Senegal, the western-most country in Africa, is home to 14 million people, and between 50,000 and 100,000 of them are children who survive by begging on the streets. A survey in 2007 determined that about 90 percent of these children are boys called talibés  (from the Arabic ṭālib which means “student” ). Families send their boys away to receive religious instruction, but the children may end up facing rough circumstances under poor care and little supervision because the life of a talibé is not easy.
Talibés range in age from four to fifteen and are students of a teacher called a marabout who educates from the Quran. In theory, the students will learn and be cared for in a school facility called a daara. They will practice humility through agricultural labor if they live in rural villages and by begging if they live in a city. The marabouts collect the earnings of the talibés and are supposed to use it to provide meals, shelter, and a good education for the boys.
Unfortunately, the ideal is often not the reality, and Oliver Twist situations are not uncommon. The daaras are often overcrowded shelters that can’t comfortably fit dozens of children. Even worse, some marabouts abuse and take advantage of their talibés. One former talibé named Ousmane recounts his experience in a daara as follows:
“My father decided to send me to learn the Quran when I was six. The daara wasn’t a good place, and there were more than 70 of us there. If it was the rainy season, the rain came into where we slept. We didn’t have any cover and there were no mats, so we slept only on the ground. A lot of the talibés slept outside, because it was more comfortable. I did not have any shoes, and only one shirt and one pair of pants. The marabout had three sons, and when I got clean clothes, the marabout would take them from me and give them to his own children. The marabout paid for his children to go to a modern daara—they didn’t beg.
When we were sick, the marabout never bought medicines. If I told the marabout I was sick and couldn’t beg, the marabout would take me to a room and beat me— just as if I was not able to bring the sum. So I had to go to the streets, even when I was sick.
When I first arrived, I had to bring 100 CFA (US$0.22) a day—that was the sum for the youngest. As I got older, the marabout raised the quota to 300 CFA ($0.65), half a kilogram of rice, and 50 CFA ($0.11) worth of sugar. I saw the marabout sell the rice in the community; he never used it to feed us.
When I couldn’t bring the quota, which happened at least every week, the marabout would take me into the room where the oldest talibés slept. Then he wrapped rope cord around my wrists and beat me with electric cable, over and over. I still have marks on my back.
As bad as it was with the marabout, when he was gone it was even worse. The oldest talibés were really nasty. They would take our money and then beat us really badly if we missed the quota—I would just stay out and keep begging, sleep on the street if necessary. Begging is difficult. We ended up having to do whatever it took to get the daily sum, even steal. To be a talibé, it’s not easy.”
-Excerpt from Human Rights Watch report
It is worrisome that such abuse is allowed to happen. The issue seems to be that there is not enough transparency into this system. Parents send their children to daaras with the hopes that they will receive a moral education, but they don’t always know about the potential for exploitation that exists inside a daara.
Why do parents send their children away? Human Rights Watch determined three major reasons by interviewing Senegalese parents.
They desire that their children learn the Quran (Roughly 92 percent of Senegalese are Muslim).
They cannot provide adequate support for all their children (The fertility rate in Senegal is 4.98 births per woman. The U.S. rate is 1.88).
The marabout, an authority figure, pressures the parents to give up their children. 
Perhaps if better family planning methods were followed in Senegal and if knowledge of the living conditions of talibés were more widespread, the plight of these boys could be minimized.
Not all marabouts force their talibés to beg. It’s the abusive ones who cause the problem. A marabou named Aliou Seydi had this to say on the matter: “The teachings of Islam are completely contrary to sending children on the street and forcing them to beg.... Certain marabouts have ignored this—they love the comfort, the money they receive from living off the backs of the children.” 
Becoming educated about the true nature of some daaras might cause Senegalese parents to think harder about sending their boys away. The rate of contraception use in West African countries is one of the world’s lowest, and this is due heavily to religious stigma. 
In Senegal, polygamy is legal and very common, but birth control is frowned upon. Many men strive to have large families because Islam encourages it, and having more children means more help will be available in rural communities. 
However, when children are sent away from their families and left to the care of a far-away marabou who the parents don’t know very well because of financial necessity, it seems that there is a problem.
Human Rights Watch released an extensive report of the talibé situation in 2005, and in response, Senegal’s government banned public begging and jailed seven marabouts, but the response has since weakened, and the boys continue to beg and live in rough conditions.  When I spent time in Dakar last year, I encountered many talibés with their red tomato cans begging on the streets. When I asked a Senegalese friend about the life of a talibé, he claimed that it is not dangerous, but rather normal and good for them. He sees it as a necessary “right of passage”, but Human Rights Watch produced a 108 page report detailing injustice found in the daaras. The problem cannot be swept under the carpet with a limited government response, and more needs to be done both in education about the conditions of talibé and in holding marabouts accountable for the children they are responsible for.