Boys between 6 and 14 years old were found shackled at a Quranic school in Senegal in February 2016, Photo by Boucar Aliou Diallo for Le Quotidian

Boys between 6 and 14 years old were found shackled at a Quranic school in Senegal in February 2016, Photo by Boucar Aliou Diallo for Le Quotidian

What To Do With The Boys

Will increased governmental measures change the lives of the boys who beg on the streets of Senegal?

Dec. 6, 2017

The sight of children begging on the streets of Senegal is as common as the sound of the call to prayer that echoes through the streets five times a day. The children are usually boys under the age of 14 who are students of the Quran, called talibés. They live in mosques across the country where they are forced to beg to earn their keep and pay their teachers, known as marabouts. The struggle to meet their daily quotas often makes them vulnerable to abuse.

But one day this year in late November, an international police force called Interpol tried to change that. In a strategy known as Operation Sparrowhawk, Interpol not only removed children from Dakar’s streets, but also convicted people associated with trafficking them. It was the first time Quranic teachers had ever been convicted in relation to talibé in Senegal, a fact that belies the evidence of conditions the boys endure.

In the aftermath of the operation, the question of what will happen to the boys who live at the mercy of Senegal’s streets still remains.

The Build Up

The situation had reached a fever pitch. It was 2016. Every month new incidents came to the attention of international human rights groups like Human Rights Watch and local NGOs.

In January, four boys were allegedly lured into a man’s home where the man raped them. In February, police removed shackles from the legs of twelve talibés who had presumably been chained by their teacher. The teacher was arrested, but not charged. In June, another talibé was beaten until he was in critical condition for failing to learn a verse of the Quran. In the meantime, two talibé had been killed by cars while begging in traffic and one was abducted.  

That June, the president of Senegal instituted a program called retrait des enfants de la rue or “the bringing of the children from the streets.”

In the first few months, 300 children were reportedly removed from the streets. But the program did not result in any investigations or prosecutions of any Quranic teachers implicated, according to a Human Rights Watch report called “I Still See The Talibés Begging.”

Senegal’s Minister of Women, Family, and Children and President Macky Sall made promises, but the removal of the initial 300 boys appeared to be the extent of actions taken during the first year.

Operation Sparrowhawk

It took place over a few days in November 2017. An international police organization, called Interpol, and the Senegalese government convicted five marabouts accused of trafficking the boys, according to Jennifer Seibert, a researcher for Human Rights Watch.

Fifty boys were also removed in the joint strategy, called Operation Sparrowhawk. This was the first time Quranic teachers had been convicted in relation to treatment of talibés in Senegal.

Senegal was not the only country where they worked. They also conducted raids in Chad, Mauritania, Mali, and Niger.

The raids were widely publicized in francophone West Africa. They reported the rescue of 500 people, and almost half of them were children. The Organized Crime and Corruption Reporting Project reported 40 people accused over the four-day operation. The number includes individuals who have prostituted women and engaged in international human trafficking. As of yet, only five Quranic teachers have been accused.

What Now?

In Senegal, the latest developments in returning the boys to their families has been largely met with skepticism.

There is a sense of sympathy for low income families who rely on the mosque to take care of sons they cannot financially support  coupled with the importance of Quranic education, according to Alioune Sarr, a grade school teacher in Dakar.

There are between 30,000 and 50,000 talibés in Senegal. The practice of sending boys to be talibé in Senegal is so common that families from nearby countries like Mali and Guinea frequently send their sons to Senegal to live and study at mosques across the country.

“How can they punish the teachers? I don’t know. The teachers would have just denied the charges and police officers would take gifts from the mosque and then just leave the mosque alone,” said Sarr.

Fatou Diop, a Senegalese furniture vendor who lives in New York, thinks mostly of the families of the young boys when she thinks of talibés being removed from the streets.

“Can you tell me where else the boys will go if they aren’t at the mosque? I know it is a very hard life begging that way, but their families- how can they even take care of the boys?,” Diop said.

The GDP in Senegal is around six percent, and families typically have between five and eight children. It is common knowledge that if a family falls on hard times, the mosque will provide shelter and take care of the duty of religious education. That the boys will have to take to the streets to beg for their food is considered an inevitable byproduct.

In addition, offering alms, or donations to charity, is a precept of Islam. Citizens depend on the less fortunate in order to fulfill their religious duty of giving money and food to the poor, an interchange humorously depicted in the novel “The Beggar’s Strike” by Senegalese writer Aminata Sow Fall.   

“It is a big question. What will happen to the boys? I don’t really know what we will do with them,” Diop said one afternoon days after the Operation Sparrowhawk began.

For now, the talibés benefit from increased government attention and the efforts of human rights groups, but it remains to be told if it will ultimately lead the boys to a better life.