(For the full story, and Mario's astounding photographs, please see the September issue)
The Talibes and the Daaras Talibe is an Arabic term for disciple. What was once a respectable education system has become criminal. What tries to pass as religious teaching today has become a business for exploiting children. Everyday, talibes, who range in age from five to 15 years old, beg on the streets for eight hours a day and return back to an overcrowded and squalid daara, rife with skin disease, breathing problems, stomach parasites and Malaria. Little education takes place and talibes are routinely subjected to physical abuse. Mario Cruz gained rare access to the dark and violent world of the daaras where children's dreams are suffocated by fear.
The physical abuse of talibes is well known but takes place hidden behind the doors of the daaras. The marabouts are well aware that their actions are criminal and access to daaras is heavily restricted by them. Even the police have difficulty getting access to some daaras.
Talibes are unlike beggars found in other countries. They are children with marks of physical abuse and often visibly traumatized. But Senegalese society doesn't seem to see them. They have become a routine part of daily life. The number of children exploited by thissystem of modern-day slavery is estimated to number as many as 30,000 in the Dakar region alone and 50,000 across the country.
The long tradition of sending boys to study at Quranic boarding schools in Senegal is rooted in positive values of religious and moral education but in the last decade the system has changed drastically and uncontrollably. Thousands of so-called teachers use religious education as a cover for economic exploitation of the children in their charge. With many of them having more than one daara throughout Senegal.
Trafficking in Children
Parents often send their children to study the Quran because they simply can't afford their education, others just believe that a daara is still a good solution.
Today, child trafficking also plays a crucial part in the numbers. Most of the talibes are Senegalese but the number of children from neighboring countries, like Guinea-Bissau, has grown to become an important part of this phenomenon. Every month, the Guinean anti-trafficking unit finds children in remote areas between Senegal and Guinea-Bissau.
The children know that their only escape is to cross the border to Guinea-Bissau because when they ask for help in Senegal, most of the time they are sent back to the daaras.
Earlier in March 2015, Guinea-Bissau authorities found 54 children hidden inside five vehicles that were crossing the border to Senegal but Senegalese authorities have failed to prosecute the traffickers. Several Guinean families are asking for help so that their children can be found and rescued.
Guinean military forces are facing this problem as one of the country's top priorities. At this time there are controls at the exits of cities and is impossible to leave the capital Bissau with a child without an written authorization from the parents.Still, the marabout power is well rooted within the peripheral countries to Senegal which makes the traffic difficult to control.
Though Senegal adopted a law in 2005 prohibiting forced begging and child trafficking, only a handful of cases have been prosecuted. In July 2015, the government’s antitrafficking unit took it's first census of over 1,000 Quranic schools but the unit lacks the resources to check every daara, and the police don't know exactly how many of them exist. The daaras are unregulated, set up in abandoned buildings and unfinished construction projects. The Senegalese parliament has yet to pass a law regulating these schools, and does not have a scheduled date for discussion. Every year on April 20, the country observes National Talibe Day and the issue of talibes comes up for discussion but, year after year, little progress is made. Since 2010, just one exploitative Quranic teacher has been convicted and sentenced to one month in prison, under the anti-trafficking law. The lack of reporting abuses to authorities is rooted in the low awareness across Senegalese society about how to handle trafficking and forced begging.
Unfortunately, the current budgetary support does not account for the extra capacity and resources needed to close schools that violate the law’s standards and find appropriate shelter for children while mediating their return to their families.
Following heightened media attention on child begging in Senegal in 2010, thirteen Quranic teachers were convicted for forcing children to beg under the 2005 anti-trafficking law. But 12 were given six-month suspended sentences and fines of $160, well below the minimum penalties.
The Life of a Talibe
“Every day I try not to cry. Every day I try not to scream. I don't sleep. I just close my eyes and imagine myself in a different place. I don't know who my family is, I just know that I'm not from here...I'm tired of being beaten, even when I have the money I get beaten. I know stories about dead talibes but I'm not afraid of death anymore.” Amadou is 15 years old.
The demands of maraboutsare growing as more money is demanded even as the number of talibes grow and in the face of the limited resources of people in Senegal.
Not only the amount of money required is increasing but also the marabout demands are changing, with some of them using talibes as cheap labor for different kinds of services or forcing them to dig for valuable goods in large garbage dumps around cities.
Sadly, many of these children can stay enslaved for many years in a long a dramatic path towards despair but some of them flee and take a chance living on the street. Some of them become what they hated most when they reach adolescence in a horrible cycle that infects Senegalese society.
The Power of the Lens
My purpose in this project has been to alert the world to this systematic exploitation and abuse of children and bring back documentary evidence that would demand a response from the international community. In July 2009, I was in Guinea-Bissau when I first heard stories about Guinean children who were taken to Senegal to work and beg for Quranic teachers. Many of them had disappeared while playing in remote areas; others were given by their parents after promises made by marabouts. These stories stayed with me. In early 2015, I started planning an indepth project about what was happening in Senegal. I made contact with Human Rights Watch, Senegal’s Ministry of Justice and local NGO's focused on the talibes, like Voices of Talibes. I thought I was ready to document the disturbing reality of child slaves but, in truth, I could never be fully prepared to see children whipped and chained in front of me.
After six months of research and investigation, I traveled to Senegal and gained access to several daaras across the country: in Dakar, Rufisque, Keuer Massar, Diamaguene, Saint Louis and Touba, where I also followed the lives of many talibes that had run away. After
Senegal, I went to Guinea Bissau, to visit shelters, families and border points to track the child trafficking that fed some of the daaras.
Despite the magnitude of the talibe system, I strongly believe that by reporting and sharing the suffering of so many children we can bring needed attention to this problem and change to the criminal and exploitative talibes system in Senegal.
After publishing the first series of “Talibes, Modern-day Slaves” he won World Press Photo - 1st Prize for Contemporary Issues (Stories) raising international awareness and pressuring the Senegalese government to address the issue.
FotoEvidence was founded in 2010 by Svetlana Bachevanova with the intention of publishing the work of documentary photographers working on long-term projects that focus on social justice and human rights. In addition, each year the FotoEvidence Book Award publishes a book for one photographer whose project demonstrates courage and commitment in the pursuit of human rights.
FotoEvidence’s website: http://www.fotoevidence.com