Each year a minority of Koranic students, or talibés, put under the care of a religious leader who then exploits and abuses them, are reunited with their families by child protection agencies. But after overcoming the challenge of tracing their parents, reintegrating ex-talibés into family life can be difficult as they have known little more than begging and beatings since their infancy, say child protection NGOs.
Since 2004 Bissau-Guinean NGO AMIC (L’Association des Amis de L’Enfant), based in Gabu, 200km northeast of the capital Bissau, has been helping transport children back to Guinea-Bissau, where it then traces their families with a view to reuniting them. The vast majority of the estimated 50,000 talibés are from Senegal or from Bafata and Gabu 80km and 200km east of Bissau respectively, according to a recent Human Rights Watch (HRW) report.
“Finding their families is difficult because many of the children leave when they are very young and they can only give the first name of the person who has raised them, or the name of their grandparents’,” said Laudolino Medina, head of AMIC in Gabu. “We spend a lot of time trying to establish the facts.”
Families in these mainly Peule Muslim areas, send their children through middlemen to attend Koranic schools in Tambacounda in western Senegal, east to Ziguinchor, or to cities in the north, including Thiès, Dakar and St Louis, according to HRW; but often the religious leaders instead force the boys to raise money by begging, do not feed or clothe the boys, and regularly beat them.
Ex-talibé Boubacar told IRIN he thinks he is nine years old. He left home when he was about three, and was sent to live with a marabout (religious teacher) in a Koranic school in Parcelles, a Dakar suburb.
“I didn’t like being in Dakar. It was violent and I didn’t sleep at night; I didn’t eat enough. Here I am well. I eat. I have shoes. I can wash myself,” he told IRIN in a timid voice.
A 2007 report by the UN Children’s Fund (UNICEF), the International Labour Organization and the World Bank, found most children begging in Dakar, including the talibés, were malnourished, often severely. According HRW many are regularly beaten, and poor health, worms and scabies are common.
Boubacar is now living with the head of AMIC instead of in AMIC’s transition home, as the 20 other boys who were brought over with him have all been returned to their families. AMIC’s transition centre can house up to 40 children at a time, and 20 additional boys are expected soon, said AMIC’s Medina.
But AMIC cannot trace Boubacar’s parents as he has had no contact with them for years and cannot remember their full names, or where they live. Having scoured Gabu region to no avail, AMIC are going to start searching in Senegal.
Joanita Teixeira, head of AMIC in Gabu, told IRIN: “He is intelligent, talks a lot, and was not violent with the other boys; he was always kind to the little ones.”
Promise to protect
If Boubacar’s parents are located, they will have to sign a declaration of parental authority authorizing the voluntary return of their children into their homes.
“Parents pledge to keep the child, to support him during his reintegration process, and to send him to school,” Medina told IRIN.
Since November 2005 the organization has reunited 253 boys. Supported by the Swiss government, the International Organization for Migration, and the Geneva Institute for Human Rights, AMIC pledges to pay for each child’s secondary school education until completion.
In the past, some boys found the transition too difficult and there were many runaways: 30 in 2006, according to AMIC, which says it will care for Boubacar until his family is found.
“These children have lived without their families for a long time. When they return, there can be a culture clash,” said Medina. “These boys have acquired a lot of vices - they steal, they fight, they are aggressive. They have developed many self-defence mechanisms because they have been living in the street.”
Marcel Ouattara, joint representative of UNICEF in Guinea-Bissau, told IRIN: “The return can be a shock for the child. In Dakar there are more and more child beggars in the streets - so they have many friends; they are used to seeing electricity; they can buy sweets or cold water with their begging money.”
Ex-talibé Mamadou spent two years in Dakar before returning to his village just outside Gabu town two years ago. He has consistently refused to attend school or find a job since, his father told IRIN.
Wearing oversized fluorescent green plastic sandals and a blue shirt with a picture of footballer Drogba on it, Mamadou smiled only when IRIN spoke to him about football.
Many of the families who send their children away live in poverty and thus it is to poverty that the children return to, says child protection specialist at UNICEF Sonia Polonio. Their villages may be miles from the nearest school or health centre, “and as for social and psychological support, it’s left to NGOs to look after them,” she said.
Many ex-talibés return with tapeworm or scabies, said Medina. “We have even discovered some children have died several months after their return,” he said, adding that poverty or ideological reasons may mean parents do not want their children back.
“In rare cases we have to mediate with a family so they accept their child back. A father may tell us his son must learn the Koran; that he chose that child for this purpose, and this is the child’s destiny. He may want to send his child back to Senegal.”
AMIC now closely follows each child’s progress over two years, which has caused the number of runaways to plummet. In difficult cases, it will mediate with the family, often searching for a compromise solution, such as agreeing to support the child’s Koranic education in Guinea-Bissau.
There are few studies outlining what happens to talibés over the long-term, though some child protection experts say they become hawkers, selling telephone cards or second-hand products, on city streets.
Boubacar is currently out of school, as he missed the start of the school year. But AMIC says he will be enrolled next year - as long as they find him a home.
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