Many excuses are advanced to justify parents’ sending kids off to towns and villages far away without any provisions for their welfare and upkeep; but I believe the most popular one is the belief that kids learn better and faster when they are away from the pampering influences of parents and grandparents. Even if we could concede the efficacy of this method in many cases, it is arguable if the mallams, who are themselves extremely poor, are the ones to be entrusted with the tasks. We would simply be sentencing these kids to a life of hunger, sickness, ignorance and early death.
We must stop deceiving ourselves. The root to solving the almajirci problem lies within us, and not in palliatives and political posturing. Building special schools is simply a gimmick which would soon unravel. It is our fault that we are refusing to face up to unpleasant truths.
The real solution lies in re-engi-neering our early and basic education, as well as empowering families. To really develop and re-structure the Almajiri Education, we must face two simple facts. One is that the responsibility for educating children is that of the parents and the communities. Governments can only provide funds, structures, resources and the regulatory framework. Just as there can be no good schools without the active engagement of the parents and their communities, we cannot begin to treat the almajiri phenomenon in static isolation.
The “Catch 22” is that we make the situation worse by simply treating the symptoms; if parents believe that the primary schools would continue to be neglected, and that the new emphasis would be in Almajiri schools, they would be tempted to withdraw them from the former. More and more Almajiri schools would then be required until they become the norm, and cease to attract special attention.
To tackle the issue, we must break the problem into two; those kids who are already attending the Almajiri schools, and those who have not yet left the villages. We should take stock of those already in the system and find ways to stop the flow of new entrants. Count the kids and the schools they currently attend. Register these, and ensure that the teachers (mallamai) are doing what is right. Assign responsibility for feeding, accommodating and caring for all the almajirai, incorporating clothing and healthcare to the respective states and local authorities. This is where the federal government should assist. Presidents Goodluck Jonathan and David Mark have exhibited commendable concern and political support along this line, but the approach needs the involvement of all, not just civil servants.
The real solution would come only if we tackle the flow of new almajirai into our towns and villages. Here, the answer is economically cheap but politically difficult. The law should require that every child must be educated in his village, town or city, and must live with those responsible for him, (there are no girls in the system.) This is possible because today, unlike before, there are no villages, towns or cities without Qur’anic teachers within walking distance; certainly not in this part of the world. Our states and local governments could then use the best-practices to be derived from the current experiments to keep kids near their parents. This would go a long way in ensuring proper nurture, good upbringing and even mitigating labour shortages at critical points during the farming season.
When the kids get older and they need to continue their education under more advanced scholars they could then travel or migrate, but not when they are mere kids. Even if, for one reason or the other, parents feel the children could do better away from home we must ensure that they provide enough funds for them, and attach them to guardians they could stay with.
Ultimately we must come back to the questions many are too frightened to ask because they have implications we hate to admit: Is Qur’anic education the most desirable one? (The Almajirci Option); is it the only desirable one? (The Boko Haram option); or can Qur’anic education be accommodated under our national curricula? I do not pretend to be an Islamic scholar by any stretch of the imagination so may Allah forgive me if I am wrong, but it seems clear to me that if we Muslims were supposed to only confine ourselves to Qur’anic education The Almighty would have told us that. Instead, the first verse revealed to our Noble Prophet was “Iqra (Read)”. We were instructed to seek for knowledge even if we needed to go as far as China, considered by many, at that time, to be the other “end” of the World.
Learning is thus an act of worship, and we were never restricted to only one subject or one type of scholarship. This we must understand as we integrate Islamic (and other religious) instructions into our national curricula and equip all our children with the skills and tools, values and attitudes necessary for surviving in today’s world.
Let us start this debate seriously because our future is at stake.