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The Almajirai syndrome and COVID-19
By Olayinka Oyegbile
Poverty does not make a man decent. Poverty is not piety. In the same vein, money does not make a man evil. A man’s character is not defined by what money he has or does not have – Elnathan John (Born on a Tuesday)
The unfortunate invasion of our world space by coronavirus aka Covid-19 has brought into sharp focus the agelong threat the Almajirai culture the north which many, especially from the north have been pretending does not exist. In fact, many of our compatriots often think those of us from this other part of the country were crying more than the bereaved, anytime you raise the issue and the threat it poses.
However, with Covid-19, the wisdom in the Yoruba adage that, “When your neighbour is swallowing a troublesome insect and you fail to caution him, his discomfort at night would be shared by you.” The rate at which these almajirai are being tossed among states in the north is something that must concern all citizens of goodwill who want to live their lives in peace. The problem is now gradually being turned into an “inter regional” problem. I use that word in search of a better one. How is it being “inter regionalized”? you may ask. Well, we are all witnesses to how the police and security agencies have been intercepting truck-loads of people who are suspected to be almajirai being transported from one part of the country to other regions. The question to ask is why?
I am writing about this syndrome as someone who has some deep knowledge of the system having being born and bred in the north where I lived and for over three decades. The familiar image of the almajiri is that of a little boy (they are mainly boys, anyway) with a dilapidated and badly weather beaten bowl who moves from one street to another in search of food and sometimes carrying out menial jobs for people for token rewards of remnant foods, loose change and so on. A visit to any university in the north would give any researcher a clear picture of what I am writing about. They are always everywhere near students’ hostels ready to help fetch water, if public water supply in the hostels fail, run errands, wash clothes, and plates etc.
Their primary concern is to live for the day and not the next. Food is the most important thing they are after, shelter is secondary because they are like the raven in the Bible who build no shelter but are provided for by God when it is dusk. They lay down to sleep where ever darkness falls to meet them! That is why you can wake up early in the morning or come back from all night reading and meet them sleeping at hostel corridors and verandahs! They don’t care, it could even be in the coldest of the harmattan of the north, it takes nothing off them. They sleep anywhere; motor parks, roadsides, mosques patios – anywhere is home.
They wake up the next morning and life begins afresh. There is no any pressing need to have a bath, a few that cares and gets access to water takes a few handful and washes his face and then the struggle for another day begins. It is therefore common to see patches of dry saliva pasted on their faces or residue of oil from yesterday’s remnant of food. The patches of saliva are a result of yesterday’s sleep showing such an almajiri sleeps with his mouth open drooling saliva. It is not uncommon to go to a local restaurant and see the crowd of them waiting in the wings for you to finish your food and leave the remnants for them. It once happened that a man once ordered for a plate of sumptuous meal, set it down on the table and went to wash his fingers to demolish his food. On his return the food had been taken by a hungry almajiri thinking he was done with the food!!
This writer a few years back visited the north and went with a friend who wanted to pick up his children from school, as we stepped out of the school premises; I was shocked to see a crowd of almajirai. They approached parents and their wards supplicating for leftover food of their wards. At a point I saw a scramble and I was alarmed. My friend was not. I called his attention to it and he simply shrugged his shoulders and said it was a familiar spectacle as they were only in search of food. I saw it as a time bomb. He never did. With Covid-19 now, I am no longer sure my friend would allow such urchins to move near his wards again for fear of being infected.
The madrassa is good for the almajirai while the children of the elite go to normal schools and have mallams that come home to give them Islamic education. These and other ills of this culture we see in Dantala, the almajiri in Elnathan John’s novel Born on a Tuesday. Go and read the book if you have not.
The Almajirai syndrome and COVID-19