Q&A with Daniela Kon, director of ‘Talibe’

February 5, 2013 | Petra Lent

1. What inspired you to make Talibe – The Least Favored Children of Senegal?

Experiencing the gravity of the situation firsthand, seeing the systematic neglect and exploitation of the boys, their helplessness and hopelessness, made me feel compelled to do what I can to raise awareness, advocate to reform the Islamic education system, support the efforts of Maison de la Gare (the local grassroots organization featured) and to find a way to animate a dialogue in local and international communities that would ignite action and incentives to address the issue and protect the children.

2. What was the biggest obstacle in making it?

The topic of “Islamic education” in Senegal is culturally and politically extremely sensitive. Anyone who tries to tackle the issue runs the risk of being accused of criticizing Islam as a whole, which has made efforts to discuss and resolve the Talibes problem very difficult. Political institutions, Islamic authorities and aid organizations are in a web of interdependence that has silenced the problem and perpetuated it as a result. So one challenge was to ensure that the film can be screened in Senegal, which meant treating the subject both visually and contextually with the utmost respect and sensitivity, not focusing on the worst perpetrators, but on individuals stuck in the system, and not alienating Islamic teachers (who are too often just blamed as scapegoats) but inviting them to participate in the film and conversation.

The other obstacle during the filming process was dealing with the reality of the children’s circumstances, especially when what was needed at times, was urgent medical attention, with no one around to provide that.

3. How did you first connect with the individuals you feature in the film?

I was introduced to Issa Kouyate and his local grassroots organization La Maison de La Gare (MDG) by Fallckolm Cuenca, Director of SDGI (Sustainable Development Group International) a year prior to making the film in Senegal. MDG was creating a volunteer program that I was asked to consult on and in the process was able to learn about the circumstances of the Talibes and the difficulties that organizations face to have long-term impacts.

4. What do you want viewers to take away from the film?

I hope watching the documentary will make people realize that terrible violations against children are being overlooked and perpetuated by ignorance, by the lack of support and competence of aid organizations, by donors not insisting on accountability and follow-up, by the failure of governments to regulate, to enforce laws and uphold commitments to human rights, by the political incentives of civil institutions and the cultural acceptance of families, religious authorities and powerless mothers. I hope that international audiences discover their empathy and sense of responsibility to do a much better job ensuring that education is not used as a front for exploitation and criminal neglect of small children – whatever their culture or belief. As citizens of especially donor countries, we have certain power. We can make choices to invest in responsible programs and demand that the issue is being addressed.
Please find out what you can do to help Talibes: How To Help

5. How is the film different than other projects you have worked on?

I’ve been working in the aid sector for the past seven years on projects in education, agricultural development, youth empowerment etc. and had worked in places of extreme poverty before, but had never seen anything like what I saw in Senegal. I never worked in medical aid and had never before dealt with malnourished and abused children who suffered corporal punishment. It was a shocking and eye-opening experience to witness such neglect of innocent children.

6. In Senegal, did you witness positive elements of Islamic education?

Yes. I saw and worked with people who had been educated in Islamic schools who cared for their children, neighbors and community. I saw people choosing to remove themselves from arguments to go pray and calm themselves instead of fighting. There are also modern Islamic schools in the cities that provide children with actual Islamic education – but those are not affordable for the poor. I experienced a rich culture of Sufism (the movement of Islamic mysticism that is practiced in Senegal) with art, music, jewelry, spiritual belief systems and rituals. Of course my tolerance was challenged when it came to legitimizing corporal punishment with religion, but this is where education comes in and needs to be made safe and productive for all children. Right now, at least 50,000 young boys in Islamic schools suffer under conditions akin to slavery. They know neglect, physical abuse and if at all, how to recite the Quran. How do we expect this next generation to grow up as critical thinking, productive members of society if we ignore this and don’t invest in making their education safe instead of detrimental?

7. What is your favorite thing about Senegal?

Its people.


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