Almajiri and the rest of us in Nigeria Ahmed Magem

The Prophetic tradition is the ideal starting point. The injunction to seek knowledge from the cradle to the grave is a common saying you hear from Muslims all over the world. The Prophet Muhammad enjoined Muslims to ‘seek knowledge even if it is in China’, thus encouraging the seeking of knowledge beyond the spiritual realm. Muslims are told to contemplate, think, learn, comprehend, and examine everything around them. As the social scientist Anas Al-Shaikh argues, knowledge, education, and the acquisition of learning for Muslims, reinforce ‘the values of humanitarianism, morality, citizenship, peaceful coexistence, revulsion of racism and discrimination, acceptance of the “other”, and is married to actively taught skills of critical thinking and awareness’.

So what went wrong with us especially in northern Nigeria? Let’s take a look at this old statistics to give us an idea about the gravity of the problem faced today.

STATISTICS

Nigeria has a large concentration of children who are not attending school despite a decade of investment in a programme of mass education, the Universal Basic Education (UBE), launched in September 1999. The Federal Ministry of Education (FME 2009) admits that 10.5 million children (or 30% of the primary school-age cohort) do not have access to primary education, but this figure masks widespread disparities between the nation’s six geopolitical zones. For instance, in the North-East and North-West zones, commonly referred to as the ‘core north’, over 50% of the children do not attend school compared with less than 20% in the South-East and South-South (National Population Commission, NPC, & IFC Macro 2009). The core north has a predominantly Muslim population and its long history of contact with Islam shaped its socio-economic and political framework long before colonization by the British. Therefore, the introduction of Christianity, western education and colonial state structures by missionaries and colonialists threatened an already established centuries old social order that derived legitimacy from its linkages with Islam. The public school system, erected by the colonial state and sustained by the post-colonial elite, had to contend with a persistent religious parallel in the form of Islamic schools. A continuous concern in the discourse on education in Northern Nigeria has been how to mitigate the influence of these schools on popular participation in state-sponsored education programmes.

WHAT IT IS ALL ABOUT

The word Almajiri is a Hausa word emanated from Arabic word “Almuhajirun” meaning the Emigrant. It refers to a person who migrates from his home to other places in the quest for Islamic knowledge.

During the pre-colonial era, the Tsangaya (Traditional Qur’anic School) system was established under the Kanem Borno empire as a comprehensive system of education for the memorization of the Holy Qur’an and the learning of Islamic principles, jurisprudence, values and theology. The tsangaya system of education involves entrusting of children (usually between the ages of seven to fifteen) by parents to a Mallam (learned person /teacher) for the memorization of the Holy Qur’an while maintaining contacts with the Mallam to provide food and other necessities of the child as he studies. It is mainly practiced in northern part of Nigeria. At the time of its inception, the tsangaya school as well as the Almajiris were held with high esteem, because during those days, the schools knows nothing about begging and the pupils do not beg for food on the streets. They help the teacher on the farm, gather some firewood from the bush which was normally used as a source of light during the night class and some to be used by the teacher’s wife for domestic use as all pupils try to do something to please their teacher in order to get reward and blessings from Almighty Allah.

In those days teachers were regarded as guardians and parents and teachers also consider the students as their children and therefore tries to inculcate in them the ability to understand the importance of staying with each other. Some of the teachers also sent their children to other tsangaya schools to seek for knowledge under different teachers and some do teach their children at their own school among his pupil and therefore treats them equal in all aspects and sometime even favour his students above his children.

The community on its parts provides support and care by means of gifts and zakat donations this has impacted positively in sustaining the system and contributing to its growth and popularity be it food, clothing, cash etc. This system was akin to the modern day Montessori system of schooling and provides a boarding facility. It was the best form of education in West, East and North Africa and ensured that a huge Muslim population, if not all were educated. By this it means they can read and write using Arabic alphabets. This produced a very high level of literacy and academia that stretches from Senegal to Mali to Kano, Borno, Sudan and North and East Africa. The system has produced many prominent Islamic scholars, judges, clerks, and society leaders in the northern part of the country.

CHANGING TIMES

With the passage of time, today the structure has been changed from its original purpose. This was due to a total neglect by a colonial government that never thought it out to integrate the tsangaya schools and Almajiri into the conventional western system of education it introduced later. With the coming of the colonialists, the tsangaya and Almajiri system of education started on a gradual decline. The changing times and British colonial policies ensured that the system is starved of support and this forced the Mallams (teachers) who had no other means of livelihood to release the students to go fend for themselves during break. Parents now enroll their children and abandon them relying on the society to cater for them with the increasing level of poverty and economic adversity. Deplorably, the care of the Almajiri became overwhelmingly oppressive for the Mallams. Most of these children are exposed to different forms of problems at a tender age been deprived of material and emotional support, they roam about the streets bare footed and dirty, begging for alms and food in the streets, mosques, motor parks, residence, markets etc, They are everywhere and at times, they cause traffic hazards.

This is why today the name “Almajiri” has several definitions in the minds of many Nigerians. One can now think of how to describe the system and which path the Almajiris are taking considering the fact that even the name has generated another meaning for itself because they have become a burden as well as nuisance to the society.

DAILY LIFE

Today in Nigeria, almajiri is a general name given to both a student and destitute (beggar), but the fact is that in the present day northern Nigeria, Almajiris (students) only begs for alms and food during school free days or at a school break time, unlike the destitute who begs endlessly. The almajiri’s time for class starts immediately after the (subhi) dawn prayer for the recitation and memorization of the Holy Qur’an. They close for the morning around 7:30am and disperse into the streets, some stay behind after class to complete an assignment such as inscribing some verses of the Holy Quran on a small wooden slate known in the Hausa language as “Allo” (pupil’s learning material in the tsangaya school).

However, after expiration of the free time they will all return back to the tsangaya for afternoon and evening classes. Whereas, there exist other destitute children who primarily reside on the street. They are homeless, they sleep under the bridge, in the market and unsecure places, this set of children were sent by their parents to beg around towns and cities in the guise of almajiris under the care of nobody. Reasons behind such act by parents were due to high rate of poverty in the family to take care of essential needs such as provision of school fees, clothing, shelter, food and other needs. It is thought provoking to emphasize here that the commonly proverbial idea of parents love towards their children has been put to question in this respect.

It is instructive to note that the Almajiri system of education is tied to a traditional sytem which over time modern forms of Islamic forms of education have overtaken. This is evidenced in the thousands of Islamic schools known as Islamiyyahs with their primary, secondaryand tertiary institutions attached all over the north.

With the increasing number of out of school children and street begging in the country, if nothing is done will be a threat to development of the nation in no small circumstances. Every child has the right to education, Without education, children are denied the opportunity to develop their full potentials and play productive roles in the society. It is in this light that many Nigerians, especially northerners have been calling on government to as a matter of urgency address this issue with pragmatic approaches which include remodelling and re-branding of the Almajiri system, empowering the destitute and banning of street begging.

INTERVENTION

Today, there are different groups and indigenous NGOs and individuals working behind the scenes to bring an end or a total reform to this system.
The reform of the Almajiri system of education is something I am personally committed to and I am so glad that our six (6) years’ efforts is yielding some positive fruits.

Many people for too long have written and spoken about the Almajiri and unfortunately usually from a very ignorant point of view. I have had to engage a huge number of Almajiri and Tsangaya schools and their teachers in Gombe and I am glad to see that the need for a reform and change is even of great concern to these teachers and other former Almajri students.

Last week I got a call from a banker friend in Gombe who told me that he knows my concern about Almajiri and my work with Social Workers Without Borders (SW2B) and some efforts been done. This led to meetings with some Almajiri and Tsangaya schools leaders. All of these leaders, teachers and a judge among them were all former Almajiri students. Their team leader was an Almajiri who went on to study law at university of Maiduguri and is currently doing his Ph.D at Bayero University, Kano.

We have been able to have a model Almajiri (Tsangaya) School taking from the very beautiful and comprehensive model which the Federal Government have on ground already courtesy of years of painstaking work with stakeholders on the issue. It is a matter of pride to see that all the Almajiri from this school have been banned from going out to beg, instead they are provided with three square meals, school uniforms and books. Their education is also now a hybrid of the regular Tsangaya/Qur’anic education and the conventional western education.

The team shared with me their concerns about how they are being negatively perceived and despised by the larger society. We both agreed on the need for moral, social and economic empowerment of the Almajiri.

Furthermore, we have identified the need to provide technical and vocational education and training for all the Almajiris at this school as an exit strategy and proper integration with the larger society. Being that some of them are already grown they are introduced into different skills groups to learn different professions.

I am glad that on their own they have succeeded in training 277 Almajiri in different trades and We have also integrated them into our “StartUp Gombe” special programmes for Almajiri and Destitute Children. We are giving them access to funding for their micro-enterprises after training them on business and financial management through our micro-finance bank partners.

Now, the situation in Gombe is somewhat peculiar or different in the sense that 95% of the Almajiri in Tsangaya schools and destitutes found in Gombe State are not from Gombe. Those in schools are mostly from neighboring states and from as far as Zamfara, Sokoto, Kebbi and Katsina. The Boko Haram problems have contributed immensely to the very high influx of IDPs to Gombe and with these numbers are a very huge army of orphaned children all victims of the insurgency. We have it on record that virtually all these children are from Borno, Yobe, and Adamawa. Gombe is the closest to these places being in the North East and the Gombe State Government have made it a case not to expel them from the state but to find a way of accommodating them in camps and other places. It is also to be known that some of these kids on their own have broken out to the streets, but many are being moved by the Social Welfare Office of Gombe State. Gombe is in the north east and closest to these states most ravaged by terrorists it’s natural for thousands to seek refuge in Gombe. The way it seems that successive governments and Governors in Gombe State are working to overdo each other in positive governance, projects and infrastructure is an attraction to all others in the north east. This is not surprising that a recent picture that went viral on social media where some destitutes and street kids went picking food spilled by a food vendor with many tagging it as the case of poverty in Gombe and politicizing it or speaking out of bigotry. It really exposes the ignorance of these people and I won’t be surprised that these posts on social media were deliberate.

With the first set of Almajiri kids getting ready to graduate with different honours i.e. Islamic education, primary, and secondary school certificates as well as technical, vocational education and training. They will be armed with trade and financial skills to make them independent. We are also ensuring that these graduates will be the mentors of those behind them. As a pilot project we are hoping to have the cooperation of all the other Tsangaya schools in town and have some of them merge with the bigger ones. If we succeed in this in the next 3 years we will have a huge number of properly trained workforce for any industry. We also hope that all the Almajiri and destitutes kids today in Gombe would be able to return back to their home states and families or rebuild their lives in due time. For those that choose to remain in Gombe, we are hoping to see them contribute positively to the economy in trade and artisanship. I am more particularly excited about those who choose to go further to universities and polytechnics. Some have shown interest to become nurses and doctors.

As I write this, a young Almajiri kid sits by by my side watching as I type. He told me about his father and village and how he wants to be a teacher. He said teachers are the most respected people in his village.

To end or reform the system will take years of consistent work not only from government, but from individuals too. It is not enough to sit down on social media and just talk endlessly without offering a pragmatic solutions.

If we can all adopt these simple systems in all our states in the North and community volunteers take it upon themselves to adopt a school and begin the change or reform from there then we’ll all be on our way to a new system. We are glad to now have an association comprising of all Almajiri/Tsangaya school owners and teachers.

Yes, the reform of Almajiri system of education is enormous, but is possible. What do we do with the orphans and destitutes on the streets?

I always put these words in their minds;
Whatever the mind can conceive, it can achieve.

NB:
The school is in need of a clinic and equipment for training on different professions.

StartUp Gombe

#TheAlmajiriProject #StatrtupGombe

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