Whenever the almajiri issue pops up, my mind keeps casting back to a moment during my journey to Kano from Ilorin in 2013. It has been five years since my last visit, so a lot of excitement trailed my journey that day. We hit the road very early on that bright sunny day. In less than two hours we reached Jebba, a border town between Kwara and Niger.
Almost immediately after passing the River Niger bridge at Jebba, came the pathetic. In the clumsiness of traffic, due to the poor condition of the road, appeared a group of kids. With bowls in their hands, they run after the slow-moving vehicles begging for alms. “Welcome to the north”: a deep loud voice from the back seat of our fourteen-seater bus proclaimed. I looked back shaking my head in concurrence and responded: “Indeed, land of the almajiris”.
Well, I am not a stranger to the northern part the country and its almajiris at all. I spent a part of my early childhood living with my grandparents in Kano between the mid and the late 90s. In fact, I had a typical Hausa upbringing during those years. Today, my uncles still tease me about how I have lost most of my Hausa language. A language I spoke fluently as a child.
I could remember, being enrolled in a Quranic school for the almajiris, at around the age of six by one of my uncles. Even as a child back then, I abhorred the almajiris and would not want to attend their Quranic school.
What I actually abhorred was having to sit alongside ‘those dirty people’. On top of that, was the absolute cruelty with which their “Mallams” (teachers) treat their students. However, to my uncle, these mallams are more competent and learned than those of the non-almajiri schools. I ended up being a truant for long periods.
Fast forward two decades later, the situation of almajiris in northern Nigeria has not changed. In reality, it has worsened.
“Almajiri” is a Hausa derivative, from the Arabic word “Al-muhajirun”, which means an emigrant. In the actual sense, it refers to someone (in this case a child) who leave his locality to seek knowledge somewhere else.
There are several pieces of literature, about the history of almajiri and how it was a well-organized and successful system of education. How it produced great scholars and led to the advent of “Ajami”, the earliest form in which a Nigerian language was written. Conversely, today that system is bastardized and is a complete failure.
What we see of the almajiri system today, are groups of children neglected by the whole society. They lack that basic parental love and care, a moral and ethical upbringing, and thus a meaningful prospect in life.
As observed by Prof. Idris A. Abdulkadir, in a lecture he delivered at the 21st convocation of the Bayero University, Kano in 2003: There seems to be a tacit conspiracy between parents, government and the whole northern elites on this issue. And I couldn’t agree more.
For the parents, the almajiri system provides an avenue to get rid of the excess children at home. In an era when family planning is being vigorously encouraged as a major stepping stone to development in Nigeria. Yet, little progress has been made in most of northern Nigeria.
Parents give birth to large numbers of children, in spite of their limited financial capability. In the north, it is not uncommon to see a cobbler or even a ‘will-barrow pusher’ with 3 wives and more than a dozen children. So the question is: how will most of this children not end up as almajiris?
As for the authorities in government, they view the system as a relief. At least, they won’t have to budget for the welfare and education of over 10million almajiri children roaming the streets. This denotes one of the greatest show of government incompetence anywhere.
The lack of political will reveals why despite years of claims and promises to end or at least reform the almajiri system, still little has been done. Finances that could have been channeled into solving this very important problem end up being squandered.
Then comes the elites, especially the educated northern elites. Most are indifferent to the plight of the almajiri and in fact, some exploit them. The almajiris are their gardeners, cleaners, laundrymen, security-men among others. To them, the system can continue to linger on. They care less, in as much as their own children are not involved. These are individuals one would have expected to stand up for the rights of these children. Not least because of the negative impacts they have on the society.
The tacit conspiracy between these sections of the society (no matter how unwilling it might be), is unfortunate. And it continues to doom any prospect for a solution to the almajiri problem.
Several measures have been put forward, to end the current system of almajiri in northern Nigeria. However, to me, an important point of departure will be to end this tacit conspiracy.
Every child deserves to be treated with love, care, and dignity. Children should not be roaming the streets begging for alms. In fact, children should not have to leave their parents into the wilderness of the society at such young ages. These young individuals are millions of potential doctors, scientists, engineers, lawyers being wasted away.