Nigerian comedian and actor popularly known as AY in February announced his forthcoming movie called “Almajiri,” which would detail some children’s experiences grappling with poverty in northern Nigeria.
“The most honest form of filmmaking is to make a film that tells our stories and existing realities,” AY noted in an Instagram post. “These children often wander the streets begging for food, clothes, and other necessities thus making them vulnerable to chronic ill-health, sexual and physical abuse, human trafficking, slavery, drugs etc.”
Almajiri refers to children whose parents send them to Quranic schools from five. They also include orphans sent into cities in the region to learn Quranic Injunctions under the tutelage of a “Mallam,” who also looks after them while serving as their spiritual mentor. According to an article titled “The North and Almajiri Phenomenon”, the word “Almajiri” to mean those who left their villages or town, parents, relations, and friends in search of Islamic religious knowledge and scholarship.
The practice is not new. The Almajiri system existed since the 11th century before the British gained colonial control over Nigeria. It has produced countless scholars of the Holy Quran, the Hadith (the teachings of Prophet Muhammad), and other knowledge branches. It is still common across several northeast and northwestern states, including Kano, Jigawa, and Maiduguri.
After graduation,the Almajiris are left with two options: They can either become Islamic preachers and earn money by teaching other children, or set up a Quranic school. The harsh reality is their experience under the system riddled with instances of abuse does not prepare them to earn a sustainable living.
Some 8.5 million children attend Islamic schools across northern Nigeria, according to Hoechner Hannah. In most cases, the Mallams –– who are often responsible for as many as 30 children each –– lack the resources to care for the children. The system typically requires parents to send in money to meet their ward’s needs, but parents who live in poverty see it as a way to pass on the duty to someone else.
Many of the children often end up on the streets, begging for money. Whenever they beg for food, every Muslim is under obligation to give them whatever food they can afford. Others end up falling into crime. The Almajiris are also often paid off to carry out violent crimes.
In September last year, police in Kaduna released more than 300 boys and men from what many parents believed was an Islamic school. Images quickly circulated some of the men chained to metal wheels to prevent escape, while others had their ankles shackled.
What can be done to help the Almajiris?
During President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration, the government committed significant resources to reform the Almajiri system, including equipped accommodation and educational facilities. Between December 2010 and May 2015, the government constructed and equipped 157 Tsangaya (Almajiri) model Schools across Nigeria, according to an investigation by the Regulators Monitoring Programme (REMOP).
Yet, in common Nigerian practice, many of those institutions are now abandoned and left in disrepair. An Oct. 5, 2019 investigation the many of the schools worth 15 billion naira are “in ruins, to put it mildly.” Several others, which were remodelled, are now used for other purposes.
The Nigerian government must ensure citizens, especially in the north, have access to basic amenities, including water, shelter, and food. State authorities in the region must also ensure all children are enrolled in standard schools that meet the children’s basic needs.
Some states have taken different approaches to the problem. In May 2020, Kano Gov. Abdullahi Umar Ganduje formally abolished the traditional system in his state. Following the coronavirus pandemic that began last year, several northern state governments banned the system and returned many of the children to their families and communities to limit the spread of the virus.
The United Nations children’s agency (UNICEF) welcomed the children’s return and offered health and shelter support. “We also provided the children with safe psychosocial, recreational and life skills training as the first steps towards their reintegration into their communities, outside the Almajirai system,” said Miatta Abdulai, UNICEF’s child protection specialist in Maiduguri. “We put in place community monitoring mechanisms to ensure these children remain with their families and do not return to life as Almajiri.
Several nonprofits in the north have also jumped in to fill the gap. One of such organizations is the Almajiri Child Rights Foundation that has done so much in the area of health, education and shelter provision..
According to a Voanews report, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) funded an organisaton called Enabling HIV/AIDS, Tuberculoses, and Social Sector Environment (ENHANSE) towards helping the Almajiri children. ENHANSE made efforts to take the Almajiri children off the streets, and provide them with basic amenities.
The SHE Foundation also made a concerted effort when it called for a conscious effort to reform the almajiri system through funding and all-inclusiveness.
Indeed, the Almajiri system is not an ill in itself. It is a clear case of a tasty meal gone sour. At a time when unemployment abound, and our education system is producing unemloyable graduates, alternative education may not be an all bad idea. Hence, there is a great need for all hands to be on deck to bring back the lost glory of the Almajiri system.