Antoinette Zoumanigui and Selamawit Bekele of Penn to Educate Youth in Senegal

In the streets of Senegal, young boys beg for food and money, but two students from the University of Pennsylvania are working to address this issue through Project Y.V.E.T.A., Youth for Vocational Education and Training in Agriculture.

With the support of a President’s Engagement Prize, Antoinette Zoumanigui from Brooklyn Park, Minn., and Selamawit Bekele of San Jose, Calif., will establish a school in Senegal designed to empower marginalized youth. Both seniors are health and society majors in Penn’s School of Arts & Sciences. Zougmanigui and Bekele are two of seven students representing three projects honored with the President’s Engagement Prize this year.

Known as “talibés,” the Arabic word for “pupil” or “disciple,” children in Senegal between the ages of 6 and18 were sent to migrant teachers by their own families, who believe that their children are learning the Quran. In order to fund their Qur’anic education and as “payment” for their fosterage, thousands of talibés wander the streets of large cities as much as 12 hours each day, barely clothed, inadequately fed, in poor health and living in harsh conditions. The children deliver the money they solicit to a “marabout” spiritual teacher, and they’re beaten if they fail to reach set quotas.

“Unregulated schools are platforms for exploitation under the guise of religious principles,” Zoumanigui says. “Children as young as 4 are sent out to the streets to beg for money to pay for teachings that they never receive.”

To counter this phenomenon, Project Y.V.E.T.A. will educate the talibés with literacy, math and vocational skills, along with training in agriculture, agricultural operations and agri-entrepreneurship. The first of its kind in Senegal, the new occupationally directed education and training, or O.D.E.T., school will focus on ground peanut and millet farming, as Senegal is the world’s leading exporter of groundnut oil.

In addition, the school will diversify its vegetable garden and incorporate poultry farming, thereby empowering a new generation of entrepreneurs in the agricultural-business sector.

“By leveraging the support of our partners, we’ll create access to education that will empower these children and their parents, allowing them to see the potential for entrepreneurial opportunities within their rural homes,” Zoumanigui says.

Project Y.V.E.T.A.’s strategic partners include Diante Bou Bess, an agricultural center at the heart of the Sandiara community that is providing 20 acres of land, classrooms and office space in Thies; the Senegalese Ministry of Agriculture, which will design the school’s agricultural curriculum and provide certification for the two-year program; and Talibécole, an organization which will develop the school’s more traditional, formal educational curriculum.

“Centered on skill development and accessible quality education,” Bekele says, “will help drive Senegal’s long-term economic stability while providing the country’s at-risk adolescents with the tools they need to become socially integrated, prosperous and productive members of their society.”

Project Y.V.E.T.A. will benefit from the President’s Engagement Prize, which was established by Penn President Amy Gutmann and supported by Trustee Judith Bollinger and William G. Bollinger, Trustee Lee Spelman Doty and George E. Doty Jr. and Emeritus Trustee James S. Riepe and Gail Petty Riepe. The Prizes award as much as $100,000 to implement projects and $50,000 for living expenses for recipients.

For Project Y.V.E.T.A. , the Prize will cover the costs of setting up the school’s classrooms and administrative spaces, as well as the necessary farming equipment and materials needed to propel the program through two harvest seasons.

“Our farm operations,” Zoumanigui says, “will generate income to sustain our programs and provide food for the children we educate and their families.”

The founders of Project Y.V.E.T.A.’s connection to Senegal began long before they came up with the idea. Zoumanigui grew up in Senegal; Bekele in Ethiopia.

“We wanted to work on development projects that helped the children who were uprooted from their homes and forced into a system that is completely stripping them of their personhood,” Zoumanigui says.

“Nothing could have prepared me for the sheer number of Talibé kids who roamed the streets,” Bekele says. “Founding Kids of Dakar, now called ‘Africa Leads,’ to better reflect the non-profit’s mission provided us an entity from which Toni and I could contribute to improving the conditions of the Talibé children.”

The culmination of their previous health and education projects in Senegal, Project Y.V.E.T.A. targets adolescents ages 15-18 who are out of the Qur’anic school systems and are now burdened with the responsibility of providing for themselves and their families. But, without any job skills or the ability to read and write, integrating into society can be problematic.

“Identifying the absence of support and education systems that cater to children who are in a pivotal point in their lives and the potential downstream effect of empowering teens to become successful in their rural environment and prevent rural-urban migration steered our project’s conception,” Bekele explains.

Bekele and Zoumanigui are grateful to have the guidance of a mentor like Cheikh Babou, an associate professor in the School of Arts & Sciences, who dedicated a lot of his time to the project, which aligns with his academic interests and background. Originally from Senegal, he is a historian of Islam in Senegal and has worked at Penn for 15 years. He started working with Zoumanigui two years ago, when she first started researching the Talibé phenomenon.

“His perspective and knowledge of the conditions of these children was important to learn and drawn from,” Zoumanigui says, adding that Babou also helped them to iron out stubborn wrinkles and connected them with the who’s who of Senegal, including the ISRA, the Senegalese Agricultural Research Institute, an essential partner.

Babou says that he was impressed with the students’ commitment and resilience, particularly at times when they navigated obstacles that seemed unsurmountable.

“It was critical for the project to secure the endorsement of ISRA, which is affiliated with the minister of education of Senegal. For two months the students tried to get the head of ISRA to sign and send the letter of support,” Babou says. “The students understood the difficulties associated with a bureaucratic state and did not give up.”

Babou also offered Zoumanigui and Bekele plenty of encouragement.

“He has been and continues to be a phenomenal mentor,” Bekele says.

Bekele and Zoumanigui hope the project will serve as a model for diversified, sustainable education. When the young men in Senegal become business-savvy farmers who can financially support themselves through agriculture, it will be a new way of addressing a problem that has continued for decades.

“Project Y.V.E.T.A. will contribute toward building economic resilience for a generation representing not only Senegal’s but Africa’s future,” Zoumanigui says. “We hope to bring more attention to providing access to vocational education which has become a vital part of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals.”

Zoumanigui and Bekele also hope the project becomes a platform for both action and conversation about the plight of the children it will serve.

The President’s Engagement Prize “will serve as the foundation to this project and hopefully will lead us toward other opportunities that will allow us to further expand our programs,” Zoumanigui says.


Project YVETA