In Senegal, the Village Pilote organisation, a partner of Apprentis d’Auteuil, gets talibés (children from Koranic schools) off the street where they are exploited and face serious dangers. Interview with Loïc Tréguy, its director.
Who do you take in at Village Pilote?
Most of the young people we take in are runaway talibés, that is to say, young students from Koranic schools called ’daaras’, which they have run away from due to ill treatment. Some corrupt madrassas exploit them, encouraging them to beg and assault them if they do not come back with the expected quota of money from begging. The children end up on the street. They then find themselves in a quandary. They do not want to return home to their families for fear of punishment, as parents originally handed them over to a marabout (Koranic teacher) thinking they would get a good education. But they are even more afraid of being sent back to their daaras, where they risk being physically and emotionally abused.
Who are the other children in your care?
The others have become separated from their families following a rural exodus. African tradition, which involves the whole community being responsible for the education of children, is not possible in towns and cities. Single mothers are left alone to raise their children, as can be seen in major European cities today. Some children are then left to beg in the street to take care of the family’s needs.
How did Village Pilote come about?
I went on holiday to Senegal with my wife in 1992, and we were shocked! We were tourists in the midst of hordes of kids begging on the streets in rags. We quickly realised that these children were begging to take back money and food to corrupt marabouts. Seeing those children in such a pitiful state, left alone and mistreated by the bigger boys amongst them was unbearable to us. We just had to do something! With some other people, we collected 12 tonnes of equipment and returned to Senegal the next year to open a kindergarten, establish a football team and set up a library. The first year was very hard. At that time, we knew nothing about either the country of the problem of talibé children.
So you then decided to settle in Senegal?
Yes, we needed time to see through all these projects. After a kindergarten, we opened a primary school. In 1993 we founded Village Pilote, which we registered as an NGO in Senegal, under Law 1901. We then took over a centre from the Senegalese Ministry of Justice. We offered young people sporting and cultural activities, then vocational training after that. We rebuilt the buildings and set up the school and library there. We also created a waste collection centre, which enabled us to fund our other activities. Today, we take in 300 children every year, aged from 3 to 25, and we have 80 in permanent residence.
How do you get them off the streets?
We go out to meet them. We try to establish a relationship of trust – which isn’t easy, as they are often afraid of adults – to convince them to come with us. We explain the risks they run by staying on the street: disease, malnutrition, violence and rape. The youngest are only 4 -5 years of age. Older children, who have already spent months or even years on the street, find it harder to extricate themselves from this environment. However, as we always say, no child is beyond help, you just have to find a way!
What do you offer them once they are at Village Pilote?
For starters, somewhere to sleep, medical care, something to eat, but above all, peace of mind and safety. They must first ‘unpack their bags’. Some have not eaten a real meal in years! They therefore need time to rebuild themselves. Those who have lived on the street for 5 to 10 years are damaged, especially if they have been sniffing solvents and thinners for all those years.
We try to restore the codes of living as a family to the little ones, and then we make them follow our literacy classes, as they cannot go back into regular education because they’ve missed so much school. Then, we look for the families they often left several years before to go to Koranic school. We also work with parents so they enroll their children in the village school and do not send them back to the Koranic school in Dakar. This also helps educate the other villagers.
For those over the age of 12 going back to school is no longer possible as, at that age, in Senegal, they are already considered young workers. We guide them towards vocational training. This can be done with artisans if they are willing to take them on as apprentices. If not, we offer them our own vocational training in wood carpentry, welding, brick making, agriculture, catering, logistics and all the building trades. These training courses last between 3 and 5 years. We support them until they are independent. We also have partnerships with local companies offering paid internships to young people.
How does Village Pilote work?
There are one hundred adults in total. The supervisors organise the young ones. Village Pilote also works through mobilising Senegalese volunteers. These have become more numerous, especially since the report on our association was broadcast on the Envoyé Spécial programme on French television (France 2) in June. Many Senegalese are upset by the plight of the talibés. We also have many volunteers and expat European interns in Senegal, not to mention the fact we are opening branches in France, Switzerland and soon in Belgium and Luxembourg.
What is the Senegalese Government doing to solve the problem of talibé children?
The Government does what it can, but the problem is huge. There are over 50,000 talibé children in the Dakar region, 30,000 who are forced to beg, and more than 1,000 daaras! We must not, however, tar all Koranic schools with the same brush. Some daaras do good work and provide real education for children; they genuinely teach them the Koran and promote literacy in French and Arabic. A daara modernisation scheme has recently been created at the Government of Senegal’s Ministry of Education. But if local actors are not mobilised, the Government will never have the means to solve this problem.
What are your links with Apprentis d’Auteuil?
We’ve had a partnership agreement for two years. We are quite close in our missions. So we therefore enrich one another in exchange of skill sets. The foundation also helps us to find funding, especially from the French Development Agency (AFD). We also host an international youth work camp, like this year with youngsters from Lisieux who helped us extend our kitchen. The foundation also helps us with communication and advocacy, administration and project management. Some of our facilitators will work for certain institutions.
What are your plans?
Our goal is for there to be no more street children in Senegal! We’ve been fighting this battle for 21 years. This goal has become less unrealistic as Senegalese society is beginning to realise the scale of the problem. We have just made a clip with Daara J Family, a group of very well known musicians in Senegal (see video below). This allows us to raise public awareness of the plight of talibé children. Because this situation is not inevitable.