After wandering in the streets of Sokoto, raggedly dressed Umar, 7, lay down with his arm under his little head in a corner on a boulevard. The dry, deep cracks on his unshod feet were all too visible.
He was surrounded by other kids in threadbare clothing, which was hardly protecting them from the cold, dry harmattan wind season.
Young Umar engages in street begging and usually has to scrounge for food. The sustenance is typically leftovers. He is one of the thousands of children sent to Qur’anic schools, popularly known as almajiris.
“I go from place to place begging for food, usually the leftovers of others,” he said.
Umar said he was brought to Sokoto township from Isa Local Government Area two and half years ago. He solicits for alms from 9:00 am to 2:30pm when he goes for the Qur’anic studies session under the tutelage of local teachers, referred to as Malams. For all these hassles, he gets N50 on some occasions and nothing, at other times.
After the day’s class, Umar goes back to the street about 5:00pm and returns to his teacher at 8:00pm to begin another session.
Another almajiri, Basiru, also seven years old, was taken to a Mallam in Sokoto city from Unwala village in Illela Local Government Area of the state by his father. He has spent three years in the city.
He explained his routine: “We attend reading sessions in the morning and at night, thus getting ample time to go and beg for food. I visit motor parks and eateries in search of something to eat. I spend the whole day out there from morning to evening before going back to school.”
He disclosed that many of them are crammed in a room where they usually pass the night, and that they lack cover clothes to protect themselves from the harmattan cold.
About 365km away in Katsina, the streets and eateries are brimming with almajirai, begging for life-saving remnants and crumbs.
A 2014 headcount showed that an estimated 462, 212 almajirai roam the nooks and crannies of the state. It found 22, 572 tutors across the 34 council areas of the state in no fewer than 8, 365 schools.
A total of 3, 032 of such schools are located in Katsina zone, while Funtua and Daura zones have 2, 689 and 2, 653, respectively, the counting showed.
The number is believed to have increased, given the influx of people to the state, especially those fleeing banditry in the neighbouring Zamfara State.
Small boys as little as three years are regular sight, clutching plates and begging for alms and food. Some do menial work for food vendors to survive.
Most of them sleep in the open, with a few privileged ones hanging on verandas of shops and residential apartments.
A good number of them came from neighbouring country of Niger Republic and state’s like Sokoto, Zamfara, Kaduna and Jigawa, in addition to the ones from Katsina, they told our correspondent.
Ibrahim and Naziru are almajirai from Kauyen Madrungu in Maradi State of Niger Republic. The two can hardly remember their father’s name. What they can only remember is their school teacher, Malam Nasiru, of Titin Nayalli.
They told Daily Trust on Sunday that they fed themselves daily from begging.
Another citizen of Niger Republic, Shamsu, said he had been in Katsina for four years and only visited home two years ago.
The story is the same in Kano, Kaduna and Jigawa states. It is an issue affecting most parts of northern Nigeria, with some attempts at trying to reform the system suffering setbacks.
In Kano State alone, records have shown that there are over three million out-of- school children roaming the streets as either almajirai or street hawkers.
In Kaduna, there seems to be an increase in the number of almajirai in the state capital.
They seem to have outnumbered beggars in the streets, roundabouts and other major spots like restaurants and stalls.
They are in the streets as early as 7 am, most times moving in groups and clutching plates of different shapes and colours.
Aged between six and 11, it is obvious, even from their appearances, that routines such as having a bath or washing their clothes are luxuries they can’t afford.
The commissioner, Kaduna State Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development, Hajiya Hafsat Baba, said her ministry embarked on repatriation of almajirai back to their home states, but said they kept coming back.
Nine-year-old Habibulla Yusufa told Daily Trust on Sunday that his elder brother, Mustapha Yusufa brought him to Kaduna from Kwanar Dangora in Kiru Local Government Area of Kano State to attend the almajiri school one year ago.
“Every day I pick my bowl by 7am, going round begging from house to house for food for breakfast. If I am lucky and get the food, I will eat and rush back to the school for morning classes. If l don’t, I use the little money I get to buy from food vendors. I make between N50 to N100 daily. The wife of our teacher (Mallam) keeps custody of my income. I pay a N50 weekly dues every Saturday to our Malam,” he said.
He said that sometimes he engaged in hard labour as another means of surviving, adding that he collected refuse from houses, for which he got paid with either money or food.
Yusufa said he fell sick for over 10 days some months back and it was the money he was saving that was used for his treatment. He said that sometimes he would skip morning or afternoon classes in order to increase his chances of getting assistance.
An almajiri who gave his name as Sani, 9, said he was brought to Zaria from Zamfara State.
He said he earned between N150 and N250 during his begging session in motor parks, filling stations and other places. He spends the money by giving his Malam a share and saves part with the Malam’s wife, he explained.
On the level of his Qur’anic education, which was the main purpose that brought him to Zaria, Sani said he could recite and memorise two chapters of the holy Qur’an, which is far below the level of children of his age that attend Islamiyya school while living with their parents.
How Kukah’s offer sparked fresh debate over almajiri
The recent offer by The Kukah Centre to train almajiri children in vocational skills has been generating mixed reactions from different quarters.
The Most Rev. Matthew Kukah, Bishop of the Catholic Diocese of Sokoto, had floated a proposal to be allowed to train 10 million almajirai across northern Nigeria in vocational skills of their choice.
Speaking at a four-day workshop tagged, “Interfaith Dialogue and Engagement” for Christians and Muslims in Minna, Niger State, the cleric said The Kukah Centre would be used to achieve this aim.
This proposal was, however, dogged with opposition. The Muslim Rights Concern (MURIC) described the initiative as “a ploy for evangelisation, modern colonialism and a potential time bomb.”
Kukah believes that the outbreak of violence in some northern states would reduce when the children are empowered and gainfully engaged. He seeks to source foreign aid with which the almajirai could be equipped with vocational skills.
“One of the greatest concerns in Nigeria now is to get the almajirai off the streets,” he said.
However, the director of MURIC, Prof. Ishaq Akintola, in a statement, said Bishop Kukah’s offer raised more questions than answers. The Muslim right activist cautioned northern Muslims not to allow Kukah’s proposition materialise.
He said, “We all agree that something must be done about the almajirai. We can welcome ideas from everyone, but the implementation must be in the hands of Muslims in the region. Any other thing will make the intention questionable.
“We cannot pretend to be so naive as to entrust our Muslim children to the hands of Christian gospellers. As far as we are concerned, Kukah’s almajiri dream is a Trojan horse.
“These children have teachers, even if the system is unconventional. The parents entrusted them to the teachers and learning still takes place, somehow.
“Can any Christian community allow an Islamic organisation to take their children away just like that? What is the fate of the children taken from Chibok to an Edo internally displaced persons centre in 2014?
“Whatever the situation may be, we wish to caution northern Muslims, particularly the elders, never to allow it to happen.”
Akintola said instead of allowing Christian missionaries to seize this kind of initiative, northern Muslims should empower available Muslim non-governmental organisations to cater for almajirai.
“We know from experience that whatever happens will be a point of reference in the near future. Who will bear the shame at that time?
“We, therefore, advise state governments in the region to rearrange their priorities and concentrate on the education and welfare of almajirai,” Akintola said.
But MURIC’s submission was also greeted with vehement opposition.
Mr Francis Damina, a student of Religion and Politics at Holy Family Catholic Church, Gidan Bako, Kaduna State, questioned Prof Akintola’s “locus standi” to speak on behalf of the North.
In a published article titled, “Survivalist Dhimmitude: Prof. Akintola as Metaphor,” Damina said the MURIC director seemed to have misled his organisation on what the issues are.
Damina, in his article, said that contrary to Akintola’s submission, Kukah’s almajiri initiative was midwifed by the bishop himself, together with northern governors, Emir of Kano, Alhaji Lamido Sanusi ll, John Cardinal Onayeikan and Archbishop Ignatius Kaigama, President of the Bishops’ Conference and Archbishop of Jos.
He said the donor was a Spanish company and not a Christian organisation, while the target group was not the almajirai but vulnerable children all over the North, not withstanding their tribe or religion.
“At least, in spite of our outward lack of care for these children, we are deep down worried about them.
“There is no doubt that almajiranci, if what we see today qualifies to be called so, apart from its negative societal consequences such as being the sustaining fuel of the unquenchable fire of insecurity in the North, has made northerners the laughing stock of the world.”
‘Almajirai deserve better treatment’
Commenting on the almajiri issue, the chief executive of Save the Child Initiative, Abdulganiyu Abubakar noted: “Over the last couple of years, the incidents have actually increased. You see more children in the streets. And from our records, the rate of cases of child abuse – exploitation, labour and sexual abuse of even the male children has increased because the children coming from the local areas to the urban areas have also increased.’’
“That has not stopped there. You find out that now a large number of such children cross the porous border into Sokoto, Kebbi and other neighbouring states that share borders with Niger Republic in the name of coming for Quranic education, and then they end up in the streets.
“These Mallams who bring them do not have a means of livelihood, so the children end up in the streets looking for what to eat and what to give the Mallams to eat.”
He said that government intervention in almajiri schools had not tackled the situation.
“When you look at these schools, they are virtually empty. There are only very few children that the government and individuals have organised to put in there. You still have a lot more children in the streets. I have been to these schools; the structures are there, but then, even the condition `of learning and the welfare of children are still poor.
“If they cannot get the type of food they get in the streets or the remnant they get from restaurants to eat in the so-called school where they are kept, they would still be tempted to remain in the streets,” he observed.
The child welfare activist also noted that religious leaders were not helping issues. “Some of these children are brought to towns and used in the farms of some of the Mallams.
“I think the society seems to have condoned it. The government is not doing its part, and if you look at some states that have tried to outlaw the system like Kano, it has almost the same culture with Sokoto,” he added.
Medical experts have also expressed concern over the vulnerability of this category of children.
Commenting, a consultant paediatrician/senior lecturer in the Usmanu Danfodiyo University Teaching Hospital, Sokoto, Dr Usman Sani, who noted that each of the periods, from birth to adolescence, is very critical in terms of development of a child, said the plight of the was unfortunate.
“These are usually categories of children that are neglected, so they are prone to a lot of problems. Parental care is not there, so they tend to have a lot of problems – physical, medical, social and even psychological.
“We see a lot of them. Some come with malnutrition because they are not catered for. Most of the time they are hungry; even the little food they get is not enough to provide for the necessary nutrients they need for optimum growth. So their level of immunity is low. They come with various infections – ringworm, scabies etc. And these also have implications because they can lead to other problems.
“You know they walk barefooted, most of the time and they enter a lot of places, so they get hookworm infestation, and that can cause anaemia.
“Some of them are subjected to abuse; hence they tend to take to drugs, substance abuse especially the adolescents among them.
“Also, girls who move around hawking are prone to sexual abuse. Some of them come down with sexually transmitted infections. Some of them suffer from emotional deprivation due to lack of love and care, so they become anxious, worried and depressed. So it is quite a problem,” he noted.
Sani said they would not come to the hospital because most of the time nobody would take care of them.
“They actually come when the problem becomes so serious that the Malam has to call the parents or rush them to the hospital, but when it is at the onset, the attitude of seeking medical attention is unlikely,” he added.
He cautioned over the effect of the phenomenon on the society. “It affects everybody because children, they say, are the leaders of tomorrow. They are the ones that would develop the society, so when we do not allow these children to develop their maximum potentials, the society cannot develop. Many of them cannot have decent education, so they cannot grow to become medical practitioners etc, So the society is deprived of that advantage.
“Due to malnutrition, they have learning difficulties and do not ultimately develop their potentials. Again, by the time they grow up, they are jobless and a lot of them are frustrated; hence they become easy targets for violence. Instructively, some of them are very intelligent, it is just that they are not given the opportunity to grow and develop.”
How to address the ‘problems’
The almajiri system of education has been interpreted by many Islamic scholars as a practice that deviated from Islamic teaching. According to the Chief Imam of Al-Furqan Friday mosque in Kano, Dr. Bashir Aliyu Umar, the current almajirci system in Nigeria, where a parent sends his wards to an Islamic teacher without making any provision for the child’s welfare and without the teacher’s ability to take responsibility of the child is totally in contrast to the dictates of Islamic religion.
“There is a strong obligation on a parent to take responsibility of his male children till they attend adulthood and his female children till they get married. Most of these parents send their wards, not for knowledge seeking sake, but simply out of poverty. In Sudan, for example, there is an effective Qur’anic education system with a defined structural provision that allows for proper upkeep of these children under a defined government system,” Dr. Umar said.
He added that since the almajiri issue has been in existence for quite a long time, addressing it would equally take time. He noted that previously, the Kano State Government made attempts with the Tsangaya system, adding that the problem is not with the education system but the manner the innocent children are allowed to roam the streets without proper care.
He said there was the need to empower the teachers to take care of the children, as well as have a model that would allow for a proper conduct of such schools under the supervision of the government. He also said the children should be taught skills that would make them productive and self-reliant.
Similarly, the director-general of the Kano State Hizbah Board, Alhaji Abba Sufi Sufi, said that in most cases, the root cause of the problem of almajiri came from the parents who shy away from their responsibilities. He, however, said the problem must be arrested through the enforcement of law, which must be effective in all the affected states of northern Nigeria.
Sufi hinted that in 2013, the Northern Governors Forum set up a powerful committee on the almagiri system, under the leadership of Ambassador Zakari Ibrahim. Members from all the 19 northern states converged on Minna and deliberated for about eight months on the social vices that encouraged insecurity in the region.
“The committee came up with a comprehensive report, but due to change in government in 2015, the report is still there untouched. It will be fantastic if that report would be revisited and implemented because it touches this issue of almajiri extensively,” he said.
One of the pioneer members of the National Committee on Almajiri Model Schools, established during the President Goodluck Jonathan administration, Sheikh Gwani Lawi Gwani Danzarga, once lamented over what he called total neglect of over 157 of such schools built across the North.
Danzarga, who is also the president of the Qur’anic Reciters Association of Nigeria, stated that out of the total number of the almajiri schools, 125 were under the Universal Basic Education (UBEC) while the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (TENFUND) built 32. He added that in Kano State alone, 12 almajiri model schools were built.
He further said that most of the almajirai seen in the streets of major cities were not for Qur’anic schooling, but hiding under it to source for a living, which, according to him, usually ends at getting involved in heinous acts.
He said there was the need to institutionalise the almajiri system of education with a clear demarcation as it is done in the conventional education.
Also speaking, Sheik Tijjani Bala Kalarawi said the rights of children on their parents have been clearly spelt out in Islam – feeding, clothing and moral upbringing, which include education and other moral values.
The Islamic scholar blamed parents, Islamic scholars, the society, as well as government for the situation of the almajiari, saying each of them has a role to play.
Kalarawi further attributed the problem to the wrong notion on the Islamic system of education in the North, where, unlike other Islamic countries, it is seen as free. As a result of this, both teachers and parents don’t value the system.
“We pay a lot of money as school fees in western schools where we rush to take our children every morning. As a result of that, we value the system and the schools value their work because it is their source of income,’’ he said.
He, however, said that government had a major role to play, especially in supporting Islamic education. He said that if conventional schools and other sectors could get allocation, there’s no reason why Islamic education should not get the required support from government.
Asked what age children could be taken to teachers, out of the care of their parents, Sheikh Kalarawi quoted the Prophet (SAW) as saying, “Teach your children how to pray at the age of 7, and punish them mildly if they don’t observe prayers at 10,’’ He said this prophetic narration indicated that a child should be under the care of his parents up to the age of 10.
Speaking on the matter, Muhammed Umaru Ndagi, a professor of Arabic Linguistics in the University of Abuja and the immediate past president of the Academic Society for Arabic Language and Literature in Nigeria (ASALLIN), said the discourse should be beyond looking for alternatives to the almajiri system.
According to him, it is about reviewing the system in its entirety, including its curriculum, and most importantly, providing operational guidelines (which are not in place yet) for running Tsangaya schools.
Ndagi urged government to intervene with policies and laws; otherwise, the problems with the almajiri system will remain unresolved.
“First, we need to justify the call by asking if the reform is necessary at all. We can validate the call if there are problems associated with the system or its products. Of course, there are problems bedeviling the almajiri Qur’anic system, and they are many. The large chunk of the time that should be used by pupils for learning the Qur’an is lost to street begging.
“Defiling of female pupils by some wicked teachers is a regular occurrence. There have been cases of pupils losing hands or eyes due to teachers’ crude management of disciplinary cases. The mere fact that the system and its products are becoming more of a nuisance than the useful expectations of the public makes the call for the reform of the system apt.
“If the system is no longer functional, we should diagnose the disorders inherent in it. We should ask if it is making today’s products of the system to conveniently fit into the modern world that is technologically driven. We should also ask whether the products are adequately equipped with skills that would enable them compete favourably with not only products of the same system in other parts of the world but products of other systems of education,” he said.
Prof. Ndagi said many things had gone wrong with the more-than-two-centuries- old system in Nigeria.
He said that some Tsangaya pupils engage in bad habits like stealing, shoplifting, and pick-pocketing. And they contact infectious diseases because of the dirty environment in which they live.
He further said street begging exposed the innocent children to several deviant behaviours, including drug addiction.
“They also become vulnerable to the wicked intentions of kidnappers and ritual killers. Almajiri pupils are equally not safe from the exploitative intrigues of politicians who use them to disturb public peace. In some instances, they grow up to become criminals, sometimes without the Qur’anic knowledge they were sent to acquire,” he added.
He said that aside reforming its curriculum, there is every need for regional approach to sanitising the system.
A Zaria-based Islamic cleric, who is the Deputy Chief of Imam of the Tudun Jukun, Zaria Juma’at mosque, Ustaz Bashir Lawal, recently said that Islam encouraged its faithful to seek for knowledge because the first verse revealed to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) directed him to read.
He, however, said that in Islam, begging was different from knowledge seeking. He said the separation of Islamic values with the tradition of Hausa people brought about the issue of almajiranci.
“Just go back to the history of Sheikh Uthman bn Fodio, which is the recent one in Nigeria. They became scholars through this type of system. But the difference between theirs and what is happening now is that they neither begged nor subjected to inhuman treatment. They were enrolled at Tsangaya (Islamic school) while their parents provided for their upkeep.
“In other cases, the Islamic tutor usually owned big farms where his pupils worked on. Through this, he got what to take care of them and himself. Renowned Islamic scholars like Imam Malik were products of this type of system.
“Presently, we have Qur’anic schools in places like Gombe, where pupils memorise the complete Qur’an within a year or so, but their students don’t beg. Their parents foot their upkeep.
“The type of almjiranci system that allows pupils to fend for themselves brings nothing to Islam more than disrepute and breeding of miscreants who see the society as an enemy because of what they are subjected to,” Lawal noted.