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Around noon sometime in April 2021, Salisu* was sitting under the shade of a mango tree to ease himself off from the Sokoto sun. When this reporter approached him, evidence of hunger and how he had so much longed for food were written on his face. Salisu* looks pre-teen, averagely 6 to 7 years old but confesses that he doesn’t know his age, though it has been 6 years since he claimed his parents dumped him in Almajiri school.
Salisu* is from Zabarmawa, part of Sokoto. Ever since his parents came to dump in Almajiri school, he is usually only opportune to go home during the Sallah festival. When asked how many are in the Almajiri school, he only estimated the numbers of his colleagues, saying, “We are up to 150, 120, 100. However, we used to recite the Quran every morning.”
“No, 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*, Abba* was also hungry when this reporter encountered him. He kept mentioning hunger whenever I posed a question to him, which led me to ask why he was not fasting (observing Ramadan).
Abba reveals he is not fasting because he had eaten nothing for “Sahur” (pre-dawn meal for fasting). He appeared to be in his 20s, and he explained that after leaving Almajiri school, he will start a business and get married, or become a soldier or a security guard.
He estimates that they are up to 200 under his Mallam, and what they wear, how they survive is being assisted by some private individuals or NGOs. For Abba*, the more you give Mallam a gift be it food or cash, the more love you earned from him. When asked why he is not going to school despite free education, he said “My father didn’t put me there.”
Adamu* is a skin-lighted fellow with a piercing look. He said, for now, they are not working, they only fetch water and put it inside the house of Mallam. Adamu* claimed his father is a farmer and his mother, a trader. Adamu* was 10 years old when he was brought into the Almajiri system but now he is 13 years old. Adamu claims to be from Tuluwa part of Sokoto.
“Mallam is not giving food, father sometimes is not giving food and we only rely on begging. During the rainy season, we used to go to the farm of Mallam. Sometimes, the rule is that if you don’t go to the farm, you won’t be given food.”
Most of these Almajiri children nowadays could be seen in public places such as filling stations, malls, motor-parks, and places similar to cinemas with bowls— struggling to survive.
One Almajiri child is seen trying to make an end either by selling the firewood or using it to cook.
Under the 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 137,430 naira ($381.75) per year.
More so, fewer than half of 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 500 naira ($1.30) a month in fees.”
Issues revolving around the practice of Almajiri, include child destitution, child trafficking and manifestations in child begging.
Meeting Mallam Muhammad of “Makaranta Muhammadiya”
The sun was fiercely gazing at Mallam Muhammad’s arena, there were wooden tablets with Arabic inscriptions thereon, and smiling unwashed faces of little children. Also, the grown up Almajiri children can be referred to as “matured Almajiri children”.
Mallam Muhammad, Almajiri teacher
Mallam Muhammad is the owner of one of Almajiri schools in Sokoto, named Makaranta Muhammadiya.
“I’m Mallam Muhammad, I believe God give me reward for what I’m doing. I don’t know how many boys there are.” He says, with his wrinkles showing out his state of joy. He continued: “Their parents used to come to check on them sometimes. After they finish and leave here, they would go and start business. They can only leave here if only God wishes; God is their timer.”
Mallam Muhammad Almajiri children’s hostel for sleeping with their belongings hanged on the wall.
“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.” While narrating with so much energy and excitement on his face, he claims that the government doesn’t have hands in the system because it has been an old age long practice.
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.”
It saddens me that most of these children nowadays are carrying their “own crosses”. These children could be seen in Northern Nigeria as beggars, embarking on menial works, or be 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 labour, including in private businesses. Most of these children are stuck in different forms of forced labour, despite international conventions prohibiting it.
“Children… are what they called Amana; they are a gift from God Almighty”
While speaking with Barrister Safiyyah Mohammed, a Sokoto based legal pundit and a lecturer from Department of Public Law and Jurisprudence, Faculty of Law, Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto, she 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 universal basic education 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.”
Before speaking on the part of Mallams, Barrister Safiyyah reveals one of the reasons for the non-domestication of CRA to be religious in nature. According to her, she said “There are differences between Western and Islamic culture values, so this has led to concern of non-domestication of CRA Sokoto state and other northern states.” She, however, lamented 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.”
While speaking on the part of parents, Barrister Safiyyah explained that one of the key issues regarding 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 far away 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 Zero”
In an interview with Zainab Yunusa, a co-convener and assistant field officer with Almajiri Child Right Initiative (ACRI) Sokoto Chapter, she reveals how the organisation has been implementing its mission on the eradication or reformation of the Almajiri system, reiterating some difficulties on the part of the state government.
Zainab and Almajiri Child
Almajiri Child Right Initiative (ACRI) is a non-governmental organization initiated by Mr. 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 expresses 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 Honourable Commissioner for Youth and Sports, Honourable Bashir Gorau was contacted, he hanged the phone— saying he is not in the right position for that and questions should be channeled to the right authorities.
* names changed to protect identity.
Wriiten by Hammed J. Sulaiman
This Investigative Report is supported by Orodata Science