Picture of Issifou from Senegal
SENEGAL – December 18 2020

A journey from hardship to empowerment

At a very young age, thousands of children from Senegal are sent to live and study at Quranic schools to become talibé. Like many other talibé children, Issifou's story is one of trial and hardship.

On a bustling street in Kaolack, Senegal, two boys hop around with their arms around each other’s shoulders holding a bag of sugar, a loaf of bread and an empty can of tomato sauce. One of the boys approaches a parked taxi and starts waving one hand below his mouth and the other on his stomach while saying: “talibé, talibé!”

The driver ignores his plea for money and the young talibé continue down the street.

“A talibé is a child who leaves his home, his parents and sometimes his country to go and study the Quran,” explains 12-year-old Issifou*, who—like those boys—used to beg on the streets of Kaolack, an important transit town located a few hundred kilometers from Dakar, Senegal’s capital.

From a very young age, tens of thousands of children from all over the country are sent by their parents to live and study at Quranic schools to become talibé. A practice grounded in religious and cultural tradition, some of these schools have caused controversy over the past decade with marabouts—Quranic teachers—taking advantage of the unregulated system to exploit and mistreat the children in their care.

Like many other talibé children, Issifou’s story is one of trial and hardship.

“I have been through some very hard times since my parents sent me away by surprise at the age of seven,” he says.  “I have since then begged in the streets for money and food, sometimes receiving beatings when I did not come back with the daily quota. I lived in a makeshift shack with 30 other children in dire conditions.”

In the past few years, SOS Children’s Villages Senegal has worked with a few marabouts at the community level to try to change the situation and provide health support to talibé children, as well as formal schooling to expand their horizon and give them better chances in life.

“It’s very hard to convince marabouts to let their disciples go to the French speaking school because western education schools and Quranic schools present different views of the world, and also because in some instances marabouts rely on their children to bring money home,” says Baba Tioune, who heads the SOS Hermann Gmeiner School in Kaolack.

After much discussion with various Quranic teachers, three of them agreed to allow their disciples to take part in a four-year project where they would learn how to speak and write French, the country’s official language, as well as Wolof, the country’s second and most spoken official language in Senegal, Mr. Tioune explains.

Courses would take place three days per week aside of their Quranic education and be closely supervised by an educator. In addition to the schooling, marabouts receive training on children’s rights and support with food and health.

Among the 20 children who started the project, nine have made it through so far and now attend the SOS Herman Gmeiner School, with Issifou leading the way.

“Although he’s a bit older than the other pupils in his grade level, he’s one of our brightest students,” says Mr. Thioune.

“School is easy,” says Issifou. “I think it has a lot to do with training your memory. I do not think I would think the same way if had not had to recite the Quran extensively for all these years,” he says laughing. “That gives us an advantage”.

“School has saved me in a way. I want to see how far I can go and how I can speak up for other children like me. That’s my dream.”

*Name changed to protect the privacy of the child

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