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Boy flees Islamic school that makes children into beggars

Monday, April 21, 2008

DAKAR, Senegal -- On the day he decided to run away, 9-year-old Coli awoke on a filthy mat.

It was still dark as he set out for the mouth of a freeway with the other boys, a tribe of 7-, 8- and 9-year-old beggars.

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.

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.

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

Subversion of schools

Three years ago, a man wearing a skullcap came to Coli's village in the neighboring country of Guinea-Bissau and asked for him.

Coli's parents immediately addressed the man as "Serigne," a term of respect for Muslim leaders on Africa's western coast. Many poor villagers believe that giving a Muslim holy man a child to educate will gain an entire family entrance to paradise.

Since the 11th century, families have sent their sons to study at the Quranic schools that flourished on Africa's western seaboard with the rise of Islam. It is forbidden to charge for an Islamic education, so the students, known as talibe, studied for free with their marabouts, or spiritual teachers. In return, the children worked in the marabout's fields.

The droughts of the late 1970s and '80s forced many schools to move to cities, where their income began to revolve around begging. Today, children continue to flock to the cities as food and work in villages run short.

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.

Finding shelter

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

Days went by. Maybe weeks. Then Coli's marabout arrived.

In 2005, Senegal made it a crime punishable by five years in prison to force a child to beg. But the same law makes an exception for children begging for religious reasons. Few dare to cross marabouts for fear of supernatural retaliation.

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.

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

A continuing cycle

To find Coli's mother, aid workers broadcast his name on the radio in Guinea-Bissau. The names of over a dozen children also from Guinea-Bissau played in a continuous loop.

With each passing day, more parents and relatives come, but not Coli's.

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

Coli rushed outside. He stood a few feet away as tears ran down his cheeks. She covered her face with her veil and cried.

The two sit side-by-side in plastic chairs. Coli's mother looked at her feet. Her family is poor, she said, 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.

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.


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