Mt. Airy activist helping save kids’ in Africa

Children in Senegal tend to remain cheerful, although their country is one of the poorest in the world. (Photos by Luke Klein)

Children in Senegal tend to remain cheerful, although their country is one of the poorest in the world. (Photos by Luke Klein)

Mt Airy resident Luke Klein’s life changed dramatically when he was visiting Senegal, West Africa, in 2003 after an encounter with two little boys living in squalor on the streets of Dakar, the nation’s capital. “I have a clear memory of that moment that is captured in this photograph of the two boys enjoying pastries,” he recalled. “A friend and I were spending a relaxing morning on Dakar’s Avenue Pompidou, near the Place de I’Indépendance. It’s a bustling downtown neighborhood, and we were just chatting with street vendors as we sipped our morning coffee when the two boys approached us rather tentatively, clearly hoping that we would give them some food or money.”

Klein, 40, who spent the first 10 years of his life in Chestnut Hill, said he and his friend greeted them and asked how they were doing. “As we talked with them, we were still holding our little paper bags from the nearby pastry shop, each with the pain au chocolat that we had bought for our breakfasts,” he said. “We realized that these boys would enjoy the pastries far more than we would, so we handed them our bags. These may have been the first pains au chocolate that these boys had ever eaten, and they were overjoyed as they bit through the buttery pastry into the chocolate center.

“They thanked us profusely, and we gave them some money before moving along. I tend to give them money. I know that this may end up in the pockets of another, and it may be rather ineffective in helping the children, but it is just too difficult to see children standing before you in ratty clothes begging on the street and not give them something.”

(Klein, who has been traveling to Senegal on a regular basis since 1999, is the director of technology and marketing at the Family and Play Therapy Center in Mt. Airy, which offers therapy services and onsite and online post-graduate training for therapists. Klein and his partner, Nathalie; his daughter, Gisela, 7, and Nathalie’s daughter, Maya, 8, are members of the Frankford Monthly Meeting.)

These two boys are an example of the more than 50,000 young boys dressed in ratty clothes carrying empty cans begging on the streets of Senegal’s cities. Yet, few Americans know about the crisis in Senegal or have even heard of Senegal. Klein said that Senegal, despite widespread poverty, is a progressive, majority Sufi Muslim country with a long history as a stable and peaceful democracy. The National Assembly of Senegal is made up of 43 percent female representatives. They are ranked sixth in the world for having the highest female representation. The United States, by contrast, is ranked 100th in the world, with only 18 percent.

“The majority of Senegalese are Sufi Muslims and followers of an interpretation of Islam that is unique to Senegal,” he said. “Sufis seek to create a direct, personal connection with God through meditation and self-discipline. It is extraordinary to witness how effectively Senegalese Muslims carry their faith as a constant reminder to live in peace and to care for those in need.”

The majority of Senegalese are Sufi Muslims, the most liberal branch by far of believers in Islam.

The majority of Senegalese are Sufi Muslims, the most liberal branch by far of believers in Islam.

Klein said part of the current crisis stems from an abuse of the old and honorable Sufi tradition of studying the Quran under the guidance of a teacher called a marabout. He explained that for centuries, children have studied the Quran, memorizing the text and seeking to understand it taught by a local marabout in a religious school called a daara. He noted that boys were often sent to a daara in a distant village, where the children studied for years under the care of a marabout away from the distractions of everyday life.

“These students called talibés would help support the needs of the daara by working in the marabout’s fields throughout their course of study,” Klein said “The daara would also be supported by the local community, as children would collect contributions of food and money. As daaras began to open in cities, the practice of collecting donations turned into begging. Today many children are sent out to beg for food and money in support of the daara. As temptation is always inherent to money, this symbolic gesture has become a genuine source of income for greedy, false marabouts.”

Today, there are more than 50,000 boys begging on the streets of Senegal’s cities, often sent from faraway villages by parents who have been misled about conditions that their children will face. Often corrupt marabouts will beat and punish the boys if they don’t bring in a daily quota. Thousands of boys run away from these corrupt marabouts and are left to fend for themselves on the streets.

Klein knew he had to act. With the help of Dr. Mamadou Sow, a professor at Temple University who grew up in northern Senegal, Klein co-founded Kids of Kadiogne, Inc., a nonprofit organization dedicated to supporting the education and health of the children in northern Senegal, in 2006. Klein said that although Senegal has many of the ingredients necessary for future success, its stability is fragile.

Senegal is among the poorest countries in the world, with a median income of $1.10 per person per day. The country suffers from very high rates of infectious disease, including malaria, bacterial and protozoal diarrhea, hepatitis A, typhoid fever, dengue fever, yellow fever, schistosomiasis and meningitis. A large part of the problem is that a quarter of the population does not have access to clean drinking water, and half of the population does not have access to sanitation facilities.

Klein, who has been traveling to Senegal since 1999, said that while the government is focusing on cracking down on corrupt marabouts and implementing overall reform, his organization focuses on the basic needs of the children. “We have really tried to work with local people in the villages to identify the needs that they have that we are in a position to be able to help with,” he said. “By listening to the needs of the people, we are able to design projects with them in collaboration.”

Sow, who grew up in a family of cattle-herders in northern Senegal, together with Klein has built a reliable network of trustworthy people in Kadiogne, a small village in Senegal, and the surrounding region. Kids of Kadiogne has 33 partner villages and 17 partner schools in which they carry out the majority of their health, education and agricultural programs. Recently, the organization has launched a hunger program in Dakar.

“We have just launched a pilot program for a cafeteria located in a neighborhood where we have a connection to honorable marabouts, who need assistance providing for their talibés,” he said. “Cafe Tapalapa provides nutritious hot meals and a safe space for some of the thousands of children who spend their days begging on the streets.”

For more information or to make a donation to Kids of Kadiogne, Inc. go to or call 1-844-KADIOGNE. Checks can also be mailed to P.O. Box 18983, Philadelphia, Pa. 19119.