A picture of Cheikh Amadou Bamba on a street corner
Despite the evidence of colonially imported Christianity in St Louis, in the form of an old catholic quarter and a cathedral, nearly all Senegalese are Muslim. In contrast to orthodox Islam, in which the direct connection between the believer and Allah is considered paramount, the practise of Muslim brotherhoods is dominant. Believers attach themselves to a brotherhood that follows the teachings of a "marabout", a religious teacher.
The most visible and powerful of these brotherhoods in Senegal are the Mourides. The picture of the founder, Cheikh Amadou Bamba, is omnipresent throughout Senegal. His veiled portrait is often hung indoors or can been seen daubed on walls, doors, boats or any other available surface. The Mouride hierarchy are an economic and political force in modern Senegal: they apparently control the lucrative business of peanut agriculture and it is often quoted that the word of the caliph, their leader, has the power to swing an election.
More on the Mourides here.
The Baye Fall out collecting money
The Mourides rely on donations, which manifests itself on the streets in the form of two groups of people asking you for money. One group are vaguely comic, the followers of the Baye Fall, a sub-group of the Mouride brotherhood. Young men dressed in colourful, rasta-style clothes they walk through the town chanting to the beat of a drum in an effort to secure donations. There is a deep irony here. Baye Fall was formed by Bamba's most famous disciple, Ibra Fall, who considered hard manual labour to be the most appropriate means of showing his devotion to Allah. Most Senegalese I spoke to didn't have a great deal of time for these so-called followers who were doing anything but the honest day's toil that their founder prescribed.
News item on the talibe, in French.
The second plight of the other group asking you for money, the talibe children, is anything but comic. The term "talibe" can strictly be applied to any follower of a marabout, but it is commonly used to describe the children who are sent by their parents to live and study with one of these Islamic teachers. The children are sent to study the Koran, but they have to earn their keep by begging for money on the street. Largely children from poor rural parents, the hope is that they will receive a better education than they would at home, however there are frequent reports of them living in appalling conditions and being subject to exploitation at the hands of the marabouts. It is often suggested that they spend the vast majority of their time out on the street begging and precious little gaining the education they have been sent to receive. The children are also usually seen dressed in little more than rags. This could be because the marabouts genuinely can't afford to clothe them, or that they think deprivation helps form their character, or more cynically it could be because it provokes sympathy with the donating public, generating the marabouts more revenue.
Talibe child begging outside of the school
Beyond the exploitation that anyone would find objectionable I had other problems with this practice. To begin with I was uncomfortable with the children sitting outside of the secular state education system. Perhaps it is my capitalism Western perspective but I don't think that a strict Islamic education, involving learning large tracts of the Koran by rote, is what's required to prepare Senegalese youth for the new world economy. While I was told that the children could receive a very good education, often going on to study further at Arabic speaking universities in North Africa, children often also dropped out before completing their studies. This would leave them with the ability to recite the Koran but not much else.
However my objection went beyond this. I think the talibes' begging had an effect on the society at large. Children who were not talibe would very often ask you for money in the street, and at times would be quite cross with you if you didn't give anything. To a lesser extent the same attitude would extend to some adults, who saw no shame in asking a stranger for money. An easy position for someone in my fortunate background to adopt perhaps, but I found it very depressing to think they had adopted a mindset in which they would ask, or even demand, a handout from someone who has more than you.
While I was in Saint Louis I got to know Issa Kouyate who was working as one of the local staff at the Project Abroad office. He is now working full time to help the tabile at the Maison de la Gare, their website can be found here: http://mdgsl.com/.