By Babatunde Jose
My late paternal grandmother used to refer to the beggars that pass in front of our house at Alagomeji as ‘Alumongiri’, a corruption of the word Almajiri, but at the same time an apt description of them because for all intents and purposes they were seen as beggars. These ones were even adults. But the real Almajiris are supposed to be children in search of education who today support their life of deprivation by begging for alms: Their most conspicuous possession being a begging bowl. But, this was not the intention of their progenitors. And it never used to be like this.
Almajiri’ is a Hausa word that refers to itinerant children in search of knowledge or Quranic education. There are however doubt about the correlation between this coinage and the Arabic word Muhajirun. See; The Almajiri Palaver in Northern Nigeria: How Islamic? Dr. Yakubu Tahir Maigari. Muhajirin refer to those knowledge seekers who move from one place to another in search of knowledge like the Quranic school teacher and his pupils, during the time of the Prophet.
Almajiri refers to ‘children’ sent from their homes and entrusted into the care of Islamic teachers (Mallams) to learn Islamic studies. Almajiri system started in the old Borno Empire by its rulers as a means of education of its people; seven hundred years later, the Sokoto Caliphate after its founding adopted the system with modifications such as the establishment of an inspectorate of Quranic literacy, with inspectors who reported directly to the emir of the province, concerning all matters relating to school.
The system however, started on the road to decline with the incursion of the British colonial rule in Northern Nigeria. The British abolished state funding arguing that, they were religious schools. With loss of support from the government, its immediate community and the helpless Emirs, the Almajiri system collapsed. ‘Karatun Boko’, western education was introduced and funded instead. The pupils now turned, Almajiri together with their Mallams, having no financial support resorted to begging and other menial jobs for survival. This is certainly the genesis of the predicament of the Almajiri system.
Today, Curriculum contents, teaching methods, teachers’ qualification, infrastructure and administration have been compromised, therefore the Quranic School has become archaic and an anachronism. Consequently, the Almajiri has become a social problem than a useful member of society. Almajiris are vulnerable to being manipulated and used by political leaders and their benefactors who take advantage of their lack of formal education. They are considered as great security risks as many of them have breeding grounds for anti-social elements.
The system that was hitherto organized and well charted has now been bastardized and abused. Couple with this is also the government’s nonchalant attitude of fending for the citizenry that result in millions of our youths daily roaming the streets looking for what to eat. And this is not only about Almajiri.
The National Council for the Welfare of Destitute (NCWD) puts the current population of the Almajiri at about 7 million; and it might be more. A whole generation of children being wasted: The system as it is presently being practiced has outlived its usefulness.
Suffice to say that in the past the system produced the first crop of literate people in the North, howbeit in Arabic language and they provided the first crop of clerks and civil servants for the budding traditional local administration. The schools were maintained by the state, communities, the parents, ‘Zakkah’, ‘Waqf’ and supplemented by the teachers and students through farming. “Bara” (begging) as it is known today, was completely unheard of; teachers and their pupils, provide the community with Islamic Education, reading and writing, in addition, to the development of Ajami i.e. writing and reading of Hausa language using Arabic alphabets. Based on this system, the then Northern Nigeria was largely educated with a complete way of life, governance, customs, traditional craft and trade.
As it was rightly observed by Prof. Idris A. Abdulkadir, there seems to be a conspiracy of silence between the parents, authorities and the society at large. For the parents, the system provides an outlet, and a drainage for the excess children at home, for the authorities, it is a relief that they do not have to budget for about 7 million Almajiri children’s education and welfare. As for the elites, they care less as long as their own children are not involved.
This phenomenon represents a scar on the face and a sad commentary on the elite of Northern Nigeria. Islam enjoins man to work, to use his brain and hands in order to eke out a living for himself. It is when all this fail, that, one could resort to begging. For any person, who is hale and hearty, it is ‘Haram’ to resort to begging.
As for the North, yes, it is true one could blame the British almost (100%) for deliberately destroying the indigenous education system but we could not blame them for the collective negligence in allowing the system to continue unabated in its present form.
1. Most of the Almajiri in the metropolis and towns are denied basic needs.
2. The curriculum offered in the schools does not provide opportunity for literacy and it is not adequate. It does not prepare them for living in contemporary times.
3. Poor funding from government is a major challenge facing the Almajiri system of education.
4. Provision of infrastructural facilities by government is a problem facing the Almajiri system of education.
The bottom line however, is that in view of today’s reality; the system should be abolished while the education of our children should be considered a matter of utmost urgency and priority. No child should be left behind. Those rulers who pretend as if nothing is happening in their domain will soon hear ‘ween’! It shall be a day of weeping and gnashing of teeth. They will cry but shed no tears; and they will run but their legs will not move. It will be a day of woe!
It is important to end this narrative with the story of a boy, Alhassan.
Born in Bebeji, Kano Emirate in 1877, his father, Abdullahi died when he was eight. His mother, Amarya, then left for Accra, and left her children in the care of a slave named Tata. Tata sent young Alhassan to an Almajiri school in Bebeji, where he worked, and learned from a Tijaniyya Mallam. At age 17, Alhassan went to Accra to see his mother, and after a year or two, he returned to Bebeji.
From his foster mother, Tata, he learned thrift, and from his Mallam, he learned hard work. This knowledge, he put to work and by 1906, Alhassan was using steamships to move merchandise between Accra, Sekondi and Lagos. By the time Alhassan Dan Tata died, he was the wealthiest man in West Africa. He was the great-grandfather of Aliko Dangote, the richest man in Africa and he had been an Almajiri.
There is a nexus between Islamic and Western education, and it is our job to find it, and urgently. The wider issue that needs contemplating upon is that of out of school children: A survey conducted by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) indicates that the population of out of school children in Nigeria has risen from 10.5 million to 13.2 million, the highest in the world. … Most of the children are out of school while some have never been to school. It is an epidemic. The consequence is too chilling to contemplate.
Barka Juma’at and a happy weekend