Patricia Gomis, once one of these child slaves herself, recruits acrobats, stilt walkers, magicians and knife jugglers for a one-day festival for the kids.
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DAKAR, SENEGAL—Sidi missed our date with the social worker.
He’s the bright-eyed 10-year-old boy I met bouncing on the giant public trampoline last fall. Since then, whenever he spotted me, he’d rush over with his begging bowl on dirty feet and ask again: would I send him to school?
But when the opportunity was finally set before him, he disappeared.
“His parents didn’t want to lose the money he makes every day,” explained Boubacar, the trampoline’s manager.
Sidi’s average daily earnings: $3.50. He stopped coming to the giant trampoline after that.
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A week later, Boubacar’s boss, Patricia Gomis, called me. She was planning a festival and wanted my help.
The festival was for talibés — little boys like Sidi, who wander the streets of Dakar with begging bowls and bare feet. Unlike Sidi, they beg for their teachers at daaras: unregulated Koranic schools.
A recent government survey found 1,000 daaras in the broader city. More than half of their 55,000 students are required each day to beg.
Traditionally, this was a way to support teachers and teach humility. But, as Human Rights Watch pointed out again last month, it has become a business. Many daaras offer no lessons besides survival. The teachers often treat their wards savagely — refusing them medical treatment, chaining them up at night, beating them.
They are modern child slaves. Human Rights Watch figures there are 50,000 in the country.
Senegal’s government banned forced begging eight years ago. But it employs only two daara inspectors for the whole country. And locals rarely report abuse against talibés.
“We see them so much that we don’t see them anymore,” explained Gomis, 41 “We’ve forgotten that they are children.”
Gomis was a child slave too. She never went to high school. Instead she worked — without pay — as a nanny to a distant relative in France. Through luck and grit, she became a rare success story: married, two kids, a modest home, a flourishing career as a professional clown, playwright and actress. She even started a school for poor kids on the outskirts of town.
She wanted to give some talibés their childhood back, if only for a day. The festival would include acrobats, stilt walkers, magicians, knife jugglers …
I agreed to help.
Over the next two weeks, I joined Patricia on three trips to daaras. One was hidden in a narrow house with rickety spiral staircases. It had bookcases and furniture, and a working tap outside.
The others we visited were sheds, without electricity or running water. The first was set beside a scrapyard. Thirty boys live there in two barren concrete rooms. They sleep on the floor; there are no mattresses or blankets. They have lessons for three hours a day, they said, although I saw no books or writing tablets. The rest of the time, they beg.
How could anyone call this a boarding school?
Their teacher at least agreed to let them come to the festival.
At the last daara — this one a wooden shed — the teacher refused. It didn’t matter that Patricia offered a sack of rice and sugar for the lost earnings and a bus to pick everyone up. His jaw was set.
“They don’t want them to be in a place where they can think for themselves,” said Patricia, crestfallen, as we drove away. “It’s like Sidi. In his little head, he thought, ‘I’m going to go to school.’ That was a dangerous thought for his parents.”
The day arrived: International Senegal Day.
A stage was set beside the trampoline, which was jammed with bouncing kids. Around 100 talibés had come, along with hundreds of neighbourhood kids. The only way to tell them apart was to check their feet for dirt. For the afternoon, they were all just children.
When the performance started, the crowd had grown to 500. Children spilled onto the ground, crowding around the stage.
There, in the very first row, I spotted a familiar face.
He was smiling widely.
Catherine Porter is a Star columnist on leave for a year in Dakar, Senegal. She writes about her adventures each week in the Life section. She can be reached at email@example.com . Check out her daily snapshots on Twitter @porterthereport.