By Aminu Mohammed
I have observed the raging debate over the Almajiri debacle in the last few days, especially the antagonism against a Kannywood actress Nafisa Abdullahi. The actress voiced out against parents who send their children to urban centres to memorise the Quran under the guise of an Almajiri system.
This issue resonates with me because I was once an “Almajiri”, though in a modernised form of learning. I was a product of Arabic and Islamic education. I am still grateful to my late father for seeing the wisdom in sending me to the College of Islamic Studies Afikpo, a boarding secondary school in Southeastern Nigeria funded by a Saudi Arabia-based International Islamic organisation Rabita Alamul Islam (the Muslim World League). Unlike some of my schoolmates who later studied Islamic studies at Islamic University Madina and Azhar University Cairo, Egypt, I decided to study International Studies at the Ahmadu Bello University, Zaria, against my father’s wish, whose dream was for me to be an Islamic scholar.
I am still at a loss wondering why the actress is being pilloried for telling the truth. If you ask these intellectual lilliputians and Nafisa’s traducers whether they will be comfortable sending their children out to beg on the streets under the guise of Quranic education, they will never say yes.
Before you call me “Karen farautar yahudawa”, an agent of Jews, which our people are fond of calling those who seek societal change and are in tune with modern realities, let me clarify that I did not attend a conventional secondary school. I advocate an integrated education system involving the acquisition of both western and Islamic education.
I will never advocate against memorising the Quran or acquiring Islamic knowledge because I was a beneficiary of that. At the boarding secondary school in Afikpo, Ebonyi state, we were taught Hadith, Fiqh, Balaga, Tafsir, Tajwid, Saqafa, Sirat, Ulumul Falsaf, Sarf and Nahw, among other subjects, by some Islamic scholars mainly from Pakistan, Egypt and India. I was able to speak Arabic with confidence on completing my secondary education. I even took some Arabic courses as an elective throughout my studies in Zaria. Even here in Germany, I still communicate with my neighbours from the Middle East in Arabic.
I am not worried that this article will generate antagonism in some quarters or be pilloried for triggering anger in some folks. But the truth of the matter is that we cannot continue on this trajectory. This system can no longer continue the way it is; otherwise, we may be heading towards the precipice.
The word Almajiri is derived from the Arabic word “Almuhajirun”, meaning a person who migrates from his locality to other places in the quest for Islamic knowledge. During the colonial era and a few years after that, the schools were maintained by the state, communities, the parents, ‘Zakkah’, ‘Waqf’ and augmented by the teachers and students through farming. “Bara”, begging as it is known today, was completely unheard of.
Mallams and their pupils, in return, provide the community with Islamic education, reading and writing of the Qur’an, in addition, to the development of Ajami, i.e. writing and reading of the Hausa language using Arabic Alphabets. Based on this system, which is founded upon the teachings of the Qur’an and Hadith, the then Northern Nigeria was broadly educated with a whole way of life, governance, customs, traditional craft, trade and even the mode of dressing.
However, the system was corrupted in the past few decades, with teachers sending the children to beg for food on the streets. Similarly, many irresponsible parents were unwilling to cater to their children. Thus, they send them away to cities to purportedly acquire quranic education.
The current Almajiri system is not only archaic but atavistic. We must tell ourselves the truth that society is drifting. What we are facing today regarding security challenges in the North will be child’s play if our people refuse to change their ways. There is no gainsaying that the future is bleak if what we can boast of is an armada of malnourished and unkempt children who are roaming the streets under the guise of Islamic education. Eventually, the children may not acquire any meaningful skills to become useful members of society.
I am not a prophet of doom and derive no joy in pessimism. But, I do not see a bright future for a region struggling with a depleted human resource, coupled with millions of underage children clad in tattered clothes with bowls roaming the streets begging for food. I do not foresee any meaningful progress and development in such a society.
I still recall, in 2012, when former President Goodluck Jonathan visited Sokoto to inaugurate the Almajiri Integrated Model School in the Gagi area of the Sokoto metropolis. This boarding school was equipped with modern facilities. As a journalist working with THISDAY Newspaper then, I was there at the commissioning and even interviewed the school’s principal Malam Ubaidullah, a few months after the inauguration. I was excited that there would be a gradual process of taking Almajiris off the streets, as was promised by former Sokoto governor Senator Aliyu Magatakarda Wamakko. However, the euphoria was short-lived as governments in the region neglected the programme while the school buildings rotted away.
I wonder why our people antagonise those who want the system to be reformed or outrightly banned in the North. Are we comfortable seeing underage children roaming the streets under such dehumanising conditions? Have we pondered over the looming famine in the Sahel as forecasted by global development organisations, of which Northern Nigeria is part due to climate change worsened by overpopulation? Are we not witnessing the level of insecurity pervading the region because of societal neglect and marginalisation caused by a rapacious elite?. Do we sit down and pray and wait for a miracle to happen while expecting that our problems will go away?
Already we are battling with banditry in the Northwest due to societal neglect of a segment of the society that we use to mock because of their ignorance. And things will even get worse in future unless drastic action is taken to reform the system to enable children to memorise Quran in a friendly atmosphere devoid of hunger and deprivation. The current Almajiri system is a pathway to perdition.
Parents should stop sending children to cities if they are not ready to cater for them. These children should stay in their localities and learn under a school system presided by their Islamic teacher or Malam. The state governments must engage those Quranic teachers and pay them a stipend. I know this is doable because the government has the means to do that.
Unfortunately, much resource has been wasted on frivolities instead of channelling it towards revitalising the Almajiri system. We must wake up from our slumber and direct our energies toward finding a way to tackle problems in our society. Taking action is the key, and I believe that is the only way we can expect to have stability and peace in the polity.
Aminu Mohammed is at the school of Sustainability, Christian- Albrechts- Universität zu Kiel, Schleswig Holstein, Germany. He can be reached via email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.