Life for over 50,000 of beggar boys (talibés), on the streets of Senegal is certainly not painted in bright colours. Aged between 5 to 15 years, dressed up in ragged, dirty clothes and holding a signature plastic bucket in hands, those boys flood the streets of Senegal’s cities and town as soon as the morning prayer in a mosque is over. In Senegal, whose 92% of population is Muslim, these street boys, known as talibé (the qur’anic students), are usually sent by their poor families to Islamic scholars marabouts for religious education. But once the little boys come to some Islamic schools (daaras), instead of pen and paper they are given their main work tool – a plastic bucket after a cheap margarine. And off they are sent on the streets to beg for alms, which will be then handed to their masters to ‘pay back’ for education and guardianship.
The streets of unfamiliar towns and daaras mark a new life for these boys, a life that is prone to all sorts of vulnerabilities: hunger, verbal and physical abuse, sexual harassment and slavery.
But one painter from St-Louis, known under artistic nickname as Zeus, is bringing up brighter hues to the lives of talibés. He teaches them painting and showcases their artistic works. When I first meet Zeus on his 40th birthday, he exhibited his and the boys paintings in the old town of St Louis, a city that hosts an estimated 14,000 of talibés on its streets alone (according to 2016 study conducted by NGO Maison de la Gare). And he openly shared with me some of chilly insights into the lives of those youths from the margins.
-They are expected to bring 500 francs (almost 0.8 euro) a day to their teacher. As the local communities are not rich, this can be very challenging quota to achieve – continues Zeus, – Many talibé are beaten up by their marabouts if they don’t bring enough money. So some of them prefer to spend nights on the streets, and this makes them prone to even further abuses and risks.
According to the most recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) Report 2017, the situation of talibé boys in certain daaras in Senegal is dire. There have been reported cases of sexual abuse perpetrated on boys by some teachers. The children live in squalid, overcrowded daaras with poor sanitary conditions. Malnutrition and diseases are rampant. Many talibés testified for being beaten up, chained and imprisoned in daaras for poor begging performance or minor misbehaviour. HRW also highlighted cases of the boys being beaten up to death. The incidence of boys suffering or dying from accidents on the street are also high.
-Those children are left to their own devices. Completely. – said Zeus – So few years ago I decided to start a painting classes for them.
It’s all about the economics…and traditions
With a playful spark in his eyes covered with large glasses, and with a scarf thrown negligently over his neck, Zeus is but a (stereo)typical representative of the artistic world. He pauses from time to time as he recounts his story.
-I used to be a talibé myself. But I was fortunate enough to have parents who would not allow me to beg in return for the Qur’anic education. They paid for the classes I attended even though they did not have much money.
At the same time, Zeus grew up seeing fellow-talibés experience all sorts of vulnerabilities. Back then as well as nowadays, those boys usually come from impoverished communities of peul tribe in Northern Senegal (from Pador and Matam region) or even from neighbouring Mali or Guinea-Bissau. Often parents hoped that the Qur’anic education and living in a city would give their sons better life opportunities or a chance to earn money – quite a rare occurrence in the villages. Or simply they have one too many mouth to feed at home, and they could happily live without one of them.
The tradition of sending boys to Quranic schools is probably as old as Islam in Western Africa itself, but it only inadvertently shows the tragic social and economic transformations of the modern times. In the past, aspiring boys from well-off families could afford to pay the teacher for their studies, while the children from less fortunate families helped marabouts on their piece of land. This work was traditionally perceived as a form of compensation to the scholar for his effort and knowledge transfer. It also formed a part of curriculum, ingraining values of patience, hard work and humility onto a disciple.
Yet these noble ideas have changed over the years in the face of modernity. In the backdrop of urbanisation, economic struggles of young Senegalese state, and steady impoverishment of farmers, the boys and marabouts moved to the flourishing cities where the former were forced to beg for alms. What in the past used to be a form of apprenticeship and grassroots education system, nowadays it transformed into a stark business of child abuse, slavery and human trafficking, where gangs of professional human traffickers mix up with ‘entrepreneurial’ marabouts and with dedicated teachers who genuinely want to provide Quranic education to their students.
Even some of the Islamic scholars in Senegal are very critical of this practice.
– This should have no place in Islam – says Moustapha, an Islamic scholar from Dakar – The Qur’anic education should be provided for free and those marabouts should rather work in other domains and provide education voluntarily when they have time. But they made a big business out of it.
At the end of the day, one should remember that the system of Islamic education is strongly embedded in the Senegalese society and it predates secular education of the French colonisers. Despite some efforts are being made to reform this educational system, changes in more conservative areas are very slow since they are considered as neo-colonial interventions.
In the recent years, the Senegalese government made some efforts to crack down on abusive marabouts. Yet, those religious scholars often hold high position and respect in the society and are rarely prosecuted.
–They enjoy a lot influence in the society so any government project to eliminate talibé business will fail miserably – nodded Zeus – Especially before the government elections.
L’atelier l’Or dur – hard gold in the making
Although many years have passed since Zeus was a talibé, his passion and empathy for the ordeals of the talibé friends was transformed into something greater. Zeus is currently a well-established painter on St-Louisian creative map, but his workshop called L’or dur (hard gold) is not only full of paintings. Since two years, every Wednesday afternoon the workshop teems with voices of talibés, who come there for painting and arts classes. L’or dur becomes a safe space where 20 or so boys can unravel their creativity and forget at least for a while about all the sorrows they endure on the streets. They work for two hours on their own little canvas, but also they are washed, given some food, and taught some basic French.
For the boys, coming to the workshop for those lessons is not without economic cost. They have a daily quota to give to their marabouts, so there is an opportunity cost involved in allocating this time to painting. But, looking at the eagerness of the youth to attend the classes, this is the cost they are clearly happy to bear.
Yet, the beginnings of this initiative were not easy indeed. Zeus first needed to convince marabouts to allow him to work with the boys under their guardianship.
-There are around 120 Islamic scholars in St-Louis, but only two of them were open-minded enough and gave me permission to work with their boys – says Zeus. And then he adds – After some time, I have noticed that some marabouts even stopped talking to me altogether.
Zeus shrugs his shoulders; there is something he hesitates to say.
Somewhere over the rainbow
For the talibés, those two hours a week are more than just painting classes. They have deeply therapeutic and empowering effect. During the tutorials, the boys enjoy expressing themselves, sharing their own stories, vulnerabilities, dreams and fears as they fill canvass with dark and bright colours.
For example, Salyou is only 6 years old and has been involved in begging since he was 3 years old. He is a very shy boy and I can imagine that at first it was quite a personality challenge for him. He enjoys painting and in the future, he’d like to become a prominent artist.
On the other hand, there is Aliou, a 9-year old boy who looks much better off than the rest of the boys. His clothes are clean and he’s got headphones on – a clear sign that he is doing well. I am told that Aliou is one of the oldest boys in the group and he has been in the begging business for several years now. With his entrepreneurial acumen, he works with tourists as a guide and as a calèche (horse-cart) driver. In the future he would like to start up his own business.
One of the talibé has indeed literally reached stars from the floor of l’Or dur workshop. It was when one very prominent artist from Dakar visited Zeus’s gallery. He saw an amazing painting of an 11-years-old Aliou and immediately saw a stroke of genius. The artist not only bought the canvass, but he also sent Aliou to a renowned School of Arts in Dakar – L’École des Beaux Arts in Dakar.
Yet, the fate of many other boys is not as glorious.
– One may say that overall, around 40% of the boys come out from this experience and get some life skills that help them in adult life. –points out Zeus. – However, for the remaining 60% the experience of being a talibé is entirely traumatic. It makes those boys enter into a vicious circle of vulnerability and despair. It ultimately makes them susceptible to involvement in theft, crime, and human trafficking business when they grow up.
Another talibé, Mamadou, was less fortunate when a car run over his bare foot and broke it. With some help from Zeus, the boy was taken to the hospital in Dakar. While Mamadou’s parents were informed about the accident, they had no money to cover the cost of the operation but managed to send his uncle to the hospital to take care of the boy.
Yet, for the boys, being the part of L’or dur is a truly transformative experience.
Zeus finally admits, -Those marabouts, they are afraid that the creativity will open up the boys’ consciousness. The arts make them realise their true potential and awakens an ability to take control of one’s life, an ability that is asleep in each of those wonderful boys.
Then he adds:
-This talibé system is totally messed up. It is so difficult to root it out from the society. This is why I want to work directly with its perceived victims. To build their capacity and make them realise one day that they may liberate themselves from it.
In the world where politics and money dictate how human capacities are used, may this be a subtle yet powerful account how much of beautiful potential lies in the most vulnerable of the society.