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Nine Street Kids Die in Senegal Quran School Fire

At least nine children died in a raging fire on the night of Sunday 3 March, 2013 in the Medina district of Dakar, Senegal. It was reported that a fire broke out while the children were sleeping in a crowded room at an Islamic school in the capital, and at least seven of the dead are thought to be ‘talibs’ (Quran students).

Following the tragedy, several politicians reacted [fr] to the news, and in doing so, have highlighted just how tough the living conditions can be for talibs.

Hady Ba [fr] explains, on his blog, what being a talib [fr] entails:

Traditionnellement au Sénégal, les parents confiaient leurs enfants à des érudits pour qu’ils leur apprennent d’abord à mémoriser le Coran puis, au fur et à mesure qu’ils grandissent, les sciences religieuses. Durant les premières années de cet apprentissage, ces enfants ne sont pas nourris par le marabout auquel ils sont confiés mais par la communauté toute entière. Chacun de ces enfants a une écuelle et, trois fois par jour, ces élèves qui sont appelés talibés (oui, c’est la même racine arabe que taliban J) font le tour des maisons de la ville ou du village et reçoivent des poignées de nourritures qu’ils recueillent dans ces écuelles et mangent …  Cette éducation était faite pour former des hommes stoïques se contentant de ce qu’ils ont, résistant à la faim et indifférents aux plaisirs de ce bas monde. Elle s’inscrivait dans une certaine vision du monde et dans un réseau social tel que toute la communauté se sentait responsable des enfants errants.

In Senegal, parents would traditionally entrust the care of their children to scholars who would teach them to memorize the Quran and then, as the children grew older, theology. During the first few years of their studies, these children would not be fed by the marabout [translator's note: Quran teacher] to which they were assigned, but by the entire community. Each of these children had a bowl and, three times a day, these students – which are know as ‘talibs’ (yes, the word comes from the same Arabic root as ‘Taliban') – would go from door to door among the houses of the town or the village, receiving handfuls of food that they would gather in their bowls to eat … The tradition was meant to be educational – it was intended to form stoic men who, content with what they have, would resist hunger and be indifferent to the pleasures of this base world. The tradition was based on a particular world-view and on social networks through which the the whole community felt responsible for the wandering children.

Over the course of the last few decades, however, the hardships faced by the talibs have started to become excessive. In its article ‘La détresse des enfants talibés‘ [fr; translator's note: the plight of  talib children], Sentinelles, a Swiss NGO, explains:

Les talibés survivent dans des daaras (écoles coraniques), souvent des habitations de fortune, inachevées, sans eau ni électricité, où les enfants, en surnombre, privés d'hygiène et de soins, s'entassent pour dormir, généralement à même le sol ou parfois sur des nattes, les uns collés aux autres. Beaucoup de daaras fleurissent ainsi, avec à leur tête des marabouts recherchant plus des profits personnels que le bien-être des talibés, devenus pour eux une source de revenus. Ils sont à la merci de leur «maître» qui a tous les droits sur eux. Le sévices corporels violents sont courant durant l'enseignement religieux. Au Sénégal, à peu près n’importe quel musulman peut se dire marabout, et il n’existe aucune loi régissant les daaras, contrairement aux établissements scolaires. Les marabouts sont vénérés et jouissent d’un véritable pouvoir sur la population.

The talib survive in the daaras (Quran schools) – often unfinished, makeshift shelters, without water or electricity, where children, deprived of hygiene and basic care, crowd together to sleep, usually on the floor or sometimes on mats, each child pressed up against the next. Many daaras thrive in this way – under the management of marabouts who are more concerned with their own profits than the talibs’ welfare, the students having become a source of income for their teachers. The talibs are at the mercy of these “masters”, who may do with them what they please – violent beatings are common during a talib's religious education. In Senegal, nearly any Muslim can become a marabout, and – in contrast to other types of schools – there is no law governing the daaras. The marabouts are revered and enjoy very real power over the population.

In response to this tragedy, the government has given instructions on the immediate banning of the practice of begging, believing that at the heart of the problem lies the exploitation of children by organized begging. Leral.net has quoted [fr] Abdoul Mbaye, Prime Minister of Senegal, as follows:

Selon Abdoul Mbaye, cette « mendicité organisée et cette exploitation des enfants en leur faisant vivre des conditions terribles et des risques doivent cesser ». À l’en croire, « c’est parce que les ressortissants sénégalais ne sont pas dupes que certains marabouts vont aller [chercher des enfants] jusque dans les pays limitrophes en Gambie, en Guinée Bissau et au Mali. Le Président de la République a donné des instructions fermes : de telles pratiques doivent cesser. Les marabouts véreux seront chassés et punis… »

According to Abdoul Mbaye, this “organized begging and this exploitation of children by making them live in risk and in terrible conditions must stop.” According to him, “it is because Senegalese nationals are not gullible that some marabouts go [looking for children] in the neighboring countries of Gambia, Guinea Bissau and Mali. The President has given clear instructions on this issue: such practices must stop. Corrupt marabouts will be sought out and punished …

However, as the columnist Dom Bochel Guégan [fr] has pointed out, this is not the first time that the Senegalese government has taken such measures. She would like to believe that the prohibition on begging by children will be effective, however [fr]:

Il est tentant pour certains parents, tentant ou seule issue possible, de confier leur enfant en espérant qu'ainsi, il aura de quoi manger…

Sans compter tous les gamins venus de l'étranger, de Guinée ou d'ailleurs et qu'il faudra rendre à leurs familles, si on les trouve…

En 2010 déjà, Abdoulaye Wade, alors président de la République avait lui aussi annoncé la fin de la mendicité de ces mêmes talibés, poussé par la pression internationale des bailleurs de fond qui avaient posé ce préalable à toute autre aide financière.

La promesse n'aura pas tenu longtemps. Durant quoi ? deux, trois semaines nous avons effectivement constaté la disparition de ces gamins des rues, avant qu'ils ne reviennent, tous, et que les choses reprennent comme avant.

It is tempting for some parents to entrust their children [to a marabout] in the hope that this way, they will not starve. Indeed, this may sometimes be the only possible solution…

Not to mention all the children who have come from abroad – from Guinea or elsewhere – that would need to be returned to their families once they are found…

Already in 2010, Abdoulaye Wade, then President of the Republic, had announced an end to talibé begging. He had been driven by pressure from international donors who had set this as a precondition to further financial aid.

The promise did not last long. How long? We saw the streets kids disappear for two or three weeks and then they came back, all of them, and things once again became as they had been before.

These are not the only difficulties facing the government. As Hady Ba and Dom Bochel Guégan have pointed out, there was also swift backlash from religious leaders. They cite two instances of such opposition:

Quran teachers from Touba, Darou Moukhty and Diourbel have been reported [fr] as stating:

« Aucun daara ne sera fermé… Nous refusons le diktat de l’Etat… L’Etat est dans une logique de règlements de comptes… Le talibé est un petit mendiant et l’Etat un grand mendiant … Nous sommes prêts à regrouper 6.666 daaras pour des prières destructrices … ».

“Not a single daara (ed's note: school in wolof) will be closed … We reject the government's diktat … The government is out to settle scores  … While the talibé is a small beggar, the government is a bigger beggar … We are ready to bring together 6,666 daaras to pray for its destruction … “.

The Rufisque daara Quran teachers' regional collective was reported [fr] to have held a press conference in which they threatened mystical combat against the President.

Some commentators have suggested that the government might introduce religious instruction into the general school curriculum. Serigne Mansour Sy Djamil [fr], a member of parliament and a religious leader, has argued that the government is responsible for the Medina fire. He has accused the government of abandoning Quran schools, leaving them to face poverty so that it can fund its republican [secular] education agenda.

Photo de Dom Bochel Guégan. Avec autorisation.

Photograph of a child in a Senegal street taken Dom Bochel Guégan. (reproduced with her permission)

One netizen has reacted [fr] as follows on Facebook:

Ce matin [12 mars]  encore j'ai croisé des enfants, nus pieds, vêtus d'un simple tee-shirt trop grand, l'interdiction n'est bien évidemment pas respectée. Le premier ministre a dit hier que les lois étaient déjà existantes (vrai) et qu'il suffisait de les appliquer. Yako, fokon, espérons.

Still this morning [March 12], I bumped into children, barefoot, wearing nothing but an oversized T-shirt – the prohibition is clearly not being respected. The Prime Minister said yesterday that the necessary laws were already in place (true) and that these need only to be applied. Yako fokon which means let's hope.

 

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