Quranic schools in Senegal gained much unwanted attention last year with a damning report by Human Rights Watch that said many schools were enslaving their students to beg for money. One Quranic school that is putting its students first.
Mohammed Niasse opened his Quranic school in 1981 with just six students. Thirty years later, this daara, located in Medina Gounass, one of the poorest suburbs of Dakar, has more than 250 kids.
Niasse is the only marabout, or spiritual leader, who teaches here. He divides his time between three open-air rooms that sit in the sand-filled courtyard of the community mosque.
The classrooms overflow with talibés, young boys and girls between the ages of three and 17, who are there to study Islam, French and Arabic. They sit squeezed shoulder-to-shoulder on small wooden benches. Niasse calls on them individually to recite verses of the Quran that are scribbled across their small wooden boards.
Exploitation, abuse by marabouts
Last April's report by Human Rights Watch revealed widespread exploitation and abuse by marabouts. It was a wake-up call to local aid groups, religious leaders and the Senegalese government that the living conditions of talibés - including a lack of food, shelter, hygiene and access to health care - have become deplorable.
Niasse admitted he was surprised when the report came out, but said it was a good surprise. He said he has been fighting against these 'so-called' marabouts for a long time. Niasse said the Quran itself is perfect. It is transparent like water, so you cannot put something dirty into it.
In Senegal, most people still live on less than one dollar a day and nearly half the population of 12 million is under the age of 21. The extreme poverty and high number of young people have made it increasingly difficult for families to meet their basic needs, including education.
Niasse said it is poverty that brought religion and begging together. Islam does not recommend it, but he said when you are so poor, it becomes a necessity.
Ten years ago a group of women from Medina-Gounass decided they would help Niasse by becoming godmothers to the talibés. They call themselves the Ndeye Daaras.
Aissatou Dieye and Sokna Sall are founding members, and both have their own children to care for, yet still find time to volunteer.
Sall said that every morning she comes here to visit the kids. If they are dirty, she washes their clothes. She gives them soap and bleach to wash their hands. If they are sick, she brings them to the hospital.
Caring Ndeye Daaras
Many of the talibés at Niasse’s daara have been sent away from home - some from as far off as neighboring Mali and Guinea Bissau. The young talibés who arrive alone often are the ones most dependent on the Ndeye Daaras, who now number more than 30 members.
Dieye said her work is very satisfying because every mother must educate a child who does not have the means. She said that you may know who brought this child into the world, but you might not know what good this child can bring to others. Dieye said that even if a talibé who she did not know came to her house, she would feed him.
Babacar Lo is a 16-year old talibé who attends Niasse’s daara. He is one of the fortunate few who still lives with his family. Some of his friends are not so lucky.
Lo said he has some friends who beg in the street. They do it because it is what they know and what their marabout forces them to do. Lo said he has tried to tell them it is not good, but they do not listen.
Committing to progress
After the Human Rights Watch report, the Senegalese government reinforced a 2005 law banning public begging. They also jailed seven marabouts for six months and imposed $200 fines on each for exploiting their talibés. It was seen as a step forward.
Mamadou Ndiaye, president of the Dakar aid group Sweat for Survival, said the group has tried again and again to organize a national platform for this problem, but it was only when the international report came out that people started getting on board.
Just months after the ban on begging was reinstated, enforcement started to wane. It is difficult to implement a no-begging policy in a country where poverty is endemic and people are hungry.
The Senegalese government said it is committed to creating 100 "modern" daaras by next year to provide better learning conditions. Ndiaye said it is a problem that is bigger than just charlatan marabouts.
Ndiaye believes the real marabouts know, among themselves, who the "fake" ones are, so it is up to them to denounce them. But, he said there also is a need to educate Senegalese about population control. Ndiaye said it is sad. They need to organize themselves in terms of birthrates and to bring into the world only who they can take care of. He said Islam does not ask to bring a child into the world just to turn around and put him back into the street.