By Dr. Aliyu Tilde
The Future of the Almajiri (3)
This will be a simple one, having left behind the difficult aspects about the almajiri and his system of learning which were difficult to bring out to surface to the notice of the elite in whose hands his fate lies but who respect him the least and are the cause of his continuous state of victimhood. In the past three articles we tried to explain the origin of almajirci, its past and present roles, the difficulties it is facing and finally why an outright scrapping of the system, as many of us would be quick to suggest, is not only ill-advised but impossible. Today, we will venture into what can be done now to alleviate the problems of the system such that the conditions of its learning become more tolerable, its curriculum more encompassing, and its goals more far-reaching and relevant to the demand of the modern world.
To ease our task, I feel it is better to approach the issues by a classifying our suggestions based on the contributors who will play various roles rather than on the myriad of problems. I prefer to group the contributors into three natural categories: individuals, organizations and governments.
Among individuals the most important contributions will come from parents of the almajiri child. For whatever purpose they send him into almajirci they must ensure that the reason is not only genuine but also noble. Children must never be sent into almajirci as a means to evade the parental responsibilities of care, especially feeding, given the chronic nature of poverty in the Muslim North. Many readers have lamented seeing children as young as three and four years on streets begging for food in the name of almajirci. Many of the malams confess that the parents complain that they do not have enough food to feed their entire household. I wonder why such parents will decide to victimize the boy child; instead, they should send the mother or his grown up sisters to the streets if they are so desperate, something that will surely yield quicker results for them. This must be stopped at all cost by the authorities. Such children should be arrested and handed over to their parents who must be warned on an impending punishment under the relevant law should they be caught again engaging in such shameful behaviour.
I understand that the children may be too many to feed in the North. This is a food for thought for those arguing against family planning or birth control. Whatever their views, they must understand that Islam has strict rules concerning child upkeep. Even under divorce the mother retains the custody of the boy up to the age of seven; while the father bears the expenses. After her marriage or death, her maternal relations take over in fifteen grades of affinity. There is, therefore, no excuse for anyone to dump a boy of less than seven years at the doorstep of a malam even if the intention is noble, much less when it is evil – done in evasion of parental responsibility, an act which not even animals would do.
Two, I will suggest that all children remain with their families until they have acquired, one, proficiency in reading the Qur'an (or sauka) and, two, basic fundamentals of Islamic belief and practice (by covering books like Al-qawaid, Akhdari and Ishmawi). Both can be easily acquired at home from neighbouring malams in any community. Thereafter, they can migrate, if necessary, to memorize the Qur'an elsewhere to the level of perfection we earlier noted. This strategy will automatically stop the practice of underage almajiri which we noted above and enable the child to learn the basics of religion that he needs later in his life as a teenager. By the time he migrates, he should be around eleven years or so. I remember that over 50% of my figh - the basics of worship and belief in Islam - is what I learnt as a child before 'migrating' to a boarding secondary school in addition to acquiring the skills of reading and writing the Qur'an at home. I believe it is the same with many Muslims as it has been the basic practice throughout the Sokoto Caliphate. But since education in the Caliphate largely belonged to the non-formal sector, it is a practice that is sustained by norm rather than law.
Another contribution that parents of the child should give is in his upkeep. Most parents dump the children and never care to visit them again to see their condition of life or contribute anything to their living. Parents must assist the malam in meeting the basic necessities of food, shelter, clothing and health of their almajiri children as much as they can.
The malams will be the greatest agents of regulation here. They must not receive underage children, for example, and should demand assistance whenever needed from parents or else they should reject or return the child. The malams must also contribute by improving the custodianship of the child beyond what we presently see in the many almajiris parading the streets of our urban areas. They must learn to restrict their movements and monitor their habits; focus more on teaching them; fear God not to abuse them by sending them as errands for money; teach them good conduct as they would teach their own children; and protect them against any hazard that may come their way. Unless they do this, the malams and the parents that handed over the children in the first place will be held responsible by God for whatever stray path the child might take. Malams should be encouraged to introduce figh to every almajiri in their custody, which they can do, where necessary, in collaboration with other malams in the neighbourhood. The lack of this knowledge at that age is a basic shortcoming of the entire almajiri system.
The public has its contributions to make. We must recognize the responsibility we owe the almajiri especially who is in our neighbourhood. This is something our parents gladly did. We used to feed them with the understanding that we were fulfilling a divine obligation. Sometimes, as children we used to wait for them at the gates of our houses. Unfortunately, today, after acquiring education, we have moved to the city and are living in houses surrounded by very high walls (you know who the English say builds the highest walls?), with signs BEWARE OF DOGS at the gate. How do we expect an almajiri to knock at our door and ask for food? How do we expect him even to tread our neighbourhood which is barricaded at its entrance? Yes, the almajiri must know there are dogs inside, the animal dog that may attack him, and the human dog that is responsible for his predicament.
If we can adopt the Kiyawa strategy of one child per house, it will go a long way to alleviate our difficulties. But we can do it in a more dignifying way as it used to be done by many mothers before. Many almajiris had someone called uwardaki, a mother-guardian, whom they serve by helping her with some domestic jobs mostly laundry and purchasing household items in the market. They can still do these tasks for us and we, the elite, can pay them handsomely for that. This will be better than the employment of house girls that often ends up in scandals or who will introduce our children to terrible habits like cultism.
Another avenue is the patronage we can give to the malams by sending our children to the almajiri schools in our neighbourhood. This will bring us face to face with their problems and we will naturally render our assistance especially to improve their living conditions since our children also stand to benefit from so doing. Believe me, I have not seen where learning how to read the Qur'an is done with such ease and proficiency than in the Qur'anic schools which we today think are archaic. The modern Islamic schools, nizamiyya, are fast deteriorating in performance just like our modern public schools because their approach is the same and they are based on salaries, buildings, collective learning, etc. Our children, as we did, can learn basic figh before we send them to secondary schools. There and later they can learn more about Islam.
As I was writing this essay, I received a text message from a reader, a top civil servant in Maiduguri, called Muhammad. He said, "I have extended electricity from my house to one malam's house where my children and other almajiris all read together at night. I also want to launch an organization in Maiduguri for this purpose." May God bless him for this milk of kindness! He has certainly proved to be a civil, not evil, servant. Surely, he has answered his name, Muhammad. Many other readers can do the same.
Even without our children studying there, we can help out from our surplus that we waste in going to additional hajj or umra, buying flashy cars, holidaying in Europe, lavishing our girlfriends, acquiring plots and estates, an so on, to undertake works similar to those of Muhammad. Even if our offices are in the high towers of the Federal Secretariat and our houses are located in "no go" areas for the almajiri in Maitama or Asokoro, we can still do it in our home towns and villages which we all have but prefer to forget about. Can't those of us who have enough build a dormitory for the children and a better house for their malam, drill a borehole that operates with a hand pump to improve their hygiene, or electrify their surroundings, etc? Why are there few Muhammads among us? If we do so we are lending God, Who will repay us in many folds; if we desist we are obeying the Devil who threatens us with poverty and enjoins us to commit evil… Yet, in the end, even the wealthiest among us will part from this world with nothing more than a piece of burial cloth made of cotton.
The last area the public would contribute is that of sensitization. Let us create time to educate parents and malams on their responsibilities to their children through personal contacts and the media. The child about to be sent into almajirci is our relative, neighbour or a citizen of our country. Let us see that he is sent at the right age, to the right guardian and doing the right thing. Let us support authorities to enforce whatever legislation is passed in this direction and in any other way possible.
I am sad to note here that religious organisations have played very little role up till now in ameliorating the suffering of the almajiri. Instead, they have reposed their hope in that their modern Islamic schools will eventually wipe out the almajiri system the way computers have wiped out typewriters. They look at Qur'anic schools and almajirci with disdain because they are privileged to have leant Islam in formal schools. Their target is eradication, not improvement of the almajiri system. It is unfortunate that this is still the stereotype thinking of such organizations throughout the North. This is not to say that they have not contributed to Islamic education, but their influence is so far limited to urban and semi-urban children who in any case were never sources of almajiris, but of part-time resident pupils of Qur'anic schools. The rural areas, which are the main domain of almajiri schools, remain untouched by such organized effort.
The lack of impact of the nizamiyya as a substitute to almajiri also has to do with cost. A Muslim seminary, like any other formal school, would require classrooms, offices, conveniences and other facilities as well as salaries for teachers, which is expected to come from fees charged per capita. All these are alien to our system of education which has successfully run for centuries and which, as we have noted, has been voluntary, free and cheap, done in the open, on the ground or under a tree with no fixed remuneration to the teacher. That is why even a token, as little as N50 per month per child (equivalent of 30 cents) can hardly be paid by parents of nizamiyya schools today. The money does not come partly due to a reluctance derived from culture and partly due to impracticability imposed by poverty. This reality must strike those who hinge their solutions on replacing the almajiri system with nizamiyya schools. To confound all these problems, our population has overburdened the few seminaries we have. The schools cannot just keep up with our high rate of growth in urban and semi-urban communities, much less with reaching out to rural communities that produce most of the almajiris. Today, every nizamiyya school is as congested as our public school and learning hardly take place in many. Nevertheless, even for the purpose of urban and semi-urban communities, the demand for more and more such seminaries is real and we must do our best to meet it.
Finally, we need to mention the contributions of secular non-governmental organizations. Some people have formed NGOs to rescue the almajiri from his suffering and vulnerability. In Kano for example, I have visited COCFOCAN (Coalition of Community Based Organisation Focused on Child Almajiri in Nigeria). Situated in Sharada and led by Hajiya Rakiya Yahaya Sani, a vibrant lady in her sixties I suppose, it has registered and is maintaining on its program 30 boys whom they collected from a neighbouring malam. They feed the children and introduce them to basic education at the centre. Later, they intend to shift them into a vocational centre where they will learn skills before they graduate. This is done without detaching them from their Qur'anic school in Sharada which they attend in the afternoons and nights. So far the NGO which is yet to get any grant from government has spent about N70,000 ($450) per child and has a lot more work to do, though we expect the per capita cost to be cheaper with successive generations of beneficiaries.
Here again, cost manifests itself as a major impediment to any large scale emancipation of the almajiri. How many millions of almajiris do we have on the one hand and how much do such organisations have in their accounts to make formidable impact? I must, however, rush to add that the statistics should not scare COCFOCAN and other NGOs. Whenever we are faced with a social problem, we must not allow its magnitude to scare us; the little we can afford would mean a lot. Let the intention remain noble and the magnitude of the deed before God is less relevant.
The biggest contribution expectedly resides with government. Unfortunately, we have run short of space; hence we can meet to conclude the series with it next week.
5 November 2009