The National Council for the Welfare of Destitutes in Nigeria says there are about seven million child and teen-age beggers -- or Almajrai, in the north of the country. Kano State accounts for more than a million. The World Health Organization says over three percent of these boys suffer sexual abuse and neglect -- a situation that worries many northern political and social leaders. Voice of America English to Africa reporter Isiyaku Ahmed in Kano says the word “Almajiri” is derived from the Arabic word “Al-muhajirin,” meaning a seeker of Islamic knowledge.
In Nigeria, Almajiri is any child or adult who begs for assistance in the streets or from house to house. Islamic teachings strongly prohibit begging except in very special circumstances. They include a man’s loss of property in a disaster, or when a man has loaned much of his money for the common good, such as bringing peace between two warring parties.
The majority of Almajiris in Nigeria are children from 3 to 18 years old. Community leaders say these children are totally neglected by their parents.
Health workers say they are vulnerable to diseases and social crimes. These beggar children are found on Zaria Road, one of Kano’s major streets. In order to survive, they beg from dusk to dawn everyday. After begging, they return to their makaranta, or school, or are left on the streets.
The privileged ones among them have a few hours of Quranic recitations with their mallams, or Islamic teachers, in a traditional Islamic schooling system called tsangaya.
Unlike in western school systems, Almajiris are taught how to recite and memorize the Holy Quran and Hadiths.
An organization funded by USAID, called Enabling HIV/AIDS, Tuberculoses, and Social Sector Environment, or ENHANSE, is making efforts to reform the Almajiri system and help Almajiri children. Recently, the ENHANSE group was in Kano for a workshop seeking ways of protecting children and keeping them at home or in dormitories.
Fatimah Shagari is a northern specialist with the ENHANSE project in Nigeria. She says the Almajiri system was originally designed to give children Quranic knowledge, but the structure has been changed from its original intent. She says,
“The Almajiri child presents only as a begging street child. People of the society have used the Almajiri system to abuse the Muslim child, to traffic the Muslim child, to make the Muslim child vulnerable to all source of diseases, unsafe conditions and to some extent expose them to terrorism, thuggery and other menaces, to be used as social destructors, and to some extent also be used as sex hawkers or homosexuals in particular.”
Shagari says members of the ENHANSE project are meeting with Imams, the legislators, parents whose children are Almajiri and the Muslim Ulamas. She says they hope to come out with a workable action plan to correct the present situation of the Almajiri child and the Alamjiri system in Nigeria,
“We have had several and series of meetings with tsangaya chairmen, both from local and the state levels, the local authorities that mind the Almajiri schools. We wish to achieve an action plan that will assign responsibilities to each and every stakeholder so that we work together towards [achieving] many, many things [like the] development of standards [in] tsangaya boarding schools, and side by side primary, secondary and tertiary boarding schools.”
Shagari says the new arrangement will improve things. She says ENHANSE is talking with legislators about the enforcement of the Child Rights Act of 2003 by all state governments. Many state governments have not voted on and approved the act, as mandated by Nigeria’s political system. She says if the act is enforced, the Almajiri child will be provided for, and will be taught various skills.
She adds that Quranic learning will be integrated with western education,
“We would want to see skills development within the Almajiri schools. We would want to see boarding facilities developed within the tsangaya schools and also using of the other structures so that feeding, adequate funding, adequate facilities and health care is provided for the tsangaya schools.”
According to recent government statistics there are 13,335 Almajiri schools in Kano State. There are 45,454 mallams, or teachers, with 1,272,844 Almajirai.
Huseyn Zakaria is one of the founding board members of the National Council of Imams. He agrees with Shagari saying that today, the Almajiri system is not true to Islamic teachings.
He says Almajiri are supposed to be disciples of the Mallam, or religious leader, who is supposed to provide the children with food, housing and other essentials. Families contribute by providing food or money to the Mallam,
“If the Almajiri system is curtailed [reformed], that means the social and security threats will also be minimized. There’s also the issue of economy. If people are dependant on others, they become unproductive, they don’t contribute to the economy of a given society. So, we want to teach these guys trade in vocational schools where they can learn carpentry, building and all sorts (of things) so that they can fit and also fend for themselves instead of depending on others."
In working with eminent Islamic scholars, faith-based organizations, and tsangaya school mallams, the ENHANSE Project hopes to help the Almajiri child and reform the Almajiri system in Nigeria. ENHANSE’s efforts aim to educate parents on the dangers of their children being on the streets and also to see that government helps the tsangaya schools develop an integrated curriculum.
ENHANSE is a consortium of six international NGOs with years of experience in Nigeria working in development areas. The Almajiri project is one of ENHANSE’s new initiatives to improve the educational system in Northern Nigeria. It is part of a five-year bi-lateral effort on the part of the Nigerian and US Governments to create high quality, accessible health and education programs in Nigeria.