The word “almajiri” is derived from an Arabic word, “Al muhajirun”, which could be traced right from the migration of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) from Makka to Madina. Those who migrated with the prophet to Madina were called ‘Al-Muhajirrun’, meaning migrants. In Nigeria, the word “almajiri” refers to those, usually teenagers, who are sent by their parents from respective villages and settlements to urban centers in the quest for Qur’an knowledge.
Long before the colonisation of Nigeria, the Almajiri system started around the 11th century in Kanem- Borno and was later replicated in the Sokoto Caliphate after the success of the Jihad led by Sheikh Uthman Dan Fodio. Thereafter, the system continued to spread across Northern Nigeria, so much so that it dominated the entire region. However, the Almajiri system then in the pre- colonial era used to be different from the present day system.
Before British colonisation, the system aside the authorities’ high recognition and promotion, had enjoyed the support of other major stakeholders, such as the community, the parents and the pupils themselves. So also, the whole financial burden of the system was being taken by the authorities with public fund and the pupils called almajiri were in most cases living with their parents/guardians for moral upbringing, and the schools were located within the immediate environment from where the pupils came from. These indicate that the almajiri system in those day was somewhat formal and therefore, organized.
With the coming of colonial masters in 1904, the almajiri system which was reckoned as purely religious, lost state funding and the almajiri teachers (malams) we’re disqualified for employment. “Karatun Boko”, western education was introduced and funded instead. With this development, the system revolutionised; the pupils, and their mallams, having no financial support, resorted to sending those pupils begging and chanting for food to survive. Some of these mallams began to impose “kudin sati”, a form of weekly fees, on the students, reassuring them that to beg was better than to steal.
As time went by, the almajiri system kept on changing as the number of almajiri increased. A 2014 UNICEF report estimated the number of almajiri conservatively to be 9.5 million in Nigeria, making up 72 per cent of the nation’s out-of-school children. Estimates reveal that Nigeria presently has between 13.2 million and 15 million out-of-school children, most of them almajiri in Northern Nigeria. This might be the reason why stakeholders and authorities in the northern part of the country have been for long movin to reposition the system with a view to grooming it.
It’s no longer News that, the almajiri system over the last few years has been a topic of debate among northern governors, stakeholders and Islamic scholars. Some are in support of the total abrogation of the system, some call for repositioning the system, while others seek for it to be integrated into the formal school system, thereby reconciling Qur’an knowledge with the Western education. Prof. Idris A. Abdulqadir, during the 21st convocation lecture of Bayero University back in 2003, was quoted to have said “The Almajiri system of education as practiced today in the northern Nigeria is a completely bastardized system compared to the form and conditions under which the system was operating and its output during the pre-colonial period. The system has been forced, especially with the coming of the British, to its present pitiful state. A popular Hausa singer, Malam Sa’adu Zungur of blessed memory was also quoted in his song ” Arewa Junhuriyya” as saying ” As long as our children are wandering around nooks and crannies, roaming the street begging and chanting for food, the North will surely find herself at the receiving end.”
It’s obviously apparent that, the present day almajiri system is faced with uncomfortable problems that are posing great threat to the fabric of social structure in the North. Reports indicate that, owing to the recklessness and negligence of some Almajiri parents and teachers, to the extend that 60% of Almajiris never turn home as indicated by the UNICEF report and their parents often don’t provide them with necessaties of life( food, shelter, clothing). This makes life difficult for them, as such they become most vulnerable and are easily brainwashed and conscripted into radicalism and other forms of nefarious activities such as kidnapping, arm robbery, banditry, drug trafficking, street larceny among others.
On the other hand, It’s pathetic and embittering to see that, some of these Almajis are separated with their parents at younger age and sent to far away places to stay under the supervision of their Qur’an Malam (teacher) for long time. The greatest concern about this is that, many of these Malams receive high number of pupils that they cannot take care of neither can they accommodate. Thus, the children appear in torn and unwashed clothes, eating dirty food and consuming contaminated water. This makes them to be the most vulnerable to contracting and spreading diseases among people.
Recently, due to the coronavirus pandemic, governors of the 19 northern states of Nigeria have repatriated tens of thousands almajirai to their home states with a view to containing the spread of the disease. As the children arrived it their homes, some of them were quarantined and tested. The results caused widespread consternation__ of the 169 tested in Kaduna as of that time, 65 were positive, in Jigawa state 91 of the 168 Almajiris tested positive, In Gombe, 8 of the 48 children tested had Covid-19. In Bauchi, the number was 7 out of 38. These lingering tribulations befalling the almajiri system in the North has grossly raised concern among northern governors.
It could be recalled that, the Northern Governors Forum under the leadership of Governor Simon Lalong of Plateau state has recently insisted that, the system of almajiri particularly street begging must be banned in the region, with a view to reviving the system to it’s glory days when it was not associated with begging. The move, however, sparked controversy among Islamic scholars of various secs. According to the misconception of some Islamic scholars, the decision was a step to intentionally wreck havoc on the long rooted method of teaching and learning Qur’an in the North. The blame reached a point where some Islamic scholars termed the governors’ decision as an act of blasphemy.
It’s important to understand that, the Northern Governors Form has never proclaimed banning of Qur’an teaching and learning, but rather street begging due to the travails the system is characterised by, as discussed in the aforementioned.
It’s unfortunate that despite the efforts of the former President Jonathan, seeing the level of illiteracy in the North, where out-of-school children constitute nuisance, had come up with a brilliant idea of building almajiri schools, to reduce street begging and integrate basic primary education in the almajiri system; the schools established on which N15 billion was spent, are still waiting for the undertaker. While some of these schools have been remodeled as convention basic educational institutions, some lay waste because the pupils have returned to their old ways, roaming the streets for alms. This proved beyond resoan able doubt that, had the efforts of the then President Jonathan been complemented by the present administration, the ugly trend about Almajiri system could have been a different story.
It’s imperative, therefore, for the present administration to take advantage of the schools established by the previous administration and provide them with adquete support financially and to also integrate the system into the conventional system of education. There should also be constant supervision and monitoring of the schools’ programmes and curriculum so as to check negative instructions and orientation.
So also, sessions of trainings and orientation be organized for Almajiri teachers so as to give them sense of belonging, thereby reshaping their faculty of thinking to accept any modifications that might be introduced by the government. And the teachers ought to be oriented on the need to limit the number of Almajiris to the minimum they can take care of, while the parents of the almajiri be compelled to cater for all the needs of the pupils in order to end street begging. Finally, to kill a snake and cut its head, skill acquisition centers should be established for Almajiris who have reached a certain age to be apprenticed. This will mean the almajiri after acquiring qur’an knowledge will be self-reliant and stand on their feets.
Sulaiman Maijama’a,Bauchi, Bauchi state