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The Bleak World of the Almajiris

They are mostly children of the poor living far away from home under Islamic teachers and have to pound the streets daily to beg for food and alms

They milled around the premises, young boys in their teens, eagerly awaiting the next  person. As the customer made his way out of the store, the boys, bowls in hand, ran towards him, asking for alms. They are the almajiris, a group of mostly itinerant young children or boys who often eke out a living by begging for alms or food.

The man appeared to size them up, and, in a jiffy, dipped his hand into his pocket and brought out a fifty Naira note and gave to them. The boys, five of them, thanked him and returned to their former position, to await another person. Not long after, another car owner, having procured some items from the store, emerged  and made for his car. Six young boys this time, different from the previous ones, and the eldest of who may not be more than 12 years, besieged him. The man appeared unwilling to part with his money. He opened his car door and proceeded to kick the ignition, but alas, the engine would not start. Pronto, the six boys went into action. They pushed the 190 Mercedez Benz car until it roared into life. Impressed with their effort, the driver brought out a N100 note and gave to them.

All these happened on the night of Monday, May 23, just outside the Oasis Bakery, at Lafiya Road,Maiduguri.

As early as 6.00pm that evening, many streets in Maiduguri, including Lafiya Road, Damboa Road and others were gradually becoming deserted as many residents had begun to head for their various homes. The reason for this was not lost on many. It had to do with the spate of killings that had been witnessed in the  town in recent times linked to the Boko Haram sect. The crises had led to the death of many people and instilled fear in  others, such that these days, not a few residents of Maiduguri hurriedly leave their work and business places for home earlier than they used to for fear of their lives. But to the  young Almajiris who had laid siege to the Oasis Bakery that night, there was nothing to fear. Life must go on, and to survive, they had  to be on the streets, however lonely they were, to seek  for food and alms.

As they approached the Newswatch reporter himself, he asked to know why they were out in the street at that time. “Ni Almajiri ne, ba abunde zen chi abinchi.” (I’m Almajiri, I do not have money to feed). Another said: “Muna neman kudi de zamu je gida.” (We are looking for money to take us home). Their response captured the level of  disillusionment and helplessness many ascribe to them. Although the Almajiris are a group of young people, mostly boys, who attend Islamic school or Tsangaya under the supervision of  a teacher called Mallam, they are not known to live a life of luxury. In fact, they struggle to exist and at the mercy of people. And even though most Almajiris live with their teachers, few people, outside the Northern region, associate them with any scholarly activity. This is not unconnected with their ubiquitous nature, and the fact that they appear to spend most of their time on the streets than in the classrooms.

But their lifestyle has led many to  worry about their safety. There are those who  bother that the Almajiris could easily get in harms way or become easy tools in the hands of evil men who could lure or engage them for their wicked plans. For instance, some Almajiris have been accused, over the years, of aiding or perpetrating violence in some Northern parts of the country. In like manner, some Mallams had been accused of inciting the young impressionable  minds into action and violence by making hate statements.

The Boko Haram crisis is one of  the latest cases of violence to be linked to the Almajiris. According to a Maiduguri-based source, “you cannot talk about the Boko Haram crisis without mentioning the Almajiris. They are hungry and vulnerable and are easily recruited by mischief makers to foment trouble, as the Boko Haram crisis has proved.”

But Murtala Ahmad Abulfathi does not agree with such a view. “The people who are saying that the Almajiris are the ones doing such things are wrong....The Almajiris are not what people label them,” he said, adding that the fact that the Almajiris are found on the streets begging doesn’t remove from the fact that they are responsible young boys who had been taught to live a good life worthy of emulation.

Musa Ibn-Zakariya, chief Imam of Kawo Mosque, and chairman, proprietors of Qur’anic schools in Kaduna State, is not unaware of  the perception of the Almajiris as troublemakers who lead religious disturbances in the north. But as far as he was concerned, such  opinions are borne out of ignorance.  “When has the Almajiri acquired the skill of making bomb?” he queried. According to Ibn – Zakariya, not every child found begging on the street  is an almajiri, as there may be fake ones among them. As far as he was concerned, an almajiri is someone who loves to worship God and who readily  forfeits everything including personal comfort  to get to know his God.

Some Northern Islamic scholars are unhappy about the nagative perception of the Almajiris and so established an organisation called Centre for Qur’anic Reciters, Nigeria. Habibu Abubakar, a lawyer, is a director at the centre. He told Newswatch in Kano that for the past five years,  the centre has  tried to correct the erroneous impression about the Almajiri. According to him, some people see the Almajiris  as the equivalent of the Lagos area boys. “We felt we owe it as a duty to set up an organisation to enlighten the public about this brand of Qur’anic education. An Almajiri is not the equivalent of Lagos area boy,” he said. But he regretted that the government is not interested in the Qur’anic kind of education. “The Almajiris and their Mallams are left to their fate. They are on their own. That is why we felt the need to set up this centre to coordinate their activities,” Abubakar said.

Some of the Almajiris, who spoke to Newswatch in Kano, Borno, Jigawa, Kaduna and Yobe states appeared  stunned  by suggestions or  accusations that they  contribute to violence in the north. Some of them were surprised to learn that people actually consider them violent. The reason is that an average Almajiri sees himself as someone who is weak and one who lives at the mercy of his neighbours. This gives the impression that many Almajiris are poor, and that most of them have no better option than becoming pupils of Qur’anic Schools. But Abubakar Umar, a post graduate student of the University of Maiduguri, told Newswatch that “as a former Almajiri myself, some of  my classmates were sons of rich Nigerians. So, It’s not just for poor people.”

However, even the culture of begging, was not originally part of the Almajiri system. According to Mahmud Yusuf Imam, a senior lecturer in the Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies of the University of Maiduguri, in the years before the advent of colonialism in the Northern part of what is now Nigeria, people, including leaders of the community, patronised the traditional or Tsangaya system of education and “ you didn’t find children out on the streets begging for alms as you have today. People in the villages took care of the kids by providing food and their teachers were well respected.” But with the advent of colonialism, which led to changes in the political, educational and judicial systems, things began to change, but even that has not succeeded in eroding the value of that  traditional system of education in the eyes of the people, which explains why many parents still prefer it to western education. “Wherever you find the system in the North, it is the parents that are still willing to see that their children acquire islamic education, fundamentally, to get them committed to understanding and memorising the Koran,” said Imam. 

According to Bulama Yerima, a Maiduguri-based journalist,  “Muslims in this part of the  country, particularly in Northern Nigeria where the people are predominantly Muslims, have this belief as part of their culture, that even if you are well to do, you have to give out your children to somebody who will  take  him or her away from you, to be disciplined and brought up the islamic way.” That was “the belief initially and the Mallams took these children properly because the number of the pupil under their command was not high: about two, three or four.”  And “the parents, together with their teachers, were expected to work out modalities on how the children could be best taken care off. “You just don’t  give your kids like that to the Mallam. You take them to the Mallam, you sit down, you negotiate on condition that  you will be coming to visit the kid once in a year or in every six months; that you will give at least something for the feeding of the kid and his clothing and reading materials.”

Such arrangement is no longer common today. According to a source, it is mainly rich parents who are able to effectively sponsor their children through Qur’anic schools. They do this by providing money to the mallams for the upkeep of their children or wards. Those who lack the financial muscle to contribute to the welfare of their wards take them to the Mallams with the understanding that the kids will  help to fend for themselves.  The degeneration or “worst aspect,” in the Almajiri system leading to the culture of begging, Yerima said, started in the “early 90’s.” Apart from poverty, other factors that have led to a rise in the number of street  kids who take to begging as a way of life include “population explosion,  economic downturn and moral decadence.” He explained that “there are kids born out of wedlock, and for some people in this part of the country, it is believed that  taking care of kids born out of  wedlock is a kind of sin.”  But  “even if the person was born out of wedlock, Islam does not  say such  a child should not be cared for.”

Whatever the factors leading to  street begging,  Imam does not consider it the best option. Although  “the Mallams are forced by circumstances to allow these boys to go out and beg,  I don’t support that because to ask these boys to go and seek alms as a source of livelihood is not the best for them, the society or even the government.” He added that government ought to support  the Tsangaya educational  system  and ensure that the young boys get their choice education.

That is what Goodluck Jonathan promised to do while campaigning for his election. Aware of  the challenges faced by  the Almajiris in their daily quest for survival, Jonathan said that his administration would make better provisions for the welfare and educational needs of the boys. That could happen later. But for now, the condition or quality of life of the average Almajiri continues to evoke pity. “Daily, many of them on the streets struggle to find food by begging, scrounging or stealing what they need to survive with,” said Pauline Kuje, another  journalist.

Kuje recently did a story on street kids in Maiduguri  as a way to draw  attention  and raise awareness on their plight. The report commemorated the “International Day for Street Children,” which held on April 12. The day  is set aside by the United Nations every year to raise awareness on the care and protection of children, alongside their right to survival, health and education. Kuje told Newswatch that, from her findings, many of the street children are orphans who have no close relatives to assist them and so the only remedy is  to source for food for themselves. “One of the children told me that he has no parents and that his people abandoned him. Another said  he grew up not knowing his close relatives, so he decided to help himself by begging while another said that his parents are in the village and they were the ones who sent him to the town to fend for himself.” There are also others “who were abandoned by their mothers probably because they had them out of wedlock or due to poverty.”

The pitiable condition of many Almajiris and orphans is what motivated Zannah Mustapha, to set up the Future Prowess Islamic Foundation.  The school, which has, since 2007 offered educational lifeline to “orphans” in Maiduguri, is his own way of assisting to lessen the plight of the poor. Apart from the basic education, the children are taught how to rear fish, a skill that, Mustapha hopes, will serve them well in the future.

Sagir Dala, an executive in the office of the special adviser on Tsangaya,  said there are close to 1.3 million Almajiris in Kano alone, sent by their parents from neigbouring villages or states to acquire Qur’anic knowledge from  Islamic scholars or mallams. The Mallam, who himself must have been a product of the same almajiri educational system, does not get paid for his service to the children. It is believed that his reward is in heaven and so he shelters the children and educates them free of charge.

Kano is not the only state with a high number of  Almajiris. Other  Northern states such as Yobe, Sokoto, Kebbi, Zamfara, Adamawa, Niger, Nassarawa, Kaduna and Jigawa also have a significant number of their young boys and even girls in many islamic schools across the states. A 2007 report on “Rapid appraisal of Qur’anic schools and NFE centres in Borno State” states that “of the 58 Qur’anic schools, 43, about 74 percent are located in urban areas. Only two are exclusively for girls, 17 for boys while 39, about 67 percent are mixed.” Another report on Yobe State  reveals that “all fifteen schools are located in rural areas. They are exclusively private with predominantly mixed enrolment, while the majority are registered.”

Such high interest in the Tsangaya educational system is believed to have affected their interest or enrolment  in formal educational system.  Even then, there is a high number of  children who know neither  Qur’anic nor  formal education. According to a report titled: Communication Strategies for the Integration of Basic Education into Qur’anic Schools, published in April 2008, “ a more disturbing situation is the growing number of children who are out of school. It states that “estimates derived from 2005 school census showed that about 10 million school age children are out of the formal school system” and that it’s “particularly unnerving that more than 60 percent of the out of school children are girls residing in the northern part of the country.” In another recent report, the National Population Commission revealed that 72 percent of  school age children in Borno State are out of school.

In Damaturu, a source at the Yobe State Agency for Mass Education, told Newswatch that in the 90s, UNICEF partnered with the state government on a programme meant to  boost school enrolment. This was after a survey by UNICEF and some Northern state agencies showed  a low literacy level in the region.

According to the source who wishes anonymity, “the survey revealed that over 60 percent of school age boys were found in the traditional Qur’anic school(Tsangaya) and over 65 percent school age girls were found hawking in the Northern states. Boys and girls were not part of the western education.”

Inuwa Bwala, the commissioner of Information and Home Affairs in the administration of Alli Modu Sheriff, who handed over power to a new government led by  Kashim Shettima on May 29, said  that the National Population Commission educational survey on Borno State was not credible. “How many children did the National Population Commission interview or how many communities did they visit to come up with the statistic that 72 percent of our children do not go to school?” he asked, adding that “I have challenged them to come forth with their research officers and I would follow them from one locality to the other and establish the fact.” Borno State, said Bwala, is long noted for the teaching of Islamic knowledge and that “ for  over 100 years,” Borno children have been attending Islamic schools . “So, unless, in their estimation, Islamic schools are not schools. As far as we are concerned, Islamic knowledge is an aspect of education.”

A source told Newswatch that, although a lot of fuss has been made about the Almajiris, not much effort had gone into improving their lot by many of the state governments in the region.

However, in Kaduna State,  an integration programme of fusing western education into the traditional Qur’anic  studies was stridently pursued by Asmau Makarfi, former first lady and wife of Ahmed Makarfi, former governor of  the  state. The programme tagged: “Millennium Hope,” was designed to provide selected almajiris western education up to university level. Ibn-Zakariya said some of his students who were beneficiaries of the programme are now doing their National Certificate of Education, NCE, at the Federal College of Education, Zaria. But after her husband left office, she could no longer sustain the programme. She only promised to pay the school fee of  some selected almajiris at the  primary school level.

Former president Olusegun Obasanjo’s government also made an effort to provide the Almajiris western education.  But the strategy it adopted towards  achieving that  was considered by some as counter-productive.  In that regard, Mallam Musa School in Kawo, Kaduna State was selected among the 34 schools where the programme was to be tested. Ibn-Zakariya, who is also the proprietor of the school, said the programme failed because the government was consulting people who had no clue about how to implement the programme. “When the programme was to commence, it was expected that the opinions of proprietors of the Qur’anic schools, especially those of us that have already organised ourselves would be sought.  But we were sidelined. They, instead, went to traditional rulers to explain  their plans to them. They came to us only when they started having difficulties in persuading some hardliners who viewed the whole programme with suspicion.”

In Kano State, the government introduced a pilot feeding programme for Almajiris in just three of the 44 local government areas of the state in 2003. In less than one year, the programme collapsed. The reason being that  the state could not cope with the  financial  cost.

But Gwani Sanusi Abubakar, chairman of Islamic Reciters in Kano, believes that a more lasting solution would be  to reform the almajiri system. “We were happy that the federal government is thinking of improving the Almajiri education system. We believe that if our views are sought, it could be a great success.” Ultimately, said another source, the idea should be to “give these boys new hope of a better life, as they do not need to go through such hardship at an early age, and parents should also know that it is immoral to bring forth children into the world and not care about their welfare.”



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