MAIDUGURI, NIGERIA —
More than 100 boys are sitting in the dirt off a secluded street in Maiduguri. Rocking back and forth, they recite a mantra of verses from the Koran written on wooden slabs.
They are almajiri, students who attend a traditional Islamic school called a tsangaya. They were sent to the tsangaya by their parents who live far away.
But when their lessons are over, these boys will begin walking the streets, pleading for food.
Begging is part of the almajiri tradition.
"Begging is luck. Sometimes you get food immediately when you go out. Sometimes you don't," said Abdul Abbas. He is 16 years old and has been at the tsangaya since he was a young boy.
Activists estimate there are more than 5 million almajiris begging on the streets of Nigeria.
The almajiris flood the local markets at noontime, looking for rotten fruit and discarded leftovers. They carry their signature begging bowls, walking from house to house and pleading for handouts.
Cultural historian Bulama Mali Gubio says the almajiri system goes back centuries, when every boy from the age of about five was expected to attend a tsangaya. The community was expected to take care of the almajiris, as part of what he describes as a "communal feeding system."
The almajiris have long been a normal part of life here. But these days, people increasingly see them as nuisance.
Gubio admits the system has gotten out of hand.
"Almost on a daily basis, young kids the age of five, six, seven have been dropped in Maiduguri here in the thousands,” Gubio said. “They have no parents, no teacher, no guardian, nobody to take care of them.”
More begging due to Boko Haram
The widespread hunger epidemic induced by Boko Haram's seven years of violence in the region has increased the number of children begging on the streets. Children running away from their destroyed communities end up in Maiduguri, standing on the streets alongside the almajiris, trying to look like them.
"Because they know if they look like an almajiri, people will be more inclined to give them charity. People see it as a religious duty to help the almajiris, and they believe Allah will bless them," said Usman Mohammed, who was an almajiri many years ago. Now he is an activist, trying to reform a system that he sees as degrading and abusive.
"If they are begging, some people will beat them, harass them, all kinds of insults. They have been experiencing all kinds of humiliation," Mohammed said. "I know the humiliation they are going through."
Mohammed goes around the city to find almajiris and take their photograph. He talks to them, learns about their background, and finds out where their parents are. He began this personal campaign five years ago to advocate an end to the begging culture.
Government officials have noted that in its early days, members of Boko Haram recruited many vulnerable almajiris.
"The street is their father. The street is their mother. The street is their culture. The street is their tradition,” Gubio said, commenting on how the group targeted almajiris. “They will be stealing, grabbing, getting arms where possible. This is what brought up Boko Haram."
Mohammed agrees. He says almajiris usually do not have stable childhoods.
"How are they going to not turn into something evil?" he asked. "Because they did not know anything called love. Nobody ever loved them, nobody brought them out from the rain, nobody brought them out from the sun. They don't know where to get medication if they get sick."
Deeply entrenched 'tradition'
But the tradition of begging goes back to the teachers, the mallams, who the almajiris live with.
Abbas' mallam, Umar Mohammed, has more than 100 students under his care. He says that forcing children to beg is un-Islamic, but it is necessary.
"I can't take care of them,” Umar Mohammed said. “They should even be the one taking care of me because I am an elder man. There is no organization that is helping us, so we have to allow them to beg. It has been there since our grandparents, so you can't just wake up and condemn it."
But in fact, more are condemning it. Mohammed Sabo Keana is another activist in the Nigerian capital of Abuja. He started AlmajiriProject.com where he posts pictures of almajiris.
"What I understand about the issue and the plight of almajiri is that everybody is turning a blind eye to it," Keana said. "And how I feel to get people to focus on it is to have some prominent people — religious political and traditional rulers — from the northern part of the country to speak on it. Let's have their position on camera. Are you in support of this? Do you condemn it? Let him condemn it on camera.
"And once we have that, we'll use it to form the basis of our advocacy so that we can drive citizens to rally the government to have it take major policies that will bring an end to this system," he added.
But bringing an end to this system means challenging a deeply entrenched tradition.
Back in Maiduguri, evening is approaching and dozens of almajiris run to a waterhole. After a long day in the streets, they put down their begging bowls and splash in the water — in the tradition of children everywhere.