Torn trousers, worn-out shoes, undersized, dirty T-shirts, uncombed hair and a generally unkempt appearance. These introduce them before they even speak or extend their arms for alms. But Mukhtar Sadiq wants the world to know that he is different.
‘I speak English,’ he said, ‘speak English to me.’
He is 12, in JSS2 and places 6th out of 85 students in his class. A little too short for his age, but what he lacks in height, he makes up for in his academics.
Five years ago, Mukhtar left his hometown of Maiyama in Kebbi State to Abuja because his father was ‘overwhelmed’ with responsibilities. Married to two wives and without a job, it became extremely difficult to provide for his family. Mukhtar is the 4th out of ten children and the only one who has the opportunity of getting an education.
‘I love school and I think it’s a privilege to be in it. I feel grateful even though I don’t have everything I want.’
He graduated from Qur’anic school in February 2018 and has since then been helping the other boys with their own Qur’anic lessons.
‘To be honest, I would want my younger brothers to come, if they can. Not because I want them to suffer, but because I want them to have hope for a better life. But I also don’t want them to live their lives without family. I know how hard it is celebrating Eid alone, eating alone, crying alone and wiping your tears all by yourself. Most times I talk to myself to encourage myself and when I fall sick, I still stand up despite the pain. I don’t want them to live like this, but I am worried about their future without education.’
For Mukhtar, learning is the best thing that has happened to him.
‘I see more about life than I would have had I remained in Kebbi. I understand that for some people things come easily and for others like us, we have to work twice as hard. And even at that, it’s very easy to lose focus, that’s why a huge number of us find it difficult to stay in classrooms. In school, I have this classmate, Abu. He tops the class. Sometimes when I don’t understand certain things, I meet him to put me through than when I get home, I teach those of my friends willing to learn. I love learning, it keeps me focused. I have a dream to become a successful architect.’
But his experience with the Qur’anic teachers, having to struggle to find basic amenities, pay his school fees and buy necessary learning materials make him wonder how realistic his dreams are.
‘We do so many things for them, still, they don’t treat us kindly. It’s hard to not be bitter. Often, when I get severely punished, I vow to one day leave and never come back, but I remember that I have to graduate Secondary school first. Then I tell myself to be patient. When I tell the other boys about my dreams, they clap me on the back and sometimes, they tell me theirs. We laugh about it and make jokes of how we’d eventually escape this life and build big mansions for our families. We’d point to the biggest houses and say ‘that’s what my house would look like’, but I think deep down, we know that it is close to impossible. And it scares me because I start to ask myself, what is the purpose of all this if the only thing we can do is to dream? Our future remains bleak. I want to keep my hopes up, but at the same time, I am aware that hope is all I’ve got, and it usually isn’t enough.’
Early last year, I took it upon myself to talk to the Almajiri kids in my area. It’s a small close in life camp, Abuja. A new boy is brought in every other day and I was curious to know their stories. How easy or difficult was it for them to leave their homes? What went through their minds then? What goes through their minds even now? These were the questions I had in mind to ask them. But when we sat down and got talking, many things became clear to me, not from what they said, but from what they fought to hide that their faces betrayed. These boys, the youngest of them not more than five years have stories buried within them. The innocence that should be their childhood has been ripped away from them and they are left to face hardships that even adults would struggle to contain their pain if faced with similar struggles. What started out as a simple conversation turned into an intense session. More than anything, I was grateful to have been born into an environment that saw to my growth and development beyond just a property to alleviate poverty.
Almajiranci was reported to have begun as far back as the 16th century. Children from different parts of the North were sent to states like Borno to learn the Qur’an. When a program is started with little to no plans of sustainability, It becomes difficult to regulate it. Almajiri or almajira (female), a term in Hausa which translates to ‘pupil’ in English refers to a young boy or girl seeking Qur’anic knowledge. This system started centuries ago when children from different parts of the North were sent to Borno to learn the Qur’an. At the time, the young boys’ education was funded through the zakah fund, a compulsory charity for every Muslim that was practised in precolonial Northern Nigeria. They also learnt various trades such as farming and fishing, which they took home as a way of giving back to the community. However, after conquering Northern Nigeria, the British abolished the Islamic system and laws hence the zakah fund was scrapped. But the almajiranci was left to continue, unregulated.
According to a 2013 report by the United Nations International Children Emergency Fund, UNICEF, about 10.5 million children between the ages of 5- 14 in Nigeria are out of school. In a report by Punch Nigeria, 10.2 million children are out of school with the states with the highest number of these children include; Kano, Zamfara, Jigawa, Kaduna, Katsina, Benue, Akwa Ibom, Oyo, Ebonyi, Taraba, Sokoto and Yobe. The northern states listed above have a very high number of Almajiri children amounting to the elevated numbers of out of school children. The lack of regulation of the practice of almajiranci has resulted in a social crisis, and security threats, especially as Nigeria’s population, keeps growing (currently about 200 million in 2019). Many of them have been and continue to be exposed to physical and sexual abuse, homelessness and have even been lured into joining Boko Haram.
In January 2018, Ali left home for the first time in his life.
Leaving the familiarity of Kano to Abuja at the age of 10, Ali Umar was well enlightened on the life he’d live away from home.
“They told me the Almajirai in Abuja are so much better than the ones in Kano and that I get to acquire both Qur’anic and Western education.” Said Ali
“Maybe it’s because I am still a bit new, but I find it hard to complain because I see opportunities for myself that I never did back in Kano. I don’t miss home like the others, but it’s because they have been here longer. Some of them came when they were about five, six and seven.”
Every morning, Ali walks down the street to clean and sweep houses for willing families. He gets paid one thousand, five hundred naira at the end of the month which he saves up for school dues and his upkeep.
I met Ali after one of his numerous jobs. It was around sunset and the perfect time for a game of football, but he wasn’t looking to play. He was searching for his friend, Mukhtar for an evening session in English.
“He’s my best friend. He teaches me lots of things even outside the classroom. I like to hang out with him, but he is hardly ever around and I have to go look for him every time I come back from running errands.”
“It’s impossible not to wish life was better, but this is what I have. I tell my friends that I want to be a trader and they laugh at me. “Is that even an ambition?” they ask. But I know what I mean. I could wish for something better, but trading is what I see myself doing in the near future.”
Ali’s father has two wives and nine children all of which are out of school. Sometimes he sells clothes in Kurmi Market, but his earnings are always not enough to take care of his family.
“My father did what he had to do. And if I had to choose between going home and living here, I would choose here because this is where I think I can have a better life. ”
This problem of almajiranci may not end anytime soon. It is clear that simply raising awareness of their plight is not enough to curb the crisis. The intervention of the government is essential and drastic measures must be taken such as closing down Almajiri schools and opening better, cheap and a more regulated system of education that is inclusive of both Qur’anic and Western studies. Or even regulating the number of children per family so that parents will not try to avoid the responsibility of raising and training their children.
Every year, the number of almajiri boys seems to multiply. The numbers are scary. And to think that these children could be something different what they are now is truly heartbreaking. They could be living a better life if only their parents made better decisions. They are abandoned by their parents, scorned by society and neglected by their ‘teachers’. These children are simply left to fend for themselves.
Very few almajirai are like Ali, who in his young age and naivety is forced to think that his father has no other choices than to take his child to an unfamiliar land to serve people and take up begging as a means of livelihood. Even fewer are like Mukhtar, who understand the importance of education and are willing to learn; even fewer are given the opportunity to acquire this knowledge. More work needs to be done to see that this problem is tackled before it becomes a full-blown, uncontrollable crisis. It is time to do more than just talk so that these children will have more than just hope shinning in their innocent, trusting eyes.
Almajiri – Pupil
Almajirai – Plural form of Almajiri i.e Pupils