04 January 2017

Modern Day Slavery in Senegal

04 January 2017 - Written by Laurence Cornet

Portuguese photographer Mario Cruz captures the disturbing plight of young children who are being systematically exploited by human traffickers in Senegalese Koranic schools.

© Mario Cruz, from the series Talibes: Modern Day Slaves. Guinean military police approach a group of children in a forest area near the Bissau border, Guinea-Bissau. In March 2015, Guinean authorities found 54 children hidden inside five vehicles that were crossing to Senegal but Senegalese authorities continue to fail to prosecute the traffickers.

In 2009, Mario Cruz was in Guinea Bissau when he heard about children disappearing in Senegal. Six years later, when he finally got a chance to start investigating the story, nothing had changed. The phenomenon had only worsened. "There is a Talibe national day in April. Every year, the government makes new promises, but nothing is ever done", Cruz deplores.

What he found out and documented is the story of children being enslaved by powerful men who pretend to take them to Koranic schools. But what used to be an alternative educational system for the poorest families in the country has now turned into the most violent and corrupted one. Presenting themselves as teachers, rich and powerful men get hold of children, imprison them in abandoned buildings and force them to beg every day from morning to night. Unable to collect enough, children are punished and beaten on a daily basis.

© Mario Cruz, from the series Talibes: Modern Day Slaves. Ibrahima Ndao, Marabout of a daara in Rufisque, whips a Talibe child after he made a mistake reading an excerpt of the Quran.

"The problem in Senegal is out of control. There are more than 50,000 Talibes, between 5 and 11 years old, many of whom are not Senegalese as the fake teachers have started trafficking children from neighbouring countries", Cruz pursues. To unravel the drama, he covered the situation in Senegal and Guinea Bissau. "I never thought I would see children being whipped in front of me, or children being chained, and I saw these things every day for a month and a half", he recounts.

The book he just published with FotoEvidence about the issue is staggering, starting with the access he got to this illegal and obviously closed community. "I had a fixer with me all the time to do diversion so I could shoot the photos that I needed to tell the story of the Talibes. Everyday, I was collecting a new piece, and in the end I knew that I had done everything I could to get the evidence", he explains.

© Mario Cruz, from the series Talibes: Modern Day Slaves. Talibes sleep together inside a daara in Saint Louis, Senegal. The daara with over 30 children has no clean water and barely any electricity. Children sleep on the concrete floor without any protection.

Moreover, the editing of the images forces the reader into the physical experience of the place. "At some point in the book, you reach total darkness", Cruz notes. And indeed, an indistinct photograph appears 5 times in a row, brighter and brighter page after page so the reader slowly deciphers it and discovers a dozen children, lying on each other on the floor.

"During that research, I realised that the lack of proof was enabling this to happen. I also saw how photography could be crucial in bringing awareness to it. So, the purpose of the book was to create a physical evidence", he continues. And it worked as the government has since implemented a law to fight the phenomenon.


Talibes: Modern Day Slaves by Mario Cruz

Published in collaboration with FotoEvidence // Introduction by Lauren Siebert, Human Rights Watch

Designed by Bonnie Briant // Text Edited by David Stuart

Languages: English, Portuguese, French, and Arabic



Mario Cruz is a documentary photographer living and working in Lisbon, Portugal. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.

Written by

Laurence Cornet

Reading time

4 minutes

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