In February 2022, 11-year-old Hassan Abubakar, whose parents reside in Bauchi State, took him to far away Kaduna State as an Almajiri child and left him under the care of an Islamic scholar at a Tsangaya school. In this school, they learn the Koran and Islamic law under the guidance of a Mallam.
Before being taken to Kaduna, Abubakar spent three years in Borno as an Almajiri child. But he didn’t learn much; instead, he was made to roam the streets of Maiduguri, knocking on doors and begging for food.
“We were assigned to read only in the morning, around 4 to 6 AM. After that, everyone has to walk his way into the town to look for what to eat,” Abubakar said.
Abubakar looked unkempt. So in October 2022, when their teacher relocated to the Niger Republic, the children had to return to their parents.
“I didn’t have transport money. I had to beg drivers and the Road Transport Union workers,” Abubakar said.
When he returned home, he didn’t stay long. His parents, who are farmers, felt that he didn’t learn much and so sent him on another voyage to Kaduna.
Two months after he arrived at Kinkinau in Kaduna, Abubakar, who dreams of someday becoming a doctor, found a house where he could do chores in exchange for food and money. That was how he survived.
“The woman in the house told me to come every morning to run errands for her because her children will be at school during that time,” Abubakar explained to Prime Progress.
He hopes to be like her children someday, “I enjoy seeing other children walk to school. I wish I can also join them someday,” he said.
The exploited system
In rural Northern Nigeria, children aged 12 to 17 are dragged by their parents to nearby villages and put under the care of a Muslim scholar to guide and teach them about Islam.
While there, their parents, who have entrusted them to the scholars, are meant to foot the bills for their feeding and any other expenses they incur. But most times, they don’t, leaving the children helpless.
In other communities, the children do not need to travel. They either learn from their father, mother, siblings or a close relative capable of teaching. For such families, it is only when such a child seems not to understand the lessons from home that they are sent away.
In urban cities, the practice is distinct. The children sometimes combine teaching under the Mallam with attending regular schools.
In the last decade, the practice has come under heavy scrutiny, especially with its links to the rise in child begging, abuse and trafficking.
Many say the Almajiri system has shifted from a child seeking knowledge under the guidance of a scholar to producing an army of underage beggars on the streets, living in squalid conditions.
Need for change
There has been a clamour for the system to change. According to data from UNICEF, Nigeria is home to 20 million out-of-school children, with many of them in the north of the country. This is despite basic education being free in the country.
A campaigner for the reforming of the system, Zainab Nafi’u Bello, said there might need to be a total rethink of the whole Almajiri system, as it needs to adopt standard curriculums where the children can learn even western education, wear good uniforms, and be provided with a conducive atmosphere.
“There is a need to build schools for the Almajiri in the form of boarding schools, where everything there should be in formal settings-From the admissions process and students register to contain all vital information about the child being admitted into the school,” she told Prime Progress.
Also, there is a need to educate parents of these children on the risk of allowing them to roam the streets without access to education while sensitising them on the merit of having only children they can cater for.
Even the scholars who are supposed to guide the children also need to be sensitised to put the effort in seeing that they provide them not only with Islamic education but also allow for a balance of Western education to better their lives.
When all this is done, the government can freely bring out its hammer and sanction all who go in variance to their directives.