The renewed conversation about the menace of destitute and roaming out-of-school children in numbers estimated at 14 million in the predominantly Muslim North, has once again thrown up the unresolved question of the relevance of the traditional Almajiri system of learning in modern Nigeria. This growing army of homeless, hungry, barely clothed and uneducated socio-economically dislocated children is already an exploding time bomb that can no longer be rationalized on the basis of the pursuit of Islamic religious knowledge. Having pondered on the human tragedy that is the menace of out-of-school children, which has, unfortunately, been bestowed the traditional religious bona fides of an ‘’Almajiri institution’’, I have decided to share some aspects of my childhood experience growing up as a Muslim, in a Muslim family and in a predominantly Muslim community.
I was born in Okene, the homestead of Nigeria’s ethnic Ebira people of Kogi State in North-Central Nigeria to a five-generation Muslim family of prominent Islamic scholars. Looking at the numerous mosques adorned with minarets and capped with domes that dotted the entire landscape of Okene and environs, from which five times a day the voice of the muezzin was heard intermittently blaring out calls to Muslim faithful to obligatory prayers, one may not realize that the religion of Islam arrived there only less than two centuries ago. Islam had earlier reached the old Kanem Borno Empire in the present northeastern corner of Nigeria as early as the 11th Century and in the ancient Hausa city states of Nigeria’s North-West by the 15th Century from the Muslim north of Africa.
However, the successful repelling and crushing of invading Muslim Fulani jihadi forces from the Emirate of Bida around 1885 by an alliance of Ebira tribal warrior chieftains in an encounter that was recorded in oral history as ‘’ireku ajinonoh’’ [Ajinonoh wars], delayed the arrival of Islam in Ebiraland from the 19th Century to early 20th Century. The existence of a strong guild of blacksmiths among the Ebira people of Okene, whose excellent iron smelting skills qualified as one of the most advanced in Black Africa, provided superior weapons to a warlike people famous for their mastery of archery. And with a rugged mountainous terrain, which proved treacherous for the invading cavalry of mounted horsemen from the Emirate of Bida, the Ebira warriors fighting from mountain tops secured a decisive victory when they routed the enemy under a hail of burning spears and arrows.
Following the failed military expedition of what would have amounted to compulsory conscription into the religion of Islam of my ancestors by jihadi forces through conquest, annexation and forcefully incorporation of their lands into the Muslim Fulani Sokoto Empire, Islam, a religion of peace, eventually arrived Ebiraland through the peaceful Da’wah mission of Islamic scholars from the nearby Ilorin Emirate. Within a few years of the arrival of the peaceful Da’wah mission from the Emirate of Ilorin in the early years of the 20th Century in Okene town, the religion of Islam spread fast, with a majority of the people willingly and without compulsion converting from being animists to Muslims.
Over a century and a half later, Okene is today a predominantly Muslim town with most families having an Islamic heritage spanning five generations, which has seen a near absolute substitution of ancestral traditions, customs and norms with puritan Islamic prophetic traditions as evidenced in deeply religious way of life of the people. In addition to the general Islamic way of life, Okene emerged a leading centre of learning and dissemination of Islamic religious knowledge in northern Nigeria, with hundreds of mosques and Madrasahs located in every nook and cranny of Ebiraland that, over the years, have groomed individuals from childhood to adulthood in literacy in Arabic for Islamic studies. Thence begins my Almajiri story.
The term “Almajiri” is a corrupted, Hausa version of the Arabic root word, Al-muhajirun, which connotes a migrant student, scholar, worker, etc. And because the Quran, the hadiths and other ancillary sources of the tenets and practices of Islam are written in Arabic, a minimum level of literacy in this language is required of Muslims. This requirement necessitated a religious culture of young children leaving home to study Arabic and Islamic studies at the feet of prominent Islamic scholars in Hausaland and the Kanem Borno areas. It is this class of children that were originally referred to as Almajiri.
However, unlike in the days of old, I didn’t have to migrate from my place of birth to fulfil this basic requirement of minimum literacy in Arabic language for Islamic studies and religious practices. Desiring a good life for me, just like every other responsible parent, my father simultaneously enrolled me at the age of four in a Catholic mission primary school [one of two private schools in the whole of my community] and a Madrasah located right inside my family compound under the supervision of my grand-uncle, Mall Sadiku. Every morning, on week days, after my morning meal at 7am, I would leave for school from home, and by 1pm closing time I was headed back home. After my afternoon meal, I would usually follow my father to the mosque for Zuhr congregational prayers, after which I would walk into the adjoining building that served as our Madrasah to commence the day’s business.
Like me, other children in the community were simultaneously enrolled in formal school system as well as in the nearest Madrasahs to their respective homes by their parents or guardians, who similarly fed, clothed and sheltered them with care and love.
Significantly, my grand-uncle and teacher, Mall Sadiku didn’t have to send us to the street to beg for alms for his sustenance because, as a certified Arabic and Islamic scholar, he was a gainfully employed public school teacher whose dedication to impacting knowledge on us was just an act of Ibadah [worship] with the expected reward in the hereafter.
By the age of six, I could read and write in simple English and Arabic text and was due for progression to the next stage of studying the Quran proper. To this end, I was transferred from the Madrasah in my family compound to a nearby Quranic school that was a walking distance of less than 100 metres from home, under tutelage of another prominent Islamic scholar, who, like my grand-uncle, was known as Mall Sadiku. My new teacher, Mall Sadiku, was a strict disciplinarian who, unlike my grand-uncle, wasn’t going to indulge me in any way and he made me work hard at my Quranic studies. Throughout my studies at the feet of Mallam Sadiku, who was not paid any kobo by our parents for his invaluable services, he never sent any of the children under his care out on the streets with begging bowls for alms and food.
The few times some of our parents brought food items as sadaqa to the Madrasah, it was usually shared among all children, including those from whose homes the charity came.
This was because Mallam Sadiku was as self-respecting, hardworking tailor who eked out a living making garments for people. My beloved Mallam Sadiku, who was married to one wife with whom he raised a small family, would usually sit behind his sewing machine pedalling for his income from morning till late afternoon when he would take a break to say his prayers and, thereafter, supervise our studies. And from his modest income, Mall Sadiku was able to feed, clothe and shelter his family while also sending his own children to formal institutions of learning to acquire education. Discernably, Mall Sadiku deemed his dedication to our religious studies as an act of worship for which would be rewarded in the hereafter.
Away from the Madrasah, I would further my Arabic and Islamic studies in a publicly-funded secondary school, which had provision for a rich curriculum of the subject. To God be the glory, I eventually made a distinction in Islamic Religious Studies in my West African School Certificate Exam, a feat I attained without having to roam the streets of Okene hungry, homeless and destitute. I have subsequently built on my strong Almajiri foundation to continuously develop myself into a better Muslim throughout my adult life.
Therefore, the menace of 14 million out-of-school children otherwise given the honorific ‘’Almajiri institution’’ is a function of a uniquely northern Nigerian Muslim culture, which holds education in contempt without parallel in the larger Muslim world. The human tragedy of 14 million out-of-school children does not qualify as an Almajiri institution but, rather, an oppressive system that can best be described as a crime against the humanity of these children by their parents and a society that condones such evil of irresponsible parenting. A rudimentary knowledge of Arabic and Islamic studies is only for the purposes of enhancement of the practices of the Muslim religion that should never be a substitute for education or skills acquisition, as they are not mutually exclusive.