‘Almajiranci’– a literary perspective

Almajiri, Children in school

Statistics can be scary. But because they are largely abstract, we move on after a brief moment of shock or excitement.

A survey jointly conducted by the Nigerian government and the global children’s rights humanitarian agency UNICEF released frightening figures last year, detailing out-of-school-children across the country. Over 69 per cent of such children, wandering aimlessly, in permanent destitution, are in northern Nigeria.

Bauchi State has the highest with 1.1 million out-of-school-children, followed by Katsina state whose streets are littered with 782,500 children; who survive on perpetual uncertainty. The survey puts out-of-school-children in the country at 13.2 million.

Surveys are always based on sampling. Therefore, a census of out-of-school children in Nigeria can turn out more shocking figures. If children are leaders of tomorrow and millions of them in the north are out of school, it is very easy to predict what the future may look like. But now, let us leave the future to the future, and deal with the present.
 
It is a welcome development that President Muhammadu Buhari resolved to address the issue of ‘Almajiranci.’ According to media reports, the federal government is aiming at eliminating the problem of out-of-school children, by working with state governments to ensure that every child has access to education. This is laudable.
 
A staggering number of children-out-of-school in the north always triggers debate on ‘Almajiranci,’ and the future of this region. Such debates have always been ranging from idealistic to shallow and simplistic. From whatever perspective one may look at this problem, it is important to note that sending children, away from home in search of knowledge of the Holy Qur’an is a strong cultural tradition across the north.

Despite this many believe ‘Almajiranci’ has outlived its usefulness. It is now, some say, a byword for hungry, shoeless and dejected children who roam streets of northern cities, urban towns and villages in rag, bearing plastic begging bowls – and with much vacancy on their faces. Many of those who are assumed to be ‘Almajirai’ today are orphans. Many are sent out to beg by their parents – blaming poverty.

Many parents send their children on ‘Almajiranci with the expectation that the system can turn them into good persons. Many are children whose parents let them into the world in childhood because the parents could not give them an upbringing. In some cases, it is a way of escaping from a vital responsibility – parenting. The system deprives millions of children of childhood. Such children may not have a future – and the future may not have a place for them.  
 
Let us look at how the society failed ‘Almajirai. It is true that some ‘Malams’ give such children ‘begging quota’ daily. Failure to meet daily targets is punished with severe beating or something even more cruel. Many take advantage of ‘Almajirai’ and use them as domestic servants without any feeling of guilt. The society excluded them from everything.

A visit to a typical ‘Tsangaya’ shows a grim picture of squalor and suffering. When they beg for food one can clearly see hunger on their faces. When a person gives them shoes they use them because they need them. Above all, it is parents of such children who let them down, in the first place.
 
Many volumes of academic work have been written on ‘Almajiranci’ and many think tanks and scholars have written a lot about it. Many workshops have taken place. Ulama, scholars and leaders have been talking about the importance of tackling ‘Almajiranci’ in order to safeguard the future and rescue millions of children from having life without a future, without clear prospects.

To address this problem government and the society must work together, by involving traditional rulers, Ulama and influential persons. Addressing this problem has to start with uniting every ‘Almajiri’ with his parents. Those who are orphans should be provided with a safe social space to attend school. The ‘Tsangaya’ that can eliminate ‘Bara’ (begging) should be given incentives to do so.

Poor parents who can keep their children in schools must be given a welfare support tied to school attendance. Islamic clerics must be involved in a long-term campaign to upgrade on the need to address ‘Almajiranci. ‘Tsangaya’ should be encouraged to incorporate western education. States with high out-of-school children must show concrete commitment to free basic education. But all these are only possible if there are enough schools, with enough classrooms, and trained early education teachers to cater for children taken off the streets. This is only possible if the resolve of government to address the problem has support of the whole society.
 
Cheik Hamidou Kane, the Senegalese writer whose work Ambiguous Adventure (1961) dealt with the dilemma of bringing up a child in the context of African culture, Islam and western influence best describes where northern Nigeria is today. Early in life, the main character of this epic novel Samba Diallo goes through tough religious education.

At a point, his family is divided over whether to send him to western school or not. Many of those who support ‘offering’ him for western education believe he needs it to survive in a modern world. Some of those who insist he should stay through the tradition of his family by becoming an Islamic scholar view western education with suspicion.

The novel is full of arguments about realism; the need to survive here on earth by inevitably embracing modern ways, so that one can work to earn a better afterlife. This novel is, at the same time, all about how children are brought up. Samba Diallo is a good Muslim even while studying philosophy in Paris. He reads Pascal and observes five daily prayers.

Although Samba Diallo is learning Islamic religious knowledge, he also has to beg to sustain himself. But sustenance, in a modern society means acquiring skills – which can only be done at that time through western education.

The novel argues about acquiring religious knowledge and learning to live and survive in this world. Importantly, there is a character in the novel who is only referred to as “Fool.” He appears as the guardian of Diallobe culture; he is the symbol of what may happen when one is cut off from modernity, which can as well mean reality. The Fool killed Samba Diallo in an attempt to safeguard tradition. Calling that character “Fool” carries a lot of meaning.

An attempt to protect the traditions of the Diallobe aristocracy is put in the hands of a man who is better described as mad. The ‘Fool’ could not see the other side of the coin. He is so foolish that he only sees one way; the way of traditions.

What the Diallobe society faces in the novel may sound similar to what the Hausa society has gone through, and is largely still going through now.

In this article:
AlmajiranciBauchiDiallobe
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