By CHARLES KUMOLU
A practice that President Goodluck Jonathan recently described as “dangerous to national development,” the Almajiri tradition has once again occupied most national discourse, especially with the recent introduction of Almajiri Model Education by the Federal Government. Would the commencement of this policy dismantle this old tradition that is generally seen as a threat to the nation?
THE encounter with Abu: Convincing anyone that he did not pass through the Almajiri system of education, would be a herculean task. The twin stories of how he migrated from his Turreta village in Sokoto State to Sokoto town, and his experience at the Islamic School he attended at Tudun Wada Area of Sokoto, are enough to convince anyone, who is familiar with how children abscond or are sent out from their homes in the north, in search of knowledge, that Abubakar Saidu was not an Almajiri.
Pupils of Quranic school
Narrating how he left home at six, Abu noted that it was his mother, who insisted that he left against his dad’s wish, hence, he found himself among other younger and older pupils at Mallam Yahaya Mai Doki’s Quranic school, located in same area with Rima Radio, Sokoto.
A surprising aspect of Abu’s story was that he insisted that he was not an Almajiri, while he was there. But his experience was typical of an average minor, begging for food on the streets of Sokoto.
“I left home because of so many reasons; my mother wanted me to join other children who were doing Bara (begging). We are very poor; my parents are farmers and they are based in Turreta, though my mother later divorced my dad and remarried It was her pressure that made me leave home for Sokoto. Though, my grand father is in Tudun Wada Sokoto, but I did not stay with him. I was with Mallam Yahaya and other kids. I was at the School for five years but I did not carry plates,” he stated.
Daily life of an Almajiri: Asked to paint the picture of the daily life of an Almajiri, he said: “We wake up for the 5.am Asuba prayers, after which we go for early morning begging. We wake people up when we go for this first begging, because our voices are always loud to attract attention. We move from house to house to beg for food. After that, we come back to sit on the floor and start the day’s learning. When it is almost midday, we are sent out again for another round of begging.”
While begging for alms, the children are given cooked food and sometimes money. Thereafter, the proceeds from this is returned to their teachers, who give them a fraction of what they got.
“The begging is a continuous daily routine, but most times it is done at least three times a day. We also go to restaurants, where we hang around to eat left over food. You can spend as many years as you want doing Almajirinci, but some return to their villages later when they are fed up, while others runaway because of the harsh punishment meted out by our Mallams,” Abu, who is now a truck pusher in Sattelite Town, Lagos told this reporter.
Abu’s story however, captures the picture of the life of an average Almajiri, who does not know love, tolerance, honesty and how to be law abiding.
For them, providence has destined that they would be poor, hence they have accepted their fate as the wish of God.
Ancient tradition: Instructively, VanaguardFeatures,VF, can with some measure of authority, describe Almajiri, as a person, who is sent out early in life to become a pupil of a Quranic school under a teacher known as Mallam.
In addition, the pupil engages in daily begging for food in order to survive. Under this practice, poor families from rural areas across the 19 northern states and beyond send their children to Islamic boarding schools in the cities of northern Nigeria.
As gathered, the religious backing of the system, is not unconnected with the term ‘Almajiri’ which was derived from the Arabic word ‘Almuhaajirun’.
This term, refers to the companions of Prophet Mohammed,(Peace be upon him,) who migrated to the ancient city of Medina in Saudi Arabia due to persecution by idol worshipers in Mecca. The emigrants found an opportunity to leave an environment where learning, preaching and practising Islam was prohibited.
Consequently, VF, findings observed that this history inspired the Almajiri system in Northern Nigeria over a century ago, where parents entrusted their children into the custody of Mallams.
Also, a report published on an online site, Gamji.com titled: The North and Almajiri Phenomenon stated thus: “If we take a brief tour of history, we can easily recall that, prior to the unfortunate misadventure of the exploitative British colonialist, the bilad-al-sudan (the Sokoto caliphate) was said to have encompassed the present northern Nigeria, Niger republic, northern Cameroon, northern Ghana, part of Burkina Faso up to the present independent republic of Mali. In all these areas, the institution of Almajiri has been in practice with of-course some local variations here and there.”
In addition, a 2010 CNN report on Almajiri, described the practice as “an ancient tradition. Poor families from rural areas across of West Africa send their children to a network of Islamic boarding schools in the cities of northern Nigeria.”
Production of miscreants: While the Almajiri system, was believed to have achieved the purpose it was set out to achieve in the past, there is a general consensus that it has become an avenue for the mass production of miscreants, thugs and vagabonds.
“As far as I am concerned, the Almajiri system should give way, we no longer need it in the north. I am a good muslim and I know how my relegion admonishes us to treat the poor. A lot of indices point to the fact that almajiris are now tools in the hands of those who use them to perpetuate evil. So, whether it is Almajiri education or not, the system should be confined to history,”El-Amin Zubairu, Coordinator, Peoples Advocacy for Human Rights,PAFHR, a Northern based group told VF.
Like El-Amin, a Woodpress Page report titled; “Almajiri-Armageddon”:Ending Feudalism through Education supported the position that Almajari, had over time become a threat to the nation.
“The Almajiris came to be instruments of sectarian violence, biddable pawns in the hands of mischief makers. In numerous, episodic and seemingly unprovoked, attacks in the North, these Almajiris have been freely unleashed against people,” the report noted.
Similarly, Niger State Governor and Chairman of the Northern Governors’ Forum, Dr. Babangida Aliyu, had at a recent forum, admitted that, “the system of Almajiri served a good purpose in the past…but we have passed that stage now. We have now reached a situation with respect to Almajiri where we have to be ‘wicked’ in order to be good to ourselves. We must say, ‘No,’ to this system and then work out how to integrate them (Almajiris) properly.”
Several efforts were made in the past to solve the problem posed by Almajiri, by integrating Qur’anic education into the western styled education. These efforts include the universal primary education, nomadic education, the education of the children of migrant fishermen, Universal Basic Education,UBE, among others.
Similarly, the Senate had in 2008, made an attempt to end the Almajiri problem by proposing a bill for the enactment of the National Commission for the Eradication of Child Destitution in Nigeria.
The bill popularly known as the Almajiri Bill and sponsored by Umaru Argungu and 31 others, sought to punish any proprietor of an unregistered tsangaya school with two years jail term. But these efforts failed, while the number of almajiris have been on the increase across the 19 Northern states.
Supporting VF finding, that there had been efforts to address the issue in the past, a chieftain of Arewa Consultative Forum,ACF, Ambassador Yahaya Kwande, told this reporter that: “To have almajiri school and keep them together, did not start today; it started during Sardauna’s days.
Sardauna was doing it in a different way by giving money to every itinerant mallam with over 25 children and the mallam will get a black board for teaching the students. And he will keep them together in his entrance where they would learn. But the practice was not continued after the Sardauna.”
30 per cent of Northern youths are almajiris: Though there are no exact figures on the almajiri, they are estimated to be millions. The only census ever taken was in Kano state, which found in 2006 that there were 1.2 million almajiri in Kano.
A UNICEF researcher estimated that 60 percent of the children never return home.
According to statistics presented by Arewa Youth Mobilisation, AYM, there are 1.6 million almajiris in 26,000 tsangaya schools across the 44 local government areas of the state. “Sokoto State has 1.1 million almajiris in 19,167 schools. However, the Sokoto State ministry of religious affairs queried the figures, saying it was not conclusive as there are still cases of omission in some of the villages.
Centres of Islamic learning
Kaduna State has 824,233 Almajirinci, while Borno State, reputed as a centre of Islamic learning, has 389,048 almajiri pupils.In Borno, indigenes account for about 266,160 almajiris, while those from other Nigerian states are about 118,280,”AYM maintained. It also observed that non-Nigerians enrolled as almajiris in Borno alone account for about 4,608; just as there are 4,464 Tsangaya teachers.
Practice defy every effort aimed at addressing it: Against the backdrop of this challenges posed by Almajiri system, the Federal Government recently inaugurated the first Almajiri Model Boarding School in Gagi, Sokoto State.
This school which would be replicated across the country, is dedicated to the Almajiri to ensure education for all Nigerian children to sustain access to quality education.
“Our administration believes that the time has come for the nation to build on the moral foundations of the traditional school system by providing the Almajiri with conventional knowledge and skills that will enable them to fully realise their creative and productive potential,” Jonathan noted at the inauguration.
Since this inauguration, divergent tunes have continued to trail the policy. While some have described the Federal Government’s idea as laudable, others see it as an elephant project that is bound to fail. Kwande is among those who described the initiative as a welcome development.
He told this reporter that: “It is a good policy and I commend the president for doing that, what the President did is right because if you are a leader, you cannot allow your citizens to be roaming aimlessly on the streets. If they are on the streets they are endangered and anything can happen to any of them. By creating Almajiri school you are putting your future under control and you will be saving a lot from health expenses, because these people, who are picking food from the gutter, would always be a health burden to the nation.
The elderstatesman further said: “Usually when I travel and I get some of the students, I always ask them to recite verses of the Quran before I give them Sadaka, so that I can be sure that they are almajiri. Most of them are not even almajiri, they just use the method to beg on the streets, because some of them don’t know anything in Arabic.
” Now that they are going to be housed and given proper care, they would even learn much better than they were, when they were roaming the streets. Whoever says the new initiative is a waste of time, does not know what he is doing . I have already said that a ministry should be created to adequately cater for the needs of the almajiri.”
But Executive Director Coalition of Northern Rights Organistaions, Alhaji Ahmed Dantama-Malumfashi, disagreed totally with Kwande.
Dantama-Malumfashi, who referred VF to the position of President Civil Rights Congress of Nigeria, CRCN, a civil society group, Mal-lam Shehu Sani, said: “How could any Northerner who understands the dangers of having these kids still staying together, under the same teachers, support what the President did. What the government has done amounts to arming the almajiris and their teachers with more sophistication to further constitute a threat to the nation”.
Still regretting that the new policy would further increase the problem, he explained thus: “Now, look at this scenario. We already have a situation whereby some are averse to Western education, what is the guarantee that the teachers of the Quranic schools would not continue with some misguided teachings which lead the almajiris into damaging patterns of behaviour.
“Like my good friend said and I quote him: ‘Without addressing the issue of poverty in Northern states, it’s virtually impossible to stop parents from sending their wards to the almajiri schools simply by building blocks of classes’. You can see why I am insisting that what the President did would not achieve any meaningful result, the way out is to address the poverty question in the north, that would in several ways dismantle the practice,”he added.
Regardless of this antagonism against the new almajiri education policy, Kwande is confident that the plight of the almajiris would be taken care of under the new arrangement.
But for the menace posed by almajiris to be adequately contained, he suggested that a ministry be created for almajiris.
“What the President initiated is just a token of what is needed to address the problem. I would suggest that an a special ministry should be created for the almajiri so that they would be given proper attention,” Kwande noted, adding that:
“The ministry would bring them to the level of other children in Nigeria. It is a wonderful thing to have an almajiri model education. As far as I am concerned we were not taught that almajiri is going to be put into the class and given a different education. “The problem is not what they are going to learn, the problem with them is they should have proper feeding and adequate welfare, in order to prevent them from roaming about in search of food. So people, who are saying to the contrary are making a mistake.”
Meanwhile, when VF contacted another elderstatesman of Northern extraction and former governor of Kaduna State, Alhaji Lawal Kaita on the matter, he said: “What is it about almajiri education? The President only built schools for them. I have no comment on the almajiri education”.
Also speaking in a similar vein, Alhaji Isiaku Ibrahim noted that this policy does not merit the kind of prominence it is getting across the country.
“Is it almajiri that you want to promote now? The President of a country went to Sokoto for almajiri education and you want me to applaud it? That was a programme that even a local government can commission. We stooped so low by celebrating it.
“Tell me how much did they spend on that occasion? He is saying that he has fulfilled his promise? Do you call impoverishing you country a promise. Nigerians are so cheap that they would be celebrating what happened in Sokoto as a milestone,” he scoffed.