ALMAJIRI: The Story Of Nigeria’s Street Children Up North


Class session in one of the Quranic schools in Rimi-Kebbi, Kano State PHOTOS BY GBENGA SALAU

STORIES around Almajiri children in Nigeria’ northern states sound like fairy tales, but it is the reality. Babayo is an Almajiri, he left Kebbi State is home of birth for Kano State to acquire Quranic knowledge. He does not know his age and surname, but he could not be more than eight years old. He has been in Kano for about three years now, not with his parents or any relative. He is with a mallam who teaches him the Quran.


he first time Babayo met the mallam, who is not a relative, was the last time he saw his mother, who brought him to Kano from Kebbi State. His mother did not make provisions for how he would eat daily and for his upkeeps, and has never sent money since they saw last three years ago. The mallam teaching him the Quran also has no capacity to cater for his daily needs.

So, how does he feed in the last three years? Babayo said he relies on God to provide for his needs. How does God do that, he said he begs and do menial jobs. Babayo, who has a small yellow plastic bowl wrapped under his arms, was not wearing a shoe, though had a cloth on that has seen many seasons, but which also like his body, had not been washed, probably in the last two months. This is besides that the cloth is torn. His pair of trousers are not of equal length and a different shade from the buba top he had on and if not that he had them on, they could easily have passed for a rag.

Babayo is just one of the three million Almajiri children in Kano State, milling around Quranic schools where they learn for five days in a week and attend classes four times in a day. On Thursdays and Fridays, in Kano, these children in the different Quranic schools are unleashed on the community where they beg, do manual jobs and help in running errands with the hope of being paid in cash or kind, including eating remnants of foods.

So, on Thursdays or Fridays, these dirty clad children, in groups, especially those from 14 years and below walk round the city of Kano, from morning to night, not to spread the gospel of the Quran, but with a bowl in hand that serves two purposes. It is to collect donations and gifts from sympathisers and when they are hungry, serves as a container to eat the food bought, donated or remnant collected. As they wander through the streets, occasionally, they stop at points where food is sold; hoping the seller or buyer gives them a share. Also, as they walk through the streets, they ask residents who they think could give them something or money, if they could assist in doing any task or go on errand. After eating, the bowl is cleaned with the cloth the Almajari has on and he moves on, walking the streets looking for what next to eat and drink.


Almajiri… roaming the streets of Kano (inset), Sani Idris

At the Quranic centre, which also serves as home, during the learning hour, it is usually a rowdy session with chants filling the atmosphere. That there are more than one class is reflected in the sitting arrangement, not a class walled off, or even a chalkboard, as those who belong to the same class sit facing one direction, while another backs them and a third group facing the second class. And as they recite their lessons, no distinct sound is heard; it is a cacophony of chants. Following the lip movement of some of the students, it appears as if they are just chopping their mouth and nodding their head without committing anything to memory. As they learn, they have their slates and bowls by their side. Their teacher standing and who occasionally walks round to monitor the students is with a long cane, which he hits on any child perceived not attentive. At the back of the learning centre are bags hanging on nails fixed to the wall or placed on a shelf. When night falls, the young ones, mostly those under ten, use the same venue, an open space, with a gutter running through a section of it, as place to rest their heads, some sleep on the floor, the lucky ones have mats.

Another of these boys, Ibrahim Sani, ten years old, is from Bichi Local Government of Kano State. He got enrolled into the Quranic School by his parents, but if he wanted it then, not any more. This is because when he was asked how he is feels now two years after, he looked away from the interviewer, bowed his head and when he looked up, tears streamed down his eyes. And it was in the presence of one of his teachers, often called mallam. This terminated the interview, as the mallam asked him to go away.

But if Sani is not happy that he is in an Almajiri, not for Musa Ibrahim, who is also from Bichi Local Government. Ibrahim, 22, has been an Almajiri in the last eight years. His parents enrolled him into a Quranic School, after completing his primary education. Having spent eight years, asked when he is graduating, Ibrahim went spiritual, saying, “it is God that will decide when I leave here because it is God that dictates man’s destiny.” If he finally graduates, what does he plan to do with the knowledge being acquired? Ibrahim is also clueless about what next after graduating from the school, as he also believes God will decide the job he would do when he takes a bow.

Though Ibrahim was averagely well dressed, that is not because his parents provided for him, neither was it a product of the generosity of his mallam. It is through hard labour and kindness of some residents of Kano. To feed and have clothes on his body, on Thursdays and Fridays that there are no Quran classes, he goes to the market to do menial jobs for his upkeeps. According to him, he makes between N400 and N500 on the average each time he goes out for manual work.

On the claim that they are expected to make returns to their mallams from the proceeds of their menial jobs and begging, he said it is not a compulsion, as those who give, do that to appreciate the efforts of their teachers who are not paid by their parents. His love for this tradition of education, he said, is why he would encourage his children to attend Quranic School too.

Usman Yussuphu, 20 years, from Kastina State, came to Kano three years ago for Quranic education but that was the second time he would leave home to learn the Quran. He was attending a Quranic school somewhere in Kastina State, where he had spent a year, but left for Kano because he wanted to concentrate and learn better. Since he came to Kano, he has not visited home and neither had his parents showed up. He has never attended any formal school and for him, those who attend formal education are doing so because they wanted it and he has chosen to attend a Quranic School.


Another set of Almajiri children roaming the streets of Kano

Sani Idris used to be an Almajiri. His uncle enrolled him into a Quranic school because he did not like formal education. So, Idris spent four years before he called it quit. Those four years were a tortuous experience for him. He discontinued his primary education abruptly to get enrolled in the Quranic School. He was not happy while he learned the Quran. He was however lucky that though his father was indifferent; especially because he did not want to offend his uncle who suggested the idea, his mother was adamant that getting his son into the Almajiri way was not the best. This, he said, was why any time there is any lapses or issue; his mother would use that opportunity to demand that he discontinued the programme. He said there was a dingdong between his mother and uncle, because any time his mother went to pick him from his learning centre, his uncle would take him back, until finally he became terribly sick and his mother came to pick him and vowed he would never return. While there, Idris was lucky, because unlike other children who must beg or engage in some tasks before they eat, his uncle always visited every two weeks or monthly. But, it is not the quantity of the food (garri and kulikuli) and money that his uncle brought that was handed over to him. He said when he knew, neither his uncle nor him could complain; he actually begged his uncle not to complain, because if his uncle did, the mallam would beat hell out of him.

After he stopped attending the Quranic School, the mother needed to enrol him into a formal school, but she was told that his son who was in primary three when he withdrew to begin the Quranic education full time could not return to primary three again, but primary one. So, Ibrahim said he lost seven years, despite that he did not learn anything in his four years there, because all he did was to feign he was reciting the Quran, by nodding his head and moving his mouth to avoid being flogged by his mallam.

Mallam Gambo Abdulkarim manages one of the Quranic schools in Rimi Kebbi, Kano State, which was established by Mallam Baba Abdulkarim about 30 years ago. The school started from Tundun Muritala area of Kano.

Abdulkarim, a father of four, said there is no time frame for a student to learn the Quran under him. Rather, it is the capacity of the student to assimilate and memorise that determines when he graduates.

Abdulkarim has about 500 children under his care learning the Quran and majority of them are not attending any formal school. He said those that attend formal schools are the ones whose parents approved that they should combine formal education with learning the Quran and that arrangement is only for children whose parents are within the vicinity of the learning centre and are not fully under his care.

However, Abdulkarim has enrolled his four biological children in a formal school and they only participate in Quranic recitation after normal school hours. Since the parents of the children under him do not pay for the service he renders, how does he cater for their needs, he said they provide for themselves through begging and engaging in manual jobs, usually on Thursdays and Fridays. He said they needed to do that to be able to take care of themselves. He also said that while the young ones sleep in the learning centre, the mature students get an accommodation, which is usually at no cost from neighbours.

So how does he feed his immediate family, he said it is God that owns the school and so would always provide to ensure that the school keeps running. He said God has always provided. He also said that he gets support from those he prays for, especially when the prayer is answered.

Speaking on the challenges of managing the children, he said some of them are just too stubborn, would run away from school to be street children engaging in social vices, only to return when the Police is after them for criminal activities, especially if the Police demanded to know where they live and who their parents are.


Classroom of one of the Quranic Schools in Kano

Hassan Muhammad claims he is fourteen years old, from Kano State but with no idea which of the local governments in the state he comes from. He also said he has spent about ten years learning the Quran. He said he stays with his cousin whose rented apartment is within the compound housing the Almajiri School. According to him, since he left his parents about ten years ago that was the last time he saw them and does not even know them and where they are. He said it is the woman he stays with that feeds him. He said he is willing to meet his parents, as the treatment he gets from the Quranic School is not pleasant and wishes to leave. He also wishes he could attend a formal school. On his plans for the future, he said he has none, as God will dictate for him.

Abubakar Umaru, 22 years, is from Jigawa State. He came to Kano four years ago to learn the Quran after completing his primary education. His uncle, a teacher in the primary school he graduated from brought him to Kano to learn the Quran. According to him, since his uncle brought him, he has not visited his state, neither has his uncle visited him, but he said he is planning to go back home to start his secondary education. Though he said he would be returning to Jigawa State next year, it is with a hope to return to Kano someday. He said after marriage, he plans to return to Kano with his wife and enrol his children in the Almajiri School, though they would have to combine it with attending a formal school.

Musa, another Almajiri does not know his surname and age, though he claims he is from Dambatta Local Government of Kano State. He looks like a nine-year-old and has spent the last three years in Kano city. He said his parents brought him to the school, though he has to fend for himself. Musa, had on what could best be described as a rag, said he was happy even though he last set his eyes on his parents the day they brought him to the city to learn the Quran. So where does he get the money for his upkeeps? He said he begs and do menial jobs, especially on Thursdays and Fridays. According to him, every Saturday, he gives his mallam N10, for what, he did not explain. He is however willing to attend a formal school, if such opportunity were available.

Lawal, another boy also cannot remember his surname, age and the local government he comes from, though he claimed he is from Kano State. He said he has been at the Quranic School for more than a year and it was his parents who brought him to his mallam, that same day he saw them last. When asked how long he plans to stay, he has no timeline. How does he go back home since he does not know the local government he came from and where his parents are at present, he said he hopes one day his parents would show up.

Bashiru Muhammad, 15 years, from Dusama, Kastina State, was brought to his Quranic School about five years ago by his uncle and has not seen his uncle or parents since then. He has also not gone back home after he arrived Kano. On what he intends to do with the Quranic knowledge he is acquiring, he said he has no idea and was only obeying the instruction of his uncle. He, however, said that after begging daily or Thursdays and Fridays, his mallam does not get any share of it, when asked if he makes returns to his mallam.

Bachari Dauda, from Jigawa State, does not know his age, but has spent the last seven years learning the Quran. This is his third year in Gama, Kano State; before then, he had spent four years in a community called Leri. He said it was his father who brought him to Kano to learn the Quran, though each time he went back to the village, his father forcefully brought him back to Kano to continue learning the Quran. He also said that he relied on Samaritans to survive daily, as well as do menial jobs.

Sefillai is also from Jigawa State; he does not know his age. He was brought to Kano by his mother to learn the Quran, and she has not showed up since then. He however claims he eats once a day and so he is not happy that his parents had abandoned him to fend for himself through begging and running of errands.

Abdullahi Isa, from Taraba State, was brought to Kano, about a year ago to learn the Quran by his parents, but Isa seems to be happy, as he aspires to be a Quranic teacher in the future.
Mallam Muhammadu Abdulraman manages one of the Quranic schools in Gama, Kano State. He said he has no idea when the school was established because his grandfather, who founded the school handed it to his father, who then passed the baton to him.
He has over 300 students learning the Quran under him, with majority from Kano, while others are from neighbouring states like Kastina, Jigawa, Yobe, Kaduna.

He said he does not accept a student that is not accompanied by his parents. Though that clause is critical in admitting a child to learn the Quran under him, the other issues he often discussed with parents before admission are that their kids must be friends only with fellow Almajiris and he can punish them the way he likes, especially, when they do what he perceived is wrong.

He said he allows the children under him to beg in order to cater for their daily needs, since their parents are not within reach. He also said if any of them is sick, he tries as much as possible to take care of them; it is when the situation is getting out of hand that he gets across to their parents. How, he did not provide a convincing answer.
He said the minimum age for any child to be enrolled in his learning centre is ten and no time limit to when they would graduate from the school. Abdulrahman is married with five children, but all his five children have been enrolled in a formal school. But unlike him, who took over from his father, who took over from his grandfather, he is not grooming any of his children to take over from him. He did not explain why he does not want any of his children to take over from him.
The children learning the Quran under him do not pay fees, how does he cater for his family, the pupils and the school? He said he depends on God to provide for him, reason he is not bothered about the parents of the children paying for his service.
For the children, he expects them to beg and do menial jobs to survive since their parents are not within the state.

A community leader, Alhaji Suileman Gama, said the issue of Almajiri has become a societal crisis that requires a collective effort to solve, especially by the northern state governments. He therefore called on the governors from the north of Nigeria to meet to come up with a common approach otherwise the problem will linger. He said the issue of marrying more than one wife and giving birth to many children is what is fuelling the sending of children from one state to another to attend Quranic School, as the man cannot take care of these children. He sees it as a ploy by parents to abdicate responsibility.

On his part, the Director General, Research and Documentation Directorate, Office of the Executive Governor, Kano State, Dr Ibrahim Raji, said if the north refuses to change, then there would be no way forward as the parents who send their children to Quranic schools are running away from their responsibilities as parents.
He called on all leaders in the north to wake up and work towards transforming the thinking of their members, especially those who are not in support of formal education. He disclosed that state governments have been treading consciously because any attempt to stop them could be tagged anti-islam. He also believed that any policy aimed at tackling Almajiri must be one that would make the children comfortable while the mallams must be carried along.

The Special Adviser, Special Duties to the Governor, Mallam Ibrahim Khalil, noted that the Almajiri system comes with a number of abuses, as it is really pathetic seeing a child of five years old without parental care and societal rejection.
“Unfortunately, Kano State being the most populous and commercial nerve centre of the northern region, this comes with implications, including having high number of Almajiri and their teachers.”
He believed that the north has the option to make these children an asset or a liability, noting that the task is herculean and government cannot do it alone. He however said that the state is willing and ready to partner to see to the establishment of a workable system to check the negative trend of Almajiri.

Executive Director, Resource Centre for Human Rights and Civic Education (CHRICED), Comrade Zikirullahi Ibrahim, argued that the Almajiri children are being abused and almost everybody is involved in one way or the other. He also stated that many do not look at them as part of the society and people who could make contributions to make the society a better place; reason they are treated with disdain. He further said that if they are not treated as human beings, the Quranic knowledge they are getting would be lopsided. “All of us, with what eyes do we look at them, human beings or second-class citizens,” he queried.
It was learnt that in the bid to survive, some of these children aside begging and doing menial jobs engage in forms of criminal activities, pilfering, pick pocketing, stealing. A resident said if clothes are dried outside, these children pick them because probably the one they have on is badly torn.

No doubt, the Almajiri system contributes hugely to out-of-school children in the north, which is on the high side. A report recently revealed that over 10 million Nigerian children are out-of-school. The report also disclosed that about 40 percent of the country’s children aged between 6 and 11 years old do not attend any primary school with the North recording the lowest school attendance rate. It was also revealed that about 4.7million children who are supposed to be in primary school are not in school.

Ironically, this is coming after efforts have been made by both Federal and State governments to improve enrolment in schools. The Federal Government in conjunction with states is implementing the free Universal Basic Education (UBE), which was supported with 2004 Act, with each state also setting up a Universal Basic Education Board.
This is also beside the intervention programme by the Federal Government targeted at the north with the building of some model Almajiri and special schools.

Commenting on the high number of out-of-school children in the country, a Sociologist, Mr. Samuel Ajayi, said, technically, what is available in Nigeria, is over 10 million school age children, who are out of functional education, because there is always a school for every child, legitimate or illegitimate.
“There is no vacuum in nature. The failure of a society to enrol its children in organised and functional education system provides such children with alternative school, usually unorganised, dysfunctional and criminal in nature.”

For him, the recent trend of teenagers getting involved in armed robbery and suicide bombing is an unfortunate revelation, but not surprising sociologically as crime and social disorder is the climax implication of children out-of-school or children enrolled in dysfunctional school system.
“Note, this outcome is not only generated by the mere fact that children are out of school, but also that those within school acquire dysfunctional education that limit their potentials, because teachers are not available and infrastructure that should develop the mental, intellectual, social, and emotional capacity of children to function well in society, are not on ground and this puts them in a disadvantaged position when compared with other children.
“The unfortunate outcome is expression of frustration imposed on them by the system. Of course, a nation that fails to develop its children is ready for anarchy, war and eventually will fade away,” Ajayi said.

A psychologist, Ibidunni Adedeji, noted that since education is seen as the vehicle for national development, a lack of it would result in underdeveloped human resources.
“A particularly high rate of illiteracy in the present increases the likelihood that the next generation will produce a greater crop of illiterates. A personality that has not been moulded to suit society’s expectation, either in the home or school, will lead to deviant behaviours and subsequently an increase in the rate of crime.
“Not only that, deviance may also include involvement in risky behaviours, such as illicit sexual behaviour, smoking, drug abuse, poor practice of hygiene, which may increase the prevalence of certain diseases and thus reducing the life expectancy and increased mortality. Illiteracy is usually linked with poverty, which can be considered as a cycle, such that poverty may result in illiteracy and illiteracy also results in poverty.”

According to her, uneducated people may lack the ability to make informed decisions and participate fully in political matters logically, as such, they may not be able to fight for their rights as expected, which could make them credulous and accepting whatever policies made, whether or not their interest are considered by the government. “Increased rates of unemployment are sure to surface, if the young people are not being trained to meet the demands of labour.”
On the implication of dropping out of school or not being in school at all to the personality and the psychological make-up of such children, Adedeji said that the mind of a newborn, according to John Locke, is a blank slate upon which knowledge is gained through experiences.

These experiences can emanate either from an informal setting such as socialization by family, society and culture, as well as, a formalised structure like a school. Developmentally, the brain changes in response to the amount and kind of experiences it receives. This is called plasticity. As such, when the social aspects of the brain are developed through mother-child attachment and peer relations, such a child is able to form, not only secured relationships later in life, but may exhibit traits of working well with people.

When a child is exposed to arithmetic and other advanced mathematical concepts, the child develops tools to become successful in a chosen field. Asides from equipping the child with numeracy, literacy and other content areas, the school helps to develop capacity for creativity, critical thinking and problem solving.
“Also, as an agent of socialization, formal education serves to shape the character and personality of children in teaching them dynamics of a group, discipline, team work, leadership, social interaction and responsibility in a setting that ultimately prepares them for life.
“So, in a sense, what education does is to broaden the range of opportunities a child has to maximize his or her potential, both with regards to personality and cognitive ability. Childhood experiences inevitably have an impact on a child’s later years, as the early years, especially under five, are seen as formative and crucial to cognitive, socio-emotional and physical development.”

How governments at the federal and states respond to the Almajiri story will determine the kind of future they want for Nigeria.

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