The renewed conversation about the menace of destitute and roaming about 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 dot the entire landscape of Okene and environs, from which five times a day, the voice of the muezzin is heard intermittently blaring out calls to the Muslim faithful to obligatory prayers, one may not realize that the religion of Islam arrived here only less than two centuries ago. Islam had earlier reached the old Kanen Borno Empire in the present north eastern 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’’ [Ajinomoh wars], delayed the arrival of Islam in Ebira land from the 19th century to early 20th century. The existence of a strong guild of blacksmiths amongst the Ebira people of Okene whose excellent iron smelting skills qualifies as one of the most advanced in Black Africa, provided superior weapons to a war like people that were famous for their mastery of archery. And with a rugged mountainous terrain, which proved treacherous for the invading Calvary of mounted horse men from the Emirate of Bida, the Ebira warriors who were 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 Ebira land through the peaceful Da’wah mission of Islamic scholars from the nearby Ilorin Emirate. Within a few years of the arrival in Okene town of the peaceful Da’wah mission from the Emirate of Ilorin in the early years of the 20th century the religion of Islam will spread fast with 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 of the people, Okene will emerge 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 Ebira land 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 Hausa corrupted 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 important to our faith language is required of us 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 Hausa land 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 my birth to fulfil this basic requirement of minimum literacy in Arabic language for Islamic studies and religious practices. Desiring of 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 7:00am, I will leave for school from home and by 1:00pm closing time I am headed back home. After my afternoon meal, I will usually follow my father, to the mosque for Zuhr congregational prayers after which I will 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 right 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 also 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 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 small family would usually seat behind his sewing machine peddling for his income from morning till late afternoon when he will 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, which will be rewarded in the hereafter.
Away, from the Madrasah, I will further my Arabic and Islamic studies in a publicly funded secondary school attended, which has 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 Africa School Cert 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 in a without parallel in the larger Muslim world. The human tragedy of out of 14million 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.