With the number of out-of-school children in Nigeria rising astronomically in the last few years, from 10.5m, to 13.2m and now over 16m according to the Minister of Education, Adamu Adamu recently, discerning minds know that it is a time bomb waiting to explode! Insurgency, banditry, kidnapping, armed robbery and other forms of criminality, are on the rise in Nigeria and there seems to be no end in sight because there is a ready supply of arsenal – an army of uneducated, jobless, unempowered and unmotivated youths ready to be used by unscrupulous elements in society. Amidst the darkness and bad news, Hajia Turai Kadir and her team at the American University of Nigeria, Yola, are doing everything possible to drastically reduce the number of out-of-school children and save Nigeria from the looming catastrophe. She spoke to Vanguard in Yola recently.
By Ebele Orakpo
Tell us about yourself
I am the Community Development Advisor at the Atiku Center, Coordinator, Centre for Women and Adolescent Empowerment in Yola, a founding member of the Adamawa Peace Initiative, an activist on Women Human rights, and a trained teacher.
How did the Feed & Read program start?
The Atiku Centre for Development is part of the Adamawa Peace Initiative, API, which started the Feed and Read Program. The API is a brainchild of the former President of the AUN, Dr Margee Ensign. She started the API with some dignitaries in the community. She later developed the Feed & Read program on a personal basis.
It all started one day while going home, Dr Ensign noticed a lot of poor boys running after her car, begging for alms, she stopped and gave them N100 each and there were many of them. The following day, as she passed, double the number came and she gave them money and the number kept increasing. One day, she called me and said: “Turai, the number of these children is increasing, where are they coming from and why are they on the streets?” I told her they were coming from different mallams who brought them to Yola and they were on the streets because there was no food for them to eat. A mallam cannot feed over 30 children so they go out in search of food. If they happen to get good food, they take it back to the mallam because he too would like some good food. If they are given money, they would take some back to him. The parents of these boys don’t send food or money to the mallams so they have to fend for themselves.I told her that the money she was giving them would be taken to the mallams and they would not see the money so it was better to feed them.
That was how she arranged with food vendors to be giving them food. The number kept increasing, over 200 children! So what we did was to give them coupons. You are given a coupon, you come and eat and after eating, you give back the coupon to the vendor and then Dr Ensign’s driver would collect them. She asked why they were not in school and I said it may be because there was nobody to sponsor their education. She suggested we put them in our local schools but I reasoned that if we put them in our local schools, they may not go, or they may only go when they want. If there is no food or money coming from the school, they would not go.
Ensign asked me how we could help them to go to school and I told her that taking them to school would not be easy because the mallams and their parents may not agree because they may not understand the value of western education. She insisted we give it a try.
Educating the kids
One day, she said to me: “Since they are many, why can’t we start giving them a little education, may be they will show a little interest and refuse the almajiri lifestyle. I told her there was no way they would refuse the mallam’s teaching because it is their religion, if we start doing that, it would bring problem but what we could do was to call the attention of the community leaders.
That was how Feed and Read started. We feed them and give them some lessons every day. The food was enticing them to come.
There is a lot of bureaucracy when you want to do this sort of thing, the mallams, community leaders, religious leaders are all there and without their knowledge and permission, there is no way you would do this. So with people like members of the API, made up of eminent personalities in the community, academicians, religious leaders, community leaders (mai angwas) and market association leaders; so because of that, it was easy to talk to the mallams, religious and community leaders. Since it is about religion, we lobbied and sensitised them because most of them were thinking that we were trying to stop them from reciting the Koran they do with the mallams, but that was not the aim. So a lot of sensitisation was done. Eventually, the religious community here in Yola like CAN, and the rest, called all the mallams together and we had a meeting with them. We told them we were not stopping them from what they were doing, we just want to put them in school and see if they are interested and if they are, we will sponsor their education; the mallams agreed! We also agreed that the mallams would be given foodstuffs also because these children were assisting them to get food and now, we want to take them to school.
The program started with a lot of funds. Dr Ensign is a very strong and courageous woman, she got a lot of funds from a group she called Friends of Nigeria. They were giving money so it was not AUN that kept the program running; it was Ensign that kept it going. She kept getting funds from outside to give these children a decent education.
Getting girls on board
You know there are no female almajiris, if you see a girl on the street, she is either with her mother, or leading a blind mother but they don’t come out to beg like the boys. So on my own, I told Dr Ensign that if we can assist these boys in getting education, why can’t we get girls into the program? She bought the idea immediately and asked how we could do it. I told her we have communities with young girls that don’t go to school, especially the IDPs and some hawking on the streets. We went into communities, asking for girls who are not in school. They came in their numbers so we took the number we felt we could manage. We took 150 girls, the boys were 150 also. When we got the 150, others were still coming but we told them it was closed until that batch finished the program and then we can take another batch. It was great! We got some organisations that brought food and non-food items and uniforms from the US. If you see them, you would think they are American kids, you won’t believe they are from this community. Ensign tried and they enjoyed it.
Paucity of funds
After the first set, by this time, Ensign had left so we didn’t have enough funds to cater for another 300 children so we decided to cut it to the number we could take care of. Luckily, our grand administrator, Audu Liman, looked for funds and we continued though the numbers reduced. We finished the second phase. Now, we are doing the third phase and it is ending soon.
What do you teach them?
Numeracy and literacy and then religious studies and hygiene. If you see them now, you won’t believe they were the almajiri boys that were taken off the streets. Upon graduation, if you don’t follow up, they will go back to the streets so we tried to look for people who would fund their education in our local schools. Some of them got sponsors; one person took about seven children. Some of the children don’t like reading and writing but prefer livelihood training so we look for places where they could be trained in auto mechanics, tailoring etc. Now, the number is lower, we have just about 70 boys because we couldn’t raise money for the girls.
Has the program helped reduce the number of out-of-school children?
Yes, it has. Those who have passed through our program get back to their mallams and try to pull the others to go to school so every day, we see them coming. Those that we trained are no more on the streets, the ones you see on the streets now are new ones. There is no way you can stop the Koranic classes because they are supposed to learn the Koran but the way they make them learn is what we don’t want.
Because some of these parents have a lot of kids at home and can’t feed them, they just send them away. There is nowhere the Koran says you have to give your child out to go and learn the Koran. Anywhere you go to in Africa, there are Koranic mallams in the community. Let the mallams stay in the communities and when these children grow, they can, on their own, go to the mallams for Koranic studies; that time they are adults and won’t be begging. The mallams are poor people, there is no way they can take care of all the kids, even when these kids are made to farm, the food won’t be enough for them.
You know the misconception of the religion is there; people interpret the religion the way they want. There is no way I can hand over my kids to someone to go and learn while he can learn at home. A child who is with his parents can learn better than the one who is not. So the program is succeeding only that the number is increasing and no funds.
How can government come in?
There was a time the government started building some settlements for the mallams. But when it comes to funding, you won’t hear anything. Government may provide the funds, but it won’t get to them. Those settlements were converted to guest houses where they put mallams from out of-town before they eventually go to town to fend for themselves. The buildings are standard with boreholes and light.
The mallams still prefer to stay in their thatched houses with the almajiris because some good Samaritans take food to them once in a while but they believe if they stay in the settlement, the good Samaritans will stop giving them food because they may think the government is taking care of them.