Adegbenro Nurrudeen in this report explores the nightmarish world of the street kids popularly called Almajiris in the North
Northern Nigeria’s almajiri schools need attention as the purpose for setting them up has not been realised.It is a common sight in the North to see rag-clothed boys, loitering and lounging around with plastic bowls, begging for for food or cash. They are everywhere in the streets of most big cities and towns of Northern Nigeria .But they are not ordinary street kids , they are dangerous and vulnerable to unhealthy influences, including being recruited into extremism of any kind, religious or political. They are tough and hardened, and are students of Islamic schools who have been sent from their homes to learn Arabic.
Almajiri literally means “immigrant”, signifying that the children come from far and wide to study Islamic values.
In Kano State, a 10-year-old boy called Umar, says he was sent by his parent to study. He hails from Adamawa State .He narrated his ordeals that his parent dumped him when he was seven.
Early in the morning and at night, Umar joins more than 150 other students in a shabby spacious hut to learn Qur’anic Verses. He usually spends the rest of the day begging for food to eat and return the left-over to the “Mallam”.
Religious education has a long history in Northern Nigeria and neighbouring muslim countries of Niger and Chad. The children of the poor and elites used to pass through Almajiri schools, which were then well- supervised by Nigeria’s northern emirates.
Research has shown that, Almajiri system started in 11th century as a result of the involvement of Borno rulers in Qur’anic literacy. Over seven hundred years later, the Sokoto Caliphate was founded principally through an Islamic revolution based on the teachings of the holy Qur’an.
Under the Almajiri system, during the pre-colonial era, pupils lived with their parents for upbringing. All the schools were located within the immediate environment from where the pupils came from.
The Uthman Dan-Fodio Revolution brought some modifications of establishment of an inspectorate of Qur’anic literacy and inspectors reported directly to the Emir of the province. But the system later broke some years after independence.
National Council for the welfare of Destitute (NCWD) puts the current population of the Almajiri in the northern part of Nigeria; at about 7 millions. It is pathetic that Nigeria is losing 7 million potential judges, accountants, engineers, doctors etc to this system, as these children waste away.
Former President Goodluck Jonathan, in December, 2010, planned to remove the massive number of school-age children roaming the streets, of Northern Nigeria. The administration commissioned Almajiri Integrated-model schools to bridge the gap between Islamic and Western education.
Meanwhile, Professor Mahmood Yakubu, Executive Secretary of Tertiary Education Trust Fund, TETFUND, said the Federal Government has spent N5 billion on 35 model Almajiri primary schools (10 boarding and 25 day schools) built across the northern states.
He said the government spent the money in building, furnishing and equipping the schools located in 18 of the 19 northern states.
Universal Basic Education Commission funded some Almajiri schools too. Has Nigeria feel the impact of Almajiri Schools?
On the other hand, former Lagos State Governor, Babatunde Fashola (SAN), has postulated that establishment of Almajiri schools in Nigeria has no feasible end gains.
He explained that the purpose of training someone was for the person to be able to use the knowledge gained and the skills acquired to his benefit and the good of society.
Fashola said that could not be said of Almajiri schools as they have no competitive advantage.
“If you train people to acquire certain skills, you must develop avenue where the skills will be useful and that will be the end gain. For instance, graduates of our technical and vocational colleges will become our major contractors” He said.
The worry about the end gains of Almajiri students is important as no specific companies will look for them for employment.
Despite the billions of Naira spent on Almajiri schools under the last dispensation, it has not recorded any gains on the educational status of the north. Many kids are still on the streets from the age grade of four.
Government will continue to struggle to bring Almajiri children out of the street because the population is growing fast, especially among poor northern Muslim families who marry off girls when they are still in their teens.
Moreover, in some Muslim communities in the north, people still doubt the merit of Western education, seeing it as a threat to their own traditions, leading even to a kind of enslavement to alien values. Many parents look up to the “Mallams” and would rather not send their children away to modern schools where they might fall prey to bad western ideas.
These poor and often illiterate boys are easy to pick as recruits for Boko Haram, the extreme religious insurgence group whose name means “Western education is forbidden”.
In fact, many of the Almajiri were separated from their parents at a younger age. Their psyche can easily be changed, so they will be vulnerable. It is a risk for terrorism!
For government to solve the problem of Almajiri in the north, it must make laws to prohibit the practice of given an under-aged for learning without adequate supervision and care.
In this regard, the Economic community of West African States, ECOWAS, has concluded plans to put in place laws and strategies to address the phenomenon of Almajiri.
To this end, the ECOWAS commission’s Early Warning Directorate said it will organise a workshop to launch the support programme for the organisation’s Member States to put an end to Street Children Syndrome.
Economics and social crises, particularly poverty, must be looked into to reduce the situation of Almajiri menace. It will be the joy of every parent to have his wards under their domain provided that the family can cater for the needs of the children.
Both the Federal and State governments must ensure that cultural and religious ideas are checked as they play a role in the prevalence of street children, especially in Northern Nigeria, where Almajiris are forced to abandon their homes in the quest for seeking the teachings of the Qur’an under the tutelage of a “Mallam”.