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How Changing Cultural Attitudes Will Give Senegal's Street Children a Voice

08/04/2013 22:40 BST | Updated 08/06/2013 10:12 BST

Five year-old Ngagne is filthy; his shorts, two sizes two big, crusted with grime; the slogan on his t-shirt completely obliterated by stains and dirt; snot running out of his nose, face smeared with dust and dirt. The little boy misses his parents and, he whispers in Wolof as flies buzz and crawl around us, gets scared at night.

The marabout in charge won't let me take photos of his daara, or Koranic school, or of the 25 or so girls and boys like Ngagne who live there in his care. I can only describe how angry and depressed I feel looking around at the rusting corrugated iron shacks where the children sleep; the rubble and dirt, the sheep enclosure made of wooden sticks; the wall where someone has scrawled: MARABOUT and a telephone number. The air smells of woodsmoke cut through with the tang of urine and sheep wool. A woman stirs the cooking pot on the fire with a clang. But the dish is for the marabout. Boys like Ngagne must beg for their supper or starve.

Ngagne is one of thousands of children living in daaras in Senegal and across the mainly Muslim countries of West Africa, sent to the capitals from Guinea, Guinea Bissau and Mali. Known as talibés - Arabic for 'pupil' - they're posted far away from home by parents who choose to give someone else the responsibility, and cost, of raising their child. City marabouts make the boys beg on the streets to earn their keep, while girls work in the daara. The children spend years memorising the Koran, but by the time they're teenagers, will never have learnt maths, IT or any other formal subject, and can neither speak, read nor write French - Senegal's official language. And that's the crux. The worst thing about visiting Ngagne's daara is that when I talk to the older children, aged nine or ten or 13, they can hardly answer my questions, even in the local language of Wolof. With the barest fragments of an education, they are without a voice.

They've always bothered me, these ragamuffin kids, as they bother most Senegalese. I see the same barefoot boys in rags hanging around the bakery where I buy my morning baguette, holding out old tomato tins for passers-by to drop in money and sugar lumps, and I think to myself that they should be on their way to school. The trouble is that no-one knows how many girls and boys are currently living in daaras in Senegal, although the Ministry of Education estimates that 7% of primary school-age children are still out of the education system. These are Senegal's lost boys and girls, 7% representing thousands who have slipped beneath the radar.

It's a decade-old problem that no-one's managed to solve. On the one hand, most Senegalese believe a Koranic education is vital; on the other, they're strongly opposed to children living in such conditions, questioning both the practice of routine begging and of sending small children far away from home. Moreover, while memorising of the Koran is a learning discipline and valued tradition for Muslims, it is by common consent not enough to equip children for life in a country that, technologically, educationally and economically, is leaping forward. Most modern parents now send their children to part-time Koranic school for lessons in the evening or holidays. The term talibé has become synonymous with beggar or street child; the term daara with workhouse conditions. A Senegalese friend confides that if his children are naughty he'll threaten to send them to the daara until they are good again.

It's a complex issue, setting delicate religious and cultural issues against exploitation. But most Senegalese I speak to believe that basic child rights are the debate - not religion. Moreover, this is not just about evil marabouts exploiting children. Many marabouts are intensely religious, passionate men, who genuinely do their best to look after their charges. But without adequate means, begging and bad conditions ensue.

I spent two weeks visiting daaras, good and bad, in Dakar and Louga in northern Senegal. Plan International is a partner in a USAID project that's working closely with marabouts from 108 daaras to improve conditions and introduce formal subjects into the curriculum. Children are given uniforms, school materials and proper toilet facilities. Those between six and 12 years are taught a basic curriculum of French and maths in addition to their Koranic studies, allowing them to re-enter formal school. Teenagers, now too old to go back to school, are taught vocational skills to help them find a profession.

Fundamental has been the changing of attitudes. Plan's Oumar Ben Khatab describes the marabout who stood up at a meeting and said that introducing French to the daara was 'like pouring a glass of blood into a bowl of milk'. A startling image, one that adequately summarises just how radical the idea of introducing a French curriculum to these Koranic schools really was.

It still is, but the marabouts I speak to are thoroughly converted. I meet Mohammed John, marabout at Daara Ibnou Taymya on the outskirts of Dakar. A gentle, intelligent, profoundly religious man, he personally visits local households to ask for food for his charges so that they don't have to beg. From the moment he began teaching he felt his pupils were 'missing out on something' and he's a wholehearted advocate for the new education system. His students now wear clean, pale green uniforms, have a classroom, toilets and a dedicated French teacher, and do 12 hours a week of French classes, as well as PE.

I also meet Imam Keba Gueye, resplendent in his golden robe, a hearty advocate of the new system and its benefits. Some children at his daara who've taken exams to 'bridge' them into the first year of French secondary school are doing better than non-daara pupils. Proof, if any, that the discipline of reciting and memorising the Koran is no bad thing, but needs to be rounded out with the other fundamental education subjects.

Gueye's charges are clean, smiling and articulate, girls and boys who aspire to be teachers, air crew and le president. I find myself wishing I could scoop up the children in the 'bad' daara I visited and bring them here. But of course I can't; I must rely on the next generations of educated girls and boys to help change the future. Perhaps it will be little Abdou, 13, a former talibé who, thanks to the project, is now combining Koranic studies with formal French school. For during our interview, Abdou beams at me with a smile that radiates hope, and promises: "When I'm president, I'll make everything better".