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.
When he heard this, Kara reached under his dirty shirt and pulled out half of a crisp baguette. “Here,” he said, “take this. Someone gave it to me.”
I was stunned by such a generous gesture, and didn’t know what to say. But I quickly assured him that I wasn’t about to deprive him of his bread and ducked into a shop to buy a pastry.
When I broke off a piece to share with him, Kara shook his head. “No, you eat it,” he said matter-of-factly. “I’ve already eaten this morning.”
This, in his eyes, was only fair.
Not long after that, a friend and I were walking along a busy street one evening when two men aggressively tried to pickpocket us. We managed to wriggle out of the situation, but no sooner had we got clear than Kara came running up to us talking fast. He’d seen the whole thing. In fact, he’d even tried to push between us and the men, and got a rough elbow in the chest for his efforts. Not to be deterred, Kara ran over to one of the guards along the street to tell them the two men were thieves.
At this point I was pretty impressed with the courage and integrity of this little guy. When I saw him several days later, I decided to bring him back to my apartment to see whether he’d fit into any of the T-shirts a friend of mine had left.
For the next hour, Kara sat out on my porch, drinking juice and munching on a piece of leftover pizza. He was excited about the shirts, insisting on folding each one meticulously (even the dirty ones) before placing it carefully in a plastic bag. I held the bag as he folded, and as he worked he began to tell me about his world.
• • •
Both Kara’s parents are dead. After their death he went to live with his aunt, who kept him in school for several years before pulling him out and sending him to a marabout.
“She’s not a nice woman,” Kara muttered. “I would rather go to school, but now I have to live on the streets.”
The marabout beats the boys, he told me, especially if they don’t bring back the required amount of money at night – 300 CFA francs or around 60 cents. With more than half the population of Senegal living on less than $2 a day, marabouts do pretty good business.
“Kids living like this start to do bad things,” Kara told me earnestly. “They drink, they fight, they do drugs. I don’t want to be like that. Now Youssou N’Dour,” he motioned toward my stereo, where the famous Senegalese musician was playing, “he has a lot of money but he does good things. He gives his money to the poor. If I had money, I would do that too.”
I don’t know how much money Mr. N’Dour really does give to the poor, but he clearly had his little fan convinced.
Kara fell asleep on my couch, catching up on sleep. When I finally sent him on his way, I handed him 80 cents for a plate of rice and watched him wander off clutching the bulging bag of clothes. Whether he planned to sell them or wear them himself, I had no idea.
The talibé system is coming under increasing criticism from both inside and outside Senegal. A number of local and international NGOs, some funded by UNICEF, have been pressuring the government to regulate daaras and relieve their students of the obligation to beg. It’s an uphill battle, because marabouts are a powerful force within Senegalese society.
But Mr. Diop tells me that NGO pressure is starting to have some effect. Although the number of talibés is growing, the number forced out onto the streets has diminished.
As for Kara, I hope he hasn’t suffered any fall-out from the clothes I gave him. I hope his cough hasn’t grown worse. He’s already a teenager; if things go well for him, he’ll soon be old enough to work himself out of his servitude, or at least to find his own way off the streets. He’s just a scraggly kid, but with ideals far beyond his circumstances.
I only hope he gets the chance for more than pennies thrown from car windows and an empty tomato paste can.