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Who Are the Talibes?
Who or What is a Talibes?
Whenever I tell people, or even friends about the non-profit I'm trying to start, what we do, and the issues we are working with thus far, I am often asked this question: what is a Talibes? Who are they? Even though I understand why I am asked this question often, i still can't help but become reminded that what my volunteers and I are trying to do, and the issues we are working with thus far, are not well known. However, if you have ever lived in Senegal, or other parts of West Africa, you might have heard the term Talibes and/or seen one at work.
So, what is a Talibes? A Talibes is an Arabic term that means "follower", and is often given to students of traditional West African Qu'ranic schools known as "daaras." According to traditional practice, a child who becomes a Talibes is the ward of his teacher, or marabout. The Talibes' marabout will teach the child the Qu'ran in Arabic, and the child is expected to be proficient in the Qu'ran after years of study. However, even though this is a long-standing tradition for the peoples of West Africa, over the years it has changed. There are unfortunate, serious human rights related to the Talibes/marabout relationship that have shown up in recent years. These issues include physical abuse, neglect, inhumane living conditions, and of marabouts forcing talibes to beg in the streets for money for the marabout's own greed. This article will introduce you to some of these issues in order to bring awareness to the plight of the Talibes, but also inform you of the significance of how an organization like the Sama Tata Foundation can act as a voice for them.
Talibes at a Shoe Distribution Event Held by Sama Tata Foundation
What's Wrong with the Talibes/Marabout Relationship?
I will note that not all marabouts are abusive to their talibes. Some marabouts actually do a good job at teaching their students the Qu'ran and in taking care of them. However, according to UNICEF, there are at least 100,000 children begging on Senegalese streets alone, with 90% of those children who identify themselves as Talibes! Therefore, what went wrong with this long-standing tradition?
The marabout/talibes relationship began to change around the time period of the French-Colonization of West Africa. The French discouraged traditional practices, especially in regards to education. Therefore, the daara system went underground and had to adapt to those changes. One of those changes was that they had to become more self-reliant rather than work alongside the community to help provide and educate the children. This is especially true of daaras located in urban communities like Dakar, Senegal in comparison to daaras located in the countryside.
Even though most of the countries that make up West Africa have been independent from France since the 1960s, problems within the daara system have grown. For example, if you were to visit a major city in Senegal, let's say Dakar, you would see lots of children wandering the streets. Most of the children you would see would be young boys, wearing over-sized, tattered shirts and bottoms, no shoes and carrying around a huge tin can. This aesthetic appearance is the calling card of a Talibe. The reason why their appearance is so rough is because most marabouts neglect to take care of their talibes, or they just don't have the means to take care of them. There have been cases of marabout stealing clothes from their talibes to use for their own children. Talibes are often not allowed to contact their parents, which even though this is apart of tradition and the parents feel it is their duty to keep contact with their children non-existent, there are marabout that have taken advantage of this tradition. How a marabout seems to take advantage of a talibe's separation from his parents is that the marabout will use physical abuse, threats, and also the begging to keep the children in line.
Most of the physical abuse and threats lashed on talibes by their marabouts results from the begging practice. Many marabouts have made the excuse to their talibes that they must go out and beg on the streets in order to teach them the virtues of humility and asceticism as taught in the Qu'ran. Not knowing any better, the children often go out to beg for the quota the marabout asks for. Once the child receives the quota the marabout demands, the marabout secretly uses that money for his own , personal gain. Along with the blatant lie that the talibes are being sent out into the street to help teach them about Qu'ranic values, the marabouts also threaten them with beatings. There have been cases of talibes beaten so severely that their skin is coming off, or they end up dying from their injuries. Therefore, out of fear, many talibes choose to flee, either for a life on the streets or search for someone to take them in. Even though the former talibe is now away from his cruel marabout,now the child has to take care of himself either through child prostitution or drug dealing.
For the talibes who choose to stay with their marabout, there are additional, harsh conditions along with the physical abuse, begging and theft of clothing. Talibes often don't have proper beds to sleep on, proper sanitation, daily meals or proper health care! Therefore, many of the children end up dying and/or becoming sick from preventable causes. Furthermore, it is estimated that the talibes who are sent to beg in the streets spend 1/3 of their time studying the Qu'ran and the rest begging! This time in the streets is not only counter productive to what the parents were envisioning for their children, but also opens the talibes up to more dangers, such as getting run over by cars. This is such a common occurrence in Senegal, that news stories about talibes killed by cars are often reported by the media, and one of my volunteers/colleagues even had a talibe admit to him that his marabout wouldn't help them get medical care unless one of them got run over by a car!
If that wasn't bad enough, the curriculum at most daaras isn't high quality. Many of the children are taught the Qu'ran in Arabic without any previous instruction in Arabic. To clarify this statement, talibes are often to expect to learn the Qu'ran in Arabic while listening to their marabout teach them about the Qu'ran in Arabic, which is not a language even spoken in Senegalese/West African homes! A talibes is expected normally to memorize the Qu'ran in Arabic, not to read the Qu'ran in Arabic, or even to be able to write and/or understand how the Arabic language works! Parents do not pay tuition to send their children to a daara, and the marabouts do not receive a salary. They are expected to just take care of the children under a traditional honors system, that is representative of Islamic values. In most cases, however, marabouts do end up abusing this honors system, or in other cases they just can't afford to do so.
How to Help the Talibes?
Currently, there isn't much being done to help the Talibes. So far, there is only my organization, the Sama Tata Foundation, and another we partner with, that helps us to make sure that we help Talibes get proper shoes, clothing, sanitation items and access to medical care. However, more needs to be done. The Senegalese government needs to become aware of the human rights issues and the threat to universal education that some aspects of the daara system currently brings. This will be in the hope that the government will instill regulations that will make it possible for the daara system to have specific codes, maybe even have it recognized as part of the school system or give them the opportunity to become private schools so that the marabouts receive a salary. Furthermore, one hopes that making the Senegalese government aware of the problems within the daara system can help make sure that talibes are acknowledged their basic rights, but that the marabouts who are abusing their talibes are put to justice.
Other ideas that have been tossed around by myself and my colleagues at the Sama Tata Foundation have been to create our own safe house/school for former talibes, that daaras should be supplemented with a public education, encourage marabouts to open up little retail stores to make money to provide for their talibes, help talibes get access to medical care, and help former talibes find a good foster home and/or get proper training/education for a career in adulthood. This is merely the beginning of what can be done for the talibes, something my organization has been delayed in accomplishing because of lack of funds. Either way, the only way to help talibes is to reform the daara system so that it is safe, truly educates and prepare its students for a future beyond that of a talibes, and that the marabouts who deserve to remain marabouts get ample credit for the work they do, while those who abuse their talibes end up getting the justice they deserve!
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