Diobene Tallene is a small village in western Senegal, ten minutes from the main paved road. It is here that I interviewed Elhadji Rokitall who has been running a daara, or a Koranic boarding school, since 1998.  Elhadji’s daara now boasts 34 students, almost half of which are girls.

Before becoming a marabout, or a religious teacher, Elhadji traveled a great deal, teaching Arabic—but he always wanted to run his own daara. It was not until he felt that he had acquired enough knowledge that he finally set up his own.

In the beginning, Elhadji took the talibés to Mbour to beg during the dry season. This is a common practice in Senegal; young boys are often sent by their families to daaras, where they spend several hours a day begging. The begging is intended to teach them humility as part of their religious education, and cover the costs of their studies.

Elhadi’s students would beg for two hours in the morning, two to three hours at lunch, and another two hours in the evening. He points out that they only begged for food, not money, and that they still spent four hours studying in the morning and three hours studying in the early evening. He admits that it was difficult to beg in the village, because it wasn’t fair to ask villagers—who themselves had so little—to support the daara, however, it was also difficult to give classes with a lack of resources.

That has all changed since Elhadji partnered with Tostan in 2013 through the Child Protection Project.  He has since stopped all begging at his daara. When asked why begging had stopped, he admits that it is in large part thanks to the support he receives from the Community Management Committees (CMCs).  

Elhadji prefers running a village daara where local children can attend.  Since 2013 he has been receiving material support in the form of mats, lamps and seeds, and is particularly thankful for the lamps, which allow the students to study later into the evening.  This support also means that children do not have to beg, and that Elhadji does not have to leave the village to seek additional funds. He is now available to look after his students and to dedicate more time to teaching.

Elhadji does not hide his skepticism about the government’s program for daara modernization, or his fears of what will happen to his students without outside support. Even if the government were to follow through on its promise to modernize the daara system, he fears that they will come with a lot of conditions, which is why he prefers to work with private organizations. Elhadji plans to continue working with the CMC to push other marabouts to stop sending their talibés out to beg.  

Elhadji’s work as a teacher has become easier since collaborating with Tostan. Like many marabouts, he wants forced begging to end and believes that talibés would be better off without it, however, ensuring adequate resources will likely continue to be a challenge.

“I have acquired new knowledge. I do not force my students to work or give them tasks that are not age appropriate. I will try to maintain my current system but with much difficulty. If the program ends I will have problems.”

With a crisis of leadership now facing the Diamatou Euhlil Khourane Association (ADEK)—an association of marabouts who work closely with the CMCs and the Daara Management Committees (DMCs)—many other marabouts feel that Elhadji should take over.  They are impressed by his dedication to his students, and to the daara modernization efforts.

Toward the end of our interview, a torrential rain started to fall. His students began to gather behind him, one by one, soon joined by a few goats. In the end we had quite an audience. When I got out my camera to take his picture, he asked if the other students could be in the photo too. As I snapped their picture, he took out a copy of “Focus on the Daara” from his bag, a guide to the government’s Daara Modernization Program, and thumbed through it. After decades of studying the Koran he finds himself studying up on government regulations and procedures, which will serve him well as the likely next leader of ADEK. 

Story by Detrich Peeler, Assistant to the Child Protection Project, Tostan and Interpreter, Pierre Coly