The sight of young mendicants roaming the streets begging for food and alms is common in most cities of northern Nigeria. Daily Trust reports on the kind of chores they perform while on the streets.
Sani is only nine years old but he left his native Zamfara at age six and is fending for himself in Zaria as an almajiri.
His life follows a regular pattern as our correspondent trailed him from his school in Tudun Jukun, Zaria to Tudun Wada, Zaria market.
Sani would Jump from one end of the street to the other, stopping over to scavenge at a dump close to Kubanni Bridge.
From there, he would move to some filling stations along the road. While owners of some filling stations allowed him to beg for alms from motorists buying fuel, others sent him away.
After, he would head to Tudun Wada/Agwaro Motor Park where he swept some shops, packed the waste to a designated dumpsite and earned some stipend.
Having completed this chore, he would move around the park begging for alms from travellers. And for lunch, his begging took him to Tudun Wada market.
At about 3pm, Sani began his return journey to his school in Tudun Jukun where he joined the afternoon lesson at about 4:20pm without observing the two afternoon prayers of Zuhr and Asr.
At dusk, Sani set out again in search of supper. The tradition of the Almajiri school demands that younger Almajirai (plural of Almajiri) would provide dinner for senior ones “who are above begging age.”
Failure to return with food could mean sleeping in the open to escape punishment.
For all his troubles, Sani says he earns between N150 and N250 daily. He gives his Malam a part and saves the rest with the Malam’s wife, he explained.
But the primary reason Sani came to Zaria was to memorise the Qur’an. For this, his day starts as early as 4am when he wakes up to find water to perform ablution and pray. His morning lessons last between 6 and 9am, after which the hunt for breakfast begins.
But in all the four years Sani has been in Zaria, the level of his Qur’anic education does not extend beyond two chapters of the Qur’an, according to him. This is far below the level of children his age who attend Islamiyya school while living with their parents.
Thousands of children like Sani roam the streets of northern towns and villages in search for knowledge where they end up begging and doing menial chores for whoever has a coin to spare.
They provide cheap labour to students and small business owners who use them to do chores such as laundry, dish washing and cleaning. This is in addition to the chores they have to perform for their teacher, as well as begging.
They have become an eyesore so much that, Tijjani Dahiru, a resident of Zaria, said he feels embarrassed seeing them.
“I usually become embarrassed because this thing (Almajiranci) is done in the name of Islam,” he said. “As a Muslim, I see this as bringing disrepute to the religion of Islam. There are better ways that we can organise this Almajiranci without embarrassing our religion.”
The practice entails parents surrendering the care of their children, sometimes as early from age three, to a travelling malam who takes them to a different town or village to live with him, study and beg.
“I always wonder how one gives birth to children and just send them out for the world to take care of them. I hope relevant stakeholders would take measures to address this menace,” Dahiru said.
Dahiru’s outrage is informed by the contact he had with an almajiri he found crying outside his house one evening. Upon enquiry, the boy told him he hadn’t eaten since morning.
“The tattered nature of the boy’s clothes can break the heart of any parent,” Dahiru said. “I asked my wife to give him food and we gave him another set of clothes. Where these boys live is always an eyesore. They live in the midst of bugs and other insects. They usually sleep on bare floors. They don’t have toilet facility and this makes them defecate in any available space. Please tell me how can teaching and learning take place in this type of environment?”
Religious leaders have been at odds to explain the practice which is associated to Islam. One of them is Ustaz Bashir Lawal, the deputy chief Imam of the Tudun Jukun Juma’at mosque.
Islam, he said, encourages its faithful to seek knowledge, because the first verse revealed to Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) directed him to read.
However, he said, begging is different from knowledge seeking. He said the separation of Islamic values with the tradition of the Hausa people brought about the issue of Almajiranci.
“Just go back to the history of Sheikh Uthman Bin Fodio, which is recent 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 were subjected to inhumane treatment. They were enrolled at Tsangaya (Islamic school) while their parents provided for their upkeep.
“In other cases, the Islamic tutor usually owns big farms that his students go to work on. Through this, he gets what to take care of himself and his students. Renowned Islamic scholars of Islam 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. The parents are responsible for their upkeep,” he said.
On the overall impact of the practice on society, the ustaz said, “The type of Almjiranci system that allows pupils to fend for themselves brings nothing to Islam other than disrepute. It breeds miscreants who see the society as an enemy because of what they were subjected to.”
Such concerns have made the federal government establish the Almajiri formal schools in different parts of northern Nigeria. However, most of these schools are now shadows of themselves.
The Almajiri School at Maraban Gwanda, along Zaria-Kano express road, is one of such schools that were established to address the menace.
However, it is also not functioning effectively due to shortage of teachers and other necessities.
Until the system is addressed and accompanied by appropriate laws, the likes of Sani will continue to roam streets and markets under the guise of pursuing knowledge and continue to experience the cruelty that life has to offer for them.