On the day he decided to run away, 9-year-old Coli awoke on a filthy mat.
Like a pup, he lay curled against the cold, pressed between dozens of other children sleeping head-to-toe on the concrete floor. His T-shirt was damp with the dew that seeped through the thin walls. The older boys had yanked away the square of cloth he used to protect himself from the draft. He shivered.
There are 1.2 million Colis in the world today, children trafficked to work for the benefit of others. Those who lure them into servitude make $15 billion annually, according to the International Labor Organization.
It’s big business in Senegal. In the capital of Dakar alone, at least 7,600 child beggars work the streets, according to a study released in February by the ILO, the United Nations Children’s Fund and the World Bank. The children collect an average of 300 African francs a day, just 72 cents, reaping their keepers $2 million a year.
Most of the boys—90 percent, the study found—are sent out to beg under the cover of Islam, placing the problem at the complicated intersection of greed and tradition. For among the cruelest facts of Coli’s life is that he was not stolen from his family. He was brought to Dakar with their blessing to learn Islam’s holy book.
In the name of religion, Coli spent two hours a day memorizing verses from the Quran and over nine hours begging to pad the pockets of the man he called his teacher.
It was getting dark. Coli had less than half the 72 cents he was told to bring back. He was afraid. He knew what happened to children who failed to meet their daily quotas.
They were stripped and doused in cold water. The older boys picked them up like hammocks by their ankles and wrists. Then the teacher whipped them with an electrical cord until the cord ate their skin.
Coli’s head hurt with hunger. He could already feel the slice of the wire on his back.
Not all Quranic boarding schools force their students to beg. But for the most part, what was once an esteemed form of education has degenerated into child trafficking. Nowadays, Quranic instructors net as many children as they can to increase their daily take.
“If you do the math, you’ll find that these people are earning more than a government functionary,” said Souleymane Bachir Diagne, an Islamic scholar at Columbia University. “It’s why the phenomenon is so hard to eradicate.”
Middle men trawl for children as far afield as the dunes of Mauritania and the grass-covered huts of Mali. It’s become a booming, regional trade that ensnares children as young as 2, who don’t know the name of their village or how to return home.
But their earnings far exceed his rent of $50. If the boys meet their quotas, they bring in around $650 a month in a nation where the average person earns $150.
Buwaro expects the children to suffer to learn the Quran, just as he did at the hands of his teacher.
In 2005, Senegal made it a crime punishable by five years in prison to force a child to beg. But the same law makes an exception for children begging for religious reasons. Few dare to cross marabouts for fear of supernatural retaliation.