Sunday, October 26, 2014

Eyes on Talibés in Kolda: Our First Regional Talibé Conference

I really didn’t know how it would go down. I honestly didn’t know if everyone we invited would show up. But there they were, 38 talibé boys flowing into the room, shaking my hand shyly. The next day, 39 Kolda villagers showed up – both men and women. On the third day, 37 Koranic teachers (marabouts) swept into the room in their long robes (grand boubous). Every population we’d hoped to reach had made an appearance.

This is the first project I’ve tackled here in Senegal that actually had me nervous, wondering if I was overreaching by trying to make it happen. It was the first time I went off the grid, trying something that hadn’t been done in my region or by a PCV in Senegal before, as far as I know. A little scary, but somehow it all came together in the end!

On October 10, 11 and 12, Kolda successfully pulled off its first regional conference on “Daara Modernization and Talibé Child Protection,” an event I organized in partnership with several different organizations working for child protection in Senegal (Tostan, World Vision, USAID, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime / UNODC, the Ministry of Justice’s anti-trafficking bureau, La Lumière, Enda, and more).

For each day of the conference, we invited a different target audience: 40 talibés from the city of Kolda, 40 men and women from nearby villages (community leaders or potential parents of talibés), and 40 marabouts (20 from the city of Kolda, and 20 from villages). Local NGOs, community actors, and officials were also invited. We showed a film and had a panel of 5-8 speakers for each day, all Senegalese experts on daara modernization, Islam, child protection, and community mobilization.

Background on the Issue

Exploitation of talibés, young students of the Koran often forced to beg on the streets, remains an extensive problem in Senegal. Most of these children live at Koranic schools (daaras) under the tutelage of marabouts, spending their days memorizing the Koran and begging for coins or food. Many suffer from extreme poverty, hunger, and abuse. Many are denied a full education, never attending French school and studying only the Koran. This lifestyle makes these children Senegal’s most at-risk population.

Over the past several years, media attention has thrown this human rights issue into the spotlight. The Senegalese government started a national movement to modernize the daara system and improve conditions for talibé. Unfortunately, public attention to this movement remains largely concentrated in the northern half of Senegal, even though the issue is just as pervasive in the south. In fact, my region of Kolda in the south is really an epicenter for human trafficking of talibés. Daaras here receive a flow of children from Guinea, Guinea Bissau, and Mali, and Kolda talibés are often sent north to live in big city daaras (Dakar, Mbour, Thiès, and St. Louis).

Hundreds of daaras exist throughout the Kolda Region. Throughout my first year and a half of service, I visited dozens of these daaras and started developing relationships with the local marabouts and talibés. While we do have handfuls of “modern daaras” in Kolda, the majority are traditional ones that teach nothing but the Koran and still send the boys out begging. Many of the marabouts I’ve met are unaware that the system could be any different. Same goes for parents who send their boys away – and for talibés who see little hope for their future.

This lack of knowledge about the daara modernization movement is why I wanted to bring the discussion down to Kolda. We’ve had small meetings and causeries before, but nothing bringing together all three target populations involved in the issue. It was a first!

Goals of the Event

With all of this in mind, the objectives of the conference I organized were:
  1. To motivate Kolda talibés and give them a chance to discuss their difficulties, hopes and fears for the future. The points they raised were then communicated to the two other groups (marabouts and village parents).
  2. To raise awareness of the Senegalese Government’s national efforts to modernize the system (enforcement of regulations, construction of new “modern daaras,” financial support.) 
  3. To suggest to community members steps they can take in the meantime to modernize local daaras and improve conditions for talibés. We can’t wait passively for the State to fix everything. It’s really up to local communities to take charge of their children and daaras, as some have done already by implementing Daara Management Committees and/or Child Protection Committees.
  4. Gather recommendations for next steps from each target population (talibés, community members, and marabouts) and plan follow-up activities.
To be considered a “modern daara” recognized by the State, a Koranic school must meet certain specific qualifications, including:
  • Students receive both a French and Koranic education
  • Hygienic and sanitary conditions 
  • Safe and secure housing for talibés
  • No begging

It’s true that this whole subject is a very sensitive issue with many religious and cultural complications. I didn’t want to offend anyone, but I was convinced that the conversation needed to be started. I definitely couldn’t have done it alone, though.

The Project Team

Honestly, the entire success of the project was due to my amazing project partners and panel speakers. Speakers from local NGOs, the Kolda Academic Inspector, and government representatives all made important contributions. UNODC sent a speaker to discuss human trafficking and screen a film about talibés. But it was a marabout, in fact, who was the life and breath of this project.

Thierno Mouhamadou Diamanka, one of my community work partners and President of Kolda’s Association of Koranic Masters, helped me plan out the project and led many of the activities and discussions during the conference. As a respected marabout who has chosen to modernize his daara, he was able to reach out to his peers and really hold their attention. Behavior change – especially when ingrained traditions and beliefs are involved – won’t happen quickly, but marabouts listen to Diamanka and respect his views.

I can’t even remember now how I originally met Diamanka, but we’ve been working together for over a year and he continues to amaze me with his dedication to children and to Kolda’s community development. Before the conference, he accompanied me all over town to help me invite marabouts and talibés in person and explain the program.

Another extremely valuable participant was Mouhamed Chérif Diop, Tostan’s director of child protection projects based in Dakar. He has spent years working with communities and marabouts around Senegal and is a well known among Koranic masters for his radio talks. He was able to explain the steps other communities have taken to modernize their daara system and outlined what communities need to do to get there. In his words, positive change for the talibé situation in Senegal must come through an overall change in social norms, led by communities and guided by a clear concept of child dignity, rights, and protection.


Despite my worries about who would show up for the conference and whether or not we would offend anyone, we had no major problems during the 3 days! Nearly everyone showed up, and our panel speakers were able to answer all questions and keep the audience calm. With all the experts present, there was no question that couldn’t be answered – whether it related to Islam, the law, academic standards, government actions, child protection, or the practical steps of daara modernization.

Everyone seemed really interested to learn what daara modernization entailed and many community members participated in the discussion or proposed ideas. None of the talibés or marabouts came away resenting me. In fact, they seemed happy to have been included! (Some even showed up that we didn’t invite. The more the merrier.)

In total, 164 people were involved in this conference. On the talibé day, Peace Corps VSA Sakhir Dia, himself a former talibé, shared his personal story with the boys. Thierno Diamanka also played an Islam Q&A game with the boys called “Genie en Herbe” (don’t ask me why it’s called that), and I worked on my throwing arm by hurling candy to the winners. All of this seemed to loosen the boys up, and they really participated with a candor I didn’t expect in the group discussions.

DAY 1: Here are some of the difficulties with the current daara system as listed by the talibés:
  • Begging and the requirement of a daily quota that must be given to the marabout
  • Some marabouts do not teach; some exploit their talibés 
  • Poor living conditions 
  • Lack of professional training or apprenticeships
  • Children run away from their daaras because of abuse 
  • Vulnerability of talibé children 
  • Being treated like a criminal by the public
  • Street life (temptation to drugs and crime)
  • Beatings / violence 
  • Lack of rest or leisure time for talibé children
  • Inadequate housing (insecure, unsanitary) 
  • Unorganized daaras / education methods not conducive to learning (ex : multiple class levels all combined in one single daara)
  • Difficulties in finding a job after studies at the daara are complete
  • Lack of teaching materials

DAY 2: Here were the community members’ recommendations for next steps:
  • Send committees to raise awareness and train all Kolda villages and communities in daara modernization
  • Set standards for marabouts  
  • Identify all marabouts with talibés in specific zones (daara mapping) 
  • Raise awareness among Koranic masters; encourage them to accept the merging of daaras
  • Conduct trainings with Koranic masters of the same zone  
  • Discuss child rights with marabouts and communities
  • Equitable geographical distribution of modern daaras constructed by the State 
  • Call to action for communities and Senegalese Government (need support for projects) 
  • Harmonization of interventions (need collaboration of all entities working towards child protection / daara modernization / education)
  • Establish a daara in each village / town / community to prevent talibés being sent elsewhere (child trafficking)
  • Bring together small community daaras to form a large modern daara

DAY 3: Here were the marabouts' recommendations for next steps:
  • Create of Daara Management Committees 
  • Merge small daaras together
  • Disseminate good examples of modern daaras (TV, radio, etc.) 
  • Consider and support community initiatives 
  • Need support for educational materials 
  • Need support for school meals
  • Raise awareness among all key actors
  • Honesty between key players 
  • Unity of hearts

Hopefully we can help these communities achieve some of these actions. At least the first step was a success!