Monday, April 21, 2008

African Islamic schools: A study in child slavery

This AP story appeared in the print edition of the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star this morning, but with no link I could find in the online edition, so I dug the AP link out of Yahoo News. It describes the tragedy of children in western African Islamic countries forced into a life of begging in exchange for an Islamic "education". The scare quotes are there because the education consists of two hours a day of memorizing Quranic verses and nine hours of begging for money on behalf of their "teachers". You'll want to read the whole thing, but here are some excerpts:
On the day he decided to run away, 9-year-old Coli awoke on a filthy mat. Like a pup, he lay curled against the cold, pressed between dozens of other children sleeping head-to-toe on the concrete floor. His T-shirt was damp with the dew that seeped through the thin walls. The older boys had yanked away the square of cloth he used to protect himself from the draft. He shivered.

[ ... ]

There are 1.2 million Colis in the world today, children trafficked to work for the benefit of others. Those who lure them into servitude make $15 billion annually, according to the International Labor Organization.

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.

In the name of religion, Coli spent two hours a day memorizing verses from the Quran and over nine hours begging to pad the pockets of the man he called his teacher.

It was getting dark. Coli had less than half the 72 cents he was told to bring back. He was afraid. He knew what happened to children who failed to meet their daily quotas.

They were stripped and doused in cold water. The older boys picked them up like hammocks by their ankles and wrists. Then the teacher whipped them with an electrical cord until the cord ate their skin.

Coli's head hurt with hunger. He could already feel the slice of the wire on his back.

He slipped away, losing himself in a tide of honking cars. He had 20 cents in his tomato can.

[ ... ]

Not all Quranic boarding schools force their students to beg. But for the most part, what was once an esteemed form of education has degenerated into child trafficking. Nowadays, Quranic instructors net as many children as they can to increase their daily take.

"If you do the math, you'll find that these people are earning more than a government functionary," said Souleymane Bachir Diagne, an Islamic scholar at Columbia University. "It's why the phenomenon is so hard to eradicate."

Middle men trawl for children as far afield as the dunes of Mauritania and the grass-covered huts of Mali. It's become a booming, regional trade that ensnares children as young as 2, who don't know the name of their village or how to return home.

[ ... ]

Coli made his way to a neighborhood where he had heard of a place that gave free food to children like him.

"Do you know where you come from?" asked the kind-faced woman at Empire des Enfants. The shelter's capacity is 30 children, but it usually houses at least 50.

Coli knew the name of his mother, but not how to reach her. He knew the name of the region where he was born, but not his village. "My mother is black," he said. "I'm sure I'll recognize her."

[ ... ]

Coli's marabout entered the shelter flanked by a column of religious leaders in cascading robes that tumbled onto the ground. One of them stabbed his finger at the clouds and yelled out, "The sky will fall down on you if you don't hand over our children."

The shelter is used to such threats. But this time the marabouts had discovered the center's legal paperwork was not complete. They threatened to close the shelter if it did not hand over 11 boys.

To save more than 40 others, the shelter handed over the 11. Coli was on the list.

Back at the school, they beat the 9-year-old until he thought he was going to faint. At night, they dragged him off the floor, doused him in water and beat him again.

Three days later, he ran away again. When he arrived at the shelter, he said: "I want to go home to my mom."

[ ... ]

Early on the fifth morning, a woman in a pressed peach robe walks up to the shelter.

Coli rushes outside. He stands a few feet away as tears topple down his cheeks. She covers her face with her veil and weeps.

The two sit side-by-side in plastic chairs. Coli's mother looks at her feet. Her family is poor, she says, and she wanted Coli to get an education. It took her several days to reach the shelter because she didn't have $2 for the bus fare.

For more than an hour, Coli cries. Tears run down either side of his cheeks, forming two watery garlands. They meet at his chin and plop down on his collar bone, pooling above his shirt.

She stands up and wipes his chin. They leave, crossing the dusty boulevard.

Her arm reaches around his shoulder and the long sleeve of her robe falls around the little boy. It hides him from the remaining children, who silently watch Coli go home.


Soon after Coli left, his marabout traveled to Guinea-Bissau. He angrily demanded to know why Coli had run away.

Ashamed, Coli's father promised to make up for the boy's bad behavior.

He is sending the marabout two more sons.
Like I said, read the whole thing.


Aaron said...

I was part of a video crew who made a video about the Talibe boys last spring, and one Costa Rican couple who have taken some of them in as their own. They wanted to change the condition over there and thought the best way is simply to model something better.

You can watch it at:

People like this are changing the world, all over the globe.

Eric said...

Thanks for the comment...that's a great clip and worth watching.

I'll put up a new post on this shortly.

Aaron said...

Thanks. Sorry the text didn't hyperlink.

Try this: "A Tree in Africa" video