A major component of the current Kano State education sector reform is the integration of the almajiri system into the formal basic education subsector. Its three main segments include one, payment of monthly teachers (mallam) allowances, two, feeding for and three, teaching of English and Mathematics to the pupils.
Recently engaged in the pilot scheme are 52 selected almajiri schools that are also being renovated and supplied with the 660 teachers employed purposely for the programme. In principle, this is the integration that is supposed to part-foster the new government initiative of free and compulsory basic and post basic education.
In practice however, the concept is fundamentally defective. So far from integrating the almajiri system, the three mentioned segments removed it further from the mainstream educational system.
In the first place, the payment of allowances to a few mallams is just too cosmetic a form of integration as to be of any significance. It does not make them any better teachers than they have always been since their commitment to the Holy Book is borne more of religious convictions than for any material reward. Neither does it improve on their methods. Even though the offered stipend implies the need for their services, it still falls short since they are not engaged on the basis of any certificated qualification.
So, unlike their supposed counterparts in primary schools, the mallams are only casual and not permanent and pensionable employees. A proper integration would have to certify all of them first before their total absorption into the government teaching service in the regular manner.
In similar vein, the feeding of a single meal a day to a negligible fraction of almajiri pupils does not constitute their integration. It does not see them as potential socio-economic assets to be better prepared for productive roles in future. In fact, the almajiri free meal appears more as a way of isolating them further from the formal system and endorsing their methods. In the long run, this may encourage more almajiris to throng to the city since their migration is seemingly caused more by poor family values and poverty than by ambitions to memorise the Qur’an. At any rate, there is no link between the feeding and either integration or the education of the almajiris.
Likewise, even if taught to all the almajiri pupils in all the 11,000 schools, English Language and Mathematics are inadequate substitutes for standard primary education. Teaching them exclusively amounts to lowering the defined primary school standards according to the National Policy on Education and to that extent violates the set constitutional ideals we should strive to attain.
By right, every citizen-child from age six, including the estimated 2.6 million out of school, should receive at least 12 years of basic education. During this structured period, the pupils cover the syllabuses of no fewer than nine subjects graded into six year primary and three year each of junior and senior secondary schools. The certificates awarded at the completion of each grade validate the efforts made and open the relevant future opportunities.
In this context, the teaching of only English and Mathematics to almajiri children is objectionable. It discriminates against them not only by offering them substandard education but also as a result, by depriving them of all future opportunities that require certificates, including political participation.
And deprivation is the lot of the almajiri child. He is an alienated creature living a miserable life of abuse, broken spirit and dim future hope. He is deprived of even parental care at his formative, most vulnerable years, when he needs it most. His village father, probably with more wives and children than he can support, hands him over to the city-based mallam. And to relieve the unbearable burden of the multitude under him, the mallam, himself a pauper, surrenders him to the streets where he wanders in dirty rags and ekes morsels of food by the hours.
So, beside parental support, the almajiri child demands, above all else, to be liberated from sub-human inferiority and his congested, bed bug-infested, threadbare sleeping mat. Likewise, he demands, as a citizen, equal opportunity for formal schooling as much as he aspires to memorise the Holy Book in befitting dignity. Not even a meal a day can satisfy those demands. Neither can stipends for his teacher nor instruction in only two subjects.
Only full, even if gradual, integration will improve both the lot of the almajiri child and the conditions for Qur’anic memorisation. Much as we need the two educational systems, we should plan to enroll all our children, including all almajiris, into our primary schools where Qur’an memorisation will be made compulsory. The same mallams teaching the almajiris will then be properly employed after the relevant training, to teach Quran there.
That is the way in countries with large Muslim populations, like Egypt. It is more certain to resolve the child-begging menace after some time. It also gives ample time that allows government to spend within its resource limits. In contrast, an unsustainable, superficial integration that will not stop child-begging now will only worsen it later even if the government feeds all almajiris and pays all their mallams.
Yusuf is a former Secretary General, Alliance for Democracy, Kano State.