Children enrolled in Almajiri seminaries barely see their parents, but the pandemic has changed that, triggering a debate in Nigeria.
Bello Babuga was among a dozen children who traveled in May on a 16-seater bus, 500 kilometres off a lonely federal highway that connects Nigeria's Northwest Kaduna to Sokoto.
He was one of the thousands of Almajiri children, boys between the age of four and 15 years. The Almajiri system is a centuries old tradition in which poor children are sent to Islamic seminaries for education. However, because of the British colonialism between 1901 and 1960, the system lost its sheen as the new regime choked its financial avenues, leaving it in the lurch.
The Almajiri set up however continues to be a refuge for countless Nigerian children, whose parents cannot afford two meals a day, not to mention their education.
With the pandemic ravaging the country, several hundred children in the Almajiri system contracted coronavirus, particularly in northern Nigeria. Not too aware of the deadly nature of the virus, these children are happy with their positive results.
“I am happy to at least see my parents again,” says Babuga. “When I heard about the lockdown, I was not happy because it meant I would not have the freedom I used to enjoy anymore.”
To stop the spread of the virus among the boys who live in crowded, dirty makeshift shelters without running water, and basic sanitation facilities which made them vulnerable to the virus, northern Nigeria governors started a fresh conversation about scrapping the age-long school system, Almajiranci.
The governors, through the Northern Governors Forum, a non-partisan Forum of 19 governors in northern Nigeria, plan to prohibit the system primarily because it allows children to roam the streets begging for alms. There’s also the issue over where the children live, mostly in unhygienic makeshift shelters and how their parents abandon them, shrugging off their responsibility.
Through a repatriation process across the northern states, except Yobe and Zamfara (the two states out of 19 that refused to evacuate Almajiri children), the other northern governors shipped the children to their home states in public vans and long state buses. In Kaduna state, for instance, 35,000 Almajiri children, like Baluga, were repatriated to their home states.
An age-long system
The Almajiri system dates back to the 9th century, when the Kanem-Bornu empire rulers started it as new converts of Islam.
The establishment of the pre-colonial Sokoto Caliphate in 1903 by Islamic scholar Usman Dan Fodio, further strengthened the system. Then, Almajiri children learned the Quran through an organised school, Tsangayu, a congregation of mallam and Islamic children gathered for Quranic studies.
The Tsangayu were located close to the Almajiris and funded by the emirate system, parents and the community. Then, the Almajiris did not meander off the streets to beg. But when the British colonial masters arrived in northern Nigeria in 1904 and established formal education, Tsangayu lost access to funding and support from the emirate system, and this led to the collapse of the system.
“This lack of support,” says Mohammed Sabo, the team lead of the Almajiri Child Rights Initiative, a policy advocacy organization for the plights of the Almajiri kids, “Led to the Mallams (Islamic teachers) sending the children to beg for alms to survive. That was when the genesis of begging began.”
For years, the Almajiris system has coexisted alongside formal education. Although primary education is free in Nigeria, the Almajiri children are part of the 10.5 million out-of-school children, according to UNICEF. The Northern part of Nigeria contributes 69 percent to the entire number of out-of-school children in Nigeria. The Almajiri children form a sizable chunk of the entire number.
In 2014, Nigeria’s former president, Goodluck Jonathan, approved N15 billion to build formal schools and integrate basic education into the Almajiri system, but, according to a UN information portal, the custom-built schools were unoccupied, abandoned and vandalised.
A social norm
It’s been three months since Babuga returned home. Although he’s enjoying the warmth of family and the serenity of Rujin Kaka, a countryside in the northwestern Nigerian state of Sokoto, he longs for a reunion with his mallam and colleagues with whom he studies the Quran, to roam the busy streets of Kaduna for alms once more and share the spoils at the end of each day’s search.
His mother, Aljumma Babuga, who is happy with the sudden reunion with her son, speaks against the ban of a system that has trained her son in the basics of the Quran and exposed him to a network of friends a city away from Rujin Kaka.
“I am not happy about the ban because that means my child would have to come back home and sit down without going out to seek knowledge," says Aljumma.
“If my child would have to go to school to gain formal education, that means the government would have to step in and make provisions for his fees and everything they will need because I cannot afford the money to train him myself. Except that happens, I am afraid he will have to stay at home.”
Sabo understands Aljumma’s dissatisfaction. He hears this same concern from the parents of Almajiri that he has interviewed and concludes that an outright ban won’t address this problem. He says that the dependence of most parents, like Aljumma, on the Almajiranci system is as much a social norm as much as it is an abdication of parental responsibility.
“It’s a complete example of a social norm, '' says Sabo. “It’s not an original culture of the northern Muslim. Because if it was a culture–everybody should do it, so it’s a social norm, just as the female genital mutilation. What social norm does is that it makes people okay with certain practices.”
In Nigeria, it is common to see critics run lengthy posts on social media condemning the parents of Almajiri for abdication of their parental duties, but the parents see it differently.
“We’re thinking the Almajiri system is bad,” says Sabo. “But the parents don’t think it’s bad. They think their children are learning the Quran, which is a religious obligation.”
He adds that some wealthy northern Muslims who have gone through the Almajiranci system, also train their children through it because they want them to learn the Quran just as they did.
Regulate, not ban
Sabo recognises the impact of this way of life, especially on low-income families across northern Nigeria. He suggests a policy change that would regulate the system is preferable to a ban.
Sabo suggests a regulation that would review the children’s welfare, establish a new system that encourages both Quranic and formal education, and test the qualification of Quranic teachers (popularly known as Mallams), would suffice.
“Let there be hostels to accommodate and feed them,” Sabo says. So they won't be roaming around the street begging. If they can get formal education, opportunities, skills and feeding, then all will be fine.”
He founded Almajiri Child Rights Initiative to champion the social inclusion of the Almajiri into a regulatory body which would guarantee the rights of the children to an excellent education, a dignified life and parental care.
In Nigeria, the number of government primary schools and teachers available for teaching are inadequate. Besides, Nigeria’s education budget is reducing every year. In the past 10 years, Nigeria’s national budget for education has been under 7percent, below the 15-20 percent recommended by UNESCO.
Scrapping the system without providing a viable alternative would be detrimental to children and low-income families. The governors intend to find a solution through the integration of formal education into the Almajiranci system. For instance, the northeastern state of Yobe state has plans to establish an Almajiranci system that would combine offering Islamic studies along with a modern formal education curriculum.
Although these plans sound good on paper, the challenge is often a lack of political will to implement them. The governors should focus on implementing an alternative that would subsume formal education into the system, and offer a welfare package that would keep them off the streets instead.