Almajiranci: A Literary Perspective, By Isa Sanusi
Cheikh Hamidou Kane, the Senegalese writer whose work, “Ambiguous Adventure” (1961) dealt with the dilemma of bringing up a child in the context of African culture, Islam and the Western influence, best describes where northern Nigeria is today.
Statistics can be scary. But because they are largely abstract, we move on after a brief moment of shock or excitement. A survey jointly conducted by the Nigerian government and the global children’s rights humanitarian agency, UNICEF, led to the release of frightening figures last year, detailing out-of-school-children across the country. Over 69 per cent of these children, wandering aimlessly and in permanent destitution, are in northern Nigeria. Bauchi State has the highest number, with 1.1 million out-of-school-children, followed by Katsina State whose streets are littered with 782,500 of these children, who exist in perpetual uncertainty. The survey puts out-of-school-children in the country at 13.2 million. Yet, surveys are always based on sampling. Therefore, a census of out-of-school children in Nigeria can turn out more shocking figures. If children are leaders of tomorrow and millions of them in the north are out-of-school, it is very easy to predict what the future could look like. But now, let us deal with the present.
It is a welcome development that President Muhammadu Buhari has resolved to address the issue of ‘almajiranci.’ According to media reports, the federal government is aiming to eliminate the problem of out-of-school children, by working with state governments to ensure that every child has access to education. This is laudable.
The staggering number of children who are out-of-school in the north always triggers a debate on ‘almajiranci,’ and the future of this region. Such debates have always ranged from the idealistic, to the shallow and the simplistic. From whatever perspective one looks at this problem, it is important to note that sending children away from home in search of knowledge of the Holy Qur’an is a strong cultural tradition across the north. Despite this, many believe that ‘almajiranci’ has outlived its usefulness. It is now, some say, a by-word for hungry, shoeless and dejected children who roam the streets of northern cities, urban towns and villages in rag, bearing plastic begging bowls – and with vacant faces. Many of those who are assumed to be ‘almajirai’ today are orphans. Also, many are sent out to beg by their parents, blaming poverty for this. Many parents lend their children to ‘almajiranci’ with the expectation that the system could turn them into good people. Many are children whose parents send them into the world from childhood because they (the parents) could not give them a proper upbringing. In some cases, this phenomenon is a way of escaping from the vital responsibility of parenting. The system deprives millions of children of their childhood, and such children may not have much of a future, with the future not having a place for them.
We should consider how society failed the ‘almajirai. It is true that some ‘Mallams’ give some of these children daily ‘begging quotas’, and the failure to meet these daily targets is punished with severe beatings or something even more cruel. Many take advantage of the ‘almajirai’ and use them as domestic servants without any feeling of guilt. The society has excluded them from everything. A visit to a typical ‘Tsangaya’ shows a grim picture of squalor and suffering; when these children beg for food, one can clearly see hunger in their faces. When a person gives them a shoe they use it because they need it. Above all, it is the parents of such children who have let them down in the first place.
Many volumes of academic work have been written on ‘almajiranci’ and many think-tanks and scholars have produced a lot of information about the phenomenon. Many workshops have taken place on the issue. The ulema, secular scholars and leaders have been talking about the importance of tackling ‘almajiranci’ in order to safeguard the future and rescue millions of children from having life without a future, or without clear prospects. To address this problem, government and the society must work together, and this should involve traditional rulers, the ulema and influential persons.
The novel argues about acquiring religious knowledge and learning to live and survive in the world. Importantly, there is a character in the novel who is only referred to as “Fool.” He appears as the guardian of the Diallobe culture, and is the symbol of what could happen when one cuts off from modernity, which can as well means reality.
Addressing this problem has to start with uniting every ‘almajiri’ with his parents. Those who are orphans should be provided with safe social spaces in which they would get educated. The ‘Tsangaya’ that can eliminate ‘bara’ (begging) should be given incentives to do so. Poor parents who can keep their children in schools must be given welfare support tied to school attendance. Islamic clerics must equally be involved in a long term campaign to upgrade on the need to address ‘almajiranci’, and the ‘Tsangaya’ should be encouraged to incorporate western education into the curriculum it operates.
States with high out-of-school children must show concrete commitment to free basic education. But all these can only be possible if there are enough schools with sufficient classrooms, and trained early education teachers to carter for children taken off the streets. These can only be possible if the resolve of government to address the problem has the support of the whole society.
Cheikh Hamidou Kane, the Senegalese writer whose work, Ambiguous Adventure (1961) dealt with the dilemma of bringing up a child in the context of African culture, Islam and the Western influence, best describes where northern Nigeria is today. Early in life, the main character of this epic novel, Samba Diallo goes through a tough religious education. At a point, his family is divided over whether to send him to the Western school or not. Many of those who support ‘offering’ him Western education believe that he needs it to survive in a modern world. Some of those who insist that he should stay through the tradition of his family by becoming an Islamic scholar, view Western education with suspicion. The novel is full of realistic arguments, such as on the need to survive here on earth by inevitably embracing modern ways, so that one can work to earn a better afterlife.
This novel is, at the same time, all about how children are brought up. Samba Diallo is a good muslim, even while studying philosophy in Paris. He reads Pascal and observes the five daily prayers. Earlier, while Diallo was learning the Islamic religious knowledge, he also had to beg to sustain himself. But sustenance in a modern society means acquiring skills, which could only be gotten at that time through Western education. The novel argues about acquiring religious knowledge and learning to live and survive in the world. Importantly, there is a character in the novel who is only referred to as “Fool.” He appears as the guardian of the Diallobe culture, and is the symbol of what could happen when one cuts off from modernity, which can as well means reality.
The Fool kills Samba Diallo in an attempt to safeguard tradition. Calling that character a “Fool” carries a lot of meaning. An attempt to protect the traditions of the Diallobe aristocracy is put in the hands of a man who is better described as mad. The ‘Fool’ cannot see the other side of the coin, and he is so foolish that he only sees one way – that of traditions. What the Diallobe society faced then may sound similar to what Hausa society has gone through, and is largely still going through now.
Isa Sanusi, is a communications specialist based in Abuja.