Before now they roamed the streets with a bowel in hand begging for arms, while the grown-up are used as tools for political, religious/ethnic violence. However, the Federal Government may be in the right direction to change the fortune of this section of the society. Last week, President Goodluck Jonathan inaugurated the first Almajiri Model Boarding School in Gagi area of Sokoto metropolis; an initiative many say is in the right direction to address the menace of the Almajiri syndrome in the North. Mohammed Aminu writes
Since the 11th century, when Islam gained an institutional foothold in Nigeria, the establishment of schools and the promotion of scholarship had been an integral part of its growth and development. These schools produced not only the scholars who mediated the religious and social activities of the societies, but also the technocrats that supported state institutions and the management of state affairs. For many of the societies, the development of education also served a strategic societal goal, which entails the support and promotion of responsible leadership and good governance.
The term 'Almajiri' was derived from the Arabic word 'almuhaajirun'—a term referring to the companions of Prophet Mohammed who migrated to the ancient city of Medina in Saudi Arabia due to persecution by idol worshipers in Mecca. The emigrants found an opportunity to leave an environment where learning, preaching and practicing Islam was prohibited.
This era in Islamic history inspired the Almajiri system in Northern Nigeria over a century ago, where parents entrust their children into the custody of Mallams (Quranic teachers) to memorise the holy book. Normally, the Mallam or Islamic teacher is given a number of children to be tutored in Islamic knowledge. He moves these children away to a distant community in the urban centre. Thus, with the use of the whip and religious indoctrination by the Mallam, assisted by the old pupils, the Almajiris are made to quickly adjust to the new realities of their lives. The Almajiri, who is equipped with a bowl and clad in dirty clothing, move around begging for alms and food on the streets.
Similarly, the almajiri boys till the Mallam’s farms and feed his livestock and sometimes render domestic services and menial chores to various households in exchange for food and stipends. But the system was abused because when a child is in need, the Mallam sends him out to fend for himself and look for food and these kids engage in all sorts of things. These children are exposed to a different way of life and this exposure is happening to these Almajiris at a period when they are most vulnerable. So, left at the mercy of the vagaries of the streets, these adolescent kids with no parental or social guidance are more likely to become social misfits with the likelihood of drifting into a life of crime.
The Mallam is not equipped financially to handle the functional needs of these kids, who are mostly between the ages of five and 15. The sheer number of the kids under him has already overwhelmed him and this is where the social disconnect sets in. Thus, these kids who are now far from their parents at a very young age have now become acclimatised to the easy life of the city and won’t be able to cope with the tough village life of their parents. Moreover, they are not equipped through formal education or vocational training to derive the benefit of earning a living in the city. Some of these children return home once a year to help in their parent’s farm, while others does not see their parents for years.
Worried by the negative consequences of the Almajiri system, Sokoto State government had two years ago, established an Almajiri Integrated School in Dange Shuni with about 800 pupils and is even planning to build three additional schools in the three senatorial districts of the state. The state government observed that the old system of Almajiri education was fraught with problems. Invariably, it believed that the establishment of the Almajiri Integrated Model School would bridge the gap and address the problems inherent in the old system.
Thus, it believed that the present approach to Quranic education in the Almajiri model school is different from the traditional Quranic school system in terms of improved curriculum contents, structure, teaching methods, management, staff, pupils and staff welfare and as such can serve the present administration's educational goals better.
The newly inaugurated Almajiri school project, modeled on the Sokoto Integrated School, is part of the programmes initiated by the Federal Government to combat the poor education of youths in the North, which many believed to be one of the reasons for violence in the region. At the inception of the President Goodluck Jonathan Administration, he insisted that the almajiri syndrome was responsible for the high level of insecurity and other social menace in the North.
The President had in fulfillment of his campaign pledge, approved the construction of 400 Almajiri schools across the 18 Northern states with the exception of Plateau State, which is being handled by the Tertiary Education Trust Fund (ETF). The Sokoto Almajiri Boarding School in Gagi area was constructed at the cost of N240 million. This includes furnishing of the boarding school, Mallam’s quarters, hostels, library, technical workshop, ICT centre and language laboratory among others. The Federal Government will design the curriculum, provide text books and capacity building for the teachers, while the state government will provide uniform, feeding and also pay the remuneration of the teachers.
The pupils in the long run are expected to graduate into normal conventional secondary school and subsequently move to acquire tertiary education. However, those who may not wish to acquire tertiary education will be able to fend for themselves and become useful to the society based on the vocational skills acquired in the school. The language of instruction in the Almajiri schools will be conducted in the local language, especially in Hausa for the first three years, while the pupils will learn English in the long run. The move was meant to discourage the elite from sending their wards to the almajiri school.
Speaking at the inauguration ceremony of the Almajiri School at Gagi area of Sokoto metropolis last week, Jonathan declared that no nation could attain greatness if its youths, who are assets of future development, are neglected. He said the initiative was meant to provide the Almajiris with conventional modern skill that will enable them be productive members of the society. According to him, the project was meant to change the future of the Almajiris and was tailored to be in tune with the current knowledge driven world.
"Knowledge is the pedestal on which a nation’s social cohesion and economic development depends. No nation achieves greatness if its youths, who are its greatest assets and successor generation, have no access to quality education. This is even more real in today’s knowledge-driven world. Unfortunately, and in spite of the best efforts of government, the goal of providing access to quality education has not been fully realised in Nigeria. The fact that the majority of these children do not attend conventional schools makes the situation quite worrisome. Our Administration believes that the time has come for the nation to build on the moral foundations of the traditional school system by providing the Almajiri with conventional knowledge and skills that will enable them fully realise their creative and productive potentials,” he said.
Jonathan stated that recent statistics indicated that there are about 9.5 million Almajiris in the North, out of which the North West account for over five million that is about 60 per cent of the entire population nationwide. "We feel that we must modernise the almajiri system. Thus, it was in view of that, I directed the Minister of Education to design an intervention programme for the Federal Government and States to address the issue,” Jonathan stated.
He said about 35 schools are being constructed in some states for the Almajiris to access basic education. The President stressed that the Universal Basic Education Commission (UBEC) will monitor the schools to ensure compliance to the minimum academic standard. He further expressed concern at the level of confrontation being faced in some communities by contractors and lauded the Sultan of Sokoto for donating his land for the school. He lamented that some communities even harass contractors when government want to site a project there and stressed the need for community participation in government projects to guard against vandalism.” Government alone cannot provide infrastructure. So, communities must play a role and guard against vandalisation of projects,” he added.
In a remark, the Sultan of Sokoto, Alhaji Muhammad Sa'ad Abubakar, said the way the Almajiri Model School project was conceived and executed, provides succour and relief to millions who had been left out of the conventional school system. According to him, the nation cannot afford to allow the emergence of unequal societies and the adverse social consequences associated with it. "We must endeavour to provide fair opportunities to every child and equip our school age population, to lead productive lives and contribute their quota to national development,” he said.
He noted with dismay the enormous challenges posed by the almajiri phenomenon, pointing out that the longer government tarry, the more complex the issue becomes. He emphasised that no single stake holder can adequately address these challenges and therefore it has become imperative for all and sundry to work together to begin to face up these enormous challenges. We must begin by calling upon parents to appreciate the fact that education, both Islamic and conventional is the greatest gift we could bequeath our progeny. We therefore bear special responsibility to ensure that our children take full advantage of this precious gift.
"We can ill-afford to abandon this responsibility to itinerant Mallams or to the vagaries of the street. We should not forget that in several states there are more pupils in the traditional Almajiri education sector than those attending conventional schools, we must ensure that we plan appropriately for the upcoming generations and endow them with better educational opportunities than their predecessors,” the monarch said.
He challenged the traditional rulers in the North to mobilise their communities to play an effective role, stressing that education is a collective enterprise. "We must encourage self help and facilitate the establishment and sustenance of community schools. We must restore the culture of endowment to support educational and religious institutions,” the Sultan added. He also emphasised that the launching of the Almajiri Education Trust Fund, especially at the state level, should be pursued with all vigor as a bold expression of community action in the development of education in the society.
Also speaking, Sokoto State Governor, Alhaji Aliyu Wamakko, said Almajiri constitute a vulnerable group and poses a great challenge in the attainment of education for all and millennium development goals (MDGs). He said the state government set up an Almajiri Integrated Model School in the state with 800 pupils two years ago to integrate Quranic school system with modern education in such a way that the traditional barriers to educational pursuits are systematically broken. He therefore directed the 23 local government councils in the state to construct almajiri schools in their areas.
The Minister of Education, Prof. Rukayat Ahmed Rufai, said the Federal Government would provide funding for the project, while state governments will maintain the facilities and pay remuneration of teachers. She stated that the 35 almajiri schools under construction consist of 10 boarding schools and 25 day schools under phase one while UBEC will provide additional 51 schools under phase two. She maintained that the almajiri phenomenon cannot be solved overnight and that the states are expected to construct and replicate such model schools in the long run. The minister pointed out that the Almajiris would acquire conventional skills and literacy that will enable them become useful to themselves and the society.
The Executive Secretary of Tertiary Education Trust Fund, Prof. Mamood Yakubu, at the occasion, said the Almajiri School is the best model that has received support from traditional rulers in the North.
Many observers have said that the Almajiri system have long outlived the purpose it was earlier set to accomplish and therefore need to be overhauled in order to conform with the new economy and modern realities instead of being a breeding ground for the production of miscreants. A public affairs commentator in the state, Mallam Yusuf Dingyadi told THISDAY that the almajiri project like many of its kind was meant to provide an avenue for some cronies of government to drain the treasury, as ordinary Almajiris on the streets will continue to suffer from hunger, lack of medical attention and access to basic education. He expressed fears that the elite and government officials in the state may send their children to the Almajiri School because of the facilities in the school to the detriment of the real Almajiris. "Many of such programmes are not done with sincere mind of transforming the public but for the benefit of some private individuals,” he stated.
However, some Mallams in the state are apprehensive that the Almajiri model schools will replace the traditional system of learning, which they were hitherto much comfortable with. They were adamant about government's plans to integrate western education with the traditional Almajiri system and opined that the old system should be maintained rather than being systematically phased out.
Mallam Ibrahim Isa, a Quranic teacher with large number of Almajiris at Gandu area of Sokoto metropolis told THISDAY that the initiative being embarked by the Federal Government to integrate Quranic education with western education is a welcome development provided it will complement the old system rather than being a replacement. He said the Mallams are ready to allow the Almajiris to attend the model school, if government will allow the pupils to come back and learn Quran after lessons. "The traditional Almajiri system has been there for over a century and was not duly recognised by government. In fact, the government neglected the old system that is why the Almajiris were forced to beg on the streets. So, it will be difficult for some of us to abandon the old system and join the Almajiri model school,” he stressed.
Nevertheless, despite the apprehension being expressed by some Mallams over the almajiri project being embarked by the Federal Government, analysts believe that the programme if well implemented, will go a long way in addressing the problems inherent in the old almajiri system and reverse the educational backwardness of the Northern region in the long term.