Ngomari ward, Maiduguri 1989. I came across Abdulhamid, a demure, intelligent, respectful and very bashful boy, about 13 years old. He was an Almajiri, learning the Qur’an by heart in a corrugated zinc shack tucked away behind a nondescript house on the street. All he had to his name is a bowl, the cloth on his back and the worn mat he shares with other Almajirai on a crowded floor. His life and times along with many others like him in the five years I spent in Maiduguri gave me a deep understanding of Almajirci – the practice of living as a full time Quranic student – Almajiri.
Scholars have long discussed the epistemological limitations of equating education with schooling. This argument furthers the notion that education ought to transcend the preparation of an individual for future employment. In view of this, the definition of the educated person varies across cultures, time and within socioeconomic class, values and religion. This diversity of opinion, is at the root divergent educational choices in Northern and Southern Nigeria and it has shaped the politics of education in the country. Who is an educated person? The prevailing consensus is; an individual who has undergone a process of learning and has acquired the mental capability to function effectively in familiar and complex situations involved in personal and intellectual life. The educated person has the mindset for independent learning, the ability for rational inquiry, has general knowledge, can engage general in knowledge building and critique in addition to general language abilities needed for clear, precise, and effective communication for epistemic purposes.
We now know, that learning starts right from the womb and persists throughout life. We also know formal schooling is the most important avenue for shaping young people’s attitude towards society and a place where our durable knowledge of religion is formed. Schooling is powerful because it shapes cognition and lends a lens through which communal and individual values are viewed. The form and nature of schooling in the last 100 years all over the world connotes Western education and learning. The norm since the turn of the twentieth century has been for individuals to build religious education on basic secular education with a view to having a well heeled view of the world. Nigeria cannot be different. The Northern Muslim elite and its aristocracy has always embraced Western education with zeal and they commit their children regardless of gender to it. They see part time tutoring in Quranic education as a guide for forming morally upright and religiously informed children but not as a stand alone vocation. The not-so-poor Northerner most often educate their children in the Islamiyyah schools, where students get heavy religious instruction with a splash of basic English, science, and mathematics. The boy child is actively encouraged to learn in the Islamiyyah setting while the girl child is equally enrolled but treated with indifference. She is neither encouraged nor discouraged and she often falls by the wayside or married off early. For the poor, Almajirci is what they know and they commit their boys to it headlong and let the girl go uneducated. These varying choices across socioeconomic classes reflect different viewpoints about the spiritual and material value of schooling and the attendant fallouts of perpetuating Intergenerational poverty and destruction of life chances in young people.
The Northern elite did not invent Almajirci. Almajirci has a long history steeped in tradition that predates modern Nigeria. Religious knowledge was a huge political asset in the early days of Islam in West Africa. It gained more patronage in pre-colonial Nigeria during the reformist movement of Sheik Usman Dan Fodio. Only the religious scholars got government jobs in the Caliphate, they were the new elite. Parents registered their boys in hundreds with the few scholars available. Seekers of knowledge had to travel to remote locations to learn and come back to lead prestigious and useful lives. Today, the world has indeed changed, this is the technology century. No modern nation state can afford to breed teeming youths who have memorized the Holy Quran, had no skills and are not employable. The sin of the Northern elite is the indifference, it is in tacit approval of a system that has outlived its usefulness and the maintenance of the status quo, it is the sustained socialization of the young into an education ideal that is serving the interest of powerful exploitative groups in the North. It must stop, every Nigerian of good conscience must ask for reformation of Almajirci. From anthropological and sociological research, we know and understand educational institutions as loci of “identity politics” where the young are able to contest the societal view of what is good and just. Almajirci has become a unique locus for understanding the behavior and values of the Almajiri standing on the tripod of poverty, parental neglect and ignorance. The central position of the Holy Qur’an in the spiritual life of Muslims makes this topic a “no go area” for politicians but a good leader must take on the unpopular as long as it serves the greater good of the society. The religious scolds will see this as another secular rant but the North cannot truly record and achieve meaningful “cultural production” and economic capital outside government patronage if they fail to address the Almajirai problem. The North will continue to produce abysmal developmental indices unless the Almajirai system is reformed. The underlying injustice of Almajirci is the major reason why Boko Haram festers and has gripped the country.
For my readers who don’t know who an Almajiri is: Almajirai (plural) are boys from age 4 up to 20 sent away from their family by parents, to be placed under the discipleship of a Mallam or an Islamic scholar hundreds of kilometres away, for the purpose of memorizing the Qur’an. The Almajiri is given a place to sleep, they receive no food and have no option but to move from house to house when hungry begging for food. Most Mallams have no fewer than 20 Almajirai in their care. Abdulhamid was well known in my compound (apartments Up North are housed into a compound) as a good boy long before I moved into the neighborhood. After a few weeks of trying to understand the system, I took him in. He runs some of my errands, wash plates and takes his breakfast and dinner with me. On weekends he watches my clothes and does the ironing as his reading schedule permits. Abdulhamid is one of the lucky few. The life of an Almajiri is tough and his trajectory is bleak. This country has 8million – 10million boys within the Almajirci system. Every morning and at meal time, they go into the street bowls in hand going door to door begging for food, rummaging hotel and restaurant waste bins for left overs or foraging market dumps for damaged fruit and vegetables. In most cases, his teacher and wives depend on the item he brings from his begging “runs”. Those who bring usable items such as clothing, money and food are praised while those who bring in nothing are beaten. The Almajirai spends several hours daily with their teacher or an older Almajiri reading and chanting the scriptures, sitting cross-legged, mostly unkempt, swaying to the rhythm of the chants, going for weeks without a bath, with a slate or pamphlet on which Quranic verses are scribbled, trying to commit the Qur’an to memory. Those who fail to meet set benchmarks are singled out for one on one with the Mallam who will mete out specific punishments which is often 100lashes using the horsewhip. The Almajiri has no rights, he is not treated with any any dignity and receives no respect from society. These poor children especially those under age 10, move around with flies crowding their mouths. No one truly cares that the Almajirai is a child, a helpless victims of parental neglect and abuse. They are seen by the society as mere nuisance.
For the avoidance of doubt, the inconvenient truth is; life batters these children early. They are subjected to unimaginable stress and stress does become toxic when a child has frequent or prolonged exposure to detrimental experiences like abuse, neglect or poverty without adult support. Majority of these children grow up not having a surer sense of what is important, has meaning and is good because they cannot make a living after their discipleship. They have no formal schooling and have never learnt any trade. There’s nothing noble about being malnourished, going mostly hungry, surviving at the mercy of strangers, prying the waste bins scavenging for food, exposed to the blazing Northern Sun in pursuit of knowledge. When you walk miles, bowl in hand begging for food, and you can’t get anything decent to eat, it doesn’t matter what your mission is. You just get worn out.
To be continued…
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