Child enslavement using religion is the premise for No Heaven for Good Boys by American author Keisha Bush.
Six-year-old Ibrahimah is a talibe, a young Senegalese pupil in a special religious school called daara. He has been sent there by his parents from his rural home to be under the guidance of a marabout or Muslim teacher. At the daara, Ibrahimah meets and becomes close to his cousin, twelve-year-old Etienne, who has been there for five years.
It turns out that marabout Ahmed is a wolf in sheep's skin as he makes money by exploiting the minors under his care. Every morning the boys, all under the age of 16 years, are forcibly sent into the streets with empty tins to beg for money and food. Each boy must meet a daily quota or risks severe punishment.
The daara does not offer much protection except for a roof over their heads and cardboard mats for beds, with hardly any food, bathing facilities or medical care. The boys endure daily insults, threats, beatings and even sexual abuse by the marabout. No education of any kind takes place at the Koranic school, only the hard-knock lessons learned on the streets of Dakar where the children face all kinds of dangers such as speeding cars, police chases, the scorn of strangers, and even abductions.
Abdoulaye, one of the daara boys, disappears one day when the boys are watching a football match, never to be seen again. Not long afterwards, news spreads around Dakar that the decomposing body of a boy was found with knife wounds to the torso.
The daara boys form a sort of dysfunctional family, living by the rules of marabout to avoid punishment, while the fear of the unknown is a strong motivator for staying alive. With no idea of how to return to their homes, running away from Dakar is not an option. In any case, there is every likelihood that their parents will send them back to the daara to avoid disgrace, which has happened with other runaways.
The combination of circumstances turns the talibe into wild, almost feral youngsters. Even among the boys there is rivalry, and the older ones will not hesitate to steal from the younger, weaker "siblings." The more experienced Etienne is Ibrahimah’s sole protection inside and outside the daara. Just as well because even though Ibrahimah toughens up with time, he remains a dreamy-natured, naïve boy, firmly believing that marabout will return home in a year’s time.
Meanwhile in his home town of Maimouna, Ibrahim’s mother is slowly losing her mind from the loss of her only son and second youngest child. She never wanted to send him away but her husband capitulated to pressure from his eldest brother and sent their son away without her knowledge. She too had a tough upbringing, separated from her mother at a young age and forced to work as an unpaid servant for her uncle’s family. Koranic schooling is an old tradition among many Muslim communities. While some are good, nurturing environments, continuing reports of human rights violations against talibe children in Senegal remains a challenge.
Bush does not investigate the root causes of this exploitative practise. Instead she lets the stories of Ibrahimah, Etienne, the marabout, Mahmouda and other characters tell us how these abusive situations continue. They include poverty, the powerlessness of women, the stranglehold of tradition, a warped sense of family pride that causes people to turn a blind eye to violations, child abuse by parents and protectors, and the unwillingness or ineffectiveness of state authorities to deal with the matter.
Some incidents described in the story seem incongruent with life in small town Senegal, possibly because Bush was not born or raised in Africa. Her career in international development brought her to Senegal where she witnessed the plight of the talibe first-hand. But I admire her ability to write from the voice and perspective of Ibrahimah.
No Heaven for Good Boys is like Charles Dickens’ Oliver Twist with its share of villains, crimes, murder, mistreated boys and a sympathetic mother-figure. In this debut novel, Bush has crafted heart-breaking story drawn from real-life horrors still playing out today.