I Must be the Marabout

During the last couple of weeks of our European trip, my sons (aged 8 and 10) became very adept at finding loose change. Scanning the ground in parking lots, searching under supermarket checkouts and checking out slot machines for unclaimed change proved to be a lucrative business. I was shocked to count the total coinage as we were about to return to the USA and discover they had accumulated £4.36.

Now this was not something I was expecting them to do, nor did they need to do it. They just found it be a challenging and somewhat rewarding experience. However, in the process I was reminded of the Garibous of West Africa. A friend of mine named Steve Davies, who works in the North of Burkina Faso, has produced a short video about these boys which is posted on his blog at: http://voiceinthedesert.org.uk/weblog/2012/08/21/a-day-in-the-life-of-a-garibou/

The Garibous are young boys who are Qu’ranic students. They are handed over by their families to the care of a Marabout, or Muslim holy man, often because the family cannot afford to feed them, but also because they can then learn to recite the Qu’ran by heart. Sometimes known as Talibes, or ‘students’ (a word from which the Muslim world has also derived the term ‘Taliban’) these boys are often then required to beg for their food or for alms from charitable Muslim neighbors. Returning to the home provided them by the marabout with nothing, they may be beaten, so success in begging, or scrounging as we might call it, is a necessary part of the daily experience.

Alms-giving, or Zakat, is a pillar of Islamic practice. It is done for both the purification of one’s wealth and one’s soul. It becomes both a means in Islam whereby one may redistribute wealth and provide for the poor, and a means whereby one may earn salvation. In return for their successful solicitation of alms, the garibou will receive teaching in how to both memorize and recite the Qu’ran. He cannot understand Arabic when he has grown up with one of the tribal languages of West Africa, yet he will learn to pronounce it fluently and to fluidly recite the Suras of the Qu’ran. If he is successful in memorizing the whole Qu’ran, whether he understands the Arabic or not, he will be permitted the title ‘Al Hafiz’, bestowed upon those who have achieved this sacred challenge.

The story of the Garibous highlights the desperate plight of many in West Africa. Poverty and lack of educational opportunity mean that a sanctioned life of begging and a qu’ranic education offer a way up the social ladder. No matter that in other parts of the world, and now possibly more in West Africa with the rise of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb and Boko Haram, the garibous and their equivalents have proved to be a fertile ground for the growth of radicalism and thus terrorism.

I thank God for the many who are involved around the world in bringing opportunities for basic education, literacy and job skills to the dispossessed around the world. However, the issue of poverty is a continuing reality. My boys do not need to go looking for money where it has fallen by the wayside, but it is clear that many, even in our own American society, do find a need to go out and beg for their living, just as multitudes across the developing world do. Jesus said that we would always have the poor with us. However I would venture to suggest, that we do better to respond, not to poverty, but to the word of the Lord who wants to be a provider to all. I hope that many a wise Marabout, or at least men and women around the globe who aspire to holiness, would agree with this sentiment.

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