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Living on the fringe…Sad, sorry world of Sokoto’s Almajirai
By Hammed J. Sulaiman
How parents dump underage kids in Almajiri schools
Children take to begging, forced labour in face of starvation
Sometime around noon in April 2021, Salisu retreated under the shade of a mango tree to escape the scorching rays of the Sokoto sun. From a distance, he looked tired, worn. Closer, he looked starved, and his eyes nestled in their sockets, emitting a glow like dying embers.
Salisu does not know his age but his prepubescent frame detailed it between six and seven years old. The native of Zabarmawa has vague memory of home but he remembers how his parents dumped him in an Almajiri school. He is only opportune to go home during the Sallah festival.
“We are between 100 and 150 in the Almajiri school. And we recite the Quran every morning,” he said, adding that, “the Mallam doesn’t cook for us. My parents bring food, garri for me, at least every week, in a sack. We usually give it to Mallam. Sometimes, they will bring it together with pure water. I only go home during Sallah.”
Like Salisu, Adamu looked hungry. Light-complexioned with a piercing look, the 13-year-old claimed his father is a farmer and his mother, a trader. He said he was dumped in the Almajiri system at age 10.
The native of Tuluwa, in Sokoto, claimed that he and his colleagues rely on begging to survive because their Mallam hardly gives them food. When they are not out begging, they fetch water for use by their Mallam’s household.
“During the rainy season, we used to go to our Mallam’s farm. Sometimes, the rule is that if you don’t go to the farm, you won’t be given food.”
Like Salisu, Abban looked hungry at first glance. Although he was much older and looked like he was in his early 20s, he persistently complained of hunger. This sounded odd given his age and the season: it was the Muslim Holy month of Ramadan and his lamentation elicited questions concerning his observance of the fast.
In response, he said he wasn’t fasting because he hadn’t taken predawn meal (sahur).
Abban disclosed that there are about 200 boys under the tutelage of his Mallam, including him, and they survive on handouts: the clothes they wear, food they eat are donations from private individuals and NGOs.
According to Abban, the more you give your Mallam, be it food or cash earned on your begging tours, the more love you earn from him. When asked why he is not going to school despite free education, he said, “My father didn’t put me there.”
He, however, disclosed that after leaving Almajiri school, he intends to start a business and get married, or become a soldier or a security guard.
Until then, Abban, like fellow Almajirai will continue to loiter public places including filling stations, shopping malls, motor-parks, and cinemas with his bowl, to beg for leftover food and loose money.
The law on a child’s rights
Under Islamic law, child maintenance is the ultimate right of a child thus parents are responsible for providing maintenance to children and providing them with appropriate (formal and Islamic) education. Moreover, the Child’s Right Act (2003) is the law that guarantees the rights of all children in Nigeria; it is an Act that provides and seeks to protect the rights of a Nigerian child— and other related matters. However, currently, 11 states, all in northern Nigeria, are yet to domesticate the Child’s Rights Act. These children, especially Almajiri children are bearing the brunt of this inaction.
The National Bureau of Statistics (NBS), last year, released the “2019 Poverty and Inequality in Nigeria” report, which highlights that 40 percent of the total population, or almost 83 million people, live below the country’s poverty line of N137,430 per year.
More so, fewer than half of the children in mainly Muslim northern Nigeria attend “overcrowded government primary schools, official data from 2015 shows.
Almajiri schools help fill the gap and parents pay as little as N500 ($1.30) a month in fees.”
Issues revolving around the practice of Almajiri include child destitution, child trafficking and alms seeking.
Meeting Mallam Muhammad of “Makaranta Muhammadiya”
Mallam Muhammad is the owner of one of Almajiri schools in Sokoto, named Makaranta Muhammadiya. “I believe God will give me reward for what I’m doing,” he said, adding that he doesn’t know the number of boys in his school. “Their parents used to come to check on them sometimes. After they finish and leave here, they would go and start a business. They can only leave here if only God wishes; God is their timer,” said Muhammad.
According to him, “I have a farm but I’m not eating it with them. They will come with their own foodstuff. Government doesn’t bring food, except God. Even if you come (join us), God will give you food.”
Muhammad stated that the government does not have a stake in the Almajiri system, stressing that it is an age-long practice that has stood the test of time.
Almajiri System: A Faded Legacy
The Almajiri system of education, which dates back to the 11th century, is an Islamic school system with a long history in northern Nigeria. Under the Sokoto Caliphate, the Almajiri regime was solidified by the Islamic revolt of the 18th century. This educational system focuses on Quranic and Islamic education, with students learning a trade for a living, too. Schools were governed under the Sokoto Caliphate, and teachers reported directly to the Emir of their province.
Teachers, parents, officials, and the community as a whole raised the schools’ students. Students will farm and carry food to the school to complement the Almajiri scheme. It was a course in the region’s society and culture, similar to Western education, where students were taught the Islamic and northern Nigerian way of life.
Now, most of these children are lacking access to formal education. According to a UNICEF study in 2014, Nigeria has 9.5 million Almajiri children, accounting for 72 percent of the country’s out-of-school children. Estimates in 2019 revealed that Nigeria has between 13.2 million and 15 million out-of-school children, the majority of whom are in northern Nigeria.
On the UNICEF website, it is estimated that “In north-eastern and north-western states, 29 percent and 35 percent of Muslim children, respectively, receive Qur’anic education, which does not include basic skills such as literacy and numeracy. The government considers children attending such schools to be officially out-of-school.”
Nowadays, most of the students, known as Almajirai learn to be self reliant. And this has seen too many of them spill to the streets to beg for alms and engage in menial work. Sometimes, they are made to engage in forced labour. In 2019, the International Labor Organization revealed that nearly half of Nigerian children are enslaved.
According to the ILO, at least 43% of the country’s children are trapped in child labor, including in private businesses. Most of these children are stuck in different forms of forced labor, despite international conventions prohibiting it.
Children as divine gifts
“Children… are what they called Amana; they are a gift from God Almighty”
Reacting to the situation, Safiyyah Mohammed, a Sokoto-based lawyer and lecturer of the Department of Public Law and Jurisprudence, Faculty of Law, Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto, gave a full breakdown of why the problem keeps evolving.
On the part of the government, she said, there are a lot of issues regarding implementation of policies and laws and how to ensure that parents abide by laws set out in our statutes. She said “We have the Universal Basic Education (UBE) law, which provides that children must be sent to school but then we have issues of not being able to keep track of children whether they are in school or sent to other states. So it becomes difficult.”
Safiyyah argued that “There are differences between Western and Islamic culture values,” lamenting that most of these Mallams are not thinking about the danger of setting up schools without regulations.
“We are bound to have issues because we don’t know the qualifications of most of these Mallams,” she said, adding that one of the key issues regarding the implementation of policies and laws is the attitude of citizens and attitude of individuals as it plays a major role in how the laws are being implemented and carried out.
She said, several decades ago, the way Almajirici was practiced— it was “something noble for a good cause. But the way it is practiced now, parents used it as a way to get away from their responsibilities because when you see the issue of people sending their children to faraway places without any means of income, sometimes it is a recipe for a lot of ill in the society.
“Islamic law comprehensively gives children adequate rights. Children under Islamic law are what they called Amana; they are a gift from God Almighty, so they are to be treated in the best of ways. There is nothing that justifies children being sent out for Almajirici and being made to fend for themselves at such a young age.” She expressed emphatically and authoritatively.
Work done seems futile
Zainab Yunusa, a co-convener and assistant field officer with Almajiri Child Right Initiative (ACRI) Sokoto Chapter, explained how the organisation has been implementing its mission on the eradication or reformation of Almajiri system, reiterating some difficulties on the part the state government. The ACRI is a non-governmental organization initiated by Muhammad Sabo Keana, advocating for reformation of the Almajiri system in Nigeria.
According to Yunusa, the organization has been embarking on community sensitization to concerned parents, hosting rallies and conferences, rendering services ranging from medical outreach, food, shelter among others. She revealed the organization has been working tirelessly with the ministry of women and children affairs in tracing, documenting and reintegrating the children back to their parents.
Saddened by the state government’s delayed response regarding this issue, Zainab said that, “The State government cannot be precise when it would end because it has to do with religion and culture…and many mistake it’s reformation for abolition. So, work done seems zero.”
During the course of this story, all effort to reach the state government and ministry of women and children affairs proved abortive, albeit when the Sokoto State Commissioner for Youth and Sports, Honourable Bashir Gorau, was contacted, he said he was not in the right position to respond to questions stressing that all queries should be channeled to the right authorities.
names changed to protect identity.
This Investigative Report is supported by Orodata Science.
Living on the fringe…Sad, sorry world of Sokoto’s Almajirai