It’s hard to miss them on the street, especially if you live in Northern Nigeria; they usually move in groups, begging for or scrambling over a small plate of food. At times, they move from house to house, singing the yar bakara (begging songs), and calling for someone in the house to help them.
They are known as Almajiris and constitute a significant portion of Nigeria’s 13.2 million out of school children. Where did these Almajiris come from, and why are they still here?
A little walk through history
Almajiri, formally called Tsangaya, is a migratory system of Islamic education that emerged in the pre-colonial era from the Kanem-Borno town of Northern Nigeria. Almajiri was inspired by Prophet Muhammad’s migration from Mecca to Medina and is derived from the Arabic word Al-Muhajirun, which means a person who leaves his home in search of Islamic knowledge.
Young boys would leave their homes to be taught by an Alarama (Teacher) for up to six years, starting with understanding basic Arabic alphabets to memorising the Qur’an. The schools were established as an organised system of learning Quranic education and Islamic jurisprudence, a replica of Islamic learning centres in Muslim countries like the madrasah in Pakistan, Egypt, etc.
These schools were primarily funded by scholarships from the Emirates system, though members of the community and parents also contributed through Sadaqah (Giving of alms). However, the British side-lined the Almajiri system after their 1904 invasion as they did not recognise it as a standard educational system, ceased official funding and established a new system of Western Education called Boko. Though funding went down, interest in Almajiri remained the same. As contributions from parents and community members were not enough to sustain the practice, the students started begging.
The legacy of Shekau
The Almajiri system may have as many as seven million Nigerian boys, most of them without any education asides the Qur’anic ones they receive. These boys typically fall within three age groups: Gardi (adult), Titibiri (adolescent), Kolo (infant). The Gardi offer services such as cleaning or gardening or trade (and hawk) as a means of livelihood while the Kolo and Titibiri are commonly found begging for alms. This exposes them to the risk of abuse and recruitment into crime or terrorism.
Although little research has been done on the link between terrorism and the Alamajiri system, factors like poverty, parental neglect, and social exclusion make them vulnerable to extremism. An example close to home is that of Abubakar Shekau of the deadly Boko Haram sect. Shekau grew up an Almajiri, migrating from his village to Maiduguri, where he would meet Mohammad Yusuf, the founder of the Boko Haram sect. Shekau would later become the group's leader. He does not represent Almajiri boys or the Almajiri system, but he will always be remembered as the Almajiri who became a terrorist.
Economic conditions worsen the situation
One school of thought suggests that Almajiri schools have outlived their usefulness. According to Governor Abdullahi Ganduje of Kano State, “Almajiri syndrome is depleting the north of needed manpower for its regional growth and development.” The Governor also suggested that as many as three million children were roaming the streets of Kano State as Almajiri pupils.
The surge in the numbers can be attributed to the combination of a high fertility rate and increasing poverty levels in the North. As a result, many children are born to parents without the means to fund their education. Moreover, many public schools in the North do not differ significantly from the Almajiri schools themselves; usually under-funded, with depleting structures, and a high student to teacher ratio. So, even when there is a will by the children and parents to attend more inclusive schools, access to a better learning environment is limited.
Poverty and under-development lie at the heart of this beggarly and destitute lifestyle. If the parents had access to better economic opportunities, they would choose more inclusive schools, as the knowledge they obtain from Tsangaya alone cannot help the children build skills they need to be functional in present-day society or come out of that circle of poverty. Meanwhile, it appears even the time that should be spent learning the Qur’an is used to beg for alms and food.
It used to be a common sight witnessing boys begging, but, more recently, girls can be found clinging to passers-by and in moving traffic. These girls are known as Almajira(s). Without underplaying the plight of the Alamajiri boys, the inclusion of girls is particularly worrisome, given the broader gender issues in the region and greater vulnerability for girls when it comes to sexual exploitation.
Irrespective of gender, Section 30 of the Child Rights Acts states: “a child shall not be used for the purpose of begging for alms, guiding beggars, prostitution, domestic or sexual labour or for any unlawful or immoral purpose.”
What should be done?
In proffering a solution, it is first important to change the way we view and treat the Almajiri, not as “one of them” but as “one of us”; not as potential terrorists but as victims of a failed system.
The idea behind the Almajiri system may be worth preserving, but the schools ought to be properly integrated into the educational sector and their curriculums upgraded and revised in a way that allows the students get both Quranic and secular education. This blend is critical to ensuring that they develop economically-useful skills.
Local communities and religious leaders also have a role to play in governing the system. The 165 Almajiri Schools built by ex-President Goodluck Jonathan have come to nothing as most of the structures have become dilapidated due to negligence, while some were never used at all. This is typically due to lack of sustainability plans, and a lack of will by the political leaders in those states and the current administration to see to the continuity and funding of those schools. The Kaduna State Government recently revealed plans to enrol up to 145,000 children in school, 14,738 of which are Almajiris and 70,167 girls expected to be engaged in 480 schools and 2,420 teachers. If successful, this can be replicated across affected states in Nigeria.
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