The pains, struggles of Almajiri system

•Echoes from northern streets

Federal Government is partnering state governments in northern Nigeria, to end a three-in-one scourge of almajiri syndrome, street begging and out-of-school phenomenon. Nigerian Tribune findings, which started before the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, showed that the most critical stakeholders are being inadvertently left behind. MOHAMMED SABIU, KOLA OYELERE, ISHOLA MICHAEL, ISAAC SOBAYO, AND MOHAMMED ABBA-KATSINA report the various sides to the phenomenon.

Three years ago in Kaduna, the Kano state governor, Abdullahi Umar Ganduje, at a forum made a revealing disclosure that woke up deep thoughts in the guests; he told the gathering that the state had conducted a survey and discovered that there are no fewer than three million almajiris in the state.

And to Ganduje, this staggering figure is an eyesore that the state government is determined to solve. He said his government had outlined steps to address the issue by ensuring that education is free for all children in the state, adding that a state like Kano cannot continue to allow this social problem to persist.

Ganduje is not alone in this crusade. Other state governors in the north have at one time or the other, revealed that they are thinking along this line but awaiting the right time to carry out the exercise.

Governor Nasir El-rufai of Kaduna state had also started making moves to address this problem in his state. Immediately he assumed office as the state governor in his first tenure, he promulgated laws banning loitering, hawking as well as begging. And the proof that it was the right decision was seen in the way residents welcomed the action. However, the government failed to implement the law to its fullest capacity for some reasons.

This seems to be a thing of the past now as the outbreak of the coronavirus which has ravaged the globe and is a threat to states in Nigeria has brought about concrete attempts to eradicate the almajiri phenomenon in the North. This process was kick started with the resolution of Northern governors to send almajiris in their domains back to their respective states of origin.

The chairman of the Northern Governors Forum, Mr Simon Lalong, revealed that part of the resolutions by the governors was that each governor agreed to send almajiris that are not from his state to their state of origin. This was corroborated by Governor El-rufai who said the governors had vowed to end the almajiri system in the region.

El-rufai, in an interview said the governors had agreed to repatriate all almajiris back to their states of origin, stressing that it is not a new decision as they have been discussing this during their meetings in the past.

According to him, the plan had been in the pipeline for long and it is not Covid -19 that influenced their decision. He reiterated that the Northern Governors’ Forum is determined to end this system once and for all, because “it has not worked in this part of the country and we are determined to end it once and for all. We are ready to face anyone that wants to confront us on this matter,” he stated.

 

The burden

They have gradually defined the Northern landscape. They are everywhere. Young boys in their pre-teen, teens and early-teen, roaming the street in nearly all the states in Northern Nigeria. They are called almajiri, which in plural form, will read almajirai. They are supposed to be in search of Islamic knowledge, but they are always on the street, begging for food and constituting nuisance in many neighbourhoods. They hardly have any forms of Western education and demonstrate no knowledge of any kinds of exposure to same. They represent the three-in-one plague the North is now desperately seeking to combat; child street begging, almajiri syndrome and mounting out-of-school crisis.

The Northern elite are now searching everywhere for solution to remedy a plurality of problem created and allowed to fester for decades by the same ruling class which is now terrified of the grave immediate and future implications of allowing the problem to grow beyond its current level and as Nigerian Tribune also hit the street, seeking answers to the many questions, posed by the problem, it is crystal clear that solutions may be waiting where policy makers are not searching as in the case of Sumaila, an almajiri in Kaduna but who originally hailed from Zamfara.

Samaila wanted to be a medical doctor!, he told Nigerian Tribune.

“My father brought me to one Malam in Rigasa, Igabi local government area of the state. Since then I have been in the school.

“After school, around  10am, the Mallam will ask us to go and beg for food. Some of the food we get are leftovers. We return and start the afternoon session around 2pm.

“On Thursdays, we do any kind of petty works. Some of us would go to the markets to wash plates and some of us wash cars to get stipends.

“On Saturdays, we give our Mallam N50 as his upkeep fees. Everyone of us must give this money. During the farming season, our Mallam would take us to his farm to work (for him free). The same thing, if it is harvest time, we are taken to the farm to harvest.

“I want to become a medical doctor and return home so that i can enroll in school and pursue my dream” Samaila said.

Musa is seven years younger than Samaila. The five year-old from Katsina State, is already street-wise, vending for self.

Speaking to Nigerian Tribune, Musa disclosed that his father sired seven children and all of them are almajirai.

He said his father sent all of them to Kaduna to learn the Koran from a Mallam at Tudun Wada in Kaduna South local government area.

According to him, «nobody gives us food. We have to look for food. We eat all kind of food to survive. We sometimes beg for money.

“Thursday is our free day, we look for menial work in order to get money. The big ones among us  are asked to go to Mallam’s house to fetch water for his wives and children.”

The little boy desired to reunite with his family at home in Katsina, but his problem is that he had lost his mother, with his father, being the only one at home.

For Mansur, he came all the way from Sokoto to learn the Koran. He had been in Kaduna state for the past five years. He expressed the nostalgia of missing his people. According to him, his major challenge has been his health and all what he gets from his Mallam is Panadol (an analgesic). Narrating his ordeal, he spoke of his survival battle amid a health challenge last year, which almost cost his life before he was saved by a good Samaritan who took him to hospital.

 

Is almajiri culture tied to religion?

There is a religious attachment to the almajiri culture as it is usually linked to Islam. Most people especially non Muslims see the almajiri system as an Islamic obligation. But a cleric, Sheikh Tukur Jangebe, the Commissioner for Religious Affairs in Zamfara state claims that almajiri culture is not Islam or an obligation but rather a norm of the Hausa Fulani of Northern Nigeria, adding that, “the way some people are going about it is embarrassing to us as Muslims.”

Jangebe who admitted there is nothing wrong for one to seek for knowledge, called on parents to take care of their children by providing them with both western and Islamic education. According to him, if parents refuse to send their wards to the malamas, there will be nothing like almajiri.

Also speaking, a social critic, Ibrahim Suleiman remarked that the promoters of almajiri are those Muslims who believe in the teachings of Tijjaniyya and Quadiriyya doctrines, adding that their spiritual leader in Nigeria is Sheikh Dahiru Usman Dahiru Bauchi. He explained further that, “they are highly connected as they are top officials, retired and serving generals, serving and retired governors, top bankers, business mogul and the rest of them as members of the sects.”

Findings also gathered that majority of traditional rulers are members of these sects.  Abba Mohammed, a member of the movement traced the history of Almajiri to over 100 years ago. He said, “at the beginning, our clerics known as ‘malamai zaure’ were against western education because to them formal education was another attempt by the white man to entrench his own religion and ways of life. Gradually parents sent their children to these schools where a child is being taught how to read Quran.

“It is a common practice in the region to see a child who is just four years old attending these schools. Parents who are living in Zaria for instance can send their children to Kaduna to learn the Quran under the guidance of a Mallam,” he said.

Mohammed however said he sees nothing wrong with the system but when the point that most of the Mallams cannot take care of the almajiris was raised, he said as far as he was concerned, stopping the almajiri culture is another way of sending most of the Mallams to early graves.

He added that, “don’t forget that these Mallams have children and wives that they feed them from the stipends they receive from these almajiris every Thursdays, who will be feeding them if you stop almajiri? He queried.

But despite the claim that traditional rulers are among the sect that propagate the culture, the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Saad Abubakar and the former Emir of Kano, Muhammad Sanusi Lamido stand out among the Northern leaders as those who are totally against the almajiri system and have spoken out against the culture. The Sultan of Sokoto had in different forum condemned the practice of the culture and had called on the promoters to review it as it is becoming a social disorder.

Alhaji Abubakar had insisted that with the growing rate of insecurity in the region, most of the almajiri would easily to be recruited as bandits or terrorists while the former Emir Sanusi  had consistently linked the growing rate of poverty in the region to illiteracy, almajiri culture and unemployment.

 

Agony on the Plateau

As it is in Kaduna, so it is in Plateau, for the street-roaming almajirai and surprisingly all the young boys encountered at Nasarawa area of Jos North local government, expressed similar desires as Samaila, Musa and Mansur. The Jos almajirai wanted formal education alongside Koranic education. They all mourned lack of enabling environment.

However, an Islamic scholar Abubakar Ladan has a way out. He told Nigerian Tribune that it was extremely wrong to associate the almajiri practice with Islam, adding that most of the children found to be begging in the name of going to Islamic schools only use the religion, to perpetrate what he said Islam frowns on.

According to him, the teachings did not support the issue of taking children away from their parental care and entrusting them to the care of someone who calls himself a mallam or whatever, only to be roaming about from one place to another. To him, «this is not Islamic practice.”

Almajiri system Dr. Nura Ibrahim took it from this point, pointing out that the Almajiri system should be integrated into the Nomadic Education curriculum and its activities regulated, saying this will enable the government to regulate such schools and what they teach.

In Plateau State, most  of the Koranic schools are non-conventional, unregistered, unregulated and uncensored. Many of them pose a security threat to the society and are always a willing tool in the hand of mischief-makers, politicians and other agents of violence.

Governor Simon Lalong recognized this fact recently when he declared in an interview that the North could not leave the Almajirai to be roaming the streets doing nothing adding, that it was another source of insecurity not only in the North but in the country as a whole.

From Kano, the figures are heart wrenching and the streets not smiling. Adjudged the state with the highest number of street-roaming almajirai, even the state government isn›t smiling. The stories that came from the streets in the state with over three million almajirai, will make genuine parents weep.

A resident of the state, Malam Abubakar Wada, lauded the state government, for the decision to prosecute parents whose children are found begging on the streets instead of sending them to school.

“The number of children roaming the streets of Kano during school days showed that parents somewhere have failed in carrying out their responsibilities. No child was brought to this world to take care of himself and his responsibilities, so why should people bear them when they aren’t ready for them?”

However most of Almajirai told Nigerian Tribune that banning them from street begging, was not proper, because the state does not consider their plight .

According to them, «most of us do begging in the state, are not from Kano state. Our parents sent us from neighbouring states to acquire Arabic education in the state».

They also disclosed that this same practice equally occur in other states, noting that most of their parents could not provide for them, hence the need for them to look elsewhere to source for sustenance.

It was also learnt that some of their mothers, after divorcing their first husbands, do not always find it convenient to have their new husbands and children from their first marriage, live under the same roof. So they always send their children out to neighbouring states for Arabic education where they ultimately become street-roaming, food-begging, almajirai.

In Katsina, the estimated the number of almajirai stood at 462, 212 in 2014 and the only thing different in the whole story today, is the multiplication the figure has experienced in the last six years. When Nigerian Tribune went to the street, most of the children, shied away from talking, either smiling or just looking away.

But Sani, a boy with an estimated age of between 9 and 10 years, told Nigerian Tribune he is from Faru, a village in Jibia local government area of Katsina State.

Sani said he was handed over to his Mallam who incidentally is from his area, by his father. He said his father didn’t want him to acquire western education. According to him, they were 15 in number in that school from his village.

‘’My father wanted me to know the city and settle in it; he said there are so many things to do to earn a living in the city’’. Sani added.

A conservative parent, a resident in Katsina, Malam Husamatu who was born and brought up in Katsina decided to take his child to an Islamic school in Kano.

The boy, aged 12, who was in primary school before the relocation. was taken out of school and Malam Husamatu, his father, told Nigerian Tribune the boy was misbehaving and sending him away was, the only way he could punish him.

Asked if he realized the deplorable condition in which the almajirai are leaving; Malam Husamatu said he tried to control the child, but to no avail.

Another parent argued that he saw nothing special in western education, saying those who acquired it and working in government (public office), are nothing, but a bunch of cheats.

Nigerian Tribune also discovered that most of the Koranic teachers are from rural areas, coming to reside and set up Islamiyyah schools in the city. Testimonies from their «students», showed they heavily rely on the children for their own daily survival.

Malam Haladu a teacher in one of such Islamiyyah schools, harboring the almajirai in Katsina, expressed his support for modernization of their schools, to include the western education.

He said although among the teachers there a lot of them with different views on western education, he personally sees nothing wrong in it, as long as ideology will not be injected into it.

‘’Learning the Koran and the religion is a must; if the government wants to assist and make our life better, it is a welcome development.’’ Malam Haladu said.

 

Scholars are misleading ― Bauchi Koran teachers.

In Bauchi, it is a common thing to see a group of boys mostly between the ages 4 and 10, roaming the streets begging for what to eat, some go from house to house while others can be seen at various locations holding bowls with which they have their collections which are mostly left-over foods, with or without soup.

They rarely discriminate on what they are given because they have no choice, a development that has endangered their lives, considering the risks involved in what they do on a daily basis. That is the routine of the Almjirai, who combine begging with the learning of the Koran. The menace of Almajiri is becoming so pronounced that Islamic scholars are now coming out to preach against it.

Allaramma Musa Saidu is a Koranic teacher in Kafi village of Bauchi local government. He said the issue of Almajiri has remained a problem for the North due to the fact that some so-called scholars have misinterpreted what the Koran says concerning the search  for knowledge.

 

Not without resistance

Speaking further on the issue, Suleiman explained that the almajiri culture thrives because of the support it enjoys from some well placed people in the society. He stated that, “I told you earlier that there are many highly connected people in the two sects that financed and mobilised support for everything they do.”

A Mallam that spoke on a condition of anonymity for security reasons said that the consensus among them is full resistance ‘we will resist any attempt to abolish the almajiri system but we agree to a reform. We believe what we are doing is our way of contributing our quota to Islamic knowledge and education. I don’t think any government in its right sense will think of doing otherwise.

“The followers of Tijjaniyya and quadiyya movement in the country are a population of between 10 to 12 million. We have our leaders; Sheikh Dahiru Bauchi, late Ishiaka Rabiu, Sheikh Nasiru Kabara, and a host of others who can see the president at any time. Even some of the governors and emirs are our members.

 

Need for legislation

However, despite the stance of parties, pundits have said that for the process to succeed, there has be proper legislation to back up what the governors are doing else it becomes an exercise in futility. They expressed the belief that governors who are members of the sect and have benefited from the system will not be serious in promulgating any law that will lead to the eradication of the almajiri system.

While the idea of eradicating the almajiri system has been described as a noble one which had been a matter of importance to past administrations in the northern states, many have expressed skepticism that the governors will succeed in ending the almajiri culture which is now seen as a social menace by many. Nigerian Tribune findings revealed that the region is at crossroads as a result of many factors that may serve as a clog in the wheel of progress of the governors.

 

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