It is now over three months since the Northern Governors Forum resolved to ban almajiri across the entire region. While it is true that the alamjiri issue has been ignored long enough, outrightly banning it is the wrong approach to take. After all, even the most comprehensive efforts by Sokoto State governments in the 80s, or that of Kano in 90 didn’t recommend banning. It is therefore absurd for the governors to declare the total banning of a decades-long system with only a communique with no blueprint, edict, act, or plan to tackle the arising issues.
One would have thought that after the Maitatsine crisis in the 80s and the ongoing Boko Haram crisis whose Nexus is made of former almajirai, something drastic would be done. Alas, this has not been the case. Now that the situation is suddenly going out of hand, the ban option is being considered instead of reforming the system.
To better understand the almajiri system of education, one needs to know its origin. Derived as a corrupted version of Al- muhajir (an Arabic word for migrants), children between the ages of 4-18 move from one place to another mostly during the dry season in search of knowledge. Originally practiced by Fula migrants who move about in search pastures for their cow as well as knowledge, it transformed into a well planned Islamic system of education in the form of schools named Tsangayas.
Now begging wasn’t always a part of the system, as community members feed these children as a form of community service while the Malam receives his fees in form of small token, food, cattle by the child’s guardian. The children also work on the farmland of the Malam during the rainy season, while some go back home. What then brought begging into it you might ask? Lots of factors.
The advent of colonialism in Nigeria brought with it a lot of changes. One of these is the removal of these Islamic schools from the purse of government in the North as more funds are allocated for developments and western education. This caused untold hardships on the Malams and the almajiri alike. The little community service being rendered in the form of feeding these kids came to a halt due to an increase in taxes coupled with economic hardships and poverty. This made it difficult for the feeding of these children by the members of the community and even their parents. The solution? begging.
Over time, Almajiranci became a symbol of colonial resistance and by extension western education. These children refused to be incorporated into the western schools, and instead, despise one who gets enrolled. One popular song sang by almajirai condemning those who study Western education to hell when adequately captures the mood. The system has long become embedded in the cultures and traditions of Kanuris and the Hausas.
In light of this, one can’t just wake up and say the almajiri system of education with all its rich cultural heritage is banned. The main reason presented in support of banning is the begging aspect. However, some go through the system without begging a single day in their life. Or perhaps those who do beg learned from the begging culture in the country through the acts of corporate begging in the name of launchings, donations, donors, and interventions. One will even argue Nigeria herself is a beggar nation, brandishing its bowl in the face of the international community seeking debts and debt reliefs, foreign aids, and, relief funds. Isn’t it a misplaced priority to ban these kids whom society seems to give up on from getting their daily bread, while beggars who practice it as a source of livelihood still roam the streets?
Though always mixed up, begging and almajiranci are not the same thing. Begging has never been synonymous with the almajiri system of education. While one is a well-organized system of education that has thrived for decades and can perhaps rival western forms, the other is a cultural phenomenon that serves as a business or a means of livelihood for some people. Of course, religion and tradition have further exacerbated the situation to the point that the two are almost indistinguishable. One of the many reasons is a saying attributed to The Prophet (PBUH) where he directed “Seek knowledge even if you have to go as far as China.” This— apart from being a fabricated saying—has been misconstrued to mean that the longer the distance from home, or the more hardships one faces, the more knowledgeable or blessed he becomes.
The solution you might ask? Reforming. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the system itself. Remove the begging part, and the almajiri model of education can be compared to any form of Western education where a child is sent to a faraway land to acquire education or the most sophisticated form of apprenticeship practiced by the Igbos. We should instead focus on reforming the system and tackling begging. If we can’t wake up one day and declare orthodox schools banned because of the shabby situation of our public schools, I don’t see why the same should be done to the almajiri system.
We must also tread with caution before outrightly banning such a system. As we have seen before, the system has been at the forefront in breeding future insurgents and extremists. Now, the economic pressure and the constant sense of neglect felt by these kids, have succeeded in pushing many of these kids into all sorts of illegal activities; kidnapping, banditry, rustling you name it. Solving the root cause of the problem may eliminate some of these vices.
Poverty is still rampant if not greater judging by the population expulsion. Tackle it heads on. Engage in empowerment schemes to the most vulnerable of the community, the almajiri inclusive. Teach them how to learn a trade; cobbling, selling of perfumes. It doesn’t matter what, as long as it is productive. Support them with grants and materials and see how the situation improves.
Religious scholars may have the most important role to play. They should teach the populace that Islam doesn’t encourage begging, laziness, or idleness. Relevant Hadiths should be quoted where the Prophet ( P.B.U.H) discouraged begging, encourages fending for oneself, and extols the virtues of hard work. Teach the people to only produce progeny they can cater for. The prophet (SAW) encouraged more birth so he would be proud of us, but I doubt he would be with the number of miscreants, criminals, and thugs our kids are turning out to be mostly because of parental negligence.
Closely knitted to this are the traditional rulers. Sadly, the feudal system encourages some form of dependency. The rulers should wake up and sensitize the people as appropriately. The district heads, village heads, and ward heads should each maintain a registry of the various schools in their domain, complete with the number of students and their addresses. Only those with valid means of livelihood should be allowed to enroll their children in the tsangayas.
The way I see it, waiting for the government to initiate the process of might be counterproductive. A president once dismissed the whole issue of almajiri as a problem of local governments! The government might have the smallest role to play in this. Apart from enacting bills; strengthening institutions that deal with this indirectly (such as National Board for Arabic and Islamic Studies, Universal Basic Education Commission, and National Commission for Nomadic Education) and maintenance of a national almajiri database, its roles are perhaps limited.
The bulk of the work needs to be done by us. Almajiri might be a Nigerian problem, but it requires a Northern solution. We can start by encouraging people to be responsible parents. Employing some of these kids to do menial work at home in exchange for daily food, cash, and other necessities not merely giving out alms might go a long way. Having a foundation devoted exclusively to providing opportunities for these kids, thorough skills acquisition, and training should be a priority. A section or part of our annual Zakat payments can be used to fund these. This can be achieved with the collaboration of various Islamic groups, sects, the Sultanate, our numerous billionaires, and millionaires. At the same time, parents should be prohibited from sending their children far and away without any form of sustenance. Those who default should be punished, through a law enacted and approved by all the northern states.
If all of these are unachievable (which I doubt), a simple nod of appreciation or a word of sympathy as opposed to the harsh rebuke we show these innocent kids begging under the blazing sun would go a long way. The sense of being given up on by their parents and the society fuel the fires of extremism and take away all semblance of mercy in those kids’ hearts. If their parents have given up on them, society shouldn’t because one day when they tide turn they won’t have mercy on us too. Sadly, the day may have all but arrived.