24:31 - Source: CNN
Begging for Change: Full documentary

Editor’s Note: Dominika Kulczyk is founder and president of the Kulczyk Foundation which works with local NGOs to support aid projects in countries affected by poverty. CNN Freedom Project and the Kulczyk Foundation have collaborated on several documentaries about human trafficking. The opinions expressed in this commentary are her own.

CNN —  

School should give children a chance to blossom, but for some 100,000 boys in Senegal, school offers no freedom to be a child. To them, school means abuse, slavery and being starved of food, education and affection.

In Senegal, talibés are boys aged 5 to 15 years old who have been entrusted by their parents into the care of a marabout, a teacher in a daara or Quranic school. In the past, this practice – very common in Senegal and neighboring countries – provided poor farmers with a way to give their children access to an education and with it, the hope of a better life.

However, most of today’s daaras are no longer found in local villages where the school can grow food for the children in its care. Instead the schools are found in urban areas and in too many cases, marabouts now treat their pupils as slaves and force them to spend their days begging in the streets to earn a meal.

Read more: Child slaves risk their lives on Ghana’s Lake Volta

The situation varies depending on the particular school; in some daaras, children do study but in others they receive no lessons and spend their days begging.

Forced to beg

Alongside the CNN Freedom Project, my team and I at the Kulczyk Foundation recently spent time in the city of Saint Louis, Senegal. Saint Louis organization Maison de la Gare, which receives funding from the Kulczyk Foundation, and which helps to support children attending Quranic schools or those who have escaped them, estimates there are 15,000 talibés begging on the city’s streets.

Many of these children, who may have come from rural Senegal or from neighboring countries, lost contact with their parents long ago. They are completely dependent on their marabout – they have no family in Saint Louis and are unsure if authorities could or would help them.

Dominika Kulczyk with Issa Kouyate, founder of Maison de la Gare.
Tatiana Jachyra/Kulczyk Foundation
Dominika Kulczyk with Issa Kouyate, founder of Maison de la Gare.

It was here that I met a young boy called Mamadou. He was unsure of his age and he was dressed in rags, living in a daara in Saint Louis that sits atop a garbage dump. This daara did not even have a roof and I was horrified to imagine a child spending his nights here, trying to sleep in such unsafe conditions.

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Mamadou told me he is forced to beg every day under the fear of being beaten if he fails to raise the amount of money and food that his marabout expects. With 15,000 other boys begging and trying to pick up odd market jobs in the same city, missing this target is not unusual and Mamadou said he had become accustomed to vicious beatings, although his marabout denied beating boys for not bringing back enough money.

Like many talibés, Mamadou has tried to run away. But life on the streets in Senegal is just as tough and Mamadou was persuaded to return to his daara.

Dominika, Issa Kouyate and members of his team checking on boys sleeping in the street. Kouyate says most of them tell him they've run away from their daaras
Tatiana Jachyra/Kulczyk Foundation
Dominika, Issa Kouyate and members of his team checking on boys sleeping in the street. Kouyate says most of them tell him they've run away from their daaras

Food, education and affection

Mamadou’s only respite is his visits to Maison de la Gare. The organization provides classes in reading, writing, languages, computer science, vocational training, sports and art. It also ensures all the children who attend are fed and clothed and have access to the medical and psychological support many of them so desperately need after their experiences. Mamadou’s time at Maison de la Gare offers him the food, education and affection he was being starved of and with it, the hope of a better future.

When you watch “Begging for Change,” the CNN Freedom Project documentary about the talibés, I hope you think of the tens of thousands of boys like Mamadou who have been forced into modern slavery when their parents believed they were sending their child to a better life.

Action is needed to stop the abuse and exploitation of children that comes with the practice of forced begging. Today, there are too many boys like Mamadou in Saint Louis.