African Beggar Children: Destitute or Students?


There’s a little moral dilemma that occurs nearly every time I exit the big grocery store near our house: To give or not to give?

Child street beggars are common in Dakar in West Africa’s Senegal. They’re not as aggressive as those in other parts of world (two of our friends came here from Mumbai and would get their shins kicked if they refused to give money) but they’re everywhere: estimates put the number of beggar children in Dakar around 80,000. They dress in tattered clothing and chant verses of the Koran as they hold out tin cans or Tupperware bowls, hoping for a donation.

It’s a misconception, though, that all of these children are homeless and penniless. Some are actually receiving a quality education. These grade school-age boys, called talibes, are often sent to boarding-type schools, called daaras, run by Islamic leaders referred to as marabouts. Their educational experiences, however, can be vastly different depending upon what kind of marabout is running the show.

The good teachers keep a rigorous learning schedule for their students, educating them in math, science and philosophy in addition to having them memorize the holy Koran, which is the foundation of this kind of Islamic education. Begging, even for the best schools, isn’t seen as a way to make money; it’s viewed as one of the best teachers of humility. As such, they aren’t just looking for money; donations of food or clothing or other foods are readily accepted. These kids often go on to regular school following their daara education and might attend college a few years later.

Sadly, for some schools, the educational aspect is merely a front. The boys beg in the streets during the hours they should be learning, and the marabout subsequently takes all their profits and gives them little in return. These types of “schools” – quotes warranted – are much more common in Dakar than in more remote villages, since far greater opportunity for profit exists in the city. A student in a small village is probably more likely to receive a quality daara education.

So, the question remains: to give or not to give? One discussion leader at the cultural orientation, who was a talibe himself as a boy and went on to university and a successful career, said his personal rule is to not give money between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., because the children should be in a classroom during those hours. If they’re not, then their marabout is likely just using them for profit. An American said he and his family keep small raisin packets handy for donating, so at least they know the child is getting something he can use himself.

I thought that approach struck a nice balance. An economy-sized case of raisin packets is on its way.

Have you felt conflicted by the “to give or not to give?” question during your travels? What did you choose to do?

Rachael Cullins
Rachael Cullins is a twentysomething American girl living in Dakar, Senegal, with her husband and two dogs. She blogs about her adventures in Senegal and travels elsewhere in West Africa. She will reside in Dakar until summer 2013, when she and her family will move to another foreign post as part of her husband's career with the U.S. government. In addition to West Africa, she has traveled to France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Italy and Costa Rica and plans to continually add to that list.
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