Senegal school abuse: Ismaila's story

Ismaila Ismaila's brothers say he now has "an old face"

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Ismaila is just nine. When he was four he was sent to a daara, or Koranic school, in the Senegalese capital, Dakar.

He has just escaped. He lifts his shirt to show us the scars on his back, some from insect bites, others from beatings by a teacher.

"He asked us to bring rice, sugar and if ever we didn't bring anything, we were beaten severely. He used a 'gourdin', the club you use on sheep or goats".

There are thought to be 50,000 boys like him. They are called talibes (from the Arabic for student) and they are forced to beg by their teachers.

In every town in the country, you see them. Little groups of boys in filthy clothes clutching yellow bowls, moving from car to car and house to house. Some are as young as three.

"They didn't give us meals in the daara, we just begged for food in houses around. If they had some, we ate. If they didn't, we just remained without eating anything," Ismaila says.

Rubbish and smell

The daaras once had a proud reputation: They used to educate the leaders of the future, and asking for food taught them humility. But crop failure, economic crisis and mass migration to the cities has corrupted that practice.

An older boy flogs younger students Younger children are regularly flogged for not being focused enough

Some still honour the tradition, but many are now just scams to make the teachers rich on the backs of child labour.

Last week, seven teachers were found guilty of forced begging in the first such case in Senegal. None, however, went to prison.

Human Rights Watch workers say it is a step in the right direction, but abuse is still widespread.

As we approach a daara in a Dakar suburb, the first thing we hear is the rhythmic chanting. Inside, a weather-beaten wooden door on a muddy sidestreet gives onto a small courtyard. It is no secret what goes on here.

About 50 boys sit on the dirt floor, chanting over the Koran. Rubbish litters the ground and the toilet is just a patch of gravel at the back of the yard. The smell is almost overpowering.

The children live and sleep here, their dormitory is a squalid room with bare floors and some corrugated iron.

As they chant, an older boy walks among them with a length of car fan belt in his hand. He occasionally stops and hits any child who he thinks isn't concentrating.

The marabout, or teacher, says the boys are not mistreated. He rails against the government which won't fund his, and most other daaras, so he sends them out to beg.

Going home

So why do parents send their children to daaras?

In part because of religious duty, as some don't know what goes on there, and - for others - a child in the daara is one less mouth to feed.

Inside two of Senegal's daraas - one exploitative, one good

After Ismaila ran away from the beatings and the squalor of the school, he was rescued by a social worker.

When we meet him he is about to go home for the first time in five years. He has had no contact with his parents in that time.

"I missed my parents a lot, it was very difficult to stay there without ever seeing them," he says.

"I'm very happy to go back home, I think my parents will be very understanding and loving, they won't beat me."

We are given permission to go with him and the family know we are coming.

We arrive at the meeting point and wait. Then his father appears, but he refuses to even look at his son. A limp handshake is all that is offered - the smile falls from Ismaila's face.

When we arrive at the house, the boy trails miserably behind his father. He then sits on the floor in the main room of the house, and puts his head in his hands.

A Daara student begs on the streets of Dakar The students are supposed to learn humility on the streets

Then his mother arrives - surely she'll be pleased to see him? But she walks straight past.

Again, a brief handshake is the only contact after five years. She sits down and ignores Ismaila.

Several men in the room talk very fast, in the local language Wolof, and we have no idea what is going on. We fear Ismaila is going to be punished.

But then the men reach some kind of decision, get up and walk out.

And everything changes: Ismaila's mother hugs and kisses him, she caresses his hands, as if to make sure he is real. The other women in the room laugh and clap their hands.

Then they explain what had happened.

Men rule the Senegalese home: His father and uncle had sent him away and Ismaila's mother wasn't allowed to see him. When she tried to get him back, she was threatened with divorce.

But now his grandmother, who dominates the room, declares that he'll stay with her - he won't go away again.

Ismaila starts to smile, and soon he is playing with his brothers: He gives his cousin a playful thump.

Finally we leave, but make sure to keep in touch.

The family have accepted him back, he's safe. A charity is now paying for him to go to a good local school.

Breaking the link

But he carries with him not just the physical scars on his back. His brothers say simply that "Ismaila's got an old face now".

Ismaila's story shows just how complex resolving the problem of the talibes will be.

The government says it is now an urgent priority. It is building new daaras and running high-profile education campaigns. But prosecutions of the worst teachers simply won't be enough.

The authorities have to somehow break the link between poverty, faith and exploitation.

If they can't do that the talibes will still be forced to beg on the streets of Senegal.

You can hear Angus Crawford's full programme, 'The Schoolboy Beggars of Sengal' on this week's Assignment from the BBC World Service.

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