Almajiri: What Happened On the Road to Heaven?, By Matthew Hassan Kukah
Both the mallam and his almajiri live a life of surrender and sacrifice. The life of the mallam was a noble vocation. He abandoned the comfort of owning a house, a herd of cattle, other property and the pursuit of wealth in exchange for serving God. The community entrusted their children to him for spiritual nourishment and guidance. So, as Phil Collins asked: What happened on the road to Heaven?
Yes, you are right, the title for his article draws inspiration from Phil Collins’ song titled, “What Happened On the Way To Heaven?” The almajiri and his spiritual father, the mallam, are now the poster persons of all that is negative in the face of Islam in northern Nigeria. The life of the almajiri is supposed to be a spiritual journey of nurturing and knowledge acquisition, guided by a mallam, his spiritual foster father. Today, all of this is now besmirched. In his song, Phil Collins asked: ‘How can something so good go so bad? How can something so right go so wrong?’ In other words, was the Almajiri supposed to have ended up as a liability to the religion?
The almajiri has become a scapegoat for the multiple sins of the Nigerian state, in general, and the Muslim Umma, in particular. I have decided to add my voice to this debate in a slightly different context. As usual, as of now, the northern elite will do what they do best: Hide in the sands of self-deception, knowing that this will blow over and soon, no one will remember it. The governors indicted themselves when they said that it was time to act because the almajiri had outlived his usefulness. At least they have admitted their complicity and the fact that the almajiri system had always been a tool for political and economic forms of transaction. Here is my thesis: With regards to his condition today, the almajiri is an object, not a subject; is a victim, not a perpetrator; one sinned against, rather than a sinner.
Many readers will already be familiar with the word, ‘scapegoat’. It derives from the Jewish ritual of atonement, when the priest places his hands on the head of a goat and confesses and loads the sins of the people of Israel on it as the burden bearer. At the end of the prayer, the goat is released to run into the wilderness with the sins of the entire nation. Everyone goes home and celebrates in peace because their sins have been transferred to the goat, which has escaped with their sins! Here is how.
Today, the almajiri and his mallam are in the dock and the charges are being read out to them. The children are charged with the following crimes: Being dirty and unkempt, miscreants, delinquents, nuisances to society, petty thieves, prospective Boko Haram recruits, and for being a stigma and an assault on our collective social sense of decency. Their mallam is charged with many sins including: Child abuse, abduction, human trafficking, exploitation, physical abuse, enslavement, etc. So, we identify the mallam and his almajiri more by their crimes than their names. They are spoken about and not spoken to.
In the media reports, no one bothers to give them a voice of their own. They do not speak for themselves. If they had a chance, for example, they might say: Everyone calls me, Almajiri. No one has asked me my name. We are in the millions but have only one name. I have no name. I have no father. I have no mother. I have no home. I have no town. I have no tribe. I have no address. The streets are my home. I do not know if I have brothers or sisters. I am an almajiri. No one knows if I have feelings. No one has ever asked me what I want to be in life. I live for today and for the sake of Allah. I have no tomorrow, except Allah gives me one. Tomorrow is in the hands of Allah.
In all of this conversation, there has been a lot of muckraking, excavation of age-old stereotypes and the peeling off layers of prejudice. However, very little attention has been paid to the deeper issues of why almajiranci (i.e., the act of being an almajiri) has persisted. We have treated the almajiri as a sociological category and the result is that focus and attention have been on the social cost of almajirci on the society. They have been presented as a dislocation of the social fabric of our society. This plays to our social comfort, making the almajiri guilty of inclusion in our social space of bourgeoisie comfort. The almajiri are seen as nuisances and their begging bowls, torn rags, mucus dripping faces and their weather-beaten lips, charred by hunger and pain, assault our social comfort. We clear them off the streets when some foreign guests (read white folks), are coming to town. Before elections, they are preserved as vote banks, and during elections, they are lined up and their votes are used as barter.
What if we paused and looked at the almajiri from a theological category of analysis? I have no qualification for addressing this issue, but the theological evidence might sober us a bit. The word ‘almajiri’ itself comes from the Arabic word, ‘Al-Muhajir.’ It was a very prestigious nomenclature because it was used to describe those who had the rare privilege of having migrated from any place to Madina during the lifetime of the Prophet. It further derives from the word, ‘Hajara’, which means a migrant. In this case, to be called an almajiri was almost akin to being a special Muslim! So, an almajiri was associated with spiritual knowledge, piety, courage and sacrifice.
Many Christians might be quite surprised to note that Almajiri is not strange to us. First, the issue of the transmission of faith is one of the primary obligations of every good Jew. Moses warned the people to ‘Engrave these words of mine in your heart and your soul, brand them on your hand and keep them before your eyes. Teach them to your children. Speak of them when you are in your house and when you travel, when you lie down and when you rise (Dt. 11: 18-19).’ From time immemorial, the catechist in the Catholic Church has been the primary transmitter of the faith to children. So, the Muslims have their mallam while we Christians have our catechist, transmitters of the faith to our children.
The challenge for the Muslim umma in northern Nigeria is to answer the question, ‘where did all this go wrong?’ ‘Where was the almajiri supposed to go at the completion of his studies?’ ‘Was there a career path?’ ‘How and why did the mallam and his almajiri, a much-treasured part of Islamic history, deteriorate to the status of the scum of the earth?’ I do not have the answers to these questions…
At birth, the first words a Muslim utters to a child is, ‘God is great, there is no god but Allah.’ When the Prophet placed knowledge at the heart of the religion, this knowledge centred around the Qu’ran. Those who handed their children to the mallam did not do so out of malice, as it is being presented by the elites today. In the Islamic tradition, the mallam was a privileged and treasured part of the spiritual web of his society. He was the repository of knowledge, and along with that came the respect, the Albarka that every Muslim craved for. He was a pathway, a light, a source of transmission of values so treasured that the search for the essence of Islamic life began with him.
The mallam was, therefore, a spiritual conveyor belt for a very special blessing for the community, the guarantor of the continuation of faith. So, no sacrifice was too much for any parent to make in other for his child to acquire this knowledge, a guarantor to salvation. When they handed their children to the mallam, they did not see him as a slave master. The almajiri of today is not different from Samuel, whose parents had placed him in the care of Eli, the priest! (1 Sam. 3:7). He was there to be tutored in the paths of God. Both the mallam and his almajiri live a life of surrender and sacrifice. The life of the mallam was a noble vocation. He abandoned the comfort of owning a house, a herd of cattle, other property and the pursuit of wealth in exchange for serving God. The community entrusted their children to him for spiritual nourishment and guidance. So, as Phil Collins asked: What happened on the road to Heaven?
In reality, the average Christian can relate to the idea of the mallam and his band of almajiris, who seek closeness to God by following and studying under him. The life of Jesus Christ was not too different from the life of the mallam today. For the Apostles, following Jesus, their Lord and Master, the Rabbi, was a form of almajiranci. Indeed, we Christians use the word almajiri for apostle/disciple of Jesus Christ. Like the mallam, Jesus and His Disciples lived off the goodwill of the community. Jesus said: The son of man had nowhere to lay his head (Lk 9:58). When the disciples of John asked for his residential address, Jesus said, Come and see (Jn. 1: 38). At the end of His life, after His almajiris had been tutored, He gave them the great commission, to preach the gospel to all the ends of the earth (Mk. 16:15).
The challenge for the Muslim umma in northern Nigeria is to answer the question, ‘where did all this go wrong?’ ‘Where was the almajiri supposed to go at the completion of his studies?’ ‘Was there a career path?’ ‘How and why did the mallam and his almajiri, a much-treasured part of Islamic history, deteriorate to the status of the scum of the earth?’ I do not have the answers to these questions, but I wish to raise a few issues for the attention of the northern Muslim ummah.
First, the northern Muslim ummah must accept full responsibility and see the almajiri as part of the huge baggage of their failure to prepare for a future for their people.
They left their people in the lurch as the modern state emerged, providing no further rung on the ladder of progress for the almajiri as part of the future for their children.
With both he and his mallam left behind in the cave of ignorance about the modern state, they grew to fear life outside the cave. They have remained trapped in time. The new world of modernity was presented as a contaminant to the purity of Islamic knowledge. So, while the modern elite equipped themselves and their children with the armour of Western education, the mallam and his almajiri were left behind in the twilight zone of ignorance, fear, anxiety, disorientation and discomfiture, treating those outside with veiled contempt.
To be sure, we can blame British colonialism for sowing the seeds for the social dislocation of the fabric of Islamic society in northern Nigeria. However, it is tragic that successive governments at the federal and state levels have not been able to wrestle with this problem and time has not been able to heal this fracture.
A chasm of prejudice grew between Western education and the Islamic education of the almajiri. In an opinion article written long ago, Mahmud Jega referred to a song sang by non-school going children: Yan makarantan boko, Ba karatu, ba sallah, Ba’a biyar hanyan Allah, sai zagin Mallam (Children of western schools. You don’t study, you don’t pray, you don’t follow God’s path. You only abuse the mallam/teacher). By not providing a bridgehead, the northern Muslim elite sowed the seeds for disaster that has continued to loom for huge generations of children with almost no future.
Secondly, in fairness, the Sardauna did extraordinarily well in addressing the challenges of his time, with such limited human and material resources. He proved to be a master at trying to manage the transition from an Islamic feudal society to a modern state across such a vast land. He made some push to enable Islam to cope with the challenges of the time by setting up programmes on adult education. He also set up the Jama’atu Nasril Islam (JNI) to regulate and co-ordinate the various Muslim groups in the north. I think someone took his eyes off the ball and the result is the rather deregulated environment that we have today.
Thirdly, the issue of whether poor Muslims will continue to donate their children to strangers in trust to pursue spiritual knowledge should not be left to the victims to decide. There is no political will to restrain the mallam today, even if he is guilty of some of the charges of child abuse because they are often the same persons to whom the same political and bureaucratic elite turn to as marabouts in the night, when they seek to extend their political or economic fortunes.
Fourth, it is impossible to see the fate of the mallam and the almajiri outside the loop of the decay that has gripped the north. Poverty, destitution and hopelessness hang in the air and the sheer numbers are intimidating. In terms of population, if we put all the almajiris together today and accept that we are dealing with over 13 million children, we are dealing with the equivalent of the populations of Abia, Ekiti, Kwara, Yobe, Taraba, Bayelsa, and Gombe. Resolving the almajiri crisis will require political resolve, a commodity that has almost totally absent in the calculation of the governing elite in the region.
The fate of the mallam and almajiri will hang in a balance for a long time and may consume the region as the numbers overwhelm us all. Yesterday’s almajiri could graduate to become today’s Boko Haram commander and foot soldier or turn to other crimes. With their main theatre of operation being northern Nigeria, it is easy to see why apocalypse may not be too far if something urgent is not done. To be sure, we can blame British colonialism for sowing the seeds for the social dislocation of the fabric of Islamic society in northern Nigeria. However, it is tragic that successive governments at the federal and state levels have not been able to wrestle with this problem and time has not been able to heal this fracture. The northern governors have spoken, but I am not alone in doubting that anything will be done. As usual, we shall await the fire next time.
For now, I leave the reader with John Pepper Clark’s sobering civil war Poem, “Casualties”. He might as well have been referring to the Almajiri when he said:
The casualties are not only those who started
A fire and now cannot put out. Thousands
Are burning that have no say in the matter.
The casualties are not only those who are escaping.
The shattered shall become prisoners in
A fortress of falling walls.
Matthew Hassan Kukah is Bishop, Catholic Diocese of Sokoto.