By Dr. Aliyu Tilde
Meditations of Musa, the almajiri
The night was getting late and Musa has returned to his abode, a room he shares with other migrant pupils in his malam's house. He has had many bad days before but this one was particularly worse. He managed to have something at the maishayi where he queued along with other pupils to receive leftovers from customers who came to take their breakfast there. Since then, his stomach has known no food except for the garri he managed to buy in the afternoon from the fifty naira he was given by a good Samaritan on his way home. He and two other pupils have combed the neighbourhood that evening begging for leftovers without success. Times are hard for many households. He remembers how food used to be abundant in many when he was first admitted into this school. Children used to stand by the door with leftovers waiting for an almajiri (pl. almajirai) like him to show up. In fact, they used to shout: almaaaaajiri! Bakon gari… Then Musa had the privilege to choose which house offered the best meal. Now, times have changed. His nights and that of other children are now more frequently visited by hunger than by satisfaction.
As the night progressed in its journey, the half moon gave way to darkness; people retired to their beds and their eyes stolen by sleep. As Musa remained awake amidst other sleeping pupils, prevented from partaking in the bliss by the agitation of his empty stomach, he became attendant to the different ideas that visited his mind from the memories of his past and the ambitions of his future. They returned him to his early childhood when, back at home, he was living comfortably among his brothers and sisters.
He remembered how it all started; how one day, at the age of nine, his father sat him and told him about his intention to send him to Tudun Wada where he will learn the Qur'an. "I want you to be versed in the Qur'an and come back to be a boy of good behaviour. I have refused to enrol you in makarantar boko (modern school) because I do not want you to lose both the here and the Hereafter. You have seen many children who finished primary and secondary schools but cannot write a simple letter, not even in Hausa. Your immediate elder brother, Hasan, is one of them. You have also seen how Ya'u and his friends took to smoking Indian hemp and are recruited as thugs during elections. Their parents have not enrolled them in Qur'anic schools nor have they benefited from the modern schools that they wasted their childhood attending. They have not learnt a trade, not even the farming that has been the vocation of their parents.
"For you, my son", Musa's father continued that morning, "I foresee a bright future: Learning the Qur'an, knowing your religion well and becoming a responsible person who has a trade to live on. That is what your eldest brother, Ibrahim did. Today, he has a shop at the famous kantin kwari in Kano. You may not like it; neither would your mother. There will be many difficulties but you must, as a man, learn to overcome them with patience and tenacity. You are not like your sisters who will get married soon and live under their husbands. One day, you will recount this conversation. Remember that you sacrifice today for a bright tomorrow. When you return you can join your brother in Kano and learn his business; or you can undertake further education in Zaria to become a renowned scholar; or you may even choose to remain here and become a great farmer and our scholar at the same time. The heaven would be your limit, my son, but only when you work hard, endure and learn to live by dignity."
That was one conversation that has remained indelible in the mind of Musa. He often recalls it in times of difficulty to regain his strength and keep him focussed on his studies. He does not care much about his other responsibilities as almajiri. He gathers firewood for lighting the night recitation sessions and helps malam with his farm work. Equally less worrying to him is the bad state of his accommodation. Back home he used to sleep comfortably on a bed with a local mattress made of cotton. Here, his accommodation is an earth floor on which he spreads his mat every night. He has become used to it for years now. What remains his biggest problem is food. It was easier to gather when he first came into the school as a balla and could readily enter any household and beg for leftovers. Shortly after, he became kolo, conversant with every nook and corner of Tudun Wada. He could then access food more readily and he cannot remember having sleepless nights like this one. However, he is now fifteen. He will soon be a tiribiri, a big almajiri restricted by tradition from the earlier privilege of entering households. His fate would lie in the hands of younger almajirai when they bring back what they could gather from those quarters. And often, they would bring very little.
He still has some years to cover. His memorization of the Qur'an has reached inna mas sabilu, the fortieth part of the Qur'an. The remaining twenty he hopes will be easier though he would not have as much time as he had in the past. Being a tiribiri means he has to find a means of surviving through farming, manicure, weaving mats, selling water, manual labour, etc. Then life he hopes will be better as he will use the little proceeds to feed himself. Whichever trade he chooses, he hopes it will manageably support him through until he graduates as a gardi (pl. gardawa) when he completes the memorization of the whole Qur'an to the satisfaction of his teacher. Then he will be free to leave and start a life of his own. But since according to his calculation he will then be just barely eighteen, he intends to remain in Tudun Wada and start satu, writing the Qura'n from his memory on his allo (a wooden slate) and presenting it for test of accuracy before other gardawa and an alaramma, a proficient reciter and writer of Qur'an. After that, he will also stay and start karya takarda, writing the Qur'an, page by page, on paper. That will qualify him to be an alaramma. Then he will return to join his brother in at Kano.
Meanwhile, his mind returned to the present, to the immediate problem of insufficient food. He wonders why his father singled him out without sending his three younger brothers to such distant Qur'anic schools. When he visited home two years ago, he saw them attending a nizamiyya school where they are taught both the Qur'an and other aspects of Islam. They have even started speaking Arabic. The school was built by a businessman who lives in Kano and run by teachers who come from the city. Musa is happy for his brothers because they do not have to pass through his excruciating difficulties. At least they live at home decently and the next meal has never been their contemplation. Looking into the distant future, Musa promised to enrol all his children in a nizamiyya; none of them will attend a Qur'anic school distant from home. That is despite what he heard from his malam that nizamiyya students are not good in memorizing the Qur'an; they quickly forget what they memorize since they do not undergo the tedious process of haddatu, saukar hadda, dawowar hadda, satu and karya takarda.
Then he remembers the hope that some government officials once planted in him and other almajirai. The officials visited them five years ago, took a census of their school and promised that the state government intends to place their malam on a salary, supply him with some farming inputs annually, build a dormitory for his students and mitigate their feeding problems. They even promised that they will be introduced to secular subjects that are taught in modern schools. Their malam welcome the idea and the pupils rejoiced. However, as days passed by, one after another, their hopes started to wane. No official has turned up to date, though they have heard over the radio that some Qur'anic schools near the city have started receiving some assistance.
Actually, Musa become sceptical about such assistance since he heard some students of a boarding secondary school in the town also complaining about poor feeding. The other day, as a result, one of them fell from a tree and died as he was attempting to reach an unripe mango. "If the government cannot sufficiently feed the few thousands of its students in its public schools," Musa thought, "how could it feed us when we are in millions? How big would the pot be? If they can introduce boko to us, why do most of their students leave school without being able to write even a simple letter? After all, is it not the same failure of government in running its own modern schools that made Baba lose confidence in them and decide to send me this far?
"I am afraid that the same evil will creep into our Qur'anic schools and render them corrupt and ineffective. I heard people saying that many government officials are mercilessly corrupt. They make a lot of money and build big houses in cities. The borehole in Tudun Wada has become useless because anytime it is repaired the officials return to steal the submersible pump. Some steal drugs and equipment in hospitals and textbooks from schools. People of Tudun Wada have reported the matter to the District Head but it is suspected that he shares in the proceeds; so he did nothing. I heard students in boarding schools saying that they even steal their food. If our malams associate with government, they are also likely to become infected with the virus of corruption. That will be the end of this noble career which they inherited right from the Prophet through a long chain of scholars."
Earlier in the afternoon, Musa heard over the BBC that there is a bill before the Senate that will address his problems. Musa's fears became aggravated especially when he heard the commissioner of education of a neighbouring state admitting that its government is abandoning its Qur'anic school integration programme due to its prohibitive cost.
However, his picture for the future of almajirai is not completely hopeless. On the same BBC, he heard of the effort of a group in Kano led by one Adamu Aliyu Kiyawa which is advocating for "one almajiri per household." It is calling on people to pick an almajiri each and save him from begging by providing just an additional plate on their table. Though Musa may hardly benefit from that effort since he leaves away from Kano, he hopes there will be many Kiyawas with this milk of kindness in various towns who will answer the call of that group. In fact, this practical approach will undoubtedly remove the almajiri from the streets, saving him from abuse and vulnerability to abduction by secret societies, membership of gangs, addiction to drugs and other evils.
"God", he prayed, "answer our prayers by bringing us a dignifying relief and join us with your righteous servants in the Hereafter. Right now there are many voices. Choose for us the best, Oh Lord." Not long after, Musa was finally invited by sleep, just three hours before the muezzin made his first call for the dawn prayer, signalling the start of another day. He must wake up for the foredawn recitation.
My reader! This is Musa, almajiri. You meet him everyday, in every town you live. Now that you have a better picture of unsettled situation, you have the option of contributing to his relief. So be kind to him wherever you see him, preferably by being a Kiyawa. He is not a wanderer; he has a mission. Though he is undoubtedly facing difficult times, he has not lost focus. Though his meal may be tentative, his future is certain. Though he may appear in rugs, his heart is noble. Finally, he may look frail, but he represents a continuation of a tradition that has lasted over fourteen centuries, despite difficulties, trials and tribulations, a tradition that places him right at the summit of ultimate Glory: "Then We gave the Scripture as inheritance unto those whom We elected of Our bondmen. But of them are some who wrong themselves and of them are some who are lukewarm, and of them are some who outstrip (others) through good deeds, by God's leave. That is the great favour! Gardens of Eden! They enter them wearing armlets of gold and pearl and their raiment therein is silk. And they say: Praise be to God Who hath put grief away from us. Lo! Our Lord is Forgiving, Bountiful. Who, of His grace, hath installed us in the mansion of eternity, where toil toucheth us not nor can weariness affect us."
1 October 2009