By Kabir Fagge Ali
Almajiri is a system of Islamic education practised primarily in Northern Nigeria. The term is also used to denote a person who is taught or undergoing learning within this system called “Almajiranci.”
Almajiri is derived from the Arabic “Al-Muhajjirun”, an “Emigrant” who migrates from his home to a particular Islamic school in the quest for knowledge.
Over the years, it has been a normal feature, a cultural norm to have seen children roaming the streets in certain parts of (mainly northern) Nigeria, all in the name of seeking Islamic Education through the system of Almajiri.
Before the arrival of British colonial masters, a system of education called ‘Tsangaya’ has since prevailed in the Kanem-Borno Empire. It was established as an organised and comprehensive education system for learning Islamic principles, values, jurisprudence and theology.
Established after madrasahs in other parts of the Muslim world, Tsangaya was primarily funded by the state. Islam traditionally encourages charity, so the community readily supported these Almajiri. In return, he (Almajiri) gives back to society through manual labour.
The system also produced the judges, clerks, and teachers who provided the colonial administration with the needed staff. The Almajiri schools provided the first set of colonial staff in Northern Nigeria.
The Colonial masters abolished state funding of Tsangaya, arguing that they were religious schools. “Karatun Boko”, western education was introduced and funded instead. With this loss of support, the system collapsed.
A 2014 UNICEF report put the number of Almajiri in Nigeria at 9.5 million, or 72 per cent of the country’s 13.2 million out-of-school children. Unfortunately, this is a disaster unfolding before our eyes, as some estimates claim that the number of out-of-school children in the country has risen past the 15 million mark, most of whom originated from the North.
Regrettably, the Almajiri culture has since outlived its purpose and has become a breeding ground for child begging and, in extreme cases, potential materials for recruitment into terrorist groups. Moreover, the pupils who were meant to be trained to become Islamic scholars have now had to struggle to cater for themselves, begging rather than learning under the watch and supervision of some semi-literate Quranic teachers or Mallams who themselves lacked the requisite financial and moral support. Hence, the system runs more as a means of survival rather than a way of life.
This is because the Qur’anic schools became hapless, unable to render any help. After all, the head of the school is not also financially stable. This ultimately leads him to enforce a rule that ensures the students get him food or money. The most annoying part is making it mandatory, as punishment is enforced on anyone who fails to turn in what is expected from him.
Deprived of a normal and decent upbringing, Almajiri children, usually little boys between the ages of 4 and 15, may have been direct products of polygamous marriage or broken homes or simply due to economic challenges that hit the family. They lack adequate family cover as children are sent out to the streets under the guise of Almajiri as soon as the family’s resources are overstretched.
The Almajiri grows up in the streets without their parents’ love, care, and guidance; his struggle for survival exposes him to abuse (homosexuality and paedophilia), used as a slave, brainwashed, and recruited for anti-social activities, and used for destructive and violent activities. This is the picture of the pitiful plight of an Almajiri child in Nigeria.
Additionally, Almajiri culture epitomises child abuse, social exclusion, and chronic poverty in all ramifications. Because the system is believed to be rooted in Islamic religion and Fulani cultural practices, many attempts to reverse the trend or end such abuse of humanity have always hit a brick wall.
The fact that Islamic teaching strongly forbids begging, except in exceptional circumstances, which include a man’s loss of properties or wealth in a disaster or when a man has loaned much of his money for the common good, such as bringing peace between two warring parties already proves that Almajiri system as it is being practised today is unIslamic. A child neglected by his parents is vulnerable to diseases and social crimes. To survive, he often has to beg from ‘dusk to dawn’, after which he returns to the Tsangaya (Almajiri school).
For the past years, the Almajiri system has created a cover for criminally minded individuals to abuse Nigerian children through trafficking and expose them to anti-social behaviours such as forced labour and sex slaves.
Even former President Goodluck Jonathan designed a program under which a few Almajiri Model Boarding schools were established, which was aimed at integrating conventional western education into Islamic education, only turned out to be merely ‘removing a spoonful of water from a filled tank’, it wasn’t enough to adequately address the problem. As a result, less than five per cent of the children were captured by the Federal Government’s program meant to remove the Almajiri off the streets.
Therefore, as urgent, the government should take reasonable measures to address the Almajiri system in Nigeria to take them off the streets, even if it means banning the culture.
Unless it is banned or adequately reformed to meet the modern challenges and realities, the problems of underdevelopment, educational backwardness, and mass poverty in (northern) Nigeria will worsen. People will continue to bear children they do not have the resources to cater for, knowing that they could easily push such children out into the Almajiri system.
To conclude that the Almajiri system has deviated from its original purpose and is currently giving Nigeria a bad image in the international community is to admit the obvious.
This problem is a ticking time bomb waiting to explode at any time. And when it does, it will consume us all. But, it is still not late. So, something can be done to stem the tides.
Fagge is a student of Mass Communication at Skyline University Nigeria. He sent this via firstname.lastname@example.org.