Almajirci: some home truths (I)

All of them are to be handed over to the host states before December. Last year, the president personally commissioned the first set of 35 Almajiri Model Schools constructed by Tertiary Education Trust Fund. It could be recalled also that the Federal Government and the Islamic Development Bank had signed $98 million bilingual education loan in March 2012,  to complement its’ efforts on this.
While all efforts to get more kids in school should be celebrated, the Almajiri Education programme raises more ques-tions than it seeks to answer, and needs to be properly appraised if we are to arrive at a comprehensive solution.
With about 10 million kids (nobody is quite sure) to be catered for, and more being added daily, we need to ask ourselves whether this is going to be a permanent, two-tier arrangement with one set of kids going through formal schooling while another set attends the Almajiri alternative or, if it is a stop-gap measure, when the two would be merged and how.  Would the systems have essentially similar curriculum ar would there be two different ones?
The initiative is not new, as many have tried it before, albeit with less financial backing. It is also a stop-gap measure which would not fundamentally change the trends. Right now the reality is one of two formal education systems, one for the rich and one for the poor. One set goes abroad or attends good private schools while the other remains trapped in underfunded, dysfunctional and collapsing schools. To this, we seem to be adding a third one for the poorest, or the “abokis” as they are contemptuously referred to.
Last May, Senate President David Mark expressed another alternative approach when he called on the 19 northern state governors to, as a matter of necessity, outlaw the  almaijiri system altogether because, according to him, they (the almajirai) have become tools in the hand of  politicians. Mark lamented that the almajiri system was counter-productive, and that upon inquiry, he had learnt that the system was not based on Islamic injunctions.“It’s a system that is counter-productive, it is a breeding ground for irresponsible miscreants and we cannot tolerate it.  Because for those who have different faith, one is a bit worried about making comments on it, but today that I’ve heard that it is not an Islamic injunction. I think that system ought to have been banned long ago,” he said adding that he hoped the governors “will summon the courage to ban the system at the earliest possible time”.
Both President Jonathan and Senate President Mark are to be commended; one for taking the issue so seriously and the latter for re-starting the debate. Various governments have attempted to do something on this but failed; while many past leaders have debated its desirability (especially General Hassan Usman Katsina, of blessed memory). The truth is that we (especially northern Muslim leaders, scholars and opinion moulders) have been shying away from the problem for far too long. It is time we confront it frontally as my fellow Daily Trust columnists, notably Bala Mohammed and Qaddam Sidq Isa, have argued in many excellent write-ups.
Let us be very clear about what we are referring to. While “almajiri” can refer to anyone studying under a teacher, the ones we are referring to are the kids we often notice only while driving around our cities, towns and villages. They range between 6 to 14 years, (some even younger) and have been bundled away by their parents to teachers (mallams) in settlements far from their homes to acquire Islamic education, and ultimately to memorise the Qur’an. They often have nowhere to sleep but a room or hut provided by the mallam, whose accommodation is itself inadequate. The mallam cannot feed them so they have to go out and beg for food and other necessities of life. They are often cold, unwashed, in tattered clothes and without access to any medical care.
The argument you normally hear is that they learn better when they are away from home. The reality is that the parents (especially the fathers) have freed themselves from the pressure of feeding, clothing, training and generally nurturing them. If the mother dies or is divorced the man is more than likely to remarry and sire more kids who may themselves end up as almajirai somewhere.
To address this issue properly, we have to go to the roots, and tell ourselves some home-truths. One of the best exposition I came across was Qaddam Sidq Isa’s, carried sometimes ago in this paper, which I find very relevant and enlightening, and I cite it here as a starting point.  He pointed out that:   
“Tackling almajirci from the root simply means handling it with Islamic jurisprudential instruments to determine its status in Islam in the first place. Because as long as those who send their kids out for almajirci believe that, it is not only Islamic but a religious obligation also (as some may assume), they would defini-tely continue to resist and undermine any effort to reform it….”
“Parents are under religious, legal and moral obligations to provide food, shelter, security, health, education, moral and professional training… etc to their kids. And under no circumstances should they neglect such duties and send/abandon them to the harsh uncertainties of almajirci under the pretext of memorizing the Qur’an. Allah the Almighty would never charge parents if their kids did not memorize the Qur’an, but He would definitely hold them responsible for neglect of duty and exposing their children to unnecessary risks without justification if they abandon them under any pretext e.g. memorizing the Qur’an.”
“This is because, while memorizing the Qur’an is recommendable on indivi-duals i.e. (Mustahab), giving such care and service to kids is obligatory (Wajib) as pointed out earlier.  And it is jurisprudentially established that, while doing a recommendable deed, one should not neglect either an obligatory duty or commit a prohibited act or omission for that matter.”
This is the first truth we must accept if we are to move forward. The best remedy is to ensure that people do not shirk their responsibility for nurturing their kids under any pretext. We are not the only poor people on earth.  Caring for, and bringing up, our kids properly is obligatory, and we can’t outsource that to others.

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