22 April 2008

More on talibes begging for their madrassas

My friend Maimuna sent me an Associated Press article on young Muslim boys from Guinea-Bissau sent away to study with marabouts/serignes/ustas (Koranic teachers) in Senegal. The students/talibes support their schools/madrassas by begging:

It's big business in Senegal. In the capital of Dakar alone, at least 7,600 child beggars work the streets, according to a study released in February by the ILO, the United Nations Children's Fund and the World Bank. The children collect an average of 300 African francs a day, just 72 cents, reaping their keepers $2 million a year.

Most of the boys — 90 percent, the study found — are sent out to beg under the cover of Islam, placing the problem at the complicated intersection of greed and tradition. For among the cruelest facts of Coli's life is that he was not stolen from his family. He was brought to Dakar with their blessing to learn Islam's holy book.

This made me think anew about my friend Bubacarr's little dara/Koranic school in Thies, Senegal, many hours from Njau, Gambia.

At Bubacarr's dara/madrassa the begging is done in lieu of farming, which young students often carry out as payment to teachers in rural areas. Since Thies is a big city, there is no farmland so relying on alms (one of Islam's five pillars) is the avenue pursued to support the school (and everyone's feeding).

While I am still dubious about the overall merits of the boarding dara/madrassa system (far from home, more time spent begging than studying), Bubacarr's did have a few saving graces. These are that the talibes are all from Njau, so they and their families know Bubacarr well, and see him whenever he returns to visit the village. Also, although difficult, life at the school did not seem too harsh (although some of this may have been due to my visit) -- everyone ate fairly well (as well as or perhaps better than they do in Njau) and the kids had spare money that they could spend on icees (frozen sugar-baobab/hibiscus drinks). But it's probably one of the better ones.

Of course, most of these boys had the decision to travel to Bubacarr's dara foisted upon them by their parents. I would have preferred they went to Njau's government school, but people value religious knowledge and can't always see the benefit of western education. And I'm sure the boys missed their families.

Regarding the article's thrust on child labour, I am again unsure exactly how to think of this. As the author mentions, some returned boys began working in their home villages. Rescuing them from their serignes/marabouts certainly won't spare these children from contributing their labour to their families' livelihood.

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