What shall we do with the Almajiri?
By Greg Odogwu
The news that the Federal Government plans to end the Almajiri system of education is a cheery one. At least, it shows that we are now ready to stop playing the ostrich. The truth is that what was known as the Almajiri education system has been in a coma and it virtually lost its essence many decades ago. What remains of the institution are the three letters that begin its name – Alm(s).
With what is on ground today, the Almajiri is now the official alms-seeking battalion of the army of Nigeria’s out-of-school-children. These for-hire shoeless militia flying the dubious flag of the academia have been treated roughly by the society. They have been used to appease the conscience of the wealthy who also used them to fulfill their religious duties of alms-giving and then turned around to use them as innocent expendables – as political thugs, emergency mercenaries and professional rabble rousers.
So, not only is it refreshing that the Buhari administration is set to make us clean our closet, but it also strikes a spark of hope, that perhaps, we may finally get it right by scrapping the wrong institutions and laying the right institutional foundations. This is why the people given the task of designing the best methodology to adopt in phasing out Almajiri, should be as hard-headed as possible.
The problem is not just about a failed education system. It has a natural baggage that goes with it. Population explosion and fundamental parenting are two of them. If the truth be told, over time some unscrupulous parents and guardians have seen the Almajiri as an excuse to abscond from their natural responsibilities.
But to be specific, my goal here is to open our eyes to the opportunities that exist in our backyard, which we never noticed; but which due to the government’s declaration, we may finally grasp. Suffice it to say that the Almajiri question may seem insurmountable until we look at it from the green angle.
A report by the National Council for the Welfare of the Destitute approximated the current population of Almajiri to 7 million. The institute documented that the system lacked good teachers and basic amenities like proper clothing and shelter. Most of the Almajiri do not graduate and are left with the option to do menial jobs. Here, it is not difficult to understand that the term, menial jobs, is a euphemism for no job. In that case, the country is faced with an approximate 7 million youths roaming the streets with the tag of an education system that never existed in the first place.
This brings us face to face with the British Council 2010 report, which announced that Nigeria faced a “demographic disaster” if it did not engage its alarmingly growing youth population. At the time the report was published, almost a decade ago, it seemed as if that the future would never come. At that time, our population was less than 170 million; but today we are over 200 million, with 61 per cent of the population consisting of young people.
I dare say that since then, there has never been any nationally driven cohesive and comprehensive youth employment campaign that sought to engage young people in a creative approach, using our abundant natural resources. What we had, and are still having, are dole-outs and pittance-sharing to some privileged young people who are already cynical about the system, to the extent that they see every kobo they can squeeze out from the government as their own share of the national cake.
This is the same dynamic behind the ballooning of the Almajiri population. Most of the Almajiri are not really there for the education; they are there to grab the pittance hurled at them from the tables of the masters.
Incidentally, as the population of the Almajiri grows and the economy shrinks, everyone discovers that there are no longer enough resources to go round. The rich and mighty abandon their pawns; and then the smart ones among the minions come up with methods of extorting the wealthy. They kidnap them, they steal from them, and then, when they finally get radicalised, they declare their former masters “enemies of God” in order to totally destroy them.
Ironically, the opportunities provided by the environmental condition of Northern Nigeria, where the Almajiri are majorly found, are enormous. If the Federal and the northern states governments were creative enough, these youths would have been converted into a formidable green corps many years ago to become the arrowhead to tackle desertification, deforestation, drought, flooding and other emerging ecological exigencies in the northern region.
For instance, the Great Green Wall project of the Federal Government, situated in the 11 frontier states of northern Nigeria, was created and funded to provide employment for artisans, horticulturists, renewable energy engineers, gardeners, forest rangers and all sorts of hands-on eco-solution providers. But today, the agency in charge of this project cannot boast of creating any employment so far, using the template created for that purpose when the idea was launched to salvage the endangered Sahara-Sahel Belt.
If you ask me, this is the first thing we can do with the Almajiri education system. Instead of just abolishing the system and declaring every alms-dependent child free to roam, the government can systematically organize them into a Northern Green School system. These young people are easy to mold into eco-giants, because they shall be taught to turn the climate-induced hard terrain of the north into green opportunities, the same way the Indian government has creatively done for its incredibly impoverished rural dwellers.
The Indian story is a miracle. A country that is heavily burdened by its caste system, which created a permanent poor class, the success of her green empowerment projects over the past two decades is almost like squeezing water out of rock. For instance, as you read this piece, the current Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, through his Swachh Bharat Mission (translated Clean India Mission), has employed more than 500,000 Indians as environmental health officers. The Swachh Bharat Mission is a nation-wide campaign in India for the period 2013 to 2019 that aims to clean up the streets, roads and infrastructure of the country’s cities, towns and rural areas.
Some may argue that converting the Almajiri into a green educational system may be too parochial considering the etymology of the concept. But I perfectly understand the philosophy behind the emergence of the system to know that it is a malleable concept, which can be adapted to emerging societal realities. The Almajiri derives from an Arabic word, rendered “al-Muhajirin” in English transliteration, meaning a person who leaves his home in search of Islamic knowledge, or knowledge of God. It thrived in the Kanem-Borno empire over 700 years ago.
Under the Emir in the pre-colonial era, the schools were funded by the community, parents, zakkah, sadaqqah (Islamic tithes and offering), and sometimes through the farm output of the students. Underline the word “farm output”; because it is the same as green jobs such as done in the Great Green Wall plantations.
Incidentally, in 1904, when the British invaded northern Nigeria, most Emirs were killed and others deposed, resulting in loss of control of the Almajiri. Boko or western education was introduced. And with no support from the community, Emirs and the government, the system collapsed. The teachers and pupils had no financial support, so they turned to alms begging and menial jobs for survival.