A Senegalese beggar unmasked
From the legion of Dakar’s street children emerged the unexpected face of Kara – generous, loyal, and a gentleman.
Dakar, SenegalSkip to next paragraph
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Kara had a broad, somewhat goofy smile, a spindly frame, and a chronic cough. He’s 16, but looked about 12. One of Dakar’s legion of child beggars, he followed me home one autumn night – just kept walking along with me even though I’d assured him that I wasn’t giving him any money and that I lived a good 10 minutes up the road.
Kara didn’t seem to care. He had nowhere else to be, and he appreciated the chance to speak a couple words of French. He walked me all the way to my door, shook my hand, and walked off, never asking for money again during the course of our unlikely friendship. We knew each other for nearly a year before I left Senegal last summer.
Foreigners in Senegal soon get used to brushing off these boys, who seem to be everywhere. In the country’s unique twist on child begging, packs of ragged children known as talibés roam the city streets carrying empty tomato-paste cans, collecting sugar cubes, crackers, and coins – whatever passers-by care to give them.
These small armies are commanded by powerful marabouts, Islamic religious leaders who send the boys out to beg and collect their money at the end of the day. The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) estimated that in 2004 there were as many as 100,000 talibés in Senegal.
For centuries, children in this deeply Muslim country have been sent away to religious schools (daaras) for an Islamic education. It’s a practice common throughout West Africa. But in modern Senegal – where most talibés are dressed in rags, visibly malnourished, and almost completely uneducated – it’s clear that the system is no longer working in their favor.
They stalk pedestrians, beg money from passing cars, and scurry between traffic lanes for any spare change thrown from the windows. Hungry and exhausted, many spend their days sleeping on the streets. A few are orphans, but the majority are handed over to marabouts by their own parents. Most families in Senegal hold marabouts in high esteem, consulting them on everything from spiritual to political matters, and a marabout’s influence over his following is profound.
“They are students, but they are abandoned. No one takes care of them,” says Mouhamed Chérif Diop, director of a program that helps talibés through the nongovernmental organization (NGO) Tostan. “Their lives are very hard. They can’t find food, often they can’t find clothes.”
In Kara’s case, I was fortunate enough to catch a glimpse into this world, for it wasn’t long before I began to see him around town. Small and unnoticed, he would spend his days winding his way through the confusion of Dakar’s French colonial heart, where market stalls spill into noisy streets heaving with cars, taxis, motorcycles, and pedestrians. Here, small boys sidle up to businessmen, shopkeepers, and foreigners – anyone who might have a couple of pennies to spare. Some stake out restaurants; others, hungry and exhausted, fall asleep on the sidewalk.
Each time Kara spotted me, he would run up with a grin and insist on walking me wherever I was going. Picking our way between fruit stands and bits of broken pavement, we chatted about this and that – the hot, dusty weather, the band of street boys he hung around with, my working hours as a public information officer for the World Food Programme.
One morning I was running late and hadn’t had time to eat breakfast, so I mentioned that I wanted to pick up something on the way.