The last stars are still out when morning classes begin at the religious school in Daru Relwan, a Gambian village close to the West African country's northern border with Senegal. Small children sit in a concrete cloister under a naked bulb, rocking forwards and backwards as they mumble foreign words they do not understand. Some have yellowing leaves of the Koran spread before them, others hold wooden boards inked with Arabic text.
"I do my best to make sure they live on three meals a day," says Alhaji Lamin Touray, the marabout or religious teacher who supervises the 50-odd children at the Daru Relwan dara, as religious schools are known in the local Wolof language. "Sometimes we have it very tough, and there isn't enough for everybody," he admits, dressed in white robes with a red fez perched on his head.
Marabouts are widespread in the Gambia – a tiny former British colony nestled on the banks of the great river that lends the country its name. The population is 90 per cent Muslim, and at around the age of seven many parents entrust their boys to the teachers' care. "It is a very popular system," said Phoday Mahmoud Kebbeh, the executive director of the Institute for Social Reformation and Action (ISRA), an Islamic organisation that works with marabouts. "In the sub-region too; in Senegal, in Guinea-Bissau.
"They don't have a formal structure as such," he added. "They take them under a mango tree, or in a big hall, or they sit around a fire at night."
Parents rarely visit their children, who can be away for years, and even more problematically they do not provide the marabouts with any funds for their support.
Faced by this situation the teachers sometimes send their almudus – as the pupils are known locally – out to beg in order to provide for their keep. In urban areas in the Gambia begging almudus are traditionally identifiable by the tomato tins they use as receptacles for alms.
"Their parents don't contribute anything," said marabout Alhaji Lamin Touray. "Their entire responsibility, their maintenance, I am the one responsible."
Touray's establishment in Daru Relwan, in the Gambia's north bank region, is better resourced than other daras in the country's hinterland. It has electric light, so the boys do not have to collect firewood to light their lessons, and the teacher does not send his pupils out to beg.
Nevertheless, conditions are still spartan and the almudus are thin and small for their age; 25 of them sleep in a room four metres square, while emaciated livestock root around a dusty courtyard outside under a mango tree.
"Since I came here I have never seen my mother," said eight-year-old Fallou Gai, a tiny child in a filthy smock, who arrived at the dara when he was five.
"If you do something wrong, if you refuse to do your lessons well, you will be warned strongly, then you will be beaten," added Nmadi Ceesay, a 14-year-old originally from the Gambia's central river region.
There are tough efforts ongoing to improve the lot of the children in the care of the Gambia's marabouts. ChildHope UK, one of the charities supported by this year's Independent Christmas Appeal, has entered into a partnership focusing on the issue with Gambian NGO the Child Protection Alliance.
"Parents will not stop sending their children to marabouts,"
explained Allan Kiwanuka, ChildHope's Partnerships and Programmes Manager for Africa.
"What we want however is for them to buy into the idea that children can get some basic formal learning as well as Koranic knowledge." The Child Protection Alliance, ChildHope's new Gambian partner, was founded in 2001 and acts as an umbrella organisation co-ordinating different groups involved in child rights. Their focal point for marabouts is ISRA, the Islamic NGO headed by Phoday Mahmoud Kebbeh. A charismatic part-time imam, Kebbeh sports a neat white beard and has a taste for flowing green kaftans.
Previous aid efforts have achieved some success in reducing the number of almudus begging on the streets of Gambia's capital Banjul. On a more brutal level police raids had a similar effect, and encouraged remaining almudus to renounce their traditional tomato tins in favour of plastic bags in order to be less conspicuous.
Now, alongside continuing to discourage begging, ISRA is trying to broaden the education that almudus receive. Rote learning of the Koran dominates their syllabus and students can easily finish 10 years or more of study unable to speak or read English and with limited job prospects.
"One target for them is to learn basic English and numeracy, maybe even vocational skills, so they don't become other marabouts, so they can play a more meaningful role in the national development process," explained Phoday Kebbeh, whose organisation has signed a memorandum of understanding with the Gambian Ministry of Education.
"We will see how the children can still benefit from Koranic education but also have ordinary schooling," added Bakary Badjie, programme officer at the Child Protection Alliance.
Advocacy by the CPA is also trying to shift a more ingrained idea; that the privations that children and teachers experience in the marabout system are an acceptable pay-off for subsequent divine rewards. "Parents of these children believe in order to get religious blessings they have to suffer," said Allan Kiwanuka
"I believe what God will eventually give me is the main motivating factor," added Alhaji Lamin Touray in Daru Relwan. "I hope Allah will pay me in paradise."
The partnership between ChildHope and the CPA is a new venture, and while the British charity is hopeful that funding for the £500,000 project will come through, on the ground efforts are still in their early stages.
Despite Phoday Mahmoud Kebbeh's charisma his organisation ISRA is desperately short of resources, its headquarters a shack in a dusty compound. According to ChildHope, "in all our initiatives the aim is to support local organisations to develop their capacity. At the end of the day we want this work to continue without ourselves," Kiwanuka explained.
There are hopeful signs too that already some marabouts in the Gambia are offering a hybridised education, that satisfies the expectations of parents while allowing children to gain broader skills.
Sereign Janko Touray teaches children in Serrekunda, close to the Atlantic-facing hotels that cater for the Gambia's annual influx of 100,000 tourists. His charges live with their parents and attend regular school too. "Children, to be able to train them, or teach them, it would be better to be in control of them," he said. "But there is also a great advantage for children to be spending time with their parents."
The charities in this year's Independent Christmas Appeal
Children around the world cope daily with problems that are difficult for most of us to comprehend. For our Christmas Appeal this year we have chosen three charities which support vulnerable children everywhere.
* Children on the Edge was founded by Anita Roddick 20 years ago to help children institutionalised in Romanian orphanages. It specialises in traumatised children. It still works in eastern Europe, supporting children with disabilities and girls at risk of sex trafficking. But it now works with children in extreme situations in a dozen countries – children orphaned by AIDS in South Africa, post-tsunami trauma in Indonesia, long-term post-conflict disturbance in East Timor, and with Burmese refugee children in Bangladesh and Thailand. www.childrenontheedge.org
* ChildHope works to bring hope and justice, colour and fun into the lives of extremely vulnerable children experiencing different forms of violence in 11 countries in Africa, Asia and South America. www.childhope.org.uk
* Barnardo's works with more than 100,000 of the most disadvantaged children in 415 specialised projects in communities across the UK. It works with children in poverty, homeless runaways, children caring for an ill parent, pupils at risk of being excluded from school, children with disabilities, teenagers leaving care, children who have been sexually abused and those with inappropriate sexual behaviour. It runs parenting programmes. www.barnardos.org.uk