The lost children of Muslim Africa

A couple of weeks ago in the small, poor Sahelian town of Dori in northern Burkina Faso, we were sitting at a roadside stall having a breakfast of coffee and dry bread. As we sat with our backs to the road, a group of five young boys, aged no more than twelve, hovered behind us like seagulls waiting for scraps. From time to time one would move closer, as if making to pounce on a morsel of bread, before retreating again when we looked round. They stood there for twenty minutes. After we got up and left, one of them ran to the table and downed the dregs of Ebru’s coffee.

These are the talibe children of West Africa. They are ubiquitous. In the towns of Burkina Faso, Mali, Guinea-Bissau and Senegal, posses of these young boys – uniformly skinny, dirty and covered in dust – have been constant companions on our trip. They roam the streets in packs, carrying empty, lidless tomato tins or little plastic buckets, and approach everyone they see for money or food. You never get used to the sight of them.

The boys’ story is grim. Many have been sent from their villages at the age of five or six by destitute parents to live with marabouts, Muslim “holy men” who promise to feed and shelter them and teach them about the Koran. ‘Their parents are too poor to look after them,’ says Karim, a Dori yoghurt seller, ‘and they are uneducated, so they believe the marabouts when they tell them they will house and clothe their kids.’ A few of these marabouts are genuine, and the children combine work in the fields with Arabic and Koranic education. But most are charlatans. ‘They go to the market, buy a cap and a gown and a Koran and say they are Koranic masters,’ Karim, a devout Muslim explains, ‘but it’s pure child exploitation.’

The children are sent out into the streets every morning. They are expected to earn 150 or 250 CFA francs per day (about 20-35p, or 50 cents) from begging. A former talibe child from Niger tells me that if they do not hit their target, the marabout beats or tortures them. Many therefore take to stealing if they haven’t begged enough near the end of the day.

Few receive any form of education, because their masters want them on the streets. Some of these Fagins have twenty or thirty boys. Twenty children can mean 5000 CFA (£8/$12) per day, huge money in these parts, so they do not waste time with teaching.

At night, the children sleep together on crowded floors in marabouts’ homes. Few get enough rest – we often see boys sleeping in the dust under trees in the afternoons. Those who surrounded us at the breakfast table were seriously underfed. In Ouagadougou a few days later, another feral-looking child asked us for money. When we refused, he began staring feverishly at Ebru’s bag and then made to snatch it – I pushed him away, and felt his ribs like a radiator through his T-shirt.

Karim is pessimistic about the children’s future. ‘They get used to this life of begging and stealing, so when they eventually grow up and escape they can only slip into a life of delincuency.’ The boys would make easy prey for extremists and warlords. The Burkina Faso government does occasional round-ups and places them in workshops so they can learn a trade, but this risks encouraging more parents to abandon their sons to the marabouts. Karim believes it is a ‘river that can’t be damned.’ Universal free education with meals seems the most promising solution, but Burkina’s performance in this area is abysmal – fewer than half of rural children are enrolled in school.