They are seen every day: a boy barefoot and dressed in a Real Madrid shirt covered in stains approaches a foreigner in Dakar.
He mutters a few words in Wolof holding out an empty ketchup can, waves the can at the foreigner. Behind him hide three other barefoot children, as if crouching, anxiously waiting to see if the foreigner decides to put his hand in his pocket. If they perceive the metallic shine of a one hundred CFA franc coin (15 euro cents), they will rush after their partner to ask for their share of the begging; If the foreigner responds by shaking his head at the ringleader’s request, or giving just a gold 25-franc coin (3 cents), the others may insist a little, although the normal thing is that they shrug their shoulders and leave to ask another passerby. Most of the cities of the Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Mali, Mauritania and Senegal are crowded with these barefoot begging children who can soften the hearts of inexperienced visitors, many wear dirty clothes, many go barefoot, many speak in whispers, like afraid to ask
But these children do not patrol the streets without rhyme or reason: they are talibé. Children between the ages of five and fifteen who spend hours lazing in the West African sun begging for charity and starving souls, stealing fritters from the old lady’s stall on the corner, ganging up and teaming up as if nothing had happened. this will be about gangs of kids described by an African Charles Dickens. But no, it’s not just that. The talibé are part of a centuries-old social structure that can collect between 20 and 30 million euros a year in Senegal. And it goes further, because the talibé are part of a tradition that even precedes colonialism and is linked to the Islamic religion, to the education that many parents in the region want for their children and to the deep tradition of West Africa.
Start with the religious
The word talibé comes from the Arabic talib, whose meaning can be translated as “student” or “seeker”, both in reference to the Koranic studies in which he participates. It is evident that the word Taliban also comes from this root, since these were also, in their beginnings, students of the madrasas (Koranic schools) of Afghanistan.Some may be surprised today that there are Taliban all over the world, although the name has only spread in the West when it refers to those based in the country of Afghanistan. The West African talibé still hasn’t grown a beard and their weapon is the tomato can, they have no interest in shooting Americans or waging Jihad. What is common is that they get on the crowded buses that presume through the cities, where they sometimes sing timid local songs before passing the can among the passengers. They like to play soccer with plastic bottles thrown in the street and they respect other children’s sidewalks, in a kind of street pact.
The original intention of the talibé was for the parents to send them to the Koranic school for a while instead of any other school, all so that they could learn the ins and outs of the Muslim religion that predominates in the area, get to know and interact with the social reality from their countries from an early age and, if lucky, one of the children to become a marabout in the future, a Koran teacher and respected religious leader of the community. Children can spend entire years in the Koranic school, known here as daara, or they are sent by the parents in the seasons when they are not required to work in the fields. They go to school for four months, return to work the fields in the four months that follow, and so on until the parents consider it or until the child ceases to be a child. In Senegal one can find talibé children coming from Guinea Bissau or Mali for these reasons.
Sexual abuse and child exploitation
In addition, there are records that stipulate that some of the older talibé sexually abuse the younger ones, knowing that the talibé are always children, that is, boys, never girls. This does not mean that Almami, a twenty-five-year-old Senegalese man who dreams of being a musician and who was a talibé for four years, assures without a doubt that “when I have children I will take them to the daara, just like my parents did with me. Why? Because life here is hard, very hard, and the sooner a child learns that life here is hard, the sooner he will start working his way out of it.” He recounts an occasion when he broke his arm and went to tell his marabout that he would not be able to ask for money for a few days: “In response, the marabout beat me up and told me to go and ask for money., immediately”. And yet, in the opinion of Almamy and so many like him, a season of talibé strengthens the hearts of children, thus giving them the tools to face the hard ins and outs of everyday life in West Africa.