Rescuing Street Kids from Islamís False Prophets

While passing through a local market here in Senegal, I saw a group of kids standing in a single-file line, each holding wooden tablets covered with Arabic script. I had heard these students, known as talibes, were provided lessons in reading Arabic and reciting the Koran by Sufi holy men; weeks earlier I had met a few of them in Mali and was actually impressed to see their grasp of a foreign language. Captivated by the image of these small boys holding their tablets in obedience, I started to snap a picture, at which point I was nearly accosted by their teacher, who literally chased after me with his whip in hand. Though I had no problem outrunning the 60 year-old overseer, even with these rickety knees of mine, I was troubled by the experience and left to wonder what guilt this man had to hide.

After doing some research and asking around, I quickly learned that these marabouts have played an integral role in the history, politics and culture here in Senegal , a country that is 95% Muslim. Though traditional Islam forbids the intermediary of priests, stressing the individualís personal link to Allah, these Sufi marabouts exert a great deal of influence over their adherents. Centuries back, many were instrumental in rallying soldiers to resist French colonialism, while others participated openly in the profitable slave trade. Today, most Senegalese still proclaim allegiance to one of the many marabouts. In fact, most believe their fate is tied to the efficacy of their marabout; hence the expression denoting oneís good luck: "Youíve got a good marabout." But, in recent years, a particularly-troubling phenomenon has manifested itself here, as many of these religious teachers capture swarms of young children from rural villages wracked by over-population, malnutrition and abject poverty.

Perhaps the first thing visitors to Senegal notice are the plethora of street children that crowd the streets, begging for spare change. What most people fail to realize though is that most of these children (UNICEF puts the figure at 100,000) have been taken from their families by these "holy men" who force them to beg in the streets to provide them with income.

Capitalizing upon the thousand year-old tradition of Koranic schools, parents are led to believe their children will benefit from the religious teaching; what they fail to realize is that these false prophets take the kids to the cities and force them to beg in the streets. As nine year-old Amadou here in the capitol city of Dakar tells me, he and the other 20 boys he shares a grimy bed with are awoken at dawn and forced to recite the Koran in Arabic for hours, even though they have no idea what it means.

Taking advantage of the Muslimís religious duty of giving alms to the poor, the marabouts send the kids (many as young as 5 years-old) onto the streets with empty cans to beg for spare change for nine hours a day. They are beaten if they cannot deliver a dollar a day in change, which explains why some boys can be seen crying at the end of the day on the side of the road.

This brutal form of human trafficking/child labor has caused a public outcry; but though the government outlawed child exploitation and trafficking in 2005, little has been done on a national level to reduce this appalling practice. Fortunately, a local woman named Anta MíBow recognized the problem and founded a home to rescue as many of these children as possible.

While at the center, the kids are fed three nourishing meals a day and given instruction in everything from gymnastics to juggling to tae kwon do. Seeing them run around with glee, it is clear they are ecstatic to be off the streets and rescued from the abusive marabouts, as any of them will attest. "Itís like another world here," one twelve year-old tells me.

Faced with an inordinate amount of street kids in Dakar, the objective of Empire of The Children (LíEmpire des Enfants) is to re-unite these kids with their families. This requires pain-staking research of social workers who investigate each childís situation in order to locate their families and return as many of them as possible, thus making room at the center for new arrivals.

When I ask why he doesnít just go back home, Amadou tells me his family is from Guinea , hundreds of miles away and across an international border. This is not just a Senegalese phenomenon: nearly two-thirds of the children come from the neighboring countries of Mali and Guinea-Bissau; the extreme poverty in these places, coupled with the huge family sizes and lack of food, make parents more susceptible to the false claims perpetrated by these marabouts, with the hope their children will be taken care of and fed well. As my nine year-old friend tells me, this is hardly the case. As the boysí physical appearance indicates, their health is neglected as most suffer from respiratory illness, skin problems or parasites. Faced with such a traumatic life on the streets, these boys long to be reunited with their families and once the parents learn of their deception in the name of religion, they happily accept their childrensí return.

Coming face-to-face with throngs of child beggars everyday, for they often gravitate towards a toubabe (white man) like myself, I am faced with a conundrum: while I do not want to enrich their manipulative masters with my money, I shudder to imagine them being beaten if they cannot come up with enough change at the end of the day. When I have food on me, I pass some along to them, but there are times when their insistence gets under my skin, at which point I bark for them to leave me alone.

Playing with them at LíEmpire des Enfants though, I am able to see them in their true form: not pestering beggars but wonderful children, each of them longing for the attention and affection they deserve. As I sat at lunch, eating Ceebu JŽn, the traditional rice and fish meal from a communal platter with my new friends, I experienced one of the strange manifestations of mixed emotions that Africa seems to evoke: on the one hand, deep sadness at the horrible fate being perpetrated upon these innocent children, the ultimate victims of circumstances out of their control, and on the other hand, a profound gratefulness that people like Madame Bow and the rest of the staff here at this center have banded together to rescue these kids from their dreadful fate. This dichotomy between desperation and hope pervades daily life here as I experience this African manifestation of ying and yang on a daily basis.

On behalf of our donors, we donated $500 worth of kitchen supplies, food and medicine for the children of LíEmpire des Enfants. I can only hope that with our collective help, more and more of these kids will be returned to their families, spared the trauma of their current suffering and able to once again enjoy the childhood they all deserve. Thank you for your support!

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