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October 2020

The ‘Almajiri’ System Crisis

By Dr Baba J Adamu

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It is obvious that Northern Nigeria ‘Almajiri’ System of Education (karatun allo), over the years has been characterized by street roaming of kids for “bara” meaning begging, popularly referred to as Almajiri (a student seeking knowledge) or Almajirai (plural)


Looking at the story of a boy, Alhasan, born in Bebeji, Kano Emirate in 1877, his father, Abdullahi died when he was eight. His mother, Amarya, then left for Accra, Ghana and left her children in the care of a foster mother named Tata. Tata sent young Alhassan to an Almajiri school in Bebeji, where he worked and learned from a Tijaniyya Malam. At the age of 17, Alhasan went to Accra to see his mother, who promptly took him to another Malam. After a year or two, he returned to Bebeji, to his foster mother, Tata, where he learned thrift, and from his Malam at the Almajiri School, he learnt some skills and hard work. This knowledge, he put to work, working the trade routes that were opening up in that brave new world of British rule. By 1906, Alhasan was using steamships to move merchandise between Accra, Sekondi and Lagos. By the time Alhasan Dantata died, he was the wealthiest man in West Africa. He was the great-grandfather of Aliko Dangote, the present Richest Man in African, and he had been an Almajiri.


The word Almajiri is derived from the Arabic “Al muhajirun”, “an immigrant”. It usually refers to a person or student who migrates from his home to a popular teacher in the quest for Islamic knowledge. This is the basis of the Almajiri system in what became Northern Nigeria Almajiri System of Education. Almajiri means a student seeking knowledge and not a beggar as popularly believed. History has shown that this system started as early as in the 11th century as a result of the involvement of Borno rulers in Qur'anic literacy.  Before British colonization, a system called Tsangaya prevailed in the Kanem-Borno Empire. It was established as an organized and comprehensive system of education for learning Islamic principles, values, jurisprudence and theology. Over seven hundred years later, the Sokoto Caliphate (Dan-Fodio) was funded principally through an Islamic revolution based on the teachings of the Holy Qur'an.  These two empires run similar Qur'anic learning systems which over time came to be known as the Almajiri System. Under the system, during the pre-colonial days, the pupils lived with their parents for moral upbringing.  All the schools were located within the immediate environment from where the pupils came from.  The Dan-Fodio revolution brought with it some modifications; the establishment of an inspectorate of Qur'anic literacy. 


The inspectors reported directly to the Emir of the province, concerning all matters relating to the school.  It was argued that this period, was the height of Qur'anic education in northern Nigeria. The schools were maintained by the state funding, communities, the parents’ 'Zakat', 'Waqf' and supplemented by the teachers and students through farming.  "Bara or begging" as it is known today, is completely unheard of.  Teachers and their students (Almajirai), in return, provide the community with Islamic Education, reading and writing the Qur'an, in addition, 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, could read and write Ajami with a complete way of life, governance, customs, traditional craft, trade and even the mode of the tax collection system. That was the reason why the British included Ajami in the Nigerian currency (naira) so that people could read it. The students were at liberty to acquire skills in between their Islamic lessons, and so were involved in trades such as trading, farming, fishing, trading and masonry, among others. Many were the farmers who produce formed the famous groundnut pyramids in Kano. After colonization, the Almajiris were recruited by the British as miners in Jos. The system also produced judges, clerks, and teachers who provided the colonial administration with the needed staff. The first set of colonial staff in Northern Nigeria was provided by the Almajiri schools.


The Destruction of the Almajiri System

The coming of the British to the north invaded and conquered the region and killed many of the emirs and deposed some. Consequently, the Emirs lost control of their territories and the Almajiri system; and accepted their new roles, as mere traditional rulers.  The British intentionally terminated state funding for the Almajiri system arguing that they were mere religious schools. With the loss of support from the government, its direct community and the helpless Emirs, the Almajiri system collapsed and “Karatun Boko”, western education was introduced and funded instead.  The pupils, and their Malams, having no financial support for a pro-long period, resorted to begging for survival. Animosity and antagonism grew, worsened by the belief that western education was of Christian-European origin and therefore anti-Islamic. Fears grew that children with Western education would eventually lose their Islamic identity. The Malams (teachers) increasingly sent their students out to beg. To make ends meet, some of these Malams began to impose “kudin sati”, a form of weekly fees, on the students, reassuring them that to beg was better than to steal. The students in their turn swam into society with no bearing. This was the genesis of the predicament of the Almajiri system today.


The Current Practice Almajiri in Nigeria

A UNICEF report from 2014 put the number of Almajiri in Nigeria at 9.5 million, or 72 percent of the country’s 13.2 million out-of-school children. This is a disaster, as some estimates claim that the number of out of school children in the country has risen past the 15 million marks, more of them in the North. One can imagine 9.5 million potential lawyers, judges, accountants, engineers, doctors, chemists etc. being wasted away.  Under normal circumstances, the Almajiri education system is important in that it inculcates in the young ones the teachings and practices of the Islamic faith.  To underscore its relevance in the effort to expose young people to literacy at an early age, the system has produced outstanding scholars and personalities in areas that Islam is dominant, including political leaders and businessmen, for example, Alhassan Dantata. So, the argument is not about the quality and appropriateness of that system of education but the way and manner it is being practiced in the country today which has led to the once beautiful system assuming pejorative connotations. The system as it is today has outlived its usefulness.  The system lacks good teachers and a fairly healthy environment.  The standards are very low because of the emergence of half-baked semi-illiterate Qur'anic Malams who use the system as a means of living rather than a way of life itself.  It is easily observable also, that due to lack of an outright absence of regulatory supervision, the system is bastardized as most of the teachers (Malams) have deviated from the real intent and purpose of the Almajiri system. What is present in the psyche of the average Nigerian is the image of tattered-looking children who ordinarily should be in school carrying bowls singing and begging for food and money. The pupils struggle to cater for themselves and to support the Malams; which takes most of the time rather than engage in learning.  Society and the parents have abdicated their obligations of properly caring for and educating their children. These bowl-carrying children have now become so ubiquitous in almost all nooks and corners of the Northern states, and even in the southern states. “God has given us these children in trust and given us guides on how to raise them and we shall surely be judged accordingly”, in the meantime, however, there seems to be a conspiracy of silence between the parents, authorities and the society at large.  For the parents, the system provides an outlet, and drainage for the excess children at home (one man without means of livelihood having thirty or more children), for the authorities, it is a relief that they do not have to budget for about 9.5 million Almajiri children's education and welfare.  As for the elites, arguably, they care less as long as their children are not involved. It is worrisome, with the increase in population in the north; it appears as if the Northern states of Nigeria have a monopoly of 'Bara'.  Young and old, able and disabled have taken to streets, permanently, legitimizing begging on a socio-economic and religious basis. 


Furthermore, the Almajiri system has now become a matter of great concern as children of school age roam the streets aimlessly. As a result, the potential of these children is never harnessed, and the chances of their unique talent ever being discovered are in the nadir. Instead of learning the Holy Qur’an, the Almajiri now spends most of his time begging on the streets to sustain himself and his Malam. Besides, the Almajirai do not have any form of formal education, and once they reach the voting age, they end up voting for politicians who give them the most in terms of material things: food, money; during campaigns. Unfortunately, this is the same for most people in Northern Nigeria because of the high rate of illiteracy.


According to a National Literacy Survey (2010)[6 years and above] which was carried out by the National Bureau of Statistics, the literacy rates of the nineteen Northern states and the Federal Capital Territory were as follows: Borno (14.5%), Katsina (21.7%), Taraba (23.3%), Jigawa (24.2%), Kebbi (25.3%), Yobe (26.6%), Kaduna (29.3%), Sokoto (30.1%), Kogi (33.5%), Zamfara (33.9%), Bauchi (34.1%), Niger (37.5%), Gombe (39.3%), Adamawa (40.5%), Nasarawa (41.9%), Benue (45.1%), Plateau (46.6%), Kano (48.9%), Kwara (49.3%) and the Federal Capital Territory (61.4%). Lacking education, the gullible Almajirai would go to any extent to do the bidding of any person who shows them kindness, love, and provides for them. They are at the mercy of corrupt politicians who deploy them to perpetrate election malpractice and political violence.


From a regional perspective, the north spans 660,000 km² (255,000 sq. miles) while the total surface area of Nigeria was 923,800 km² (356,700 sq. miles), measured in 2015, according to the World Bank; and according to the Nigerian Demographic and Health Survey of 2008, population increase is highest in the northern region due to high total fertility rate (TFR), (north-central – 5.4, north-east – 7.2, and north-west – 7.3); whereas in the South-East – 4.8, south-south – 4.7 and south-west – 4.5. For example, Nigeria's population in 2012 by geographical zones as computed by World Economic Forum (WEF) showed that the South-South has 24.8 million; South-East, 19.3 million; South-West 33.1 million; North-West 44.2 million; North-East 23.3 million; North-Central 24.7 million; making northern zones population be 92.2 Million and the other zones combined is 77.2 million, thereby making a total population of Nigeria 169.4 million as at 2012. In 2020, the Nigerian population is estimated to be more than 200 million and the population is projected to grow more than 392 million in 2050, becoming the world’s fourth most populous country. Nigeria’s sustained high population growth rate will continue for the foreseeable future because of population momentum high birth rate. A fertility rate is a measure of the average number of children that women will bear during their lifetime and is dependent on many factors and social circumstances, such as cultures, traditions, religion, education and the overall level of development of the particular society or community. Also, the age of entry into a union and the availability of contraception are two key proximate determinants of fertility.


Islamic Scholars and Western Education to be harmonized

This forecast on population growth and the phenomenon of Almajiri represents a scar on the face of Northern Nigeria.  Nothing could be more degrading and further from the truth.  People should not give birth to children knowing they have no means to support them; Islam enjoins man to work, to use his brain and hands to make a living for himself and supports his family. As the system is currently being practiced today, lots of the children never make it.  Some are lost through violence in the streets, some through child stealing, while others are lost through diseases and hunger and sadly, most through recruitment as suicide bombers, banditry and terrorism.  Those who make it usually complete the reading of the Holy Qur'an and eventually became petty-traders, drivers, and labourers etc. 


Those who could not make it are condemned to other menial jobs, since they have no skills or western education at hand.  They resort to wheelbarrow pushing, touting and so on.  They remain as untrained armies available to anybody poised to ferment trouble.  Looking back at the basis of the Almajiri system, and the years of mistrust that have coincided with its decline and eventual failure, it is clear that the leaders including the Islamic scholars in the north have a lot of work to do. There is a connection between Islamic and Western education, and it is the duties of the leaders to find it, and urgently. Because those Almajiris that have been lost through violence in the streets have their axes to grind against their parents, authorities and the society at large. The alternative of not doing anything about this is too chilling to contemplate.


Conversely, the government may need to build more Almajiri Model High Schools so that it would be able to accommodate all the Almajirai. It is necessary that the Federal Government strictly ensures that these schools are properly funded, supervised and maintained. There should also be the proper mobilization of qualified and dedicated personnel. Besides the aforementioned, the government should embark on public enlightenment campaigns so people in rural areas are aware of the importance of education, and are motivated to send their children to school. Governments at all levels should make concerted efforts to return the Almajirai to their states of origin where they would be reunited with their families. It is imperative that the government collaborate with the private sector to not only enlighten the parents of the Almajirai on their parental responsibilities and obligations but also help to bring about a safe, misery-free environment in which these children may thrive.


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