Imagine the moment in which a respected Muslim teacher takes a 5-year-old boy from his Senegalese village to the country’s capital, Dakar. For the next 10 years, he will be under the care of his marabou (a Muslim teacher) and he will live with approximately 35 other boys in their daara school, memorizing the Koran. When he is not learning verses in Arabic, he spends hours each week on the streets begging.
Welcome to the life of a talibe. According to some estimates, at least 50,000 Senegalese boys enter this system of apparent injustice. The centuries-old tradition of training young boys in the Koran and teaching them humility through begging has garnered scrutiny from the international community. According to Human Rights Watch, many of these talibes experience abuse from their marabous, many describing incessant beatings and neglect. The schools rarely offer medical care, and the boys suffer from visible infections and skin diseases.
“The abuse being meted out by these so-called teachers is on display every day and in plain view for all to see, and yet the police and judiciary have consistently failed to open investigations and hold them to account,” said Corinne Dufka, West Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “The suffering of the talibé is a blind spot in Senegalese society.”
WorldVenture worker Kim Johnson has spent the past two years caring for some of these talibes in a Dakar neighborhood. The center sees anywhere from 12 to 70 boys on a daily basis, and they feed them, wash them, and give them clean clothes. They would also play games with them and have activities, all part of the relationship building process. The hope is that through these daily interactions, the boys can be exposed to the love of Christ through these acts of service.
Kim says the level of care and education the boys receive really depends on the school. Some are actually learning from their marabou, while others experience serious abuse. Every day, the boys wake up early, work on memorization, beg on the streets, then stop by the care center.
“It used to be that these schools were out in the villages,” said Kim. “So the teacher had the accountability of the whole community. Obviously you’re going to give a different standard of education if your parents and grandparents and their aunts and uncles are all here, and you are living in that community with them. If you are in the city and no one is paying attention to what they’re doing, you can basically do whatever you want to do.”
One would think these Muslim teachers would object to the boys under their care regularly spending time at a center run by Christians, but Kim says it’s the opposite.
“It’s a safe place where we are feeding the boys, we are washing their clothes, so they have a higher standard of living, and it reflects better on the marabou.”
One Monday morning, Kim and her colleagues even came to the center to find one marabou with one of the boys whose foot was infected.
“He knew to bring him to us,” she said. “He didn’t have money for medical care, but he brought him to us so that we would take him to the doctors. So there is definitely a partnership to some extent.”
While it is illegal for Kim and her colleagues to explicitly share the gospel with these boys, they still play Christian Senegalese music at the center and expose them to other Christian entertainment. When the boys start chanting Arabic verses while coloring or doing puzzles, Kim will sometimes sing a Christian song in Wolof, their native language.
But more than anything, they try to be stewards of compassion to these boys who are marginalized in the community.
“They just come in looking sad or upset, and by the end of the day, leave happier,” said Kim. “Because of our impact in their lives, hopefully they’ll be more open to the gospel down the road, that by showing them Christ’s love in tangible ways, they’ll have that in their heads.”
WorldVenture has been involved in compassion ministries around Africa, including Mozambique, where WorldVenture missionary Dave Terpstra helped start a gym to employ Mozambican street boys.
(Photo credit: Flickr/Barry Pousman)