significant and immediate commitment from the Senegalese government, I fear the plight of the talibés is far from over.

And having returned home for the holidays, I can’t help but notice our own streets are devoid of dusty barefoot boys. When you stop your car at traffic lights, little hands don’t tap the windows. There are no haunted eyes behind the glass.

The children here are wearing smart shoes and clothes that fit. They carry school bags, not begging bowls. They’re with parents, grandparents, friends or nannies; not alone and scared. And many of them are now gearing up for what Santa might bring.

I know Britain isn’t perfect; there is suffering here too. However, for the vast majority, we are #blessed. I had to move to Africa to truly appreciate that.

As for Harry and Meghan, I too wish them well. They have pledged a joint commitment to charity work and intend to use their world stage to help eradicate bleakness, in all its forms.

I sincerely hope the talibés make their list.


References, sources and further reading

Voices of Talibés: Fighting for the Rights of Senegal’s Children


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