ISA was six years old when his father placed him in a bus headed for the city. The father paid the bus fare to the driver with instructions to drop him upon arrival in the city with any group of Almajiris that the driver might see. He waved to Isa who fought back the tears, as the bus rolled away from the village.
His heart was pounding in his chest and his mouth was suddenly very dry as he stared out of the window, terrified about what was to come in the strange city of Maiduguri. He had never left home and had never been alone by himself…not even for one hour, in the entirety of his life thus far.
He had nothing but the clothes on him and the masa that his mother had wrapped and given to him. Tears rolled down his face, as he recalled his mother, trying to encourage him the previous night, while she fought back her own tears, as she told him that he would go on to learn and become a great Islamic scholar and she would be proud of him. But he had to be brave, she had said. He was not feeling particularly brave as he shuddered in the cold harmattan breeze.
Isa’s mother was also left crying in the corner but she didn’t want to appear like she didn’t have strong iman (faith) or to be complaining. After all, he was going to learn the Quran. But then, other children of rich people in the village were also learning the Quran but they were going to the Mallam’s house and returning home daily.
In fact, the local government chairman employed a mallam to come to his house and teach his children in their own home. Why does she have to lose her son to uncertainty in the city? She concluded that it was because of their poverty, as Isa’s father only earned N25,000 a month and she was not earning an income as he married her immediately after primary school.
She had no training or skills, and he had said he didn’t want his wife to work. They already had five children and she had been hearing whispers that Isa’s father was planning to marry a second wife. She hoped and prayed it was not true but what can she do? She sighed in a resigned manner.
In the preceding two weeks, we had focused generally on the nexus between a stable or dysfunctional family life and societal well-being. This week, we focus specifically on the plight of the Almajiri children and the impact on family and society at large. It is heart-warming that some northern state governors and the Emir of Kano are speaking against this practice now. But what is the way forward?
First, we need to understand the drivers of these practices. While it is often couched as religious activities, the reality is that poverty and ignorance is the most potent driver. For instance, Isa’s father on a salary of N25,000 marries two wives and has 15 children hypothetically.
Obviously, he is unlikely to be able to cater for them. Thus, escape routes available include sending off the male children as Almajiris – purportedly to learn the Quran, but in reality, to fend for themselves very far away from home and usually at such an early age that they may not even remember the way home again.
And for the female children, marry them off early, again purportedly for fear of promiscuity. But in reality, the desired result of these actions is to achieve a net reduction in the number of mouths to feed in the home, thus relieving him of their financial responsibility.
And the final clincher that establishes this economic angle is that even in the same environment, those who are well-to-do, or at least have food in their homes do not send their children out to beg for food and become street children as Almajiris under the guise of Islamic education. And this phenomenon is purely seen only in northern Nigeria and some parts of West Africa (minimally), but is unheard of, in the rest of the global muslim world.
The second driver is the family instability and the high rate of divorce and remarriages that is now common place. The children are sometimes left in limbo and are more or less abandoned as the mother remarries and the children are sent away by the father to live with aged grandparents. They often end up, ultimately, on the streets after the death of these elderly grandparents.
Education must be compulsory, and all community leaders, religious leaders and state governments need to work in tandem to educate the populace, empower the masses, and change minds gradually over time. It calls for long term planning and investment . The conversations are only just starting.