SUNDAY NARRATIVE: ALMAJIRI: Scary Figures That Don’t Lie



LAST Sunday, The Guardian did a Special Report on the Almajiris of Kano State, which was a good representation of what obtains in the North. What you see happening to those young boys in Kano is the same that happens to boys in other core states of the North, Kano, however, pulls far larger numbers. That story was not planned for, in the manner we normally do, by making it an issue at weekly editorial meetings. It was not even discussed. What happened was that there was an invitation for a roundtable on almajiri issues; their exploitation as a pool of unskilled labor and what to do to ensure they are not further exploited to add to the insecurity challenges in the North.

A very genuine cause, but whether the summons to deliberate is timely enough is another matter. It was at the instance of Justice Development and Peace/Caritas Advocates (JDPCA) and the Resources Centre for Human Rights and Civic Education (CHRICED). The reporter, who put together the story, was supposed to attend the round table, which was a one-day event. As usual, the venue was some cozy place, to enable participants to think creatively and proffer solutions to an old social ailment. But the reporter was not satisfied with just doing the talk, he decided to go and see some almajiris at their learning places (Quranic School) under some teachers (Mallams). Just a few hours of roaming fetched the detailed story of what millions of our young boys go through in their very formative and highly impressionable years. The reporter went the extra mile; he showed passion.

The almajiri story is an old and familiar one and telling it over and again is at the risk of it being clichéd. But the good thing this time is that some of the boys got the opportunity to say a few things about their condition. Some do not know their names and could not remember where they came from; some do not mind their station because that is what they have now. Some of the boys, as young as three, four years were brought there by parents who did not leave any money behind for their upkeeps. They are expected to do menial jobs and beg for food when they are not in session.

From reading that story, I had a sense of child abandonment by parents, who are assisted to do so by a willing adult society. The children, sometimes, numbering in the fifties and hundreds, are left in the hands of one Mallam, who is not a child expert, and does not receive the subvention from parents or government. He operates his classes from makeshift apartments, and there are no purpose-built dormitories for the children to retire after a grueling session; no sanitation, no clinic to attend to their health needs. No kitchen to supply their meals, rich in minerals and essential vitamins. They just wake up, not knowing what each day has in the offing. They have no beds to sleep on, just some rags to tie around the body and doze off at one corner of their so-called classroom. They do not have the luxury of sleeping under mosquito nets. There is no career guidance here, because the education they receive is informal, no skills acquisition, just recitations.

If you have encountered these boys, their entitlements are just the bowl and the wooden slate they write on. They have no other possessions. They are the face of the poverty that we talk about. Most times, they are given leftover foods, which they devour angrily. They do not bother to wash hands afterwards because that would be a waste. They lick fingers and dry-clean them in the air.

What we are told is that Kano State alone has three million almajiri children out there, going through a daily routine that has no definition apart from roaming and begging for food. A few days after the said publication, former governor Rabiu Musa Kwankawso went to town to offer an explanation on how his nebulous Kwankwasiyya political philosophy touched lives in the state. As usual, he went circumlocutory and vacuous, wasting valuable newspaper space. He could not explain what part of his states’ budgets in eight years was channeled towards transforming almajiri schools and granting scholarships for the boys. Other privileged children are sent overseas at the expense of the state; they are to be pilots and doctors. But the almajiris remain where they are for decades.

Scholars have researched and books have been written, but the problem persists. Some people are benefitting from keeping these boys out there in the streets, and they know themselves. One of them is Kwankwaso. He said because the wife of former president Jonathan, Patience, recklessly told the truth during the campaigns about the street children of the North, they were going to use them to chase her out of Aso Rock. The political class is benefitting from keeping the boys perpetually clueless so that they do not aspire beyond being uneducated voters.

The Nigerian State owes these children better life. It is not about giving them food to eat. Those children are budgeted for every year, even though funds are never enough. Their education to a certain age is the responsibility of government, which the Constitution endorses, but these children and their poor parents are never told the truth. It pays Kano State government to continue to give them handouts during festive seasons than to keep them compulsorily in schools. If by the time they are through with their basic education and they want to graduate into Islamic studies, let it be their choice, not that of an absentee government.

In case these street children even prefer the Quranic lessons so early in life, let state governments take over the schools and furnish them with boarding facilities, childcare experts, and career counselors to make clear to them the choices they could make and the opportunities they could ignite. We are told that some parents, apparently informed, and of average means, allow their children to have both Quranic and formal education side by side. They do not surrender to the drudgery and brainwashing that comes with total abandonment.

When some persons became hard to put to explain the carnage in the Northeast, they blamed the Federal Government for failing to provide jobs for the youths, who had taken up arms against the State. They did not see state governments and the political class that perpetuates decades of injustice against these innocent boys called almajiris. Anybody who survives the streets in the manner of the boys will be a hard nut and a bone in the neck of society. They will make you pay for the cruelty of governments.

Going forward, I suggest that we quickly reform their education and state governments should take over their scholarship. Kaduna State has declared free and compulsory education at the basic level. We hope that is not a political statement. Kano State should do a census of the street boys and negotiate with fellow state governors to arrange for their repatriation. Every state should use their budgets to take care of their children. The Federal Government under Jonathan has done some pilot model Almajiri Schools, just like we used to have Nomadic Education. This is the time to reawaken and fund such special needs. Kwankwaso said herdsmen should be educated and that is a good thing to say. But state governments should play their own part and stop abdicating.

We are told too that Kano Emirate Council has been very good to the almajiris, by feeding 200 of them every day; as well as entrenched a system of Zakat (alms) collection and redistributing to the poor.

That is very good and kind of the Emirate. But I will ask our debonair Emir Sanusi to review that old system. Those boys do not just need food; they need to go to school. They may not go to schools in London, but they have to attend good schools here at home, like Kings College, Lagos. They need family life; they will be too happy to be shown in the newspapers sitting with their parents and siblings, wearing fine clothes, not rags. They are children too, with blood in their veins. They are not aliens.

Parents of the Emirate should be talked to on the importance of family life. Men should be preached to on the need to cut their cloth according to its size. The political class, the traditional rulers should be told that it is a sin to surrender children of poor people to an uncertain life while theirs attend the best schools in the world. Isn’t our Northeast a bad enough example?

  • okbaba

    Thanks Mr Williams for this timely piece.
    So long as there is free oil money to exploit, with the crumbs occasionally going to these hapless youths, the political class will never see reason in advancing the potentials of these human resources beyond the ritual of garnering their votes. So long as Kwankwaso and his ilks are guaranteed of winning elections with the almajiri numbers, the status quo remains. He has moved on after winning election and making huge mockery of what the past government did in that direction.

    I was in Kano last time, and the best I saw going for the almajiris is the near takeover of the roads by the ubiquitous “keke” – poverty alleviation really.

    Beyond these irredeemable politicians, I can only count on the urbane emir of Kano to take the bull by the horn.



  • Anthony Akinola

    Good piece, very honest truth.