Hundreds of talibes, or young Islamic students, run away from Koranic schools in Senegal every year, tired of the frequent forced begging and poor living conditions. Many of them embark on long journeys to return to their homes in neighboring countries.
The global rights organization Human Rights Watch released a report in April that documented poor living conditions and abuse in some residential Koranic schools in Senegal. Many of the students are young boys from neighboring Guinea-Bissau, who are brought north to Senegal by religious teachers known as marabouts.
But once in Senegal, many talibes are forced to sleep outside and beg for food. If they do not bring back strict quotas of rice and money each day, some are beaten by their religious teachers.
Every year, hundreds of talibes run away from the Koranic schools. Some embark on long journeys back to Guinea-Bissau, often by a combination of public transport and on foot. But reuniting them with their parents is not easy, according to the organization SOS Criancas, which helps to reintegrate returned talibes into local society.
Malam Baio, director of the organization, said he created the SOS Criancas center to take care of children in difficulty and to help reintegrate runaway talibes back into their communities.
He said there is a school at the center where the boys can continue to learn about the Koran as well as take regular classes.
Baio said there is no law against child-trafficking in Guinea-Bissau, which means that the marabouts can take children across the border to Senegal. He said that an anti-trafficking law would help to ease the problem of young boys being taken to Senegal.
He also said that tracing the families of runaway talibes is not easy. Sometimes parents do not welcome their children back into the home because they do not believe their claims of abuse and forced begging.
Baio said his job is to explain to parents that religious education does not have to be synonymous with poor living conditions. It is also important to help runaway talibes return home safely, he said.
He cited the case of one young boy who ran away from his Koranic school in Dakar. By the time he had reached Bafata in Guinea-Bissau, 15 hours away by road, he had such bad heatstroke and dehydration that he was unable to be treated at the local hospital. He later died.
Amadou, a 13-year-old boy who ran away from his Koranic school in Senegal, said his parents were shocked when he returned back to his home village near Bafata. But when his mother heard the stories of physical abuse he had suffered, she was pleased to have him home.
Since he has returned to his village, Amadou has discouraged other young boys from going away to study at Koranic schools.
Baio said SOS Criancas is now trying to educate local families about the dangers of sending children away to some Koranic schools.
He said the center uses videos and CDs to show parents that conditions in the schools are not always as pleasant as they imagine.
But it is no easy task. Religious education is viewed highly among Muslim families in Guinea-Bissau. The problem lies in convincing parents that some marabouts take advantage of the children they have been entrusted with.