By Juliana Taiwo-Obalonye
Hajiya Aisha Atiku Bagudu, Kebbi State First Lady is the Founder, MALLPAI Foundation. The Foundation which abbreviation stands for Mass Literacy for the Less Privileged of Almajiris Initiative, has been in existence for almost two decades. The Non-Governmental-Organisation (NGO), aims at empowering the less privileged in the society as well as addressing the plight of Almajirai. In this interview with EFFECT, Hajiya Aisha Bagudu talks about how and why she founded the NGO and how far she has come with the dream and passion. Excerpts:
Let’s talk about your NGO. It’s intriguing to learn that you are so passionate about the Almajirai and that you have been on this journey for almost two decades. What informed this?
It started in 2009. It actually started when I drove into a filling station where I met some Almajiri boys. If you are familiar with filling stations, you see a lot of Almajiri boys hanging around there. And, they approach different car owners to ask for what to eat. If you go to motor park, it is the same scenario you will see. You know, a lot of people don’t understand the Almajiri system; they think is all about the boys alone. They don’t look at the female version of it. Before I ventured into this, I used to blame the Mallams for the plight of the Almajiri children but when I came closer to them, I realized that there is no way you will blame the Mallams for the children going on the streets to beg. They are not on salaries. Parents just drop off their children, with no provisions or food items like you have in boarding schools. Now, tell me how do you want these Mallams to look after these children?
Don’t get me wrong: some Mallams are wicked but I’m saying that not all of them are wicked. In any case, I don’t want to talk about that side for now. But some parents turning their children to Almajiri are doing so, either due to poverty or wickedness or ignorance. Back to my story at the filling station, I saw these two young boys. The older one was dragging his younger brother. And he was crying because he was hungry. As a mother, I was moved. So, I called them to come. I was munching sugarcane in the car. I said they should enter the car. I observed that the little one really wanted to do so. But the elder one was pulling him back. And he was telling him in Hausa that he should remember that they were warned by the Mallam not to enter any car. When I saw that, I gave them the sugarcane and I noticed that the little boy was rushing the sugarcane; you could see he was hungry. So, I called one of those selling bread and I bought some loaves for them to take home.
I wanted to know why they were Almajiri, I asked about their parents? The elder one said, their mother is dead and their father married another woman who said she was not interested in having them around in the same house. And so their father brought them to the Mallam. It’s a pathetic story and I get emotional each time I talk about it. Not too long after this encounter, my father died, and you know as a Muslim, we inherit some property, money and stuffs like that when we lose our fathers. Anyone who knew my father will tell you, he was a man who liked giving out freely. So I was thinking: what can I do to make my father happy up there? So, I decided to use what I have out of my inheritance to do some charity work in his memory so that he will be happy wherever he is. And, he’ll be proud of how many lives I have touched.
How many people have been impacted by your NGO since you started?
A lot. But it’s not about the number but the impact. You see, in the course of doing this Almajiri programme, I realized the best way to help those children, apart from sending them to school is to empower their mothers, their parents. Without empowering their parents, you can’t help those children. By sensitizing their parents, you are sensitizing the children as well. So we have done a lot. We have a medical doctor who wants to remain anonymous even as he supports our cause. And we respect everybody’s privacy. People ask me: why is it that you don’t put out names or pictures of those who have benefited from your various programmes? It is because, we don’t want them stigmatized; it’s not their fault that they are where they are. That’s why we don’t put their names out on our website, or say these are the numbers of what we do. I started this with the hope, that one day when I am no longer on this earth somebody will remember my good deeds and look after my children.
What are the challenges you face while trying to do this?
If you will recall, during the pandemic, the state governments said that the Almajiris should be returned to their various states of origin and the federal government announced that all the schools were going to be shut down as part of efforts to flatten the curve of the COVID-19. We went about educating the Mallams on the need to comply with the government‘s directives. We engaged the royal fathers, because, as you know in the North, we respect our royal fathers a lot. So we had conversations with them and appealed to them to prevail on the Mallams to send the children back home in adherence to government’s directives. By the time the other states were ready to start doing that, we had already sent our children back silently. We did this because we didn’t want the Mallams to run foul of the law. We told them that immediately the state governments start shutting down the schools, they will not allow them to keep the children. So, they should respect themselves and send them back to their parents. And most of them did that. That’s one. Secondly, during the pandemic, the people that were worst hit by the pandemic were the Almajiri children. This is because these are children that take to begging to survive. By returning them home to parents who really didn’t care for them, their suffering continued. If you look at the life of an Almajiri child, it is very pathetic. This is because with all these insecurity, most of the time it is that child on the street that they pick, and train to steal, kill and engage in all kinds of vices. The girls amongst them are raped, beaten and exposed to dangerous drugs. Both the boys and girls sleep in the same space: what do you think happens there? The boys rape the girls, get them pregnant and the vicious cycle continues. They face a lot of challenges and the girl-child continues to suffer.
But you must have recorded some success stories. Could you share some of them?
Yes. We have trained a lot of the Almajiri children who in turn today, are training others at the centre in Kebbi. Girls that have dropped out of school before are back at the centre and are being prepared for their WAEC. And, they are undertaking various vocational trainings in their areas of interest. You know, many people ask me: what can be done to integrate the Almajiri system into Islamic education. Many do not know that, Islam-wise, it is wrong to beg. There is a story in the Quran of a man who went to the Prophets and begged. But one of the Prophets asked him: what do you have in your house and he said he has a blanket. And the Prophet asked him to go and sell that blanket, buy an axe, go cut firewood and sell instead of begging because it’s un-Islamic to beg. People don’t know that begging can be stopped.
The government alone cannot do this. It’s something that the whole society has to help. This is why wherever I speak, or if I do an outreach programme, I always end up with a call to adopt a child. Adopting one child doesn’t mean you have to take that child away from his or her family. You can leave that child with his parents because once you train that child, it will rub off on his other siblings because he will go back home and teach others.
I’ll give an example. There is this woman. She has a very lovely girl. She said she was going to give her out in marriage. I said to her, let me have that child just for one year. She said, no. I said, if you let me have her for one year, I will do the bed, the chair, her kitchen stuff for her marriage. Her mother said she doesn’t want her to go to school. I assured her that she would not go to school. All I want her to do is learn a skill and that’s all. During that process, she was learning. We were teaching her hygiene, how to look after herself, clean her house, cook different dishes. But as soon as we started, we taught her how to write her name and how to read. The moment she got home, she would tell her mother what they were taught for the day. She started showing her mother how to keep their house neat because she said the place was dirty. The mother became scared because the girl was changing and her mother was uncomfortable with the changes.
She was also making sure that the rest of her siblings did the same thing. She would make sure that they had their bath, which was rare. We taught her how to make soap and she would go back home and be teaching her siblings the same thing. We also taught her catering, how to cook. It got to a point where the girl told her mother that she was not getting married again. She said she wants to go to school. Her mother was scared. She confronted me and said that I told her that the girl would not go to school, so what happened? The girl assured her mother that she was not going to school. I mentioned earlier that we also have an adult school that trains Almajiri children and the girls told her mother that she has been watching from the window what they’re teaching those adults. So she wants to do what those ones are doing.
Do you know what? The girl is today in Polytechnic and her mother is not talking to me. She says she has left the girl for me and I said okay. But the girl goes home to visit her parents frequently. She is very beautiful and I told her mother that the calibre of people that will approach your daughter to ask for her hand in marriage will be different from the calibre of those that came to marry her before now. To top it all, she is not only one that goes to school in their house now. All her siblings are now in school and her mother is engaged in a trade.
We paid the mother’s rent because she’s a widow and now we are building a house for her. She’s still not talking to me. She talks to everybody. Anytime I see her, I call her, Kawa (that means, friend), and she would say, ‘I’m not talking to you; you tricked me.’ But I know she doesn’t mean it. And then the guy that wanted to marry her daughter asked for a refund of what he had spent on her, which is N50, 000. We promptly paid him back. What is N50, 000 compared to someone’s future? Provided you are ready to go to school, we have a place for you at the centre. If you want to learn a trade, we also have a place for you there. We can’t do it all. Even if it is a girl you adopt, follow up. It will go a long way.
How do you get funding for your project?
No matter how rich or, how powerful you are, you need money. But the problem I’m facing is, people don’t believe that I need support because I am a governor’s wife. I use my personal funds. I use the board members’ funds. I ask friends and family for help. But it’s not enough. The governor has been in office for how many years now? And, how many more years to go? But my NGO has been in existence before he became a governor. Besides, it would be unfair to ask him to use state funds to support a personal NGO. This is my pet project. Yes, he supports us with advice, guides us and in any other way he can. But it’s unfair to put the financial burden of running the NGO, my pet project, on him. We survive by the grace of God, that’s all I can say. But the truth is, I really need all the support I can get to drive this passion.
We may not be able to eradicate the Almajiri system because many prominent Nigerians have come out to speak in favour of it. But what do you think can be done differently to reduce the suffering of the children?
Let me start by saying that in every village, there is a Mallam and he is as good as the other Mallam in the state capital. Like I said, the Mallams are not placed on salaries. My suggestion is that the young ones from age 10 and below should go to Arabic school from home. To me, that is the most logical thing to do. Any Mallam that keeps a child below 10, that is not biologically his, should be taxed or fined. If we can enforce a law that every child should go to Arabic school within their community and that those from age 10 and below should go from home, trust me, it will be better and we would have effectively addressed the Almajiri problem. That way, we will educate our children and at the same time stop this culture of them begging on the street, exposed to danger of being killed, drugged and becoming willing tools in the hands of terrorists and other criminal vices. Sometimes, a 10-year-old is not even mature. He is still a baby. He still needs parental care and love. There’s a newspaper story that I read about a Mallam arrested in one of the northern states. The story is that he gives out these young boys to big people to sodomise for money. The person who brought this to my attention knew that it was something I am passionate about. The person said: ‘Hajiya, see what you have been fighting against.’ Yes, although the culprit was arrested, he had already destroyed the lives of those boys: they can never be normal again.
Do you have time to relax because you seem so consumed by all these things?
That is what makes me happy. This is how I spend my vacation. Even if it is one person that I am able to put a smile on his or her face, that really makes me happy.