Often denigrated and referred to as “Ticking Time bombs”, “Society’s Blight”, or “The Problem of the North”, a child beggar (“Almajiri” as they are often called in Northern Nigeria) is society’s most neglected pariah. At the lowest level of the social hierarchy, the Almajiri begs for food and works menial tasks to make ends meet. Bowl in hand and hunger in their eyes, door to door they go, singing their tune until they get lucky for some crumbs or leftovers.
One morning, such tune persisted under my window, I had had a late night and my sleep was getting cut short by this tune. “I wish he had gone someplace else to beg” were the words that came out of mouth as I’d been dragged out of my bed from his resounding tune.
For most of life living in Northern Nigeria, Almajiri have always been part of our lives. Either they come to your door begging for food or you find them in the streets begging to closed car windows at every red light.
The Almajiri system otherwise called Ajami system of education dates back before the invasion of the British. A brief history about this system of education is most illustrative in Professor A. Idris’ work where he writes.
“History has shown that, this system started in the 11th century as a result of the involvement of Borno rulers in Qur’anic literacy. Over seven hundred years later, the Sokoto Caliphate was founded principally through an Islamic revolution based on the teachings of the Holy Qur’an. These two empires run similar Qur’anic learning system which over time came to be known as the Almajiri System”.
“The Almajiri system of education as practiced today in the northern Nigeria is a completely bastardized system compared to the form and conditions under which the system was operating and its output during the pre-colonial period. The system has been forced, especially with the coming of the British, to its present pitiful state. During the pre-colonial era, begging was never involved and certainly the pupils were not reduced to doing menial jobs before they could eat”.
Under the care of a “Malam” a child is sent to this system to memorize the Quran and gain Islamic knowledge from his “Malam” who are in some cases, rumored to be marabouts.
Of course, the Ajami system of education is not what it is today, like every other system, corruption has pervaded in it. With no funding from zakat and Islamic donations, the vestige of a system which once graduated venerable scholars is not even a shadow of its former self.
When a child is first brought into the system, he is forewarned in the following words.
“This is not home, Can you live here? ”
The child accedes.
He is then asked if he wets the bed at night, if yes, then the odds are against him.
Bed wetters live in a small semi-constructed room. I remember when I saw it, I thought that it must be abandoned. Dirty walls, the air oozed of putrid smell from poor hygiene, rat holes at every corner, it was hard to determine whether it was made for humans to live in. What made it seem more abandoned was the fact that there were no personal items, no beds nor mattresses. Nothing.
Convinced it was not a resting place, I was shocked to find out that bed wetters laid bare on the floor.
Those who can hold it didn’t have it better either, they made beds from maize stalk, tied together by sack threads and supported by bricks, similarly inhabitable. That is the reality of where the Almajiri gets a shut eye. For those who make it back home on time.
I made my way to their school, or perhaps the household run by their Malam. As I approached the dilapidated structure along a corrugated road, open urination must be prevalent in the area because I could barely tolerate the pungent smell of urine. I could hear echoes of their recital.
Sitting on the floor at the periphery of the building, the Almajiri children recited their various scriptures which they had written themselves on their wooden boards called ALLO. Each child was required to memorize his and proceed to the next verse. The sounds of their recital, high pitched and jumbled, deterred from understanding even a word.
Two hours later, they were done, they were free to do what everyone knows them best with, their single story. They were released to beg for breakfast.
As they disbursed in droves, a sight caught my eyes. Covered in dirty oversized clothes, his frail figure barely holding the clothes from falling, bowl in hand and hunger in his eyes, stood about a 5 to 6-year-old child, within the age to feel homesick and in need of constant maternal care.
The sight of the boy raised a question in my mind. Don’t they feel homesick? To sate my curiosity, I asked an older boy about it.
In his words “We hardly ever feel homesick. Some of us around here haven’t been home for almost three years. Even if we go there, we might be reprimanded for absconding and sent back. So the thought of home hardly crosses out minds”.
No home to go back to, nor a parent’s love. I wondered what or who makes them abide by the regulations of this still subsisting system?
Like in every society, the Almajiri have a social hierarchy. The bed wetters at the bottom of the spectrum and the Gardis at the top.
The Gardi, ex-Almajiri who finished the system (finished their recital), are appointed by the Malam to remain as care takers, or rather, vice principals in his absence. They coordinate their activities, carry out headcounts, settle disputes through lashes with cane of both disputants and they even go as far as surveillance, spying on the activities of their subordinates against misconduct from the negative influences of the society. The Gardi discipline the children. Perhaps, lack of a home to return to, or fear of lashes from Gardi keeps them subservient.
Barefoot under the scorching hot sun, bearing in mind that Gardis are spying, door to door they go, begging for food. “Allazi Wahidi, Dan Malam, Iya ko Kanzo, Wahidi…”. Loosely translated, it means, “Because of Allah, Madam please, Malam’s child is hungry, Even if it’s dried crumbs…” They beg door to door until they get lucky for some leftover food.
To be continued.