- About three in 10 almajiri children in Nigeria are girls, but the world has hardly paid attention to how the controversial system of Islamic education affects them.
In 2012, when she was only seven, Maymunah* left her home in Dandinshe, a small community in Kofar Ruwa, Kano State, for Makafin Dala. The only reason her parents gave her was her paternal grandmother’s blindness. Her mission, they instructed, was to assist the old woman in begging for alms.
Also known as the ‘Colony of the Blind’, Makafin Dala’s reputation as a haven for the visually impaired is steeped in myth. According to one account, the town emerged because of a blinding curse placed on some Maguzawa, a Hausa subgroup, for their refusal to accept Islam. Another theory suggests it was founded by a blind warrior, Kassassawa, giving rise to the influx of other blind people.
Today, Makafin Dala is home to hundreds of visually impaired people, who because of their disability resort to begging for their daily bread. They rely on young almajiri girls like Maymunah to support them and also attract the interest of passers-by.
Maymunah does not get paid for her services but is given new clothes during Muslim festivals, allowances for food, and drugs whenever she takes ill.
She admits she regularly faces discrimination, insults, and harassment from older residents because of her work as a beggar’s guide.
“I feel bad,” the 15-year-old says. “Most times, I feel like returning home. If I am able to stop begging for alms, in shaa Allah, I will be very happy.”
Fortunately, she attends both a tsangaya (Islamic learning centre) and a public secondary school, where she is currently in JSS 3. In the morning, she goes out with her grandmother to solicit charity from open-handed strangers and, by late afternoon, she would hurry off to school. Eventually, she hopes to study Medicine and Surgery in order to “help those who are sick”.
But in spite of her tall ambition, she would rather settle down as a housewife than continue schooling because of a lack of resources.
“If I further my education, I will have to take care of myself,” she says. “But, with marriage, the man will take care of my needs.”
Unlike Maymunah and other girls in Makafin Dala, many almajiri girls do not have the opportunity of getting formal education.
The girls mostly live in rented apartments in the town, “so dilapidated you could even see what is happening there from outside,” joked Aliyu Dahiru, a resident of the Local Government Area. The work of helping disabled beggars was male-dominated about two decades ago. Today, it is estimated that only one out of 10 of the children is male.
“Those giving the alms are only attracted to the girls. If you want to give money because of sympathy, there are beggars without guides you can help,” Dahiru observes. “Sometimes, the girls will look fine. They bleach their skin. You won’t even think they are guides when they are not with the beggars. They dress up well.”
“And sometimes even when they are begging, they would really be flirting with you,” he adds as he twists his face and winks amorously to illustrate what he has seen.
Who is the almajira?
Though Mohammed Sabo Keana has run the Almajiri Child Rights Initiative (ACRI), an advocacy organisation, for over four years, he still finds the concept of female almajiri baffling and “unthinkable”. At first, he hoped it was not true there were girls who participated in the system. He, however, soon realised there was no escaping that reality.
“There are female almajiris,” Keana concedes. He has either seen or received reports about them in Kaduna, Sokoto, and Zamfara states.
Almajiranci is a system practised mostly by the Hausi, Fulani, Nupe, and Kanuri tribes of Northern Nigeria where young children are sent to Islamic schools, oftentimes in distant places. Many of these children, however, resort to begging in communities in order to sustain themselves and pay their teachers.
While the male child is known locally as almajiri, almajira refers to his female counterpart.
About 10 million children are estimated to be directly affected by this practice, constituting over 80 per cent of Nigeria’s out-of-school population, and the poster boys for the system are often thatㅡboys. But then, in a 2009 study, the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) estimated that as many as 30 per cent of the almajiris in Kano and Zamfara were female.
“Almajiri schools are usually male only schools,” Deepika Chawla, Senior Associate at Creative Associates International which implemented the study, said at the time. “In fact, when we got the results, the immediate reaction was that it was impossible. There were ‘no’ girls in the almajiri system.”
Keana highlights the challenges faced by the male almajiris to include physical abuse, sexual exploitation, ritual killing, forced labour, and child begging. Unlike their male counterparts though, it is not common to find female almajiris residing within the school.
“They are almajiris, but outside the school. They go to the school to study and go out for begging as well. Most of them are not boarding students,” says Zainab Yunusa, a community advocate and humanitarian social worker in Sokoto.
Sayyadi Bashir Usman Bauchi, a Bauchi-based Islamic scholar, explains that his female students are of two types: day students who attend the almajiri school and girls who live with the mallam and are treated as family while they memorise the Qur’an. He himself grew up relating with both male and female almajiris, who were part of the household, as a child.
Bashir is one of the prominent sons of Sheikh Dahiru Usman Bauchi, a leading Tijaniyya scholar whose foundation runs an almajiri school with about 300 branches and 60,000 students distributed across the Northern region. But his school, which employs and houses teachers, is one of the advanced ones. There are almajiri schools in rural areas where students learn in considerably worse conditions.
Based on her visits to various schools in Mabera, Yabo Local Government Area, Yunusa estimates that 20 to 25 per cent of all almajiris in the state could be girls. Many of the girls are from other communities, states, or even other countries in West Africa. While some migrated with one or both their parents, others came alone and stayed with caregivers. In the morning, they go for their Qur’anic classes and later in the day, they move through the streets, begging for alms.
Meanwhile, almajiranci as it is popularly practised violates provisions of the Child’s Right Act, a federal law enacted in 2003 that guarantees every child the “right to parental care and protection” and freedom from exploitative labour. It also provides that no child shall be used “for the purpose of begging for alms, guiding beggars, prostitution, domestic or sexual labour or for any unlawful or immoral purpose”.
Eleven states, all in the northeast and northwest regions, have, however, yet to domesticate the Act 17 years after it was passed.
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