For decades, society has tossed the Almajiri around, shifting the blame on who is responsible for them. In some stories, the Almajiri are the victims, while in others, they are the villains hindering the progress of the region. Everyone agrees that there is a lot wrong with the Almajiri system, but many are yet to ascribe the urgency it deserves to it.
The Almajiri is not a group of helpless orphans but children who have parents that have decided not to give much thought to the challenges their children might face in an alien environment. Children who should still be enjoying the comfort of childhood are taken far away from home and brought to live in a place where everyone refuses to be accountable for them. They are made to face the harsh realities of life, fighting for the necessities. With no education, they are pushed further up the poverty ladder.
The Almajiri System
The Almajiri system is one of the earliest systems of Islamic education which originated in northern Nigeria. Derived from the Arabic word “Al-Muhajjirun” which means “Emigrant”, an Almajiri refers to a student of knowledge who leaves his home, usually to another place to study the teachings of Islam. Its actual definition has become lost as many only see the Almajiri as a street beggar, whose indigent parents most likely have dozens of other children to take care of. To reduce the workload, some are sent out under the guise of seeking knowledge and they become the children we see on the street as the Almajiri. But one must note that the Almajiri system, considered one of the oldest systems of education, as it evolved over the decades has mixed culture with religion.
For one, the culture of street begging which is closely associated with the system has no basis in Islam. Instead, we all know street begging as a culture in a region in Nigeria. Even religious leaders agree that the system has been bastardized over time, with the inclusion of street begging on the curriculum of the Almajiri. This could be a reason why calls to scrap the system in its entirety have failed.
Nigeria’s federal government proposed one such ban in 2018 in the heat of the Boko Haram insurgency in the Northeast. The National Security Adviser had then said that the government was being proactive in ensuring that these Almajiri do not become tools in the hands of the insurgents who would be looking for foot soldiers to carry out their activities. The NSA expressed concern that the system was producing ‘urchins who in a couple of years or decades become a problem to society.’
This decision hadn’t scaled through though, as we can see that the system has continued to strive. The Goodluck Ebele Jonathan-led administration also came up with a plan to restructure the system. His government built hundreds of such schools to integrate the curriculum of the Almajiri system with conventional education. The schools, tagged Model Islamic Schools, were handed over to respective state governments after their commissioning by the federal government. This project, funded with millions of Naira had failed, regrettably, despite the commitment shown by the government at that time. While not much seems to have been done in sustaining this project by the coming administration or the state governments that were supposed to have taken charge of the project, there is still every need to go back to the drawing board as far as the Almajiri system is concerned.
Criticisms of the Almajiri system
One notable fact is that the issue of the Almajiri has garnered more criticism than action. Everyone is talking about how this group of children has been neglected and the danger they pose to our national security if not properly managed but the efforts made at correcting this anomaly do not add up. For many critics, the Almajiri system is not in tune with the realities of the day. Others criticize the system as an avenue for parents to dump children they can no longer take care of on the streets in the guise of seeking an education.
In the days gone by, these children could have migrated to other areas and still live a comfortable life with support from the immediate community or perhaps, their teachers who were well off to accommodate them. This is no longer a feasible projection.
With little or no provision made for their upkeep in a strange land, these boys either live in abandoned or uncompleted buildings, open places, or mosques, serving as easy prey to evil actors seeking for vulnerable people to do their bidding.
As against spending their days studying, these boys have now become popular fixtures in public places such as markets, mosques, and car parks where they beg to sustain themselves. In addition, this group of nearly 10 million children does not have access to education according to UNICEF, meaning they account for more than half of Nigeria’s 15 million out-of-school children. One would wonder, how a system that started as a form of the education system has grown to be ascribed to this many vices. For one, the efforts of the respective state governments on addressing out-of-school children will remain futile, unless the issue of Almajiri is addressed.
Why A Restructuring Is Needed
There seems to be a consensus among stakeholders that the system will be difficult to eradicate, hence proposed policies made regarding it have always centered on addressing issues around the implementation of the education system and not its abolishment. Although not all the strategies used to operate the Almajiri system can be applied today, there remain many lessons to be borrowed from its past. One such strategy would be addressing the poor welfare of the Almajiri. In doing this, the government will be required to collapse the boarding school approach of the system. Parents will now have to start taking more responsibility than they have been doing. By doing so, street begging, which is one of the bones of contention in the criticism against the system,
could be eliminated.
While parents are being made to take responsibility for their children’s upkeep, the teachers on the other hand would now be bound by law, to ensure that no child faces any form of abuse while under their care. The government has condoned proprietors who lack a sustainable way of managing the system for far too long. Violence and child abuse has also gone on for far too long. The country’s child’s rights laws must equally protect these street children as they do, their equals in more appealing situations. Furthermore, in the wake of the increasing popularity of the system across various northern states, it is also evident that many unscrupulous elements had crept in, taking advantage of the fact that the system was not policed by a central authority. Everyone can now proclaim himself as learned and would get parents who will send their wards to get knowledge from them. The government will now have to come in to regulate the activities of these schools. Many of these self-proclaimed scholars are only using the Almajiri system as a money-making venture where children are used as free labor and the proceeds made from the begging venture are used to enrich their teachers. ‘Enough reasons to call it quits with this system’
In recent times, however, concerns have heightened that the continuous neglect of this group of children poses a threat to Nigeria’s security. With no parental guidance amidst tough living conditions, these young children’s vulnerability can easily become a tool for people looking to cause havoc in society.
At a time when Nigeria is still dealing with the consequences of insecurity in many parts of the country, a population of millions of street children who have learned to fight for the littlest of things such as a place to lie down for the night or a meal a day should be a source of concern, not just to the government but the people. Chief Obafemi Awolowo, already warned, “the children of the poor you failed to train will never let your children have peace.” Boko Haram and the ethnic militias in the Northwest have many times expressed a contention with the government: neglect and a feeling of abandonment. These Almajiri whom we hire in our homes as helps and look for when we feel benevolent have far better reasons to cry neglect.
When they were abandoned by their parents in the name of their quest for education, not much was heard about a society that seeks the little form of injustice to raise its voice. Nigeria doesn’t need a squad of angry young people who resent not just their parents for neglecting them, but also a society for keeping mum when their primary caregivers failed them. The value of these children isn’t in their numbers, but in their usefulness to society. We have seen more than enough reasons to restructure this system. From starvation, abuse, and molestation, the list is endless, on why society must work towards giving this system a facelift.