A Brief History
It has now almost become a normal feature, when one travels to any northern state to be greeted by the sight of young children, mostly in scruffy dresses with a plastic or aluminum bowl either under their arm or casually dropped on his head somehow like a cap.
Whenever a vehicle halts you see them run to you, in most cases begging either for money, or food. And when you are at a restaurant, you see them roaming the place with an expectant eyes waiting to be given the leftover food. That is Almajiri.
The word ‘Almajiri’ was coined from Arabic word “AL-MUHAJIRIN” which came as a result of Prophet Mohammed’s migration from Mecca to Medina. The name Muhajirin later came to refer to those knowledge seekers who move from one place to another like the Quranic school teacher and his pupils.
Contextually, Mallam refers to the Qur’anic school teacher entrusted with the custody and education of a pupil that’s commonly called and known as Almajiri.
History has shown that the Almajiri system of education started in the 11th Century, largely promoted by leading figures of Islam who were resolute to propagate Islamic knowledge and learning This was long before the fusion of the Northern and Southern Protectorates of British Nigeria.
Under the Almajiri system, during the pre-colonial days, the pupils lived with their parents for moral and decent upbringing. All the schools were located within the vicinity where the pupils came from. The schools were maintained by the state, communities, the parents, ‘Zakkah’, ‘Waqf’ and supplemented by the teachers and students through farming.
Begging (Bara) as it is known today, was completely nonexistent. Teachers and their pupils, in return provide the community with Islamic Education, reading and writing the Qur’an. Add that to the development of Ajami i.e. writing and reading of Hausa language using Arabic Alphabets.
Based on this system, which is founded upon the teachings of Qur’an and Hadith, the then Northern Nigeria was largely educated in a way of life. The system initially followed the Islamic system, which refined almost all the founding leaders who hailed from the North. From late Abubakar Tafawa Balewa to late Sardauna of Sokoto, Sir Ahmadu Bello. All were one time Almajiris, but obviously theirs is different from the Almajiri of today.
Also, Dr. Isah Ali Pantami, former Director General of NITDA and current Minister of Communications, was once an Almajiri. At that time, the pupils ate good food, and lived in a habitable environment.
Alhaji Alhassan Dantata, the Almajiri
Below is a story of a boy. Alhassan illustrates the good quality of the then Almajiri system:
“Born in Bebeji, Kano Emirate in 1877, his father, Abdullahi died when he was eight. His mother, Amarya, then left for Accra, and left her children in the care of a slave named Tata. Tata sent young Alhassan to an Almajiri school in Bebeji, where he worked, and learned from a Tijaniyya Mallam.
“At 17, Alhassan went to Accra to see his mother, who promptly took him to another Mallam. After a year or two, he returned to Bebeji.
“From his foster mother, Tata, he learned thrift, and from his Mallam, he learned hard work. This knowledge, he put to work, working the trade routes that were opening up in this brave new world of British imperialism. By 1906, Alhassan was using steamships to move merchandise between Accra, Sekondi and Lagos.
“By the time Alhassan Dantata died, he was the wealthiest man in West Africa. He is the great-grandfather of Aliko Dangote, and he had been an almajiri.” (Source: The Guardian)
Bastardization of the Almajiri System: The Advent of the British
The British invaded the North and killed most of the Emirs and dethroned some. The Emirs lost grip of their territories and consented their new roles, as mere traditional rulers. They also lost vital control of the Almajiri system.
The British intentionally put an end to state funding regarding the system citing reasons like, they were religious schools. With loss of support from the government, its immediate community and the helpless Emirs, the Almajiri system crumbled. Western education (commonly known as Karatun Boko in Hausa) was introduced and funded instead.
Now, the Almajiri together with their Mallams, having no financial support indulged in begging and other menial jobs for survival. This is certainly the origin of the quagmire of the Almajiri system today.
Prof. Idris A. Abdulqadir, during the 21st convocation lecture of Bayero University in 2003, was quoted as saying:
The Almajiri System Today
“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. During the pre-colonial era, begging was never involved and certainly the pupils were not reduced to doing menial jobs before they could eat”.
As the system is currently being practiced today, a child born in Kebbi town, for example, could end up with his Mallam in Taraba, roaming the streets of Jalingo. Those Almajiris are not supported by their parents with money or clothing. Instead, they survive by begging, scavenging and sometimes running errands for residents.
They share their meagre takings with the Mallam, many of whom are similarly unschooled in the Western sense. Often in shabby and filthy rags and unwashed bodies, they perambulate the streets. They visit restaurants, places of worship, palaces, cinemas and outdoor recreation centres pestering people with their begging bowls.
Musa Temidayo narrated his encounter with Almajiris in Bauchi State as captured below:
“My experience with the children at Azare, Bauchi state was quite emotional and troubling. The children are very unkempt in their multitudes. Looking at their feet, you could tell that they have walked many miles. Immediately our bus parked to refuel, they came in their numbers with bowls fastened to their clothes.
“They are ready to beg for anything. To them, begging is their way of life and they are not ashamed about it. I could only observe as I cannot speak the Hausa language, but I got a fellow who did good work with translation. Seeing their faces with flies perching made me lose the appetite to eat.
“In another bus waiting to refuel, a man gave bread to the phalanx of children begging him, and after they got the bread the other children nearby also joined in the struggle to get a grab of whatever their hands could get on. After the fight ended, a lone boy came to the spot to start picking crumbs that fell off.
“I could tell he was very hungry so I took some steps closer and handed him the bread I just bought, while isolating him from the others. The driver called my attention that it was time to go, but the little boy gave a gesture to appreciate.”
The Plight of the Almajiri Child
This is the illustrative picture of the pitiful plight of an Almajiri child in Nigeria. The Almajiri system symbolizes child abuse, indignity, social exclusion, penury and destitution in all aspects.
The system is now laden with semi-literate Mallams. This implies that pupils grapple to take care of themselves and to support Mallams. In the Almajiri system, lots of children never make it. Some are lost through crime and violence in the streets, some through child stealing, while others are lost through sickness and hunger.
Those who make it usually complete the reading of the Holy Qur’an and eventually became traders, drivers and so on. Those who could not make it are condemned to menial jobs, since they have no skills at hand.
They resort to wheelbarrow pushing, scavenging, touting and so on. And they remain as potential materials for recruitment into violent extremists, criminal and terrorist groups.