In the United Kingdom, UK, schools in impoverished areas (like London Borough of Tower Hamlets, Luton’s Marsh Farm et al) have, as of necessity, access to family support workers, social workers, health care practitioners, mental health workers and the police. All these social services are on site (in schools) to make sure that vulnerable children in UK’s poorest areas have the help they need. These schools also provide parenting classes so parents can be educated about how best to help their own children. A four-year-old child, for instance, is lovingly taken to reception where he meets, plays and develops with other children his age. He is taught nursery songs and, depending on ability, begins to learn how to write, read and spell in the English language.
But this is not so in Nigeria, particularly in the North where the Almajiri system co-exists with the formal Western education type. President Goodluck Jonathan last month approved the establishment of 400 Almajiri schools across the country. Although it is not clear yet what role Islamic education will play in the schools’ curriculum, research shows that some of the northern kids, popularly known as the Almajiri, have been abandoned to malams (teachers) to teach them how to read, recite and memorise the Qur’an as early as three years old. At other times in their day, they engage in a plethora of different activities to secure their livelihoods. While students of rural schools mainly farm with their teachers, students in urban areas beg for food or money in the neighbourhood or on the streets, work as household helps, or, when older, wash clothes, carry loads and engage in petty trading. Secular subjects such as Mathematics, English, Social sciences and sciences do not form part of the Almajiri’s curriculum, and Islamic subjects other than the Qur’an are the preserve of advanced learners. The main disadvantage of the Almajiri education limits his thinking and his world outlook in a way that relegates him to the past and keeps him in bondage of lack and penury.
In Nigeria’s harsh economy, these students have no chance at all of what constitutes a modern childhood. They are handed over to the malam who receives no salary but lives off the support given by the local community, the alms given in exchange for his spiritual services, the contributions of his students and supplementary income-generating activities. Most teachers are not formally certified, but are themselves products of the Almajiri system. While many students return home at least once a year (for the major holidays or to help their parents farm), others do not see their parents for years. Some teachers migrate with their schools following seasonal agricultural patterns.
Begging Qur’anic students were formerly to be found mainly in remote rural locales, but today increasingly populate the urban centres of the region – a development that has been accompanied by a steep decline in respect for the system and endemic poverty, according to a research done by the University of Oxford’s Department for International Development. Hannah Hochner spent over 10 months in Kano State conducting her DPhil research into what life is like as an Almajiri and the failures of universal primary education. She estimates that enrolment in Qur’anic schools all over Nigeria is estimated to exceed 9.5 million, with more than 8.5 million in the northern part of the country. How many of these students are Almajiri is, however, subject to speculation, as the existing statistics do not differentiate between day students (who stay with their parents, potentially attend modern school in addition to Qur’anic school) and ‘boarding’ students. The most reliable estimate for Kano suggests that some 300,000 boys and young men – more than 12.5 per cent of all six to 21-year-olds – live as Almajiri in that state.
The Almajiri has been without a voice for too long in our history as a nation. In a video sponsored by the Goethé Institute, Kano, Hochner documents the experience of these children. The documentary narrates a daily pattern of physical abuse, hunger (near starvation), wretchedness, fatigue, disease (lack of access to decent medical facilities), routine verbal abuse and maltreatment by members of the public and much more. Consequently, the Almajiris have become a social problem, a political embarrassment and some form of blight on the urban and rural landscapes of cities such as Kano and Kaduna. Worse still, they have been linked to terrorism, social unrest, the northern massacres (especially after the last presidential elections) and much more. As a country, we need to have a dialogue about how we can increase the access of children from northern states to education. USAID works with northern states in a partnership to support them in delivering primary education. Their website claims “Despite the government of Nigeria’s commitment to providing universal basic education, the delivery of education services is inadequate, and even more so in northern Nigeria.
The gender disparities in education between the northern and southern geopolitical zones are stark. Nationally, about 43 per cent of primary school-aged girls do not have access to basic education, and approximately two million more girls than boys are out of school. In northern Nigeria, the percentage of girls who have never attended school stands at 34 per cent and 39 per cent respectively; for secondary school the figures are 10 per cent and 15 per cent.
Approximately six million students, including a significant number of girls, are enrolled in Qur’anic schools, predominantly in the northern region of the country. These schools are defined as those offering only religious instruction and recitation of the Qur’an, do not offer any formal education curriculum, and are under the direction of mosque leaders and local imams.
It is thought that some of these Qur’anic schools are evolving into Islamiyya schools by integrating aspects of a formal primary school curriculum. If this assessment is true, then the Almajiri paint a bleak picture of what happens when leaders stop caring. They paint a modern picture of failure to educate, which was promised at the start of the First Republic. They may be ostracised, but they do have a voice. They are Nigerians and they do have human rights. Even though in Nigeria today, many people live on dehumanising incomes, many people genuinely lack food, clothing and health care, the Almajiri are worse off because many of them have accepted their destinies.
Also, the entire system is an abuse on the Rights of the Child as enshrined in Nigerian laws and in the United Nations Declarations of Human Rights. A lesson for Nigeria here is if we want our children to compete with American, European and Asian children then we must of necessity put in place systems to ensure that the Nigerian child can hold his own ground in the 21st century.