West African Street Kids Face Bleak Future

West African Street Kids Face Bleak Future

19 June 2007

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Kids who live in the streets are a growing problem in West African cities.  Troubled youths, orphans, and children with family problems often run away from their homes in small villages and wind up in cities surviving off what they can beg and steal.  As Naomi Schwarz reports from the Senegalese city of Thies even the volunteers who try to help these children are suffering from a lack of resources.

In a compact square, near the center of Thies, a small Senegalese city 60 kilometers east of the capital, a group of boys hang out on benches, on a windy day.

Idrissa Diop is one of them.

He does not work, he says, and he does not go to school.  Both his parents have passed away.

It was a long time ago, he says, when he was eight-years-old.

Now Diop, 18, says he lives with his grandmother in a nearby village, but it has been a long time since he was there.

"I do not sleep there," he says.  "I sleep here," he continues, gesturing to the small square where he and the others have been sitting around.

Nearby, another man, Modou Barry, who hangs around with the kids, spits out a rag he has been sucking on.

The rag was infused with a drug, says Jean Badiane Seck, a volunteer with the Association for the Protection and Promotion of Youths (ASPJ).

Ignace Thomas, another volunteer, says drug and alcohol habits are some of the reasons these youths ended up on the streets to begin with.

Their families would punish and yell at them for drinking too much, he says, and the boys did not want to be told what to do, so they would leave.

In other cases, he says, there are family problems that lead the youth to leave.  It is difficult to come by accurate statistics about the number of children living on the streets of West Africa, but there are many examples, and few opportunities for help.

Jean Seck is surrounded by runaway teens he has helped
Jean Seck is surrounded by runaway teens he has helped

Seck recounts the story of a young man who left home when his mother remarried.  He did not get along with his stepfather.  Like other runaways, he slept in the streets and survived by begging, taking small jobs, and stealing.  When he became sick with tuberculosis, he wanted to go back home.

We called his mother, Seck says, but she refused to accept him back.

ASPJ organized medical treatment for him, but by the time they tried to bring him to the hospital he had disappeared.

The group has been working to with runaways in Thies for more than 10 years.  Founded by a sociologist from a nearby village, the association used to have a shelter that offered programs in the arts and skills for street kids.  They also offered start-up money and advice to help some youths find legitimate employment.

Center for runaways in Thies closed due to lack of funds
Center for runaways in Thies closed due to lack of funds

But the lack of funds forced them to close the center a few years ago.  Now, equipped only with a pharmacy in a duffel bag, Seck and Thomas and other volunteers go out on the streets to find the runaways.

Mame Couna Thioye, an activist with a Senegalese-based human rights non-governmental organization, says the number of kids on the streets is growing.

She says the problem is that people are not enforcing laws designed to protect children.

She says, legally, all children under the age of 15 should be in school, but many are not.

Families, driven by poverty, see children as an extra helping hand and send them to work.

And, Thioye says, when troubled kids rebel or run away from a problem situation at home, there is no state mechanism to help them.


SENEGAL: Marching for street kids

SENEGAL: Marching for street kids

Photo: Pierre Holtz/IRIN
One of the up to 100,000 children begging on the streets of Senegal

DAKAR, 20 April 2007 (IRIN) – Senegal on Friday marked the National Day for Talibes to call attention to the tens of thousands of children who ply the streets of the country begging for money.

Talibe is an Arabic word meaning “one who seeks and asks” and it also refers to street children in Senegal who are taken in by local Islamic teachers, known as marabouts, to study the Muslim holy book, the Koran. The children, in return, gather money in tin cans they hold out to pedestrians and drivers at intersections and give their coins to the teachers.

The United Nations children’s agency (UNICEF) in 2004 estimated that there are up to 100,000 child beggars in Senegal, constituting one percent of the country’s 11.4 million people. It is unclear how many of them are talibes.

"It is enough to take a survey in the streets to catch a glimpse. The problem of those children is increasing in an exponential manner," said Malick Diagne, deputy executive director of the nongovernmental organisation Tostan.

Tostan has organised an annual five-day march from the capital, Dakar, to the city of Thies 70km away to draw local and international attention to the plight of the Talibes, culminating in the National Day for Talibes.

About 100 people began the march on Monday, holding banners and chanting slogans to pressure the government of President Abdoulaye Wade to improve the lives of the Talibes. Senegal’s National Assembly in 2005 passed a law against the exploitation of children as beggars, carrying prison terms of two-to-five years and fines of up to the equivalent of US$4,000 but so far there have been no prosecutions.

"Everyone wants to get involved in dealing with it but it depends on the political will," Diagne said. "The government is playing the game on two tables. The laws are passed to satisfy the international community, but they are not being implemented to keep the marabouts happy.”

Senegal is 95 percent Muslim and Islamic leaders have considerable political influence in the country. Historically, Koranic schools, or daaras, have been located in rural areas. Parents would send their children to the schools to study Islam and in exchange the children would carry out odd jobs for the marabouts.

But in the past 50 years the marabouts have steadily migrated to urban areas, especially following periods of drought and economic constraint. Begging among the children had been considered a way to learn humility. But that goal has been corrupted, child welfare workers say.

"It is an intolerable situation," said Boubacar Diop of the Association for the Promotion and Protection of Youth (ASPJ). "The society, family, the state and everyone for different reasons and levels are responsible for this."

The family of one young adolescent, Amadou, sent him to study with a marabout. He says the teacher treats him well but he works hard to get money and find something to eat.

“We study the Koran from the morning up to midday. Afterwards the kids go out in the streets up to 3 p.m. in search of something to eat and then resume studying, which takes us up to 4 p.m., after which time we go back out to find something to eat," said Amadou, a pseudonym.

Diop said one problem is that many of the Koranic teachers take on too many students without the means to sufficiently provide for them. Child rights advocates say certifying the Islamic teachers and paying them regular salaries would help the situation.

Biran Sy, a Koranic teacher in Thies, and who has benefited from Tostan assistance, said it is with a heavy heart that marabouts send children out to beg. “But if you do not have means of eating what will you do otherwise?”

Conversely, Diagne of Tostan said there are many marabouts who exploit the children to earn money.

"If they send out about 50 pupils in the city daily ordering each to bring back 300 CFA [about US75 cents) within a month the money collected is the equivalent of a senior government official,” he said.

Lives of Street Children in Senegal to Improve through New Campaign

Lives of Street Children in Senegal to Improve through New Campaign

February 13, 2007—More than 500 Senegalese street children joined government officials, celebrities, religious leaders, civil society representatives, and development officials last October for the launch of the Street Children’s Campaign Partnership in Dakar.  The event boasted more than 1,000 participants as street children performed songs, dances, and skits. Well-known Senegalese artists and entertainers delighted audiences with a free concert. The event marked the Partnership’s launch of activities aimed at reuniting hundreds of street children with their estranged families, or placing them in structures offering a minimum of protection and care.

 Senegal Children - 2/13/07

The Partnership members include the Government of Senegal, UNICEF, UNESCO, the African Development Bank, the French Cooperation, the International Labor Organization, national and international celebrities, religious leaders and other members of civil society, NGOs, the media, and the private sector.

Number One Social Issue in Senegal

The Bank’s Country Office in Senegal played a key role in establishing the Partnership in Dakar, the country’s vibrant capital whose dynamic economy and booming construction of high-rises and hotels stand in stark contrast to the realities of the many homeless and vulnerable children that hustle and struggle to survive on the streets.

Concerned by the situation, Country Director Madani M. Tall, in coordination with government officials, the donor community, civil society, and other advocates for children set up a steering committee one year ago and tasked it with studying the issue of street children and proposing a response.

"This is the number one social issue in Senegal,” says Tall. “The World Bank can use its convening power to raise awareness and build active coalitions around it, and this is what we have done.  It will take all of us to find solutions to this, one child at a time.”

The event also comes on the heels of the steering committee’s meeting with the Presidential Council on October 10, during which Senegal President Abdoulaye Wade urged that something concrete be done to take children off the streets. In his opening address at the launch, the Minister of Information, Bacar Dia, declared, “The government is determined to stop the begging and roaming of children in the streets and their exploitation and will enforce laws and regulations on the matter.”

Although Senegal’s economy grew at an average rate of 5.5 percent in 2005 and 4.6 percent from 2001–04, the growth has not been shared by all. The country still struggles with the consequences of the economic hardships of the 1990s and a 66 percent poverty rate.

Senegal Children

Child Traffickers Targeted

Poor parents who cannot afford to care for their children often entrust them to religious leaders known as marabous to educate them and teach them the Koran.

Child traffickers posing as marabous will often kidnap the children from villages and take them to Dakar where they are forced to beg for handouts in the streets. Under threat of beatings, the children must give the money to their “masters.”

Leaders of Senegal’s religious communities attending the Partnership launch denounced this practice, lamenting that the country’s noble tradition of teaching young boys the Koran has been so distorted and exploited.

Despite an impressive body of research on street children prepared with the support of NGOs, UN agencies, and the World Bank, past efforts have been unable to put an end to this trend.

For its part, the Government has enacted laws to protect families and children but they are not enforced. Meanwhile, the general public has come to accept the sight of boys as young as 4 years old begging on city streets. Many unwittingly encourage the situation by giving the children money, food or other small gifts. However, the practice of begging is in itself dangerous as many children disrupt traffic and get into accidents.

Pilot Project

Over the next 18 months, the Partnership will implement a pilot project in Kolda, Tamba and Matam––the three main cities from which the majority of street children originate––to bring some 500 children back home or place those who cannot go home in appropriate structures, and to rehabilitate a dozen centers for children.

The Partnership is also launching a major communication campaign to raise awareness about its efforts among the general public, including by working with children to produce songs, poems, and artwork for public service announcements as well as using recreational activities to reach vulnerable children to participate in the pilot program.

Sexually Active Street Children Increasingly Vulnerable to HIV

SENEGAL: Sexually active street children increasingly vulnerable to HIV

Photo: Pierre Holtz/IRIN
Beggar children on the streets of Dakar, Senegal

DAKAR, 31 October 2006 (PlusNews) – Many of the thousands of children that wander the busy streets of Dakar, the capital of Senegal, are sexually active but few have any knowledge about the risks of HIV.

"One sees eight-year-old children who already have several male and female partners who are older than they are," said Adjiratou Sow Diallo Diouf, author of a 2005 study on the impact of HIV/AIDS on Dakar’s estimated 6,000 street children.

The 30 children, aged between 8 and 17, Diouf questioned for the study revealed sexual relations that were both homosexual and heterosexual and rarely protected, leaving them highly vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases including HIV.

More than 70 percent of the children surveyed said they had multiple partners, often other children and one third admitted that the sex was not always consensual. "Sometimes they are forced into sex, and there were cases of rape of smaller children by older children," said Diouf.

Occasionally, the children have sex with young women who do laundry in the working class suburb of Médina. "Some women give them work but they want to sleep with them in return," explained Diouf.

Most of the children or ‘Fakhmans’ (derived from ‘fakh’, which means ‘to run away’ in Wolof, the most common local language) as they call themselves appear to have left their family homes voluntarily as a result of divorce, violence or abuse.

Economically and socially excluded, they wander the sprawling Sandaga market in the heart of the capital often appearing drunk. They are in fact high from sniffing t-shirts soaked in "guinze", an industrial thinner.

According to Diouf, the ‘Fakhmans’ are regular drug users. For a few hundred francs, obtained by begging or stealing, they can buy a daily dose of ‘guinze’ and escape their difficult realities for a while.

According to Diouf’s study, 60 percent of ‘Fakhmans’ have never been to school. More than half of those interviewed had their first sexual experience before the age of 14 and often by as early as eight.

Without guardians, they are excluded from health services and neglected by most available HIV/AIDS information and prevention programmes.

Half of the respondents did not know how HIV was transmitted and 40 percent were unaware of how to protect themselves from infection. While two thirds of the children admitted to having sexual relations, less than 10 percent of them used condoms. The others "did not know how to use them", lamented Diouf.

Le Samu Social Sénégal is the only NGO that provides street children with socio-medical care. Two nights a week, small groups of children in tattered clothing wait for the Samu van to bring them small quantities of food and basic medical care.

Samu teams have worked hard to build trust with the occasionally violent minors and have become their only link with the adult world. Last year, when hoodlums tried to assault members of the NGO on their rounds, a group of street children came to their rescue.

According to Isabelle de Guillebon, who runs Samu, this relationship of trust has encouraged the children to speak freely to Samu staff about their risky sexual behaviour. "They are not altogether aware of the problem. They are always under the influence of drugs. One does not think of danger in such a state," she said.

While conducting her study, Diouf organised workshops at the Samu offices to educate the children on STDs and HIV. "The workshops were very good. They didn’t talk in the beginning, but after we became friends, they were comfortable and relaxed. They told me things they did not mention before," Guillebon said, adding: "One of the children confirmed to me that there were homosexual activities in the group when this had been a taboo subject for the children before."

Legislation in Senegal, like that in many other countries, does not allow children to be tested for HIV without the consent of their parents, a situation that Diouf described as "scandalous". UNAIDS estimates there are 5000 children living with HIV/AIDS in Senegal. The country, with a population of 11.5 million, has a prevalence rate of 0.9 percent.

"There is no programme for the street children and they do not have adequate medical care," she said. "If they cannot be tested [for HIV], interventions will be too late."

Loving the street kids of Dakar wins hearts in Senegal

Loving the street kids of Dakar wins hearts in Senegal
Sep 25, 2006
By Erich Bridges
Baptist Press

Click to download Hi-Res Photo
A street boy holds the empty tomato can he uses to beg alms from Muslims in Dakar, capital of the West African nation of Senegal. Southern Baptist missionaries and volunteers minister to the street boys, known as "talibes" (TAL-ee-bays) or students of Islam, to help them — and to develop friendships in the community. Photo by Roy M. Burroughs

DAKAR, Senegal (BP)–It’s a tough life for a kid.

You wake in the darkness before dawn and roll off a wooden pallet — one of the “beds” you share with 30 other boys on the dirt floor of a grimy, three-room dwelling.

You rub your eyes, eat something –- if there’s anything to eat -– and begin chanting verses from the Quran, Islam’s holy book. You have no idea what the Arabic words mean, but you chant them over and over. You remember the day your mother brought you to this place and handed you over to your Muslim teacher.

“I don’t want to see him again until he knows the Quran,” she had told the teacher, following custom. With tears in her eyes, she pried your trembling fingers loose from her hand and hurried away.

You were 5 years old. You won’t see her again for a decade or more -– if ever.

The chanting done, you set out into the sandy streets of Yoff, a sprawling section of Dakar, capital of the West African nation of Senegal. Carrying an empty tomato can, you spend much of the day begging under the white-hot sun. People drop sugar cubes, food or perhaps a coin or two into your can, fulfilling their duty as Muslims to give alms to the poor. If you return without a full can, you risk a caning across your back.

Tomorrow will be the same -– and the day after that.

You are a “talibe” (TAL-ee-bay), which means “student.” The word comes from the same Arabic root word as “Taliban,” the radical Islamic “students” who ruled Afghanistan before being overthrown in 2001. In theory, you are a student of the Quran, learning to be a servant of Islam through poverty and humility.

In reality, you are a beggar.

Thousands of ragged talibes wander the streets of Senegal. Community leaders push to end the talibe system from time to time, but it remains entrenched in Senegalese Muslim society. Some talibes are treated relatively well by their teachers; others are neglected or worse.

Do poverty-stricken parents give young sons to be talibes for religious reasons — or because they are too poor to feed another child?

“They say it’s religious,” answers a Senegalese Baptist layman who ministers to talibes through a church in Dakar. “But it’s hunger.”

On this day, however, the talibe boys of Yoff are in for a pleasant surprise. As they trickle back from begging, they get a warm welcome from regular visitors: Southern Baptist missionaries Cal McIntire and David and Cheryl Johnson. With the missionaries are a group of student volunteers from Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Mo.

The Southwest volunteers, assisted by some laughing talibe boys and other neighborhood kids, set about hauling buckets of gravel and broken rock into the dormitory to sprinkle across the dirt floor. Then they spread sand and wet concrete over the top. When it dries, the boys have a clean surface on which to lay the new foam sleeping pallets their visitors have brought.

Later, the boys drop their filthy clothes into buckets of boiling water. Standing naked behind sheets, they bashfully submit to medicated treatment — repeated over three days -– of the scabies that ravages their skin. The contagious skin disease, spread by mites, flourishes on seldom-washed skin and clothing, causing agonizing itching and pain.

The volunteers fight back tears as they gently apply the soap and medication to the boys’ disfigured skin. When they’re done, they hand out new clothes and bags with toothbrushes and other basics.

“These kids are in pretty bad shape, health-wise,” David Johnson says. “In addition to malnutrition, they have all kinds of skin problems — mostly from sleeping in the sand.”

They also crave attention and love. They come running whenever McIntire, an easygoing guy with a ready smile, visits their neighborhood.

“The little ones almost never have anyone just hold them,” explains McIntire, rubbing the back of a talibe boy clinging to his neck. “David and I do that as much as we can –- just hold ’em and hug ’em.”

While they work to improve living conditions for the talibes, the Southwest students also participate in the “ministry of touch.”

“I did a lot of picking little kids up, putting them on my shoulders, lifting them high in the air and stuff,” says volunteer Jarrod Easterwood, age 22. “I loved it, just spending time with the kids. That’s what they love. They don’t get a whole lot of it.”

As good as such ministry feels, it’s not just feel-good ministry.

McIntire is missionary strategy coordinator for the 150,000 Lebou (LAY-boo) people of West Africa, who live mostly in Senegal. Islamic and traditionally fishermen, the Lebou settled the coastal peninsula, where bustling Dakar now sits, centuries ago. More than 18,000 of them live in Yoff.

Through working with the talibes — who have special significance to the greater community -– and other children’s ministries, McIntire and his co-workers have won many Lebou friends in Yoff. On this day, at least 10 neighborhood residents passing by pronounce blessings on the missionaries and volunteers for helping the talibes.

“We ‘love on’ the kids in order to share Jesus with the parents,” McIntire explains. “We’re able to come in and do more of what we want to do after we do something like this. The people here know we care about them.”

There are only a handful of Christian believers among the Lebou so far, but the first Lebou home fellowship began earlier this year –- in Yoff. McIntire hopes to see four or five more meeting by the end of this year.

One day, the talibes may be liberated from their service. Meanwhile, the Lebou are hearing about the liberating love of Christ.

Click to download Hi-Res Photo
Southwest Baptist University volunteer Andy Snyder hangs out with his new buddy, a "talibe" street kid in Dakar, Senegal. The talibe (Arabic for "student") boys are given by their parents to live with a Muslim teacher and learn the Quran. They spend most of their days, however, begging on the streets. What they need most is love — and plenty of it. Photo by Roy M. Burroughs
Click to download Hi-Res Photo
Southwest Baptist University volunteers Bethany Worrel (left) and Kaila Hedger apply medicated soap to a "talibe" street boy in Dakar, Senegal. Many of the boys suffer from scabies, a contagious skin disease that flourishes on seldom-washed skin and clothing. Photo by Roy M. Burroughs
Click to download Hi-Res Photo
Southern Baptist missionary Cheryl Johnson sits and talks with "talibe" street boys in Dakar, Senegal, while Southwest Baptist University volunteers prepare bags of food for the boys. Loving the often-neglected boys is a ministry in itself — and it opens hearts and doors in the wider Lebou (LAY-boo) community in Dakar. Photo by Roy M. Burroughs
Click to download Hi-Res Photo
"Talibe" street boys sleep in their "dormitory," a grimy three-room dwelling in Dakar, Senegal, that holds 30 or more kids. The talibe (Arabic for "student") boys chant verses from the Quran, Islam’s holy book, then go out each day to beg for alms on the streets. Photo by Roy M. Burroughs
Click to download Hi-Res Photo
"Talibe" boys head out for another day of begging on the streets of Dakar, Senegal, as part of their training as "students" of Islam. Photo by Roy M. Burroughs