Senegal street children

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In most any city in the world, you'll find beggars ? the homeless, the disabled, those down on their luck. In the West African city of Dakar, the capital of Senegal, many beggars are children. How those children end up on the streets is a complex tale that often involves Senegal's religious schooling system. It's a system that many now want to reform. Jori Lewis has the story from Dakar.

MARCO WERMAN: In most any city in the world, you'll find beggars, the homeless, the disabled, those down on their luck. In the West African city of Dakar, the capital of Senegal, many beggars are children. How those children end up on the streets is a complex tale that often involves Senegal's religious schooling system. It's a system that many now want to reform. Jori Lewis has the story from Dakar.

JORI LEWIS: There is a word for runaway children here. In the local language Wolof, they're called Fakhman. I visit a known Fakhman hang out near the bus station and the prison. People mill about in the evening getting food from tiny stands. A group of men sings religious songs to pass the time. A boy comes up to me. His friends follow. Here is the Fakhman house, he says, gesturing to the crowded street. One 13-year-old boy named Baye Zaal Faye tells me he's been on the street for a year.

INTERPRETER: I beg and sometimes I gather scrap metal.

LEWIS: He says life on the street is difficult. It's hard to make money and even when he does, it's not so easy to keep.

INTERPRETER: Sometimes when you go to sleep there are people who come and take your money right out of your pocket.

LEWIS: Child beggars are everywhere you look here. In the shadow of the Senghor Stadium, by a camp fire at the Soumbedioune fish market, on the sidewalks of downtown Dakar's major thoroughfares where boys unroll cardboard boxes for bedding and sleep with pink rice sacks for blankets. And among the children you see on the street, there is an astonishing diversity. There are children sent by their poor parents to make money. Children with no families at all to return to. But for many of these kids, the path to the streets begins in school, traditional Koranic schools called daaras. At this daara in the northern Senegalese city of Saint Louis, children recite their lessons from wooden tablets. Moussa Sow is the lead teacher of the daara. He says boys from all over Senegal come live at the school for several years, learning Arabic and the Koran.

INTERPRETER: Each child who completes a daara education, that will make him a great man.

LEWIS: He says a daara education makes men who are good citizens. That's why some parents choose this religious education over secular state schools. It's a kind of gift a father gives to his son. Some of the parents send money to support the school too, but not many. The school largely serves the poor, so it doesn't ask for a fee. Moussa Sow says it's hard to provide for all of the students' needs.

INTERPRETER: With the little that we have, we have really done a lot of things, but it's not enough. It's not enough. We need help.

LEWIS: He relies on donations and the revenue he gets from selling the occasional sheep to keep the daara going. But other daaras do things differently. They force their students, also called talibes, onto the streets to beg. Back in Dakar I meet a talibe, a boy named Amadou Balde, in a posh area near the big university. He says his school sends him to beg. He has a daily quota that he has to bring back for his teacher.

INTERPRETER: I give him 500 francs in the morning and 500 francs in the afternoon.

LEWIS: That's about $2.00 in total. He carries an old industrial sized tomato paste can as his begging bowl. He tells me he doesn't have trouble finding the money every day. And he still has time to study. I ask Amadou if he can recite a verse from the Koran. He shows me he has been learning. Begging by talibes has a long history here. Mamadou Ndjaye of Dakar's Islamic Institute is an expert on Koranic schools in Senegal. He says the daara has traditionally been a place where children learned about the hardships of life. Sometimes that included corporal punishment or verse recitations into the wee hours of the night, or begging for alms on the street.

INTERPRETER: There is a philosophy, an understanding of begging. For some teachers, it's a pedagogical technique. When we send a student to beg, we are trying to instill humility in him.

LEWIS: But Ndjaye says that in modern times, some teachers have corrupted this practice. Those teachers use their talibes simply to make money for themselves.

INTERPRETER: There are some teachers who don't even know the Koran. Those teachers are charlatans, exploiters of children.

LEWIS: Baye Zaal Faye, the boy I met on the streets that night, says he used to go to a Koranic school and they treated him harshly.

INTERPRETER: Every day I had to bring back a certain amount of money. If I didn't get it, the teacher would beat me.

LEWIS: So he ran away, but he couldn't or wouldn't go home. That's how he ended up here, living on the street. The plight of the talibes and the Fakhman, the runaways, has become a hot button issue in Senegal. The advocacy group Human Rights Watch released a report in April calling for the Senegalese government to crack down on daaras that exploit their talibes. And locals are increasing concerned about the safety of these kids you find on the street. Television and newspaper reports tell tales of unprotected children who have been killed, abused and trafficked. The government is trying to address some of the practices that force children to beg. Amadou Mbaye works for a newly created daara inspection unit within the Senegalese Ministry of Education. He says Koranic schools need regulation.

INTERPRETER: The government has a responsibility to guarantee access to quality education to all children. Now, if somebody wakes up one day and decided to open a daara, the government has the obligation not just to help him, but to control what he's doing.

LEWIS: Mbaye says the government would like to introduce standards and determine which teachers are credible and which just want to exploit their young charges. The government and international groups are also trying to move some of the daaras to the countryside where ideally they will be able to support themselves through farming, not begging. Others say the broader community should do more to help the good daaras and their students, the talibes. That's what's happening near Moussa Sow's school in Saint Louis. One of Moussa Sow's talibes, a boy who is also called Moussa Sow, walks through the streets to a flat in the center of town. An older lady lets him in. Every day Moussa comes to the house of Madame and Monsieur Thiam for his meals.

INTERPRETER: When we don't see him, we go to look for him. We'll even go to the teacher and ask him is he sick? Where is he? We have to know where he is.

LEWIS: Most of the talibes in this part of Saint Louis have a similar arrangement with a local family. That way, it's not just the teacher who takes care of and watches over the children, it's the whole community. And it keeps at least some talibes like young Moussa off the street. But there are still plenty of children begging on the street of Saint Louis. Just after dawn I wait at the crowded bus depot for a station wagon, what they call a sept place, to take me back to Dakar. The children are out in full force. They clink coins in the palms of their hands as they circulate through the station. Sometimes they don't even need to ask and someone just gives them money, food, a bag of sugar or some milk. They keep coming up to me. I give one of them the bananas I just bought for the trip. Then I get in the sept place and shut the door. But every once in a while one of them still taps on the window. For The World, I'm Jori Lewis, Dakar, Senegal.

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