Community and Societal Development

How can cross-cultural development workers help communities and societies thrive by following godly principles?

The Plight of the Talibé: How Theology and Development Theory Inform Social Action in Senegal

Brett D. Molter is a PhD candidate in the Cook School of Intercultural Studies at Biola University. He has been living in Senegal, west Africa for the past 8 years, teaching in international school settings and actively engaging with the surrounding communities.

Brett D. Molter is a PhD candidate in the Cook School of Intercultural Studies at Biola University. He has been living in Senegal, west Africa for the past 8 years, teaching in international school settings and actively engaging with the surrounding communities.

WCIU Journal: Community and Societal Development Topic

February 5, 2019

by Brett D. Molter

Injustices always occur in some sort of social context. In fact, it would potentially be negligent for one to assume there are societies in the world today devoid of them. Irrespective of the type of government, socio-economic class, or religion, wherever there are communities of people living together, social injustice exists.

One such social injustice existing in many of the world’s nations today is that of child trafficking. One general definition of child trafficking is the recruiting, transportation, harboring of children for the purpose of exploitation (Warria 2017, 682). The mistreatment of children has become a global concern over the past 20 years or so. More specifically, child trafficking is more prevalent on the continents of Asia and Africa than on any other continent. Out of the estimated 1.2 billion children trafficked each year, one out of five of those children are in the poorer regions of Africa (Warria 2017, 683). What is more, this social injustice continues to threaten the welfare, security, and rights of the children whom it is affecting. Some of those children being exploited and mistreated are young street boys, or talibé (Arabic word for knowledge seeker) of Senegal, west Africa.

This article seeks to examine the plight of the talibé of Senegal in light of development theory and how it might address this most pressing social injustice issue. Furthermore, through exegeting Scripture, this article will address theological implications of engaging in social injustice issues and what followers of Jesus could be doing to aid in its eradication. Finally, suggestions will be given for future research concerning the plight of the talibé and how might the country of Senegal be further affected if this exploitation of boys is allowed to continue.

The Problem

The mistreatment and exploitation of these boys in Senegal is not simply an injustice of contemporary significance, but has been an historical plight for over 100 years. In the late 19th century, the problem was only exacerbated with the creation of the Mouride brotherhood (a sect of Sufi Islam), founded by Amadou Bamba (Zoumanigui 2016, 186). Much of the Senegalese population, whose majority religion falls under the umbrella of Folk Islam (approximately 95% of the population), strongly believes in the importance of religious education. In an extremely poor country such as Senegal, other necessities like food and shelter are also of great importance. Therefore, when families cannot pay for school materials and are struggling to feed their family, the thought of “giving” their son(s) to the study of the Qur’an is often perceived as an act of survival.

Senegalese parents send their son to a Qur’anic teacher, or marabout, who agrees to provide shelter and education for the boy. This not only eases the strain on the family, but parents believe it gives the boy a better chance at becoming a devout, pious Muslim when he is older. A father of a talibé boy believes that his son will now have the opportunity to one day become a marabout himself, bring prestige and high-status to himself and possibly his family (Perry 2004). Once under the care of a marabout, the boys are enrolled in the Qur’anic school where he will be a student of the Qur’an from age five well into his teenage years.

From its origins up until the 1980’s, when the Qur’anic schools (daaras) were located mainly in the rural regions of Senegal, marabouts would take their boys and teach them to cultivate the fields during the rainy season. According to one former talibé, the boys would cultivate the fields to earn a living, and were not forced to beg (Ware 2004). However, as people migrated to the urban areas of Senegal, many marabouts realized that they could profit more from sending their students into the streets to beg for money. In fact, some are opening up daaras for a source of income for themselves, thus perpetuating this phenomenon of forced child begging (Zoumanigui 2016). As the boys beg, they are required to return what they have collected to their marabout at the end of the day. If they have not collected what was expected, the marabout might beat him.

To perpetuate the issue, one of the five pillars (beliefs) of Islam is the giving of alms. If one is to be a good Muslim and make penance of his sins so to have a better chance at making it to paradise, he must give away a portion of his money. Talibé boys begging on the streets provides easy access to this religious obligation, thus helping to further the ongoing abuse of these boys. There have been estimations that report there may be close to 90,000 talibé in the capital city of Dakar of whom approximately 86% are under the age of 15 (Zoumanigui 2016). In the larger cities of Senegal, the sight of talibé boys, barefoot, dirty, in tattered clothing, and holding a small bucket in their hands for collecting money, is ubiquitous and virtually unavoidable. In fact, this phenomenon has become so culturally ingrained that the casualness with which the Senegalese people respond to this social injustice communicates a level of acceptance on their part. What was once a moral and religious practice has now become one of exploitation and mistreatment.

As one can surmise, this is anything but a simple issue of social injustice involving children. Instead, it is multi-faceted—a complex phenomenon requiring much attention to the many details surrounding the plight of the talibé. The Islamic tradition perpetuates the problem, seeing humans as God’s slaves, requiring unconditional obedience, submission, and servitude as written in the Qur’an (Perry 2004). This presents a challenge for all who hope to see an end to the issue of forced begging. Zoumanigui (2016) found that in Senegal, religious and social motives were intimately woven together. Through interviewing individuals participating in the giving of alms to the talibé she discovered that the majority of them gave because they claimed it was tradition to do so. A smaller portion of the interviewees stressed they were giving in order to be more compassionate towards those who are deprived. Nevertheless, some made it quite clear that they were giving for religious purposes—purposes that are grounded in one’s requirement to give alms in the hopes that Allah will forgive their wrong-doings (Zoumanigui 2016). Therefore, of vital importance is a working knowledge of the factors involved in an injustice such as the plight of the talibé, if one is to take part in actively addressing this issue in culturally appropriate ways.

Development Theory

Before a discussion can ensue concerning how international development theory might alter the plight of the talibé, one must consider what it is and how it aims to bring aid to peoples and nations. The idea of development did not come to be one of much significance until the era following World War II. Development, in its simplest terms, speaks to the belief that societies can change and alter their circumstances surrounding how they live in order to improve their overall well-being (Meyers 2011, 23). Development implies an upward mobility of some sort—moving from a less developed to a more developed way of living. One researcher argues that it implies a process of changing to a more “advanced” state (Harriss 2013, 3). Personally, I favor a definition of development that entails a community of individuals implementing specific strategies in order to better themselves economically and educationally. Of course, this begs the question, What is to be understood by the word “advanced”? We will address this in the following discussion concerning modernization theory and how it might address the plight of the talibé in Senegal.

Modernization Theory and the Talibé

Following World War II, the role of the state (or nation) virtually changed overnight. Governments would have more control over domestic and economic issues of the state. In practice, economic development came to be highly valued and involved industrialization (Harriss 2013, 13). As a result, modernization theory was birthed out of the belief that societies must pass through stages, often from a traditional or “agrarian” economy to a one of high consumption, deemed a market economy. Essentially, following a western template of development was expected to lead a nation to greater economic growth. L. Harrison concluded that “progress in such areas as life, health, liberty, prosperity, education and justice depend on the capitalist ways of life, which depends in turn on a society’s culture” (Krishna and Ros 2008, 412).

Unfortunately, modernization theory resembled an early 20th century anthropological theory, which stated that societies move between three developmental stages beginning with savagery, to barbarism and finally to civilization. Since then, modernization has been the recipient of much critique and thus carries little weight in being able to solve many economic challenges countries face today.

One such argument against modernization theory came in the 1960’s. A scholar named Andre Gunder Frank, argued against the prevailing notion that the history and present condition of underdeveloped nations such as those on the continent of Africa, resembled earlier stages of the history of now developed nations. In essence, the reason there are underdeveloped nations is due to past and continuing economic relations between themselves and developed nations (Frank 1967). Therefore, according to Frank, nations steeped in economic hardship could not simply adopt more modern technologies through capitalistic efforts to overcome their economic challenges. So, how might modernization theory inform a specific approach to social action regarding the talibé?

Again, the basic assumption underlying modernization theory is that traditions of cultures and the values of poor countries need to change and possibly would change if they encountered world urbanization, better public education, and overall, integration into the western market system (Myers 2011, 27). Senegal has experienced advances in urbanization, even as recently as the past 10 years or so. Due to new highways connecting more rural communities with those on the outskirts of Dakar, many more people have moved into the urban areas. Many more are now able to work in the city, commuting daily from their home villages, located many kilometers out of the urban and suburban areas. However, the fact still remains that the majority of the population, largely due to poverty, lives in the rural regions of the country. Public education in Senegal, although very much a salient issue politically speaking, still struggles to make significant improvements at the local level. The cost of school supplies poses a challenge for many families, not to mention the overwhelmingly lopsided ration of teachers to students, especially at the elementary level (sometimes one teacher for 75 students).

Finally, Senegal is not integrated into a western market system (nor would one suppose it desires to, partly due to its association with France through years of colonization). There are many Senegalese who are either part of a business or have started their own through much hard work and dedication to their jobs. Whether it is building furniture, selling fruits and vegetables or clothing, each occupies an important niche within society. One result is that they not only provide some stability to the economy, but they can make a fairly good living. Unfortunately, though, modernization theory aims at building a market economy which will be recognized by the west and that is integrated on a global level. This is not the case today; however, efforts in helping to identify Senegal as an up-and-coming market economy worthy of international recognition would, at a national level, potentially bring about more revenue and notoriety among other capitalistic nations of the world. If this were to take place, one could surmise that poverty might begin to be alleviated, thus influencing the number of parents relenting to give up their boys to a marabout due to lack of provisions. It might also heighten the awareness of begging on the streets and the injustices of having to give all their money to their marabout, raising more questions as to why this still occurs when the capitalistic market economy provides alternatives for these Qur’anic teachers.

Any international development aid given to the country of Senegal must be implemented with caution. Those involved should allow for the community to take ownership of the strategy or theory to ensure that all aspects are contextualized and traditions, values, norms and beliefs are not compromised to their potential detriment. This would best be accomplished at a grass-roots level.

One development scholar coined the phrase, “The cruel choice,” and argued that in order for modernization theory to be successful, Western mainstream society had to force cultures to choose between keeping their local traditions and remaining poor, or join modernization trends, which would inevitably result in a loss of their identity (Hoksbergen, Curry & Kuperus 2009). Therefore, in order to test modernization theory and see how it might inform social practice within the sphere of economic growth, it must be on Senegal’s terms in order to avoid any hint of ethnocentric values that might otherwise minimize the worth and importance of ideas coming from within the country itself. Otherwise, it is likely that the plight of the talibé will not improve.

If this theory were to be conducive in eradicating the injustices apparent with the talibé issue, a “bottom line” starting point would be found in the following words: “To progress, we have to abandon the habit of reducing the poor to cartoon characters and take the time to really understand their lives, in all their complexity and richness” (Myers 2011, 39). A prerequisite to any social action addressing the talibé is first understanding the issue in all its complexity. If individuals or organizations such as NGO’s want to apply this theory at a grass-roots level, they must look for ways that will boost the economy, provide more education and jobs so parents do not feel trapped into putting their boys in an unhealthy and abusive environment for the sake of Islam. Maybe then the daaras will return to a more traditional and civilized educational experience for parents, children, and marabouts alike. It is worth reiterating the fact that the plight of the talibé is a social justice issue regarding the mistreatment, neglect, and abuse of children. In addition, it is practiced in a poor country in need of continued and sustainable economic growth. Therefore, taking social action towards addressing such issues as the talibé requires an approach that acknowledges the broader social, economic, and political context in which it is situated. That being said, modernization theory appears to be a plausible method through which to employ ideas and strategies which will alleviate poverty and the continued mistreatment of these boys.

Looking beyond attempts to make Senegal a more modernized country for the purposes of bringing social action that might address the plight of the talibé, the next section will endeavor to uncover an alternative theory in international development and possible ways it might inform social action in Senegal.

Dependency Theory and the Talibé

Another theory of international development that came into existence just after that of modernization theory was dependency theory. Although the ultimate goal of this theory as well as modernization theory was economic growth, dependency theory went a step further to claim that the West was the reason underdevelopment countries existed (Myers 2011, 28). To some researchers during the late 1950s, poorer nations were becoming dependent on richer nations for the manufacturing of some of their products. Raul Prebisch, the Director of the United Nations Economic Commission for Latin America at that time, explained that poor countries were exporting certain products to rich countries to be manufactured. Once manufactured, they would be sold back to the poor country at a cost detriment (Ferraro 2008). A potential solution to this problem was suggested, stating that these poor countries ought not to export, but import for the purposes of manufacturing in-country, thus saving on manufacturing costs. Nevertheless, it was widely accepted at this time that dependency theory did little else but to explain the persistent poverty of poorer countries (Ferraro 2008).

The outcome of dependency theory resulted in unhealthy interactions between underdeveloped nations and rich nations. For instance, the dependent nations (found mainly in Africa, Asian and Latin America), relied heavily on the export of single commodities to richer nations in order to gain foreign exchange earnings (Ferraro 2008). Moreover, it reinforced the poor nation’s dependence upon rich nations to a point that the clear inequity between them only became more stigmatized as time went on. As did modernization theory, dependency theory lost its luster by the 1990’s, with development theory in general refocusing its efforts towards the issue of poverty.

According to Ferraro (2008), the dependency of poorer nations (developing or underdeveloped) on richer nations was illustrated by its emulation of the patterns used by the rich countries. If the poor nations failed to do so, dependency was no longer applicable to the economic growth and development of poorer nations. In critique of the idea of dependency, it perpetuated the unhealthy colonial relationships that existed between the poorer and richer nations. Furthermore, it did not allow for “trickle-down” economics to occur, which helps explain how wealth is distributed and allocated from those having more to those who have less. Those, repudiating dependency theory, also argue that economic activity is not easily disseminated in poorer economies (Ferraro 2008). Therefore, contrary to dependency theory methods, poorer nations ought to pursue policies of self-reliance. According to Hoksbergen, Curry and Kuperus (2009), poorer, developing nations need to have sufficient levels of governance, implement economic development policies and provide security to lessen criminal violence if they are to break away from any unhealthy dependency on other nations for the purpose of economic growth. How then might any aspects of dependency theory inform social action regarding the talibé issue in Senegal?

It is very difficult to say how or if at all dependency theory could inform social action in addressing the plight of the talibé. Dependency theory, like modernization theory, is situated in economics, and the talibé issue is not directly related to the economic climate of Senegal. However, it is indirectly related in that if the economy were healthy enough to allow families to provide daily sustenance for their children as well as a good education, parents would not feel pressured to allow marabouts to take “ownership” of their boys’ education and well-being.

Senegal’s dependency on its exports to richer nations allows for some economic growth to occur. Yet as mentioned earlier, Senegal is not a recognized force in the global economy and thus relies heavily on its market production and entrepreneurship within its boundaries. Therefore, in order to begin to tackle social injustices such as the talibé, Senegal’s government must make every effort to provide affordable education and unemployment assistance to families, which will lead to a healthier economy and less dependency on other nations. Development needs to be addressed at a national level, yet carried out on a more grass-roots level in order to see its application. In sum, poor countries like Senegal should only engage in interactions with richer nations if there is some assurance that its social and economic welfare will improve as a result (Ferraro 2008).

The last section of this paper will seek to address how theology or theories of development associated with Christianity might inform social action regarding alleviating the plight of the talibé.

Theology, the Talibé, and Christian Response

At first glance, the plight of the talibé might simply look like any other social issues found within impoverished nations like Senegal. After all, children begging on the streets is not necessarily an uncommon phenomenon, especially among the poor. For many outside the context of Senegal, the onus of addressing such issues would be on the government of Senegal itself, or at least, the initial steps in doing so. Nevertheless, with a clear understanding of the issue, many would argue that this is indeed one of many social injustices in need of attention on the continent of Africa. Along with such acknowledgement, what is an appropriate response from the collective Christian community worldwide and how might one’s understanding of God inform potential social action regarding the talibé?

Genesis 1:27 states that man was made in the image of God, the one and only Creator of the universe. No other part of His creation was brought into existence bearing His image. Therefore, in light of this truth, one can deduce the significance and uniqueness imparted to all mankind from the very beginning. Thus, the manner in which one treats another human being can be evaluated through the lens of the creation account in Genesis. Simply put, humans are to be valued and shown dignity above all other created things. Social injustices such as the talibé illustrates one way in which one can devalue another, even to the point of exploiting them for personal gain. Christians ought to be focusing on transformational development, which according to Myers (2011) is holistic in practice and seeks to transform humans to a state of wholeness in harmony with God, the environment and each other.

Considering the value God places on human beings, Luke 6:31 commands people to do to others as they would have others do unto them. Simply, treat others like you would want them to treat yourself. How would followers of Christ inform the treatment of the talibé if living in obedience to Scripture? By seeing them as children—boys, created in God’s image for the purpose of flourishing, one cannot help but take social action. According to Robinson and Hanmer (2014, 603), religious or faith-based organizations create a unified voice when addressing such issues as child abuse and neglect. In Angola, there are a group of churches educating their congregations about child-related abuses, with the hope that heightening awareness of the issue will bring about a vigilance towards ending such injustices. Life is full of narrative. The talibé boys are part of a larger story. Christians have individual stories. However, in order to be effective in social action, one must realize that taking care of the poor and eradicating injustices such as the talibé issue, is part of God’s ultimate story—a story, which compels action to be taken in order to witness human transformation (Myers 2011). All of this speaks to an underlying motivation on the part of Christians to see social injustice purged from societies.

Largely, the motivation for transformational development is grounded in the concept of shalom, which is characterized by a sense of material well-being, harmony, peace, and justice (Yoms & Bowers Du Toit 2017, 46). The encapsulates nicely the reason and motivation driving followers of Christ to seek remedies for social injustice. There are missionaries in Senegal who have addressed and still are addressing the plight of the talibé by offering them clothing, shoes, shelter and showers. The “House of Hope”, or Maison d’ Espoir in Senegal is a home, which takes in former talibé boys and not only takes care of their material needs, but educates them on the love Jesus has for them. It is a holistic, grass- roots ministry, putting feet to transformational development within the Christian community in Senegal. In Scripture, Jesus’ words concerning loving one’s neighbor as himself is cause for such motivation depicted in these ministries. Moreover, Jesus’ love for mankind, illustrated by His ultimate sacrifice on the cross compels His followers to love and sacrifice on behalf of others like the talibé. Caring for these boys in such a way that it brings about human flourishing is not just sought out by the Christian community, but is part of God’s plan of redemption. Through transformational development efforts, God is working to redeem and restore all of creation (Myers 2011, 176). Therefore, social action is really an outward manifestation of one’s inner motivation, which compels him to be God’s hands and feet in the world. In addition to having a clear understanding of human value in God’s eyes as well as what motivates a Christian’s response to social action, one must address theology and poverty with regards to the talibé condition.

As discussed earlier, the talibé are not simply boys given to a marabout for the purpose of gaining an Islamic education. More often than not, the talibé are poor boys coming from poor families—families whose economic status is positively affected by giving up their sons. Therefore, if Christians are to engage in social action that will allow for these boys to remain with their families to avoid such abuses from their Qur’anic teachers, they must first understand how God addresses the needs of the poor in Scripture.

What does it mean to be poor? In general, to be poor is to be lacking in the necessary material goods that allow one to thrive. Myers (2011, 113) noted that early definitions of the poor focused more on one’s deficit in water, shelter and food. This is certainly still the case when addressing issues of the poor. However, in addition to Myer’s definition, Grudem and Asmus expand the idea of poverty when they argue that the poor are those who “lack the freedom to be able to make meaningful choices—to have an ability to affect one’s situation” (Grudem and Asmus 2013, 39). Therefore, with this acknowledgement of who are the poor in the world, how should they be addressed from a Christian perspective?

Throughout Scripture, the poor are the subject of many verses which address one’s responsibility in taking care of them. For example, Proverbs 14:21 says that those who are generous to the poor will be blessed. In fact, Proverbs 19:1 argues that it is better to be a poor person walking in integrity than one who is speaks ill and is a fool. Two powerful verses, Proverbs 31:8-9, address the poor and social justice by saying that we should speak up for those who cannot speak up for themselves as well as defend the rights of the poor and needy. In Matthew 19:21 Jesus tells the rich, young man that if he wants to have treasure in heaven, he must sell all he has and give it to the poor. The book of James even goes further to say that the poor in this world have been chosen by God to be rich in faith (James 2:5). As evidenced here, God’s Word clearly communicates His desire for His followers to act towards addressing the needs of the poor. And if followers of Christ will be obedient to God’s Word, then getting involved in social injustice issues such as the talibé of Senegal will simply be the result of one being compelled to love others as Christ loves on them. More Christians ought to be engaging in the plight of the talibé as those missionaries previously mentioned are already doing.


This article has endeavored to address a couple of secular theories of international development with the hope that any ideas and insights into alleviating and ultimately eradicating social injustices might be applicable to harsh circumstances surrounding the plight of the talibé boys of Senegal. In addition, theological implications embedded within the theory of transformational development and the Word of God have been considered as well. Social action must move beyond the theoretical and take on feet as is necessary to actively engage in finding ways to remove the talibé from the streets of Senegal. Ultimately, getting to the root of the issue like addressing poverty in the family, the role of marabouts in society and the tenets of Islam, will serve to be the most direct way in which to rid the country of child begging.

Currently, taking care of their sanitary needs as well as providing clothing and food is without question improving their living conditions. In addition to the House of Hope caring for the physical and spiritual needs of the talibé, there are missionaries reaching out the talibé in terms of their daily needs. However, in terms of seeing transformational development take root within this issue, it will require much prayer on the part of the global Church. The one challenge this issue faces is that it is illegal to proselytize children. The children must come willingly to hear the gospel message, without provocation, if it is to be law-abiding. Some missionaries have been arrested and put in prison for breaking this law. Therefore, it must be a movement of the Holy Spirit as one attempts to engage in transformational development in Senegal. It is suggested that further engagement in the plight of the talibé must consider conversations between the Senegalese government, marabouts, and families of prospective talibé. This is a reasonable starting point for establishing new laws and economic and educational strategies that will increase economic growth and help eliminate the mistreatment of the talibé in Qur’anic schools. Moreover, the sanctity of life and the image of God can be restored so that all Senegalese are treated humanely, just as God, the Creator of the universe, intended for it to be.


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