The Tomato Can Kids….. A Total Human Tragedy Hidden Under the Pretense of “Koranic Education”

The Tomato Can Kids

What is this picture displaying?

A human tragedy!

An image of  children enduring utter deprivation!

My wife refers to them as “The Tomato Can Kids” because of their tin can on a string used for begging. They are called “Manya” in local Bambara language. These are actual kids I see almost every day. They beg for money every day.

The Tomato Can Kids are all over West Africa. Sikasso has hundreds of them. Children work as street beggars under a traditional Koranic educational boarding school system in which the children are forced into begging by their religious teachers as part of the learning process.

These kids are from villages all over Mali, some from neighboring countries, and are in every major town. Brought to the towns for “education” with an Islamic teacher, they are forced to memorize and recite Arabic verses of the Koran they do not even understand (they rarely actually learn to speak Arabic); This is the full extent of their education. Most of the day they spend on the street, begging to support their school and teachers. They have almost no clothes, are filthy, rarely have access to soap, little food, no bed or blankets, sleep in hovels on the floor, and receive little or no medical attention.

Giving these kids money will not help in any way, as it goes back to the Islamic teacher  or “Marabou”, as they call him here in Sikasso.  The children are required to collect money for the “school” and if they do not come home with money at night, I have been told they could be punished with a beating, or simply not fed- boys who are already malnourished and hungry.

It is a human tragedy. These children endure utter deprivation.

If you give them things like soap, clothes, or unopened packages of food, it is taken back to their teacher.  They would eat something  like a sandwich or banana on the spot, if you handed them half of yours. That is the best I can do.

People  here know all about it, but no one talks about it. I suppose they think that their kids will be the exception, that their child’s school is not like this. Many parents in the villages are totally unaware of what really takes place in the town, have no understanding of the conditions their kids live in, or simply are resigned to the fact.

There are tens of thousands of these Koranic education street beggars all over Mali.

I know a young woman in Sikasso who is afraid to move away from Sikasso with her new husband, because a group of such boys live nearby and she helps them with a little food, talks with them, and visits with them.

“They have nothing, absolutely nothing. How could any parent send their child to live like this? What will they do if I leave? They will not even have what little I have to offer.” she comments. (Sephoras)

This article is insightful.

“The Manya, I was told, are children from poor families who are sent to learn Koran and Arabic by their parents at local Madrassa schools in Bamako. These schools are headed by Koranic teachers who exploit the children-force them to go and beg on the streets- in order to sustain themselves and the schools. Actually, these children spent around 3 hours –between 7.00am and 10.00am learning Koran/Arabic, and the rest of the day-and night- roaming the streets and scavenging for survival….

At the end of the day, the children hand over what they got to the Islamic teacher and the next day they are back on the streets. The Manya  are subjected to this cycle of abuse and exploitation for years. They face so many hazards- in fact, many of them die due to lack of medical care, hunger, or accidents. Some of the children I saw on the streets of Bamako had sores on their bodies. It was evident that nobody was catering for them.

Some of the street children who survive end up as thieves or criminals. Since Koranic and Arabic education do not equip these children with useful skills, some of them may end up being recruited by terrorist and jihadist networks. For me the Manya are social time bombs that would explode on the face of Mali and the world at large. Most of the people I spoke to sounded hopeless, and thought that the Manya phenomenon had come to stay in Mali. And because the issue is connected with Islam, many people were slow and careful in condemning it for fear of being portrayed as a critic or enemy of Islam. ” (Leo Igwe. “The Problem Of Street Children in Mali”)

I have no easy answers, but I do know that feeding these kids without dealing with the institution they are trapped in, is a bandaid at best, and might inadvertantly support the trafficking at worst. The Malian Government needs to step in. This is nothing less than child abuse, child negligence,  and human trafficking, hiding under the guise of Koranic Education.

I’m not a fancy writer possessing brilliant insight, so I really have nothing to add to the stories already out there. However, I hoped this picture of the “Tomato Can Kids” would speak to you, and that you will love them. I also hope the picture makes you angry, very angry at the system that enslaves them. Angry enough to support work to dismantle this human tragedy.

I’m looking at a tomato can kid right now, outside of my office window, and I have this mixture of sadness, compassion, mixed with a wrath at the injustice we (I) put up with. Am I human?

For God’s sake, please do love them. However, don’t hand them money, as this only supports the human trafficking system.Want to know more?  Read this article. Link and this Link

The Tomato Can Kids Roam to Beg Again: A Total Human Tragedy Hidden Under the Pretense of “Koranic Education”. Episode #2

6 Comments Add yours

  1. meganva says:

    Hi! I’m from Vancouver and am traveling west Africa. I just read this, as I’m writing a post right now on my trip from Senegal into Mali and wanted to find something to link to about the kids. I hope it’s ok that I link to you, as there is lots of information contained here in your own post and further links!
    I am in Bamako at the moment and will be here for a couple more days at least, if you and your wife have time for a drink!


    1. Feel free to link… And thanks. We live and work 500Km east of Bamako. And are in Canada right now. So will have to pass on getting together. I am also a Fishing Captain. So just landed back to Prince Edward Island. We work only dry season in Mali. As wet season approaches we can’t get in to our region. Will be back to Mali in October. Enjoy your time. MALI is a special place.


      1. meganva says:

        Ah! Ok. Definitely not crossing paths, then. Too bad.
        Enjoy the snow at home 🙂 look forward to reading the rest of your posts and to get more updates upon your return!


      2. We got dumped on this week 53 cm snow in one day and 190km winds. I’ll be following your blog as well.


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