Rebecca Blackwell, Associated Press
NDAME, Senegal — Seven nights a week, 13-year-old Cheikhou and his younger brother Bamba would make their way to a wooden shack they shared with dozens of other barefoot child beggars, blanketing the floor with their tired bodies.
Then one night a knocked-over candle turned their home into an inferno. Cheikhou awoke to the sounds of people screaming. He joined some 50 boys fleeing for the door as neighbors filled plastic buckets, struggling in vain to put out the fire.
Cheikhou made it to safety, but at least eight young boys were dead, including his 10-year-old brother and three even younger cousins. The tragedy once again focused attention of the plight of the tens of thousands of Senegalese talibes, Islamic religious pupils, who are forced to double as street beggars.
In this West African country, Human Rights Watch has estimated that more than 50,000 boys are forced to beg while spending years in boarding schools called daaras. The government has tried for years to ban the practice, but it remains deeply embedded in Senegal, where many poor parents view it as the only way to provide an education for their sons.
An untold number of talibes have been run down and killed while begging in traffic but the March tragedy appeared to be a game changer, if only because three of the school's marabouts — teachers — were detained for questioning and President Macky Sall declared that all substandard daaras would be closed.
"Strong measures will be taken to put an end to the exploitation of children under the pretext that they are talibes," Sall said. "This tragedy forces us to intervene and identify everywhere that sites like this exist. They will be closed and the children will be returned to their parents."
But nine months after those strong words were spoken, no one is in custody and not a single daara has been shut.
"We really feel betrayed ... it's truly slavery," said Bamba Fall, an assistant mayor for Dakar's Medina neighborhood where the fatal blaze broke out. He believes the criminal case was dropped because of pressure from higher-ranking religious leaders.
In an interview with The Associated Press, he said: "The children were exploited by day and crammed in together at night until their deaths."
Cheikhou and Bamba Diallo grew up in Ndame, a district of sand-blanketed streets on the outskirts of the holy city of Touba. Here their parents grow millet and sorghum, and raise goats. And when the boys' uncle opened his daara in Dakar, the capital, in 2008, Cheikhou was among the first children to make the 180-kilometer (110-mile) journey to enroll. Bamba and the cousins followed.
According to a 2010 study by Human Rights Watch, the begging begins each day at dawn and lasts on average nearly eight hours, while the afternoon and evening are spent studying.
The system is said to teach the pupils humility and prepare them for the difficulties of adult life. All the begged proceeds go to the marabout, who with 40 talibes in his daara can make the equivalent of nearly $500 a month — more than many civil servants earn.
For the boys of the Medina daara, recreation meant occasionally watching soccer matches on a neighbor's TV. Although their marabout insists he was humane and generous, neighbors say the boys often went barefoot, wearing men's filthy hand-me-downs and scrounging leftovers at Oulimata Fall's restaurant.
"It's very hard as a mother to imagine having a tiny child living like that," Fall said, wiping her sweaty brow as she stirred a large pot of thieboudienne, Senegal's signature dish of rice and fish.
No one knows just how many children lived in the doomed boarding house shared by students of three different marabouts. The government says it recorded 41 survivors and nine dead. Marabout Mountakha Diallo, says eight children died, including four nephews of his.
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