Thoughts on the almajiri system: The case of Yakubu Master

This day, on this day…
This moment that I relieve
Everyday for the last decade…
Perhaps you’ll get a better view
From where I’m standing
Nay, squatting as it were.
Perhaps my story will get you there
Because I don’t remember
what my mother looked like..
I promise it is not on purpose
The picture is blank
whenever I close my eyes
My mother.. Born of Fulani blood, Talle
Well, that was what I was told..
Mallam doesn’t like when I’m bold
Or ask too many questions..
But i can’t help thinking..
Maybe I wasn’t good enough
And I was abandoned because
My parents couldn’t love me..
My mother, Talle didn’t want me….
I have since given up
On the idea of home
Of ideals like love.. And family..
I belong to a my new life now..
To Mallam.. And satisfying his needs
I have accepted this as the reality..
And that there can be little nuances..
Like how kabiru sometimes limps
From forceful insertions through his behind
And that, it is my only solution to beg
To survive….
To meet up with my weekly quota
I wonder what is wrong with me.. ?
I wonder why my parents abandoned me… ?
And the cane echoed the sound of my flesh as I scream..
I celebrate my 14th birthday with a wonderful beating..
And my future, entirely bleak!

The intricacies of the almajiri are better appreciated from within than without. And you don’t get that from reading statistics. You go outside your vicinity, and actually see them swarming in piles. And with luck, you get someone to talk to you about their experience. To analyze and proffer solutions from observations and stats, while useful and necessary, hardly does justice to the whole.

I have often wondered what it must be like to be an almajiri. To figuratively put myself in their shoes (sadly, some of them don’t even have shoes ). To be them. To be left alone and wander the streets as I beg for sustenance. Mornings.. Evenings.. And whether I’d be a free spirit. Whether I’d be optimistic. Whether I won’t wake up one morning tired of it all that it’d be easier to end it cold.

This poem tells a story of a one yaqubu, nicknamed master. Through the life of an almajiri, there comes a time when they battle with their identity. Their sense of belonging. Not to say a regular person doesn’t undergo such crisis in their lives. It is important to me, because it is the turning point of my story.

The average almajiri story is sad and not promising. It is riddled with disappointments and a lack of will to excell. The turning point metaphor symbolizes the few that are lucky to break away from almost inevitable misery. The few who redefine their place and self worth.

Dejected. Bereft. Hungry. Unmannered. Begging.

On so many levels, this has become the reality of an almajiri. This is the reality of less privileged children in the north (Northern Nigeria). I attempted to personalize the story so that perhaps we may connect with it. The trouble, is that some of us grew up thinking of it as the norm. That you can’t move from point A to point B, without at least meeting an almajiri on the street begging for food or money to sustain himself. Perhaps I should use the right word. Beggars. And lament how it is gradually turning into an institution.

I am careful not to reduce the almajiri into a beggar equivalence. That will certainly be a false picture. But it is almost as graphic. The question is where did it all start from..? And how did we get here…? Why did we get here..? And what can we do to move out of this trap.

Context is important to define a scope. The past shapes our perception of the present. So, while it is important to revisit the past to find context, we must not be carried away by its seeming novelty.

In that regard, the almajiri system could be seen as an institution which the quest of knowledge in the bilad-as-Sudan birthed. The search for knowledge, which the religion of Islam ever so emphasizes was the fuel that created this phenomenon. The word, Arabic in its origin (al-muhajir) denotes someone who migrates from one place to another. In this context, for the search of knowledge.

In pre-colonial bilad-as-Sudan, there were specialized centers for learning. So presumably there were experts in some geographical areas and not others. If a person, moved by the call of IQRA wants learn the deen, he has to migrate to that area where the sheikh lives. There was a system in place, the sheikh accepts the student and puts him under his care. The student learns from the sheikh and has his welfare taken care by the sheikh. A student may be well to do to take care of his well being. The student occasionally works in the farm with the sheikh for which he gets paid. When the student is done with his courses, he takes leave and returns home where he continues his activities or becomes a teacher with a seal of referral of sort from his teacher. And so on and so forth. Like a modern day university.

This was the system running, institutionalized over the years. A social construct developed to address to burning zeal for the quest of knowledge.

It doesn’t take an expert to point out how grossly far off, how ridiculously off base, how selfishly rigged, how blatantly corrupted in its essence what we have today is to what was attainable. Of course the change was gradual. And the outcome almost inevitable, with the withdrawal of support from the colonial government, and a subconscious categorization as a non-essential entity. In retrospect, what could have our early leaders done to prevent this systematic decay ?

Where we are now is a vivid scar to every northerner with any sense of consciousness. The reality of the almajiri. It is arguably the greatest humanitarian problem facing us as a society. And it is quite shameful.

Before attempting to proffer a solution to this beautiful problem, it would be wise to understand the scope of its ramifications. On a larger scale, it is a social problem; despite its large scale rebuttals, it persists. It has been institutionalized and passive approaches are no longer sufficient to handle it. It affects the societal interactions and creates a large divide of people unable to integrate into the larger society; of people unable to break away from a poverty barrier. On lower a level, it is an educational problem. On the pretext of educating a child, the child is deprived from basic necessities.. And love and affection. The child misses on western education and on many instances, has nothing to write home about of his Islamic teachings. There is a disconnect and we are left with a whole generation of people without proper education. On that same level, it can be regarded as an economic problem. We have parents, unable to cater for their offsprings, send off their children in “search” for knowledge. The financial burden then falls on the sheikh, and with limited funds to make ends meet, sends off the child begging to alleviate his income. The more shrewd sheikhs have a system of collating revenue weekly from proceeds of begging. And finally, and most importantly, it is a family problem. In terms of family planning and misguided idiosyncrasies. Pushed by the idea of mass production, the village man doesn’t know when to stop giving birth. Unable to provide for his family, he hides under the cover of this fallen institution to redeem his mistakes..

It is also noteworthy to explore the implications of BokoHaram on this. When you have impressionable, gullible youths, looking for a purpose to fill the void, that ideology seems very appealing. Projections into the future post BokoHaram suggests a displaced youth populace who are susceptible and prone to violence as a reaction and crimes as a preoccupation.

Now that we have briefly identified the general dimensions we can boldly explore what needs to be done to address the issue on a systematic level. It should be noteworthy to identify the otherwise failed attempts made by the Goodluck administration to intervene. While admirable in its efforts, it fundamentally misunderstood the root of the problem.

Ever since my first glance through “the past as future” by Dr usman Bugaje, I have been drawn to analyze the solution of any problem, usually a social construct in terms of ending it, mending it or re-inventing it as the author suggested with the sakkwato caliphate. While the solution I’m proffering is inline with re-inventing it, I’m more inclined to name it as ending the whole damn thing and thinking of a new way to achieve the essence.

We must appreciate that with globalization, the search for knowledge has been brought to our finger tips. There is hardly any reason for a child to be ripped from his mother’s arms for the so called quest for knowledge.

There are various levels of contributions to be done to address this situation. I think the most important being the ability to garnish the will. The will to get the job done. The will to be true till the end.

The government must come into play. The governors of the 19 northern states must take a bold step to ban the almajiri system. Firstly, by mandating every parent register their child at birth which gives the govt record to track the child’s growth and if necessary, prosecute the parent if they send their kids below a certain age. The government should then take a proactive step to engage think-tanks into developing a model system of education that will be universally applicable and thus debunk the need to move. The curriculum could be adopted into western schools, and can be a elective for the Muslim students. Or create special schools that will impart that knowledge. The big dog sects should be lobbied to support this decision and with an over whelming support, it will be possible.

Next, we must shatter its moral standing. There must be a campaign to sensitize people of its evil. We must take a conscious effort to paint it black, as it were. We must put it in our brains that it is non acceptable norm. This is where the elites and royal fathers come into play. These are people that are somewhat social engineers, and what they say, do or gesture towards has a lasting effect. Their support, will provide for the moral capital the government intervention needs to succeed.

Finally, as members of the society, we must contribute to firstly sensitize on the need for family planning. It shouldn’t be a forced decision, but folks need to be aware of the responsibilities that comes with catering for a child. Also, given the situation we are in now, we have so many out there in the streets, and these solutions, while promising, are almost prevention oriented. What do we do with those roaming the streets as my ink dries? The suggestion is to have every average family take care of a single almajiri. Take care of his education, his welfare and sustenance. If we could get a society wide intervention of this scale, it will go a long way.

But perhaps that’s too dreamy, perhaps on a grim note, these ones (the almajiri) are already done for. Perhaps all we can do is to equip them with vocational skill to help them survive. I’d like to think we are better than that, but humanity can be surprising.

In retrospect, we may wonder where our elders have failed us. Whether they are to blame for letting this situation get out of hand. I think there is a fair share of blame to go round everyone, but now is not the time for it. Nor ever. We are here already. What are we going to do next ?

This approach both acknowledges and attempts to address the education gap, and goes further to attempt social integration and inclusion. We have identified our arsenal in terms of actual capital: government interventions at various levels, and moral capital: a campaign against the validity of such an outdated practice. We hope that by starting the conversation through this preliminary piece, we are taking a bold step towards abolishing this criminal practice and ushering constructive ways to promote the quest for knowledge.

Kindy drop your comments….

Bugaje Al-amin Bashir

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