Sunday, November 18, 2018

Almajiranchi



Almajiranci, we can all agree is one of the evils that beautifies Northern Nigerian streets. The Almajiri system is a system of oppression that takes away the fundamental human rights of the most vulnerable members of our society, children. You can be rest assured to walk into the streets of any state really in Northern Nigeria and you will be welcomed with a sight of children holding rubber bowls and begging in traffic stops. A

These children often range from as young as ages 3 to as old as ages 18. Yes, I have seen children as young as 3 begging in the street. There is no strict age criteria or any standards really, one simply has to be willing to forcibly snatch childhood away from a child before sending them out to the streets to become statistics. You would often see these children walking about with no sense of personal hygiene and if you talk to one of them, you would often be met with a lack of hope. One would wonder where these children are coming from. Are they orphans? Does nobody care for them? People care.

According to a Wikipedia definition, “Almajiri is a system of Islamic education practiced in northern Nigeria. We'll go with that. Almajiri is gotten from an Arabic word "Al-Muhajirun" which can be translated to mean a person who leaves his home in search of Islamic knowledge.” The sight of these almajiri children often times evokes a feeling of social responsibility/spiritual obligation of the everyday Hausa man/woman. We were all raised with the belief that da na kowa ne (a child is everyone’s responsibility) so you would find people who would always give these children money and food. This sounds good in theory, but it is not.

The Almajiri system, in the northern Nigerian context, is a system of traditional education which involves sending children to live in what we would call boarding houses with a “Mallam” who takes up the responsibility of teaching the child about Islam and The Qur’an. This is not an entirely terrible system. These informal institutions of education have existed across northern Nigeria from a very long time. It was a system which fascinated white colonizers whom came to Northern Nigeria, expecting savagery and barbarianism but instead, found a people well versed in the teachings of Muhammad (S.A.W). Arabic and Islam fused neatly into the northern Nigerian culture as it paved away out of alleged darkness. Islam brought about emphasis on learning to speak and write the language of the Qur’an. The community was included in funding these schools and maintaining their standards. Through the teachings of the Qur’an, the Sokoto caliphate was established which successfully ran these systems of education in conjunction with the Borno caliphate until the colonial wars which ended up killing prominent Emirs in the north. The system fell apart. These schools now have to rely primarily on alms and farm outputs by the students as the system has since been abolished and hence, does not receive any funding from the state.


Ideally, leaving the moral upbringing of a child to the parents and the educational aspects to the schools is a system that works. Today, according to a report by the National Council For The Welfare of the Destitute, nearly 7 million Nigerian children have been failed by this system. Children are still sent into the almajiri system in large numbers. With a growing population and farms to be tilled, these Mallams often set the children to work, forcing them to work long hours on the farms without any monetary compensation. The Mallam sells his outputs in the market to feed his family and cater to his immediate needs and sometimes produce enough to feed the children. Often a times, the children’s nutritional requirements does not make it on the Mallams list of priorities. The direct effect of this is children begging on the streets. Whatever the can get, they take it back to the Mallam who uses the money however he pleases.


We have heard the numbers and we have all cried outrage but why does this system still exist? What can we do to fix it? Well for one, we need to stop giving these children money and empowering the Mallams.


Every Friday afternoon is a day of chaos on my street. This is because an Engineer who lives opposite my family’s house shares money (500 naira, most times less) to a group of elderly men and women. I am not sure when this man started this and why. All I know is they keep coming back every single hot Friday afternoon to sit and defecate in front of my father’s house, begging until the sun goes down. Almajiranchi has become synonymous to begging. We would now call any person begging in the street or from door to door an almajiri. Why do you think these people keep coming back to beg for alms? Because we keep giving. As long as we keep giving people who beg on the street, they will always keep coming back to the street. Giving Zakaat is one of the fundamental guiding principles in Islam. Islam, the foundation of the Almajiri system of education. One is required yearly, to give a portion of his profit to charity. However, encouraging almajiranchi is not giving out Zakaat. Giving people who beg on the street money is not empowering them, if anything, we are taking away power and agency from them by reinforcing their belief that as long as one begs, he/she is entitled to receive. It is a toxic culture which no child should be intentionally sent into.


The Almajiri system is in desperate need of reform. It is a system that failed, post-colonial invasion. Begging became a natural trickle effect of poverty, which a lot of the children in this system are products of. Poverty often pushes parents to send their children off for an education. It is almost a win-win if the system worked. Families can afford to cater to other needs while the educational system took care of one extra child to feed.


Almajiranchi is not a system that can entirely be abolished as a large population of Northern Nigerians still adhere to and defend this practice. We can improve it. Both Sir Abubakar Tafawa Balewa and Sir Ahmadu Bello, Sardauna of Sokoto were educated through this same system of education. Historically, this system has worked once. It educated some of the founding fathers of the Nigerian Republic.

Through rigorous reform tactics, this educational system can be liberated. Schools need funding, the responsibility of catering to the children’s basic needs, including feeding and housing cannot fall solely on the shoulders of the Mallam. A strict curriculum that includes basic hygiene, human rights and western educational components can better prepare the Almajiri for a life far from destitution. A child who is educated and aware of his rights would not be gullible enough to fall into the traps of groups like Boko Haram who are always looking for innocent na├»ve children too manipulate. Insurgent groups benefit from this failed system because it is easy to recruit children born into poverty with the promise of a place to sleep and hot food in their bellies. For a price of course.

The truth is people have always cared. Sanusi Lamido Sanusi, HRH the Emir of Kano has repeatedly called for reform. I remember growing up in Kano and we would be stuck in traffic with my mother and she would talk to these children no older than her own children. She would often scold them about hygiene, tell them to go and take care of their clothes but ultimately, at the end of the day, she would give them some spare change and they would pray for her as she speeds off into the world. Her social guilt and the belief that da na kowa ne have been satisfied. She experiences a spiritual fulfilment and the children will walk up to the next car and have a similar interaction. They will keep tapping on car windows until one of us winds down and says, enough is enough.

Children do not belong on street corners doing god-knows-what to survive.

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