Pupils sent to beg each day

27th August 2004 at 01:00

Like many 11-year-old schoolboys, Ali hates Monday mornings. But it is not double maths that makes him grimace - it is the begging that his teacher makes him do.

He is one of thousands of Senegalese boys (talibes) sent to live in religious daara schools to learn the Koran but who end up scavenging on the streets for money to fund their Muslim schoolmasters (marabouts).

"There are good marabouts who teach the Koran, but also bad ones who run a child business," said Cire Kane of Synapse Network Center, a group working with street children.

Every day Ali must take his marabout 300 CFA (about 30p), enough to buy two loaves of bread. "He'll whip me if I don't," he said, shaking a tomato-paste tin at passers-by in the capital, Dakar.

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimates that 100,000 children are begging in Senegal, with talibes the "vast majority". Many leave their families in the countryside to move to city-based daaras and some marabouts argue that with no salary and 30 talibes to support, they have no choice but to send the children out for cash.

In Ouakam, an outer suburb of Dakar, one marabout has moved his daara into a half-finished building after being thrown out by his previous landlord for not paying the rent. The boys sleep on scraps of foam propped on bricks and with no bathroom, the air is heavy with the stench of urine.

Senegal is a religiously tolerant country. Muslims make up 95 per cent of the population but Christmas is widely celebrated. Most parents want their offspring to learn the Koran but know an academic education will open more doors, given that French is the official language.

Some marabouts are trying to bridge the gap. "My pupils are able to go to French schools, live with their parents and learn the Koran without having to beg," said Mohamed Diallo, who gives after-school and weekend lessons.

In his makeshift outdoor classroom, a patchwork of sacks protects pupils from the sun as they perch on wobbly benches, peering at the Arabic on a scratched blackboard."It's good to learn French to open up your world, but you need to learn Arabic and your religion too, so you know who you are," Diallo said.

Mbaye Ndoumbe Gueye, an education official in charge of reforms, said the government was also trying to meet parents' wishes. "Where there is the demand, two hours a week instead of one are now set aside for religion and Arabic in French schools," he said.

"But we also need to look at the daaras themselves. We can't concern ourselves with 80 per cent of pupils and forget about the other 20 per cent," he added. "The daaras need to provide a good all-round basic education so the children can get a job and be a part of everyday life."

And aid workers like Kane say there is no time to waste if Senegal is to prevent today's talibes from becoming tomorrow's legion of unemployed with an unhealthy taste for the street.

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