On a tiny island a 20-minute ferry ride from the Senegalese capital Dakar, holidaymakers congregate around tour guides at the Maison des Esclaves museum to learn of the horrors of the Atlantic slave trade.
Yet few realise that in the religious schools dotted among their hotels modern-day slaveholders are abusing and starving thousands of west African children who are forced onto the streets to beg for their unscrupulous masters.
At least 50,000 boys known as talibes — the vast majority aged between four and 12 — are forced to beg in Senegal’s streets most of the day, every day, by often brutally abusive Koranic teachers known as marabouts.
“Senegal should not stand by while tens of thousands of talibe children are subjected every day to beatings, gross neglect, and, in fact, conditions akin to slavery,” Georgette Gagnon, of Human Rights Watch, said on the release of a report into the practice.
In the Muslim-majority nation where these religious leaders wield enormous social and political power, children have long been entrusted to marabouts who educate them in residential Koranic schools, called daaras.
But research by HRW shows that in many city daaras, marabouts are using education as a cover to send the children out to beg, inflicting severe physical and psychological abuse on those who fail to meet daily quotas.
The charity interviewed 175 current and former talibes for its 2010 report and documented numerous cases of beatings, and several cases in which children had been chained, bound, and abused.
A marabout typically collects up to 1,000 francs ($2) a day from the boys’ begging — with some amassing upwards of $100,000 a year — in a country where, according to the World Bank, a third of people live on less than $1.25 a day.
“Every day I had to bring the marabout 600 francs, rice, and sugar. Every time I couldn’t, the marabout would beat me with an electric cord,” said an 11-year-old quoted by HRW.
A typical daara is an abandoned or half-built residential block where children sleep as many as 40 to a small room and disease is rife.
The dismal living conditions were brought to the fore in March when a fire ripped through a Dakar-based daara housing dozens of children, killing nine who were trapped in their room, unable to escape.
Exhausted by continuous abuse and near-total deprivation, more than 1,000 boys run away from daaras each year, with Dakar’s many street children the defining legacy of the most exploitative residential Koranic schools.
Empire des Enfants (Children’s Empire), a shelter opened in 2003, was Senegal’s first response to the crisis.
The organisation provides a safe haven where around 50 boys are housed, fed, educated and supported, staying for anything from a few weeks to a year while researchers try to track down their parents.