My first encounter with the almajiris was way back in the 80’s. Then, we, my family, were living in Katsina. I never understood what almajiri stood for but I knew enough to stay out of their way. If an almajiri breaks your head, the whole town will blame you because, well, he’s almajiri. If any of them comes to your house to ask for alms, just politely give them whatever you have and set them off as fast as you can without making it obvious you wanted them out of your house. Failure to give them anything at all, or that you handed them what you have insolently, could earn you shattered windows, and no one would scold them. They were more like the bull that belongs to an alusi (a shrine) that goes wherever it wishes, destroys whatever it wills, harms whoever it wants to, and still go scot-free. They were revered and scorned at the same time.
That was when I was still very young. So you can imagine how shocked I was to meet almajiri again in Kaura Namoda, Zamfara State when I went for my service twenty years later. The only difference was that the society now treated them as outcasts and wild animals. Then in Katsina, if an almajiri deliberately destroys something or hurts someone, without any form of provocation, you can complain to the elders, who will trace the ‘master’ of the almajiri to call his ‘students’ to order. But in Zamfara, the elders will advise that you have nothing to do with the almajiris because most of them have no ‘reg number’ (they don’t know who their masters were). In fact, most of them were just wanderers.
So we, the corp members, stayed away from them and they kept away from Corper’s Lodge. Like the natives of Kaura, we treated them as outcasts – never allowing them near us because of the volatile and pilfering attitudes. We were made to believe that they need no one’s pity and that they are immune to everything. So I actually never pitied them until I had a heart-rending experience.
This happened one cold early January-harmattan morning – those that have been to the far North during the harmattan period will understand how bad January and early February weather can be. I stepped out of my lodge to see if any ‘Mai Bredi’ (bread seller) will venture into the hazy cold and windy morning to buy bread from any of the nearby bakeries. I was startled by a heap of dirty white caftan clothes crouching close to the entrance door. I could tell it was a human being because I made out a portion of a head placed in-between the knees. But the head was the only visible part of the body because its owner withdrew his limbs into the thin material he wore in a bid to shelter his thin body from the biting cold and fierce winds. Whoever it was, was deeply asleep. He was in that state for the long short minutes I could withstand the harsh biting weather. I went back into my apartment worried that something will happen to that little boy out there and that corpers may be harassed for it.
Well, I took a little makeshift blanket, went out and covered the boy (even though I knew I wasn’t supposed to touch him since I’m a woman and all). He raised his head then and our eyes met. Trust me, what I saw in those eyes was painful. Anyway, I came out about 30 minutes later to check on my ‘visitor’ only to find an empty space. Both the boy and my blanket have disappeared. I never related this story to anyone because we have been warned of the human weapons embedded in almajiris – they are easily recruited as mercenaries to kill and maim. But my little encounter has shown me something I didn’t know before – those children crave for love and attention; and they are indeed suffering.
But one question I have asked myself several times (though I got a little insight into its answers during my stay in northern Nigeria) is, “why is almajiri systems still persistent in Nigeria?” As a mother, I know I can’t give up my children to pass through what these boys are experiencing. I also know that no father in his right senses will send his children into that. Besides, I found out that nobody living in Kaura Namoda sent any of his children into that life. Even the yam seller, popularly called Mallam Mai Doya, that was an ex-almajiri vowed never to let any of his children become an almajiri so long as he has life in him.
To answer this question, partially though, I found out that these almajiris come from the hinterland. They come from deep interior places in the north, where any form of civilisation does not exist. Some of them were brought by their parents and handed over to Islamic ‘scholars’ because they wanted their children to learn the proper ways of Islam and also to witness civilisation. I also heard that some of these mallams recruit almajiris from those interior parts and then send them into the streets in search of food. Whatever they collect, they bring back for their mallam, his family and for themselves. These are stories I gathered from some stakeholders in Kaura Namoda, anyway; empirical studies need to be conducted to ascertain their authenticity.
But one thing is certain about this system – it is harmful to both the nation and the children. It is anti-social and anti-human. It is barbaric and abusive. In fact, almajiri system, as I see it run in Northern Nigeria, is an exemplary case of child abuse. The way that boy took shelter in front of our lodge is the way others will seek shelter in other places. If they don’t see anywhere to hide their heads, they will settle directly under the elements. If they get sick, they have no one to cater for them. They are exposed to the elements. They are easy prey to dangerous people and animals. They have no future to look up to: they live in the present alone. They have to fend for themselves, thereby engaging in crimes so as to sustain their living. And here we are wondering why the rate of insecurity in the north is high.
But the essence of this article isn’t to describe who these almajiris are, because a lot of people already know them. I only have a few unanswerable questions concerning this Almajiri System that I’ll like the Northern Nigerian stakeholders to meditate on. They are:
- Is Almajiri System an Islamic thing or a Northern Nigerian policy?
- If Almajiri is from Islam, how come none of the pure Islamic countries practice it?
- Why is it that the children of the rich never join the almajiri bandwagon?
And for the Nigerian government, I’ll like to ask, “how come Almajiri system has not been outlawed from the country?”