So… WHY are you going to Senegal?

I get this question a lot.  It boils down to three things:

  1. As an Africanist (focusing on French-speaking Africa) I have to have spent a significant amount of time on the continent in order to be respected in my field.
  2. Of all the Francophone African literature I have studied and researched, Senegalese literature and expression interests me the most.  I’ve also had a few occasions to meet highly-acclaimed Senegalese authors and I feel a larger connection to their novels/poems than with work that other authors have produced.
  3. Thanks to the mentoring and connections of some of my professors, I have more professional and literary contacts in Senegal who are in a position to help further my educational and professional pursuits.

In fact, the research and volunteer work that I will be conducting in Senegal concerning human trafficking – child begging in particular – can be found in the current events of several African countries and their literature.  So in actuality, my research is interdisciplinary and transnational.

The general topic of my dissertation will be family and child dynamics in French and Francophone literatures; I will specifically highlight child exploitation and trafficking in 19th century French novels and Francophone novels particular to West and Central African regions.  I will delve into more details about human trafficking and child exploitation in Senegal in subsequent posts.  So don’t fear, I’ll continue to share the generalities of my work, and, when I am able to do so, I will delve into the specifics of the Senegalese situation.  If you have specific questions, please let me know and I’ll make an effort to address them in future posts.

Until then, I thought that I would share the main essay that I wrote for the Boren Fellowship. It paints a good picture of what I will be focusing on during my 10-month stay in Dakar.  Please recognize first that the Boren Fellowship is given to scholars whose research relates to American national security.  The Boren Fellowship is funded by the government, so the research has to be valuable for the United States government on a national and global scale.  That is why those individuals who receive the Boren are required to work for the US government for a minimum of one year after the conferral of their degree.  Second, this is a very general overview of the plight of these boys and the length of the essay was constrained by a word-count specified by the Boren committee.  The situation includes many facets and it is quite complicated… which is one reason why Boren saw fit to award me the fellowship.

Since September 11th and the spread of terrorism throughout the world, the American government has taken a greater interest in Africa.  Together with the United States African Command, national security agencies monitor possible Islamic threats and the political instability of various African nations which may prove dangerous to the American people.  Historically, Senegal has been a fairly secure country.  However, with the recent presence of terrorist cells in its bordering countries and a rise in violations of Senegalese Islamic customs, Senegal is becoming more unstable and compounds the perils that face the United States.

This is due, in part, to an increase in the exploitation of Senegalese children.  In the Islamic Senegalese culture, many parents temporarily transfer guardianship of their young boys to a ‘marabout’ – a Koranic teacher – expecting that the children will study the Koran and the Islamic faith.  Because alms-giving is one of the 5 pillars of Islam, and adherence to this practice is such an expectation, the marabouts are able to avoid the obligation of feeding their students – known as ‘talibés’ – by requiring them to beg on the streets for their meals.

Over the past two decades some marabouts have transformed their schools into human trafficking rings.  The children are sent out to beg all day and upon their return, they must surrender the money to the marabouts without receiving adequate food, shelter, and education for their own well-being.  Consequently, the boys are placed in continual risk of becoming subject to drugs, violence, and sexual exploitation.  Additionally, Senegal’s geographic location facilitates the quick, illegal transportation of these boys to other parts of Africa and Europe.  Failure to publicize, educate, and then change these practices will continue to erode the stability of Senegal, and increase poverty and the occurrences of crimes against children.  Failure to check this problem by the United States and other countries who fundamentally despise such practices will undoubtedly increase the number of young, uneducated boys becoming attracted, or sent, to extremist Muslim circles that are currently located in the West African region.  These groups seek to threaten the physical safety of the citizens of the United States and other nations of the world.

The United States Department of Labor (USDOL) and the Bureau of International Labor Affairs (BILA) identify Senegal as a hub for child trafficking rings.  Senegal is both a trafficking transit country and/or destination for bordering countries, and a source of objects of sexual exploitation for Europe.  According to studies conducted by the USDOL and the BILA, the talibes are by far the most common trafficking victims; furthermore, a UNICEF report published in 2007 states that the boys range from ages two to fifteen.  All three agencies confirm that boys who are forced into this servitude spend their days begging in the streets, suffer the rages of various illnesses, and are the subjects of extreme acts of violence.  Talibés in southern Senegal live near known insurgent groups who, according to the CIA World Factbook, launch violent attacks upon neighboring villages.  Similarly, talibés who live on or near the borders of Mauritania and Mali have a high potential of exposure to militant Muslim extremists, including al-Qaeda adherents.  Many boys are transported to other African countries that harbor terrorist cells and are hostile to American interests.

In the past, USAID, the United Nations Children’s Fund, the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank, UNICEF, and several foreign governments have joined forces with the Senegalese government to combat the social and political consequences associated with the mistreatment of the talibes.  These partnerships have focused on educating the general public about the boys’ plight.  Thanks to their efforts, Senegal has seen somewhat of a decline in child exploitation, yet the problem persists.  Within the last ten years, several NGOs have been created to broaden general awareness of this horrible reality and to root out corrupt marabouts.  They have endeavored to either return the boys to their families or to relocate them to legitimate schools.

One such Senegalese NGO, the Partenariat Pour le Retrait et la Réinsertion des Enfants de la Rue (PARRER), was established in 2007.  It is governed by an assembly of national Islamic leaders, private sector professionals, and former Senegalese government officials.  PARRER is one of the few Senegalese NGOs that comprehensively addresses the situation surrounding the talibés.  In addition to the activities mentioned above, it also seeks to educate poorer families living in the rural areas of the country which are most likely to entrust the care of their children to corrupt marabouts.  PARRER also aids the government in implementing educational standards in Senegal’s Koranic schools and in eliminating child begging from the Koranic curriculum.

With the help of Boren Fellowship funds, I plan to intern at PARRER in Dakar.  Doing so would complement my research interests concerning the portrayal of the Senegalese family in contemporary fiction and current events.

Several literary works address the talibés’ situation.  In 1961 Cheikh Hamidou Kane, founder and president of PARRER, published a semi-autobiographical novel entitled L’aventure ambiguë, in which he describes the life of a young talibé and the hardships he endured during his years at school.  Today the novel is one of the most revered literary works in all of Francophone Africa.  Thanks to his literary work and his efforts as a former minister of the Senegalese government, Kane is a national hero.  He and I also maintain an academic relationship.  Working at PARRER will give me the opportunity of cooperating with Kane, and will afford firsthand perspectives which will allow me to communicate authoritatively about issues facing Senegalese children.  Since Senegal is a small, impoverished country where only the educated elite use French, proficiency in Wolof is essential to be able to converse with exploited boys and their families.  Overcoming language barriers fosters trust and it enables the voices of the talibés to be heard both domestically and internationally.

Children are the future, and families are the basic units of any society.  If children continue to be victimized and trafficked to dangerous individuals who have no respect for the life and happiness of others, then eventually our families, societies, and nations will crumble.  As a future literary critic who will be familiar with Islamic practices and the plight of the talibés, I will be able to contextualize works that examine the social impact of practices that threaten children and families in Senegal.  Working as a Boren Fellow in Africa will yield unique perspectives that will prove beneficial to several entities within the federal government, especially to the Department of State and several embassies.  I hope fulfill my service requirement as an area studies specialist in either the Civil Service division or the Office of the Under Secretary for Global Affairs.

So there you have it – my winning essay.  This past semester (Jan-May 2012) I had the opportunity to research the religious reasonings behind the practice of child begging, and I presented that research at an international conference held at UW-Madison April 26-28, 2012, and I am working to get that paper published.  I will post more about that conference and paper in the future.

And last but not least, I cannot end this post without thanking my sister, Amber, for spending hours editing my essays (yes, there were a couple more) and giving me very insightful and pertinent information that I could use in my essays.  Thanks to Professors Chantal Thompson, Steven Winspur and Aliko Songolo for your invaluable help and feedback.  And last but not least, thank you to Angela Albretson, Margaret Merrill, and Matt Dinger for looking over my drafts for clarity and errors before I submitted my proposal.  I wouldn’t be where I am today without all of your help!


4 thoughts on “So… WHY are you going to Senegal?

  1. Lark, I am impressed with the essay. But even more with your willingness to get your hands dirty by working on the ground to curb this abusive plague. Best wishes.

  2. Pingback: Timing | Chez Lark

  3. Pingback: Reflections | Chez Lark

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