Monsieur Cadeau

It is perhaps one of the things that first world travelers dread most about the developing world–more than disease, more than red tape, more than language barriers: begging. Even if you’re used to giving to/ignoring panhandlers back home, it’s different when you’re on the road–there are often more beggars, they single you out as the rich tourist and the wealth gap between you and them has never been more apparent–all of which combine to leave you feeling guilty, stingy and bothered.

Begging comes in a wide variety of forms. Perhaps the best targets of a traveler’s generosity are the elderly and infirm, especially near places of worship. By participating in traditional forms of charity directed at those in clearest need, tourists are able to assist in a way that is consistent with local norms and does not result in an increase in the number of beggars especially targeting tourists. The most memorable group of such mendicants, for me, was a group of women outside the famous rock-hewn St. George’s in Lalibela–nowhere else have we had donations of basic foodstuffs (in our case, bread) so warmly received. Other forms of begging can be somewhat more annoying/troubling. In India, children or women with babies run up to cars at intersections thrusting the babies at windows and demanding money. In Egypt, tourist police and security guards demand tips when no services at all are performed (see post of 08.09.16). Perhaps most devious of all, and one we were most amused to have naively fallen for, young women (also usually with babies) in Shenzhen, China will pretend to eat food out of garbage cans, trying to draw sympathy and cash contributions.

Talibes in Senegal (see post of 08.11.22)

But it is a somewhat more frivolous and nagging form of begging that I want to address in my post today. The post is titled “Monsieur Cadeau” (Mister Gift) because that particular phrase is something one hears all the time in parts of West Africa. It is short for “Monsieur, donnez moi un cadeau” (Mister, give me a gift), which one also sometimes hears, but more often it is abbreviated and strung together as if “Cadeau” were your surname. Or there is “ca va, cadeau” (how are you, gift). This sort of begging by children is common in many countries around the world; children have learned to mob tourists for money or candy or whatever tourists are willing to give, often in an incredibly persistent way. Adding to the annoyance factor is that often the children who do this are not really those most in need (though admittedly still far poorer than the average tourist). In Ethiopia, for example, even seemingly middle class (for Ethiopia, that is) youth in school uniforms will ask for a birr, the local currency. The hounding establishes an undesirable begger/beggee relationship between local and guest, and makes genuine cultural exchange for travelers that much more difficult.

The Rough Guide to West Africa says that the children of the Francophone West African countries are some of the worst offenders, in terms of begging; the children of the English-speaking West African countries to the south apparently have not adopted this behavior so wholeheartedly. So are the French to blame? Perhaps. French tourists did seem more likely to engage in hand-outs–one young French woman we saw in the Dogon had pre-prepared a bag of small toys to hand out. Visiting Haiti in the 80s, Derek was surprised to regularly hear “boom boom?” from young children. He later realized that “boom boom” was not a sexual reference but “bonbon” or candy in french. Part of it may be Lonely Planet’s fault. In the past, Lonely Planet used to suggest that travelers hand out school supplies instead of money or candy, the logic being that you don’t want to turn kids into beggars or encourage tooth decay. But handing out pens only resulted in children begging for pens instead of money, and a large secondary market in pens. The fact is, children will ask for whatever they can get their hands on, whether it be coins (for a “foreign coin collection”) or candy or pens, unless their parents or other local adults stop them. There are plenty of charities/NGOs to which effective donations can be made, and succumbing to children’s requests unfortunately turns the kids into beggars.

What do we like to do? Admittedly, sometimes we have given money (though not to children), or even candy if we happened to have some on hand and were so moved, but what we prefer is to give either photographs of ourselves (we took a picture of you, and now have it on our camera; here’s a little picture of us for you to have) or postcards from back home. This of course takes some preparation–having printed photographs or postcards ready–but it’s definitely worthwhile, because it allows us to share a bit of ourselves and where we come from with people who don’t own cameras and will likely never have a chance to visit the U.S. On the back of the postcards, Derek usually writes a funny little note, which the recipient generally can’t read but may have translated some day.

An elderly Dogon examining the New York skyline, Mali

Some of Derek’s masterpieces, give to children among the baobabs in Madagascar

One story about giving, or trying to give, that may appeal to the cynical traveler, from the city of Gonder in Ethiopia. I do not know what Gonder is like these days, but when we were there, there were quite a few young children in town who made it their business to provide various “travel agent”-type services to tourists. For example, one small boy with a bum eye helped set up a taxi for us to get to the airport. Others would help carry bags or provide directions. Of all these boys, there was one that we grew to despise, because he was clearly more troublesome and deceptive than the others. He was also overweight, an obvious sign of his relative wealth or success. Well, from Gonder we went on a trip to the nearby Simien Mountains, a high altitude range that is one of the many spectacular sights of Ethiopia. We were waiting outside of the park proper trying to hitch a ride to the trailhead, when a minivan drove up, with some tourists. We asked if we could get a ride, and they said sure. When we got in, we saw that the bad kid was also in the minibus. The other tourists had not noticed, as we had, what a rotten kid he was, and “hired” him to arrange their visit to the Simiens. Anyway, we gratefully accepted the lift, and after a visit cut short by Derek’s severe altitude sickness, returned to Gonder. A couple days later, as we were leaving Gonder, we ran into the young woman who had hired the kid and the van. She related to us how the kid had had his mother throw her a birthday party, and then billed her for all sorts of food and beverages that they didn’t even consume. Not having learned her lesson, she bought the kid an Amharic-English dictionary worth $30, even writing a note on the first page to prevent the kid from reselling it. The good kid with the bum eye told us that the other kid had returned it to the bookstore for $10 anyway.

Faces of Senegal and Mali

For all of its political and economic problems, and relative lack of tourist sites and infrastructure, there are some things about sub-Saharan Africa that are for travelers just about incomparable to anywhere else in the world. The two things that pop up most easily in our mind are the colors and the people. Both can be described with the same adjectives: brash, engaging, exuberant. It is something of a paradox for us; in some ways, Africans can be incredibly timid and mild-mannered, but most of the rest of the time, they can be among the most engaging, gregarious and openly friendly people in the world. This is not the sort of polite welcome and forbearance that one receives in Southeast Asia, or the almost formal hospitality one receives in the Middle East, but a sort of slap-on-the-back friendliness that is not afraid to make jokes and laugh, a smile that is almost overly broad, full of life.

I do not have too much to say about these photos, but consider them with this in mind: Africans may be poor but their persons do not speak poverty and despair, but vitality and joy. I begin first with photographs from Senegal, with its Wolof ethnic plurality, then move on to Mali, where up north around Timbuktu live the fair-skinned berber Tuareg.

Ile de Goree, near Dakar, Senegal

This elegant older woman was awaiting her son, who was supposed to arrive by ferry to celebrate her birthday but was running late. For whatever reason, we imagined her as a sort of Miss Havisham, coming to the ferry dock every day, thinking that it was her birthday and looking for her estranged son.

St. Louis, Senegal

The stick in her mouth is a sort of toothbrush; the apparent effectiveness of such traditional tools makes one wonder why we bother with plastic brushes and saccharine-laden paste.







Mali







A Fula/Peul herder in characteristic hat



A girl exhibiting a confidence that seems, to me, typically African

Tattoos, especially on women and quite often on faces, are worn by “tribal” women around the world.

From Timbuktu. The fairer people are Tuareg, a berber people who inhabit the regions around the Sahara in Mali, Niger, Algeria and Libya. The Tuareg held black Africans as slaves until quite recently, and are said by some to continue to hold slaves. The practice was defended to us as a domestic/familial link at this point rather than mere ownership.






From the Dogon Country




Back to Bamako

Food in West Africa

We really didn’t know what to expect, for food, when coming to West Africa. We had never heard of Senegalese or Malian or Mauritanian food, and had no idea what they were like. We also knew from prior experience that, particularly in poorer countries, there can be a pretty big gap between the best of local cuisine (elaborate and delicious, but prepared only in private homes or for special occasions) and what is available for tourists (crude, dumbed down version of local cuisine or faux-western dishes), and feared that we would be reduced to eating plate after plate of quasi-French (bad steak frites) or spaghetti. One thing we definitely did not expect was a great cuisine–we figured that if there were something all that great, we would have heard of it by now, and seen restaurants serving it in the U.S.

Well, were we wrong. Mali and Mauritania don’t really have much of a cuisine of their own to speak of, but Senegalese food can be phenomenal, and I would rank at least a couple of Senegalese dishes among the tastiest in the world. Not only are restaurants great in the Senegalese capital of Dakar, but well-prepared Senegalese food can be found all over West Africa, in recognition of its place as the region’s finest cuisine. Revealing my ignorance, I learned that Senegalese food is also available in other parts of the world, particularly in France but also in American cities such as New York and Chicago. And so, at least when he’s lucky, the tourist in Senegal, Mali and Mauritania gets to eat good Senegalese food, and that is the main focus of this post, although I include below some non-Senegalese dishes as well.

The queen of Senegalese food, and one of the greatest dishes in the world, as far as I’m concerned, is tieboudienne.

Tieboudienne is the French transliteration of the Wolof (the majority language in Senegal) name for the dish, which simply means rice with fish. But the dish is much more complicated.

First, the rice.

The rice, as you can see, is highly seasoned, and simply delicious to eat alone. Perhaps peculiarly, the Senegalese use broken rice, and cook it quite al dente, so that the rice has an almost couscous texture to it, quite pleasing in the mouth.

Then, the fish (and vegetables).

Fish is caught in plenty in Senegal, and that shows in the generous portion of delicious meaty flesh that usually comes with your tieboudienne. In addition to the fish is an assortment of vegetables, including usually carrot, potato or cassava, cabbage and eggplant. My favorite way of eating tieboudienne is to eat, with knife and fork, amounts of fish and vegetables in proportion to the rice I eat, alternating the vegetables such that, with my five last forkfuls of rice I have one small piece of each vegetable remaining. What fun in resource management!

A fancy tieboudienne, at a top Dakar restaurant

Perhaps the best thing about tieboudienne is not how tasty it is, which is of course true, but that it is considered the most basic Senegalese dish and therefore always available, even at the eateries. I can think of few places where the most basic item on a menu is so flavorful, complex and worthy of repeat eating. We never had a bad tieboudienne in Senegal (or Mali or Mauritania), no matter where we ate it, and since it’s considered a sort of common dish, it is also very cheap–as cheap as USD 1 or 2 in Senegal, Mauritania or Bamako (sadly, good Senegalese restaurants are harder to find in Mali outside of Bamako).

The second greatest dish of Senegalese cuisine is yassa. You can get yassa with chicken, or fish, or anything else I suppose, but the most common is chicken.

Yassa is basically a very heavy oniony sauce, almost akin to French Onion Soup (is it possible that there is a relationship between the two?), and sometimes a little sour, as if the sauce is allowed to ferment, ever so slightly. Like tieboudienne, we never had a bad yassa, although the variation in quality was somewhat greater (tieboudienne is always delicious, yassa sometimes just so-so).

Yassa poisson–sorry for the messy plate!

A rather poor yassa, served with pasta in Djenne. Note how scrawny the chicken is! This plate cost USD 4.

A third Senegalese specialty, although one which it has to share with the rest of the region: mafe. Also known as sauce arachide, or peanut sauce, mafe is meat, often beef or mutton, in a rich peanut-based sauce. When done properly, or at least according to the style that i found myself preferring, the flavor is much darker and richer than the peanut sauce that is served in Southeast Asia to be eaten with your satay.

Also common, though less appealing, is soupe kandja. Kandja, strictly speaking, is not a soup at all, but a sauce to be eaten with rice, like mafe. It is primarily made, it seems, with okra or some other kind of starchy, slimy green. For people turned off by okra (which includes me), kandja is somewhat offensive, due purely to texture.

Served onboard our ship to Timbuktu

As I’ve said before, much of a traveler’s time in West Africa is spent on the road, in share taxis or buses, and with the long rides at least some of your meals will be taken on the road as well. A few pictures showing the kinds of meals one is likely to have while traveling on the West African road.

One of the most basic roadside foods, which could almost be described as primitive, is roasted sheep. Roasted sheep is common in Senegal, Mali and Mauritania; the quality was clearly the best in Mauritania, but in Senegal the meat came with spices (cumin). Super greasy.

Breakfast usually means coffee and eggs at a roadside stand. The simplest way to eat the eggs, for a traveler, is a sandwich to go. A basic omelette, perhaps with onions, inside a baguette–not a bad way to start the day.

The selections that might be available at a basic eatery that a luckier traveler’s bus might stop at. Nothing to complain about, in quality.

Eating more local.

One big and very welcome surprise in Timbuktu was that the food was among the best we’d had in West Africa outside of Dakar. While our hosts at Sahara Passion fed us well and included meals with the family in the reasonable cost of the room, a couple of restaurants in town are definitely worth noting and visiting.

As a sign that you are approaching North Africa, couscous and brochettes appeared on more menus. Here, couscous with vegetables and brochettes with sweet potato fries, at the excellent–food well exceeding the deceptively simple setup, to be sure–Amanar, near the Flamme de la Paix.

Even more impressive than Amanar was the Poulet d’Or, located inside Timbuktu’s Marche Artisanal. The food took a while to arrive, but it was all excellent, including this presentation of a local specialty, toukassou. The big loaf in the middle surrounded by a meaty stew is a huge round spongy bread, not too dissimilar from the “dumplings” served in Czech food.

Our Tabaski feast (see post of 08.12.08)

And some local beverages to wash it down!

Despite the fact that Senegal and Mali are solidly Muslim countries, they fall in the category of Muslim countries with alcohol, such as Turkey and the ex-Soviet Stans of Central Asia. (In Mauritania, all alcohol is banned, although the local authorities never found the half-drunk bottle of Jim Beam which we have been carrying for so long on our trip.) First, a Senegalese beer, against a Dakar sunset. Second, a Malian beer, with the Mopti port in the background.

But we’re not big drinkers. Far more appealing was bissap, pictured to the left, which is a cool drink made with hibiscus leaves (also known as kalkade, e.g., in Egypt). The drink on the right is bouye, made from the fruit of the baobab tree. Also delicious. The third picture is little baggies of bissap and a sort of ginger tea, often sold on the street (and of questionable food safety).

Coffee Touba. Touba is a city in Senegal known best for spiritual leadership and second for coffee.

In Mali and especially in Mauritania, tea is king, made in an elaborate ritual involving much pouring back and forth to cool and generate froth.

Obama in Africa

Dakar, Senegal

As everyone knows, Barack Obama is popular all over the world. He is popular because he is not George Bush and repudiates Bush’s failed policies, because he gives everyone new hope for America and the world, and because his victory itself seemed to restore a sense of righteousness and justice to the world, to set something straight that was so gravely out of kilter. Part of Obama’s mystique is, of course, his skin color and biography. Even without understanding the details of his domestic or foreign policy, one knows right away that Obama represents a different kind of America, is from an ethnic/racial background and generation that has not yet been represented in the highest seats of power. He is black, he is biracial, his father was a Muslim, and he grew up in Hawaii and also in Indonesia. So many things about Obama seem fresh and different, to offer new perspective and hope.

The whole world is excited, yes, but Africa particularly so. When we mention these days that we are American, we are often met with “Obama” as a response. We’ve seen Obama stickers on shop signs and one Obama t-shirt. One American living in Mali told us that there is even a hair salon named after Obama in Bamako; the hand-painted business sign, characteristic of such signs all over West Africa, went up just days after the election.

Dogon Country, Mali

Ile de Goree, Senegal

Why the excitement? For one, Africans can with some justification claim Obama as one of their own. Obama is not only black, but far closer to Africa than the typical African-American, whose ancestors came to the American continent centuries ago as slaves and lived through the horrific and heroic African-American experience; Obama’s father was himself a Kenyan, a true African and citizen of Kenya, and essentially all of Obama’s father’s family (however poorly he may know them, given that his father left Obama and his mother when he was a baby) still lives in Kenya. For Africans, even Obama’s name is a very tangible reminder that he is just one generation away from the continent, that he is almost one of their own. Religion also serves as a common link. So many in the Muslim world seem to know that Obama’s father was a Muslim, and many even erroneously believe that Obama himself is a Muslim (as some Republicans so badly wanted Americans to believe). As Muslims themselves, the West Africans of Senegal and Mali seem to find it easier to identify with Barack Obama, and hope that Obama will usher in foreign policy that is not as anti-Islam as Bush’s appears.

But, perhaps more powerfully, Africans’ identification with Obama comes not only because of Obama’s specific ties to the continent but for similar reasons as African-Americans’ exaltation. For African-Americans, Obama’s election was tangible evidence that black Americans can make it to the very top of American society, that racism, while still alive, did not stop a clear majority of Americans from voting for a black man as President of the United States. Obama’s election was tangible evidence that anything is possible, despite race. This sort of affirmation was likely necessary in part because African-Americans have had a long-held suspicion that it was not possible, or almost impossibly difficult, for a black man to succeed in America, because there were too many barriers, including possibly race-motivated violence, in the way. To a population that is often made to feel downtrodden, Obama’s election was an event for great jubilation.

Africans recognize that they live in a continent that is, economically and politically, well behind the rest of the world. They recognize that Africans make up a significant percentage of the world’s most poor and that many African governments are among the world’s most corrupt and oppressive. This mild sense of shame is tangible–a hotelier showing us the relatively primitive plumbing of his bathroom described it as “toutes africaines” and a taxi driver described his nearly-falling-apart car as “une voiture africaine.” There is some pan-African pride, too, yes, but more often there is a sense that Africa, unlike North America or Europe or Asia, is a place that is backward and dysfunctional.

And so, just as an African-American may be sorrowful for all of the problems blacks face in America, and take pride and comfort in knowing that, despite it all, blacks can still rise to the very top of American society, some Africans we have met see in Obama proof that an African or a near-African, despite all of the problems the continent faces, can become the most powerful man in the world. As a young man in Dakar explained to us, now anything is possible, not only for African-Americans and other minorities in America, but also for Africans from Africa.

Will people be disappointed? Perhaps. Obama can’t be everything that the American left expects and desires, and everything that Europeans want of America, and everything that the Muslim world and the developing world think may come from a black President whose father was an African Muslim. He simply can’t please everybody. But as we keep telling people, everything may not be good after 4 or 8 years with Obama as our President, but everything will be better. Given the fiascos and disasters of the last eight years, everyone seems to be content with this expectation, with much nodding of heads, heartfelt pats on the back and even a few inshallahs. The African people, like the rest of us, are tired. They need what we all need, for America to lead again.

One funny story. We met a couple of Peace Corps volunteers who are working in a small village in Niger. Early morning on November 5, they woke up to the sound of great cheering as the villagers heard on the radio that Barack Obama had been elected the next President of the United States. The Americans, too, were overjoyed. Also living in their village was an American Christian missionary, who was apparently, as evangelical Christians were likely to be, a McCain supporter. Later that day, one of the villagers approached the Peace Corps volunteer, confused because Missionary Mark wasn’t excited and happy for Barack Obama. The villager just assumed that everybody wanted Obama to win, and couldn’t understand why one of the actual Americans among them wouldn’t be celebrating. Grinning broadly, the Peace Corps volunteer answered simply, “Because he’s dumb.”

Djenne, Mali

Religious Education in West Africa

An African notebook, to be wiped and reused

Islam, like the other great religions of the world, has a long and rich tradition of teaching and learning. Universities in the Islamic world, such as those of Fez and Cairo, are among the earliest anywhere, and Muslim scientists contributed much to many disciplines, especially during Europe’s so-called dark ages (see post of 6.13). In addition to general learning in the Islamic world, however, there is of course also Islamic education–religious education–which takes place in the madrasa, or Islamic religious school. A prejudiced western mind might imagine that the Islamic world is full of madrasas, of mullahs and imams and eager bearded students. Well, it’s possible that Islamic religious education in the east is more popular than Christian religious education in the west (one reads that seminaries are gravely empty these days), but, in this modern age, it is most definitely secondary in prevalence to secular education, to the fields and disciplines, from the humanities to the sciences, that are more likely to contribute to someone’s livelihood. Even as tourists who seek out mosques, it was not that common an occurrence for us to run into crowds of madrasa students in the Middle East. Which is why, traveling through Senegal, we have been astonished by the visibility of large numbers of religious students, called talibes, in the country.

Talibes are an interesting phenomenon. For the most part, they seem to be quite young children who come from all over the countryside to learn from religious leaders called marabouts. The students finance their education–feed themselves and pass along money for their upkeep to their teachers–by begging for alms, which in addition to being their only possible source of income, given that most come from poor families and are too young to do most kinds of work, is intended to teach them humility and give fellow citizens an opportunity to fulfill their religious requirement of charity. In a city such as St. Louis, the old French colonial capital where we are now, the little kids can be found by the dozens, carrying around their characteristic empty tin cans or plastic buckets and begging for money and food.

The easiest comparison, and a very apt one, is to the boy monks of Laos. Just like the Buddhist monasteries of Laos, the madrasas of Senegal provide kids who may not otherwise be able to afford much of an education with essentially free lodging and tuition, and the system of begging and almsgiving provides a way for the community (and generous tourists) to support their schooling. The kids beg, yes, because they are poor and have no other source of money, but the religiously-sanctioned nature of the begging is intended to give the process a dignity and meaning that keep from turning the kids into mere beggars.

Almsgiving, Laos

This comparison, however, reveals the strengths of the Laotian system over the West African one. While I recognize that giving alms is one of the five pillars of Islam, it is problematic that the talibes are begging in countries where extreme poverty and reliance on begging are all too common. In Laos, there is almost no begging, and so there is no mistaking the boy monks, clad in saffron robes, for homeless beggar children. In Senegal, talibes are poorly clothed and often dirty, indistinguishable from child beggars found in Senegal or other poor countries around the world. In Laos, almsgiving is ritualized to an extent (performed at certain times of the day, in a regular procession, with regular donors) that there is no mistaking it for “regular” begging. The citizens and tourists giving alms kneel to place themselves lower than the monks, showing that the almsgiving is not an indication of greater wealth or status on the part of the giver, but an offering recognizing the higher spiritual status of the receiver. In Senegal, there little of this ritual, and it is all too easy (especially to the casual tourist) to mistake the student children as mere homeless street urchins, and one wonders how the begging might affect their sense of dignity.

A further concern I have is the type of education that the West African talibes receive. While Laotian monasteries are extremely basic, with the teaching done largely by the older students, the curriculum consists of a wide range of subjects, from English to mathematics. Visiting Laos, it is hard not to be surprised by the apparent ambition of the monks, many of whom come from extremely poor rural families, and their hunger to learn English by practicing with tourists (some monasteries set up regular chatting hours to encourage such language practice) or to gain experience using computers by visiting the local internet cafes where owners give them discounts or even free usage. One particularly adorable little monk in Luang Prabang explained to us that he wanted to be a computer programmer, which seemed to us sadly unlikely given local resources, but epitomizes the drive and hope of secular success that these students have, and that they hope their monastery educations will make possible for them.

In Senegal? Admittedly we did not converse much with these children (who speak no English and little French), but the curriculum seems to consist mainly of Islamic studies and Arabic. What of their futures? For what jobs is such an education suitable? It is hard for me to say with the little background that I have, but we were told by a Peace Corps volunteer from West Africa that, in their village, young people study in madrasas to become imams, because imams make good money attending births, circumcisions and other life-cycle ceremonies, uninvited, and receiving honoraria for their religious guidance. According to the Peace Corp volunteer, the local youth saw it as a good career choice, a way to make a decent living in an impoverished African village. (Meanwhile, the villagers complain that there are too many imams, too many people to pay off come ceremony time.)

Waiting outside of the mosque at sunrise

A typical secular liberal viewpoint, and one that one may be skeptical of for its commonness, is that lack of education and economic opportunity drives people toward religion–this argument is tested true from our experience and learning about madrasas in West Africa. If the public school system were more effective or better financed, perhaps children would have more opportunities to get an education outside of the madrasa. If French- and English-learning opportunities were more readily available, perhaps Arabic would not be as appealing a second language (although I do acknowledge that, to Muslims, some knowledge of Arabic should be considered essential and that learning Arabic could open some opportunities in North Africa or the Middle East). If there were more jobs in the public or private sectors, more economic opportunity, young people might not be dreaming of becoming imams (nearly no-one in the west these days wishes to become a Christian cleric, as the churches’ recruiting problems show–indeed, first world countries now import Christian priests from Africa and Latin America, showing that the same phenomenon plays out with the Christian faith and seminaries as with Islam and madrasas).

Most West Africans certainly don’t look like fundamentalists, and I do not doubt that the brand of Islam being taught in these madrasas is quite moderate. And, no doubt, along with the Quran and Arabic come a valuable education in literature, philosophy, ethics and so forth, which would be valuable in any field. But religious education and the religious life, even if sometimes called a vocation, is a choice. In the west, particularly in Europe, it is a choice that fewer and fewer people are making, because there are so many other (more appealing) life choices. This in turn is making much of the western world less and less religious, and less driven by religion. In West Africa, it seems, the trend may be in the opposite direction.

Inside a madrasa in Dakar

NOTE: I have left out of this post the fact that many of the talibes are in fact receiving little to no education at all, but simply being used by their so-called marabouts as a source of income–a troop of semi-enslaved children to go begging for them, with beatings for children who do not bring home specified amounts. This is of course appalling, but I have left it out of my discussion above to focus on more general thoughts.