Beg­ging to learn

Fatal fire at Sene­gal ‘school’ again high­lights child beg­gary.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - INSIGHT - By KRISTA LAR­SON

sEVEN nights a week, 13-yearold Cheikhou and his younger brother Bamba would make their way to a wooden shack they shared with dozens of other bare­foot child beg­gars, blan­ket­ing the floor with their tired bod­ies.

Then one night a knocked-over can­dle turned their home into an in­ferno. Cheikhou awoke to the sounds of peo­ple scream­ing. He joined some 50 boys flee­ing for the door as neigh­bours filled plas­tic buck­ets, strug­gling in vain to put out the fire.

Cheikhou made it to safety, but at least eight young boys were dead, in­clud­ing his 10-year-old brother and three even younger cousins. The tragedy once again fo­cused at­ten­tion of the plight of the tens of thou­sands of Sene­galese tal­ibes, Is­lamic re­li­gious pupils, who are forced to dou­ble as street beg­gars.

In this West African coun­try, Hu­man Rights Watch has es­ti­mated that more than 50,000 boys are forced to beg while spend­ing years in board­ing schools called daaras. The gov­ern­ment has tried for years to ban the prac­tice, but it re­mains deeply em­bed­ded in Sene­gal, where many poor par­ents view it as the only way to pro­vide an ed­u­ca­tion for their sons.

An un­told num­ber of tal­ibes have been run down and killed while beg­ging in traf­fic but the March tragedy ap­peared to be a game changer, if only be­cause three of the school’s marabouts – teach­ers – were de­tained for ques­tion­ing and Pres­i­dent Macky Sall de­clared that all sub­stan­dard daaras would be closed.

“Strong mea­sures will be taken to put an end to the ex­ploita­tion of chil­dren un­der the pre­text that they are tal­ibes,” Sall said. “This tragedy forces us to in­ter­vene and iden­tify ev­ery­where that sites like this ex­ist. They will be closed and the chil­dren will be re­turned to their par­ents.”

But nine months af­ter those strong words were spo­ken, no one is in cus­tody and not a sin­gle daara has been shut.

“We re­ally feel be­trayed ... it’s truly slav­ery,” said Bamba Fall, an as­sis­tant mayor for Dakar’s Me­d­ina neigh­bour­hood where the fatal blaze broke out. He be­lieves the crim­i­nal case was dropped be­cause of pres­sure from higher-rank­ing re­li­gious lead­ers.

In an in­ter­view with The As­so­ci­ated Press, he said: “The chil­dren were ex­ploited by day and crammed in to­gether at night un­til their deaths.”

A les­son in ‘hu­mil­ity’

Cheikhou and Bamba Diallo grew up in Ndame, a dis­trict of sand­blan­keted streets on the out­skirts of the holy city of Touba. Here their par­ents grow mil­let and sorghum, and raise goats. And when the boys’ un­cle opened his daara in Dakar, the cap­i­tal, in 2008, Cheikhou was among the first chil­dren to make the 180km jour­ney to en­rol. Bamba and the cousins fol­lowed.

Ac­cord­ing to a 2010 study by Hu­man Rights Watch, the beg­ging be­gins each day at dawn and lasts on av­er­age nearly eight hours, while the af­ter­noon and evening are spent study­ing.

The sys­tem is said to teach the pupils hu­mil­ity and pre­pare them for the dif­fi­cul­ties of adult life. All the begged pro­ceeds go to the marabout, who with 40 tal­ibes in his daara can make the equiv­a­lent of nearly US$500 (RM1,649) a month – more than many civil ser­vants earn.

For the boys of the Me­d­ina daara, recre­ation meant oc­ca­sion­ally watch­ing soc­cer matches on a neigh­bour’s TV. Al­though their marabout in­sists he was hu­mane and gen­er­ous, neigh­bours say the boys of­ten went bare­foot, wear­ing men’s filthy hand-me-downs and scroung­ing left­overs at Ouli­mata Fall’s restau­rant.

“It’s very hard as a mother to imag­ine hav­ing a tiny child liv­ing like that,” Fall said, wip­ing her sweaty brow as she stirred a large pot of thiebou­di­enne, Sene­gal’s sig­na­ture dish of rice and fish.

No one knows just how many chil­dren lived in the doomed board­ing house shared by stu­dents of three dif­fer­ent marabouts. The gov­ern­ment says it recorded 41 sur­vivors and nine dead.

Marabout Moun­takha Diallo says eight chil­dren died, in­clud­ing four neph­ews of his.

All that re­mains of the daara are some charred beg­ging bowls and prayer mats. A boy’s san­dal lies amid the de­bris.

Neigh­bour Penda Ba, 24, says the horror stays with her. “I can still hear the boys scream­ing for help when I close my eyes,” she said.

Child beg­gars im­ported

The boys’ moth­ers learnt about the fire on the ra­dio; it was at Rue 6 x 19, the ad­dress where their sons were liv­ing.

Then a rel­a­tive called to con­firm the worst: 10-year-old Bamba and his seven-year-old cousins Ali, Samba and Ous­mane, all mem­bers of an ex­tended fam­ily back in the vil­lage, were gone. Burnt be­yond recog­ni­tion, they were buried to­gether in a ceme­tery on the out­skirts of Dakar.

“They were al­ways to­gether in life and now they’re to­gether in death,” says their aunt, Ou­mou Diallo, 27.

Cheikhou Mbow is the gov­ern­ment of­fi­cial tasked with in­spect­ing daaras. He ac­knowl­edges that un­til the fire, au­thor­i­ties had never vis­ited the site, but in­sists it wasn’t a true daara, just “a house where tal­ibes lived”.

The gov­ern­ment says the longterm so­lu­tion is to es­tab­lish bet­ter schools in ru­ral ar­eas, where par­ents can keep an eye on them. It also says the prob­lem is ex­ac­er­bated by marabouts who im­port child beg­gars from poorer neigh­bour­ing coun­tries such as Guinea-Bis­sau.

Au­thor­i­ties ques­tioned three marabouts with pupils who lived in the shack, in­clud­ing Moun­takha Diallo, the un­cle of four of the vic­tims. If the be­reaved hold any­one re­spon­si­ble for their losses, they keep it to them­selves and say the tragedy was the will of God.

Diallo, 40, says the fact that he wasn’t charged with any of­fence shows the fire was en­tirely ac­ci­den­tal.

Asked in an in­ter­view with The As­so­ci­ated Press who was re­spon­si­ble for the chil­dren liv­ing in a fire­trap, he said fires could start in even the stur­di­est of struc­tures.

“Peo­ple say that marabouts use th­ese chil­dren for com­mer­cial gain, but for me that was never the case,” he said. Of the neph­ews he lost, he said, “Th­ese were not strangers; th­ese were fam­ily.”

He also de­nied mis­treat­ing any of them.

“You would never find my tal­ibes in the street af­ter 8pm,” he said. “They took a shower ev­ery day and changed their clothes ev­ery day.”

Cheikhou is back with his fam­ily in their vil­lage, Ndame. The fam­i­lies of the dead re­ceived 300,000 francs (RM1,979) from the gov­ern­ment.

And Moun­takha Diallo is run­ning a new school, this time in a woven reed hut in Ndame.

‘Will of God’

About a dozen stu­dents sit on the ground, hunched over wooden tablets, read­ing Qu­ranic verses aloud or copy­ing them in pre­cise lines of Ara­bic script.

They no longer have to beg. In­stead they spend their free time sit­ting in the shade, dressed in clean foot­ball jer­seys and plas­tic san­dals.

Cheikhou lives near his par­ents’ house, but not in it. The marabout still re­quires the boys to sleep in the hut where they study.

Sit­ting on her bed at home, Cheikhou’s mother Aida Diallo is steel­ing her­self for the pos­si­bil­ity she will again be sep­a­rated from him. “If the marabout de­cides to leave for Dakar, he will go with him,” she says, look­ing at the ground. Her eyes fill with tears.

“Dakar is no good,” the boy mum­bles, sit­ting be­side his mother.

Months later the pain of four lost sons is keenly felt in Ndame. The marabout him­self broke down in tears as he spoke of his lost neph­ews.

But the im­per­a­tive of a proper Qu­ranic ed­u­ca­tion re­mains para­mount.

Cheikhou’s sole sur­viv­ing brother, now eight, is still a tal­ibe at another daara. His par­ents plan to keep him there too, de­spite all they have lost.

“I can­not ex­plain the pain but we must ac­cept it,” says his fa­ther, Adama, the marabout’s own brother. “It is the will of God.”

Rama Diallo, the mother of Ali, re­mem­bers talk­ing to the sev­enyear-old by phone only a week be­fore the fire.

“I asked him, ‘Are you study­ing?’ And he said, ‘Yes, Mama, I am learn­ing well.’ I had so many dreams for him.”

She cher­ishes a faded pic­ture of Ali in an orange soc­cer jersey and hasn’t yet told her four-yearold daugh­ter Fa­tou that her older brother is gone.

“I re­mind her that Ali has gone to Dakar,” she says as she gen­tly strokes Fa­tou’s hair. “And then she al­ways asks ‘When is he com­ing home?’”

Ali’s fa­ther, Mo­hamed, holds his two-year-old son, Babacar, and cov­ers his face with kisses.

“It is the marabout who de­cides where the child goes,” he says, smil­ing at the tot. “The rest of the chil­dren will be tal­ibes too.” – AP

Is­lamic re­li­gious stu­dents known as tal­ibes sleep to­gether in the crowded room that serves as their class­room and liv­ing quar­ters, at board­ing schools called daara, in the Me­d­ina Gounass sub­urb of dakar, Sene­gal. – aP Pho­tos

Tal­ibes pause dur­ing their beg­ging route to look at aca­demic re­sults posted out­side a gov­ern­ment school. In­struc­tion at many daaras in Sene­gal is fo­cused purely on mem­o­ris­ing verses of the Qu­ran in clas­si­cal ara­bic.

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