Islam and the Problem of Street Children in Mali
In Mali, there are strong links between Islam and the problem of street children in the country. Mali is predominantly Muslim. Around 90 percent of the population profess Islam. But Islam in this West African country is said to be ‘moderate and tolerant’. Unlike their counterparts in Nigeria, Muslims in Mali live in relative peace and harmony with themselves and with adherents of other faiths and beliefs. Constitutionally, Mali is a secular state and freedom of religion is guaranteed for all citizens. But this does not mean that all is well in this country in terms of what is perpetrated or condoned in the name of this religion as I noticed during my recent visit. Below the thin layer of Mali’s moderate and tolerant Islam are some deep, enthrenched and festering social problems.
As is the case in the muslim majority states in Northern Nigeria, Mali has a problem of street children. And this problem is linked with the way lslam is practiced in the country. The problem persists due to the way Islam is percieved and privileged in the society.
We need to shine the light on this dangerous link in order to combat this social scourge which has a lot of development and security implications for Mali, for West Africa and the world at large.
In March, I met Issuf(14), Issuman(10) and Ibrahima(10) on the streets of Bamako. They were begging for alms. The trio looked dirty and unkempt. They might not have heard their bath for days. Issuf, Issuman and Ibrahima were among thousands of children who I was told roam the streets of Mali everyday.
The children are called Manya in local Bambara language. In Northern Nigeria they are called almajiri.
The Manya, I was told, are children from poor families who are sent to learn Koran and Arabic by their parents at local Madrassa schools in Bamako. These schools are headed by Koranic teachers who exploit the children-force them to go and beg on the streets- in order to sustain themselves and the schools. Actually, these children spent around 3 hours –between 7.00am and 10.00am learning Koran/Arabic, and the rest of the day-and night- roaming the streets and scavenging for survival.
At the end of the day, the children hand over what they got to the Islamic teacher and the next day they are back on the streets. The Manya are subjected to this cycle of abuse and exploitation for years. They face so many hazards- infact many of them die due to lack of medical care, hunger, or accidents. Some of the children I saw on the streets of Bamako had sores on their bodies. It was evident that nobody was catering for them.
Some of the street children who survive end up as thieves or criminals. Since Koranic and Arabic education do not equip these children with useful skills, some of them may end up being recruited by terrorist and jihadist networks. For me the Manya are social time bombs that would explode on the face of Mali and the world at large. Most of the people I spoke to sounded hopeless, and thought that the Manya phenomenon had come to stay in Mali. And because the issue is connected with Islam, many people were slow and careful in condemning it for fear of being portrayed as a critic or enemy of Islam.
Local authorities appear to be doing nothing to address the problem. They have literally turned a blind eye on it. These children are a common sight on the streets of Bamako. So no one would say that they are not aware of the presence of ‘les enfants des rues’. The government I was told is very knowledgeable of the issue. I think that they do not care. Or rather, it is not a priority to the politicians-after all, the children do not vote. But their parents do.
The government of Mali need to rise up to this challenge and take drastic measures to tackle the problem head on. The government should arrest and prosecute Koranic teachers who send children to beg on the streets. Their Madrassa schools should be closed down. The government should condemn in no uncertain terms the exploitation of children in the name of koranic teaching or Arabic learning. Local authorities should penalize parents who allow or condone their children begging on the streets. For instance, Issuf, Issuman and Ibrahima told me that their parents were aware that they were begging on the streets .
I mean, such cases of parental irresponsibility should not go unpunished. Concerned citizens, local and international organizations should help shine the light on the problem. Unicef should lobby and engage the government of Mali and of other countries like Nigeria, Niger, Senegal with similar problems in finding a lasting solution to this menace. The government of Mali needs to review madrassa school system and consider closing down such schools since they appear not to be adding any value to the life and development of children. It should ensure that all children both from poor and rich families receive formal education that equips them with useful skills and competencies.
Children are the future of any society. Whatever jeopardizes the future of children endangers the future of the society. The authorities in Mali must strive and eradicate the problem of the street children and the madrassa school system that fuels, aids and abets it .