In cities and towns throughout Senegal, tens of thousands of boys, some as young as 5, are imprisoned in
Quranic schools known as daaras. Every day they take to the streets, where they beg for up to eight hours, hoping to earn a few dollars in a country where the average daily wage is $4.
Once the boys are back at the daara, religious teachers take the money the children have collected. A teacher (known as a marabout) or one of his assistants will likely beat any child who brings in too few coins.
One thing the teachers don’t do much of in these schools is teach. If there is time in between morning prayers, a full day of begging and nightfall, marabouts will listen while their students, the talibés, take turns reciting sections from the Quran. Mistakes tend to earn the talibé a beating with whatever the marabout has on hand—electrical wire, rope, a torn-off strip of car tire. The beatings can leave the children with open, infected wounds.
These urban daaras are a corrupted version of Islamic schools that have existed in Senegal since the 11th century, serving as important educational institutions. Before the country’s mass urban migration in the 1970s, villagers would often send their sons to study with a marabout who lived nearby. In these rural daaras, the children would be taught to memorize the Quran, and if the marabout told the boys to beg, it was to promote humility, not to make a profit.
Senegal’s changing economic conditions corrupted this tradition. In the mid-1970s, the country’s groundnut oil industry—which, according to the World Bank, employed 70 percent of the population—contracted. Other countries had begun producing vegetable oil substitutes around the same time as droughts hit Senegal’s crops. Many farmers began moving to the cities, and some of the daaras moved too. With many parents unable to pay their fees, begging was the only way to cover day-to-day costs.
As young talibés began appearing on the streets, Senegalese and international aid organizations started providing financial assistance to the daaras. In a report published in 2010, titled “Off the Backs of Children,” Human Rights Watch (HRW) found that aid agencies had unintentionally “incentivized marabouts to leave villages for the cities, where they force talibés to beg.”
In 2015, Portuguese photographer Mario Cruz began documenting corrupt daaras, telling the marabouts he would shoot pictures only of the children’s living conditions, not the boys themselves. (Some of Cruz’s images, which won the contemporary issues/stories category at the 2016 World Press Photo Awards, can be seen here.)
“As you enter, you see children shaking with fear,” Cruz says. “Many of them do not sleep because they are afraid of the abusers.” During his visits, he saw young boys cry with panic as they recited the Quran. In one daara, a marabout lashed two children across the face for making mistakes. In another, he saw the youngest children chained to the floor to prevent them running away.
Most boys the marabouts send out to beg do not have the courage to run away. “These children don’t know how to read or write. [When they arrive], they’re usually under 10 years old, and they don’t know anyone in the town they’re sent to,” says Corinne Dufka, HRW’s associate director for West Africa. “They trust these people that their parents have sent them to.” Children who do escape often end up on the streets, begging alongside the talibés.
To increase their profits, some marabouts have bought children from human traffickers who kidnap them from neighboring countries such as Guinea-Bissau. Mody Ndiaye, permanent secretary of Senegal’s anti-trafficking unit, told Newsweek some of the teachers may also be traffickers.
Senegal’s penal code criminalizes the physical abuse of children, and the government has outlawed trafficking and forced begging. Despite these legal safeguards, a 2014 government census of 1,000 daaras found that in Dakar, the nation’s capital, marabouts had illegally forced 30,000 children into begging.
Rights organizations say the Senegalese authorities are not doing enough to prosecute abusive teachers. Between January 2014 and March 2015, HRW identified three cases in which courts put Quranic teachers on trial for abuse. (In 2014, a judge convicted a fourth teacher of trafficking and sentenced him to a month in prison.) “The Senegalese have a very strong legal framework for the protection of children, and they simply rarely apply [these laws],” says Dufka. “That’s what’s really shocking and disturbing for us.”
Ndiaye says the criticism is unfair. “Maybe [the laws] are not implemented enough or as far as people would like to see,” he says. “It’s a very complicated issue. We are working with organizations to [improve] awareness. We have more cases now of marabouts being arrested.”
For the talibés held against their will, there appears to be little hope for release. In 2008, the government drafted a bill to regulate the daaras, but the parliament has yet to make it law. Until it does, talibés who want to leave their abusers must risk an escape attempt or continue working as beggars until they turn 18 and are finally released. Many boys, too afraid to try to escape and traumatized from years of abuse, will take what they consider the easier way out—begging every day to enrich their enslavers.