One familiar sight in Senegal was that of young boys, in tattered rags, walking the streets clutching large, empty metal tins (think Heinz baked beans tins, super-sized) looking for handouts from tourists, leftovers from locals. The boys rarely begged though. They just seemed to wander, hopeful that their tins and therefore their stomachs would be filled.
Then I was in Mali. Here too, youngs boys in tattered rags would walk the streets. Here though, they carry plastic buckets rather than old tins. Still looking for food though. The boys would linger, expectantly, around the street-side eateries. As soon as you had finished and put your spoon down, your plate was swiftly removed by the nearest-standing boy who would urgently scrape the remains into his plastic bucks and replace the plate before the eaterie owner had a chance to react.
It was the same in every town. The boys had a routine, every day the same.
While tourists might be leaving their hotels, to walk around town, guidebook in hand, along a well-worn path to take in the sights; the boys would walk in small groups (four or five of them usually) along a set route, stopping at their regular haunts – eateries, restaurants and hotels – to check if there was food for them. Any food they got was shared out between the group – they only seem to have each other to rely upon. Then evening came and they’d be back at the street-side eateries. Eager. Expectant. Hungry.
For some reason, I don’t think these boys were homeless. The boys were never without their bucket and rarely did you see them where there was no food nearby. Perhaps their families were poor and couldn’t afford to feed them let alone send them to school. Perhaps they sent them out to get food. And where were the girls?
I have since come across a report by Human Rights Watch, which talks about these ‘bucket boys’, who have been sent onto the streets by the very people who are supposed to be looking after them. Parents, poor ones, give their children to religious leaders in urban Koranic schools, who in turn abuse the boys and send them onto the streets to beg, when they should be learning the Koran.
Of course, not all marabouts (the religious leaders) and Koranic schools are exploiting children. As is always the case, a few shocking cases can ruin the reputation of all.
Having said that, there is no condoning this practise of child abuse and exploitation, which according to the report involves 50,000 boys in Senegal. And based on what I’ve seen, may not be confined to Senegal alone.