A Day In Life Of A Child Beggar
Often denigrated and referred to as "Ticking Timebombs" , "Society's Blight" , or " The Problem of the North" , a child beggar "Almajiri" as they are often called in Northern Nigeria, is society's most neglected pariah. At the lowest level of the social hierarchy, the Almajiri begs for food and works menial tasks to make ends meet. Bowl in hand and hunger in their eyes, door to door they go, singing their tune until they get lucky for some crumbs or leftovers.
One morning, such a tune persisted under my window, I had had a late night and my sleep was getting cut short by this tune. "I wish he had gone some place else to beg" were the words that came out of mouth as I'd been dragged out of my bed from his resounding tune.
For most of life living in Northern Nigeria, Almajiri have always been part of our lives. Either they come to your door begging for food, or you find them in the streets begging to closed car windows at every red light.
The Almajiri system otherwise called "Ajami" system of education dates back before the invasion of the British.
A brief history about this system of education is most illustrative in Professor A. Idris' work where he writes
"History has shown that, this system started in the 11th century as a result of the involvement of Borno rulers in Qur'anic literacy. Over seven hundred years later, the Sokoto Caliphate was founded principally through an Islamic revolution based on the teachings of the Holy Qur'an. These two empires run similar Qur'anic learning system which over time came to be known as the Almajiri System". He continues
"The Almajiri system of education as practiced today in the northern Nigeria is a completely bastardized system compared to the form and conditions under which the system was operating and its output during the pre-colonial period. The system has been forced, especially with the coming of the British, to its present pitiful state. During the pre-colonial era, begging was never involved and certainly the pupils were not reduced to doing menial jobs before they could eat".
Under the care of a "Malam" a child is sent to this system to memorise the Quran and gain Islamic knowledge from him, who are in some cases, rumored to be marabouts.
Of course, the Ajami system of education is not what it is today, like every other system, corruption has pervaded in it. With no funding from Zakat and Islamic donations, the vestige of a system which once graduated venerable scholars is not even a shadow of its former self.
When a child is first brought into the system, he is forewarned in the following words.
"This is not home, Can you live here? "
The child accedes.
He is then asked if he wets the bed at night, if yes, then the odds are against him.
Bed wetters live in a small semi-constructed room. I remember when I saw it, I thought that it must be abandoned. Dirty walls, the air oozed of putrid smell from poor hygiene, and rat holes at every corner. It was hard to determine whether it was made for humans to live in. What made it seem more abandoned was the fact that there were no personal items, no beds nor mattresses. Nothing.
Convinced it was not a resting place, I was shocked to find out that bed wetters laid bare on the floor.
Those who can hold it didn't have it better either, they made beds from maize stalk, tied together by sack threads and supported by bricks, similarly inhabitable. That is the reality of where the Almajiri gets a shut eye , for those who make it back home on time.
I made my way to their school, or perhaps the household run by their Malam. As I approached the dilapidated structure along a corrugated road, open urination must be prevalent in the area because I could barely tolerate the pungent smell of urine. I could hear echoes of their recital.
Sitting on the floor at the periphery of the building, the Almajiri children recited their various scriptures which they had written themselves on their wooden boards called ALLO. Each child was required to memorise his and proceed to the next verse. The sounds of their recital, high pitched and jumbled, deterred from understanding even a word.
Two hours later, they were done, they were free to do what everyone knows them best with, their single story. They were released to beg for breakfast.
As they disbursed in droves, a sight caught my eyes. Covered in dirty oversized clothes, his frail figure barely held the clothes from falling. Bowl in his hand and hunger in his eyes, stood about a 5 to 6 year old child, within the age to feel homesick and in need of constant maternal care.
The sight of the boy raised a question in my mind. Don't they feel homesick? To sate my curiosity, I asked an older boy about it.
In his words "We hardly ever feel homesick. Some of us around here haven't been home for almost three years. Even if we go there, we might be reprimanded for absconding and sent back. So the thought of home hardly crosses out minds".
No home to go back to, nor a parents love. I wondered what or who makes them abide by the regulations of this still subsisting system?
Like in every society, the Almajiri have a social hierarchy. The bed wetters at the bottom of the spectrum and the Gardis at the top.
The Gardi, ex-almajiri who finished the system (finished their recital), are appointed by the Malam to remain as care takers, or rather, vice principals in his absence. They coordinate their activities, carry out headcounts, settle disputes - through lashes with cane of both disputants, and they even go as far as surveillance, spying on the activities of their subordinates against misconduct from the negative influences of the society. The Gardi discipline the children. Perhaps, lack of a home to return to, or fear of lashes from Gardi keeps them subservient.
Barefoot under the scorching hot sun, bearing in mind that Gardis are spying, door to door they go begging for food. "Allazi Wahidi, Dan Malam, Iya ko Kanzo, Wahidi...". Loosely translated, it means, "Because of Allah, Madam please, Malam's child is hungry, Even if it's dried crumbs..." They beg door to door until they get lucky for some leftover food.
With some time to spare, some help out with menial tasks such as garbage disposal, errands at construction sites, house cleaning etc. All of which ends at around 9am. They move back and recite from their Allo. At such a time, the Malam, who is usually engaged in low income trade, heads out for the market. Under the supervision of Gardis, the recital continues until the second call to Islamic prayer. The Zuhr. As the occasion warrants, they disperse again to various mosques and attend the prayer.
With Malam still away, the Almajiris get some free time. Some continue recital in order to memorise, which stops when their stomachs grumble, others go back to their menial jobs and whatever they can do to make ends meet.
Upon inquisition, I found out that in rural Almajiri schools, some go along with their Malam to work on his farmlands. He teaches them farming and other agrarian activities.
The unfortunate hard life of an Almajiri does not break them, even in the throes of survival, under the most unhygienic conditions, levity and recreation is part of their daily activity.
After evening recital, most Almajiri, like the rest of the young populous, head out for their favourite sporting activity, soccer.
Ebullient and enthusiastic, they play soccer at abandoned fields. The ball sometimes an empty water bottle, a well crafted rubber ball sourced from the garbage, and in some cases, the bowl they eat from. Others among them go on sightseeing, mostly to football pitches or any place that gathers crowds. Hardly do you find any lively crowd gathering without finding Almajiri feasting for their eyes, and when hunger strikes, they do what they are known for.
Despite the uncertainty of not having a next meal, they play soccer zealously with almost no sign of a difficult life. Watching them, I myself considered joining a soccer team- though I'm quite terrible at it. They played till the sun set, but as the sun was setting, so was their respite.
In northern Nigeria, Sunset is usually marked by the Maghrib call to prayer. After prayer, the yoke of hunger returns him to his known activity, begging for food. This time, not for himself alone, while also searching for important item. Iccen makaranta. - translation school stick
The Iccen Makaranta is a necessary tool for the Almajiri, a mixture of dried leaves and sticks which can easily be set ablaze must be sourced for night recital. Inspection for the item is done by either the Malam or Gardi who at this time, have returned from their activities.
The Iccen makaranta is set ablaze to provide lighting for night recital which spans for almost four hours. But as previously mentioned, that is not the only item to be brought back at night. The Almajiri is required to bring their last meal to Malam, though some Malam don't impose this on them, others enforce it, with repercussions for non-compliance.
Reportedly, the Malam and his family gather all the food from more than a dozen Almajiri and voraciously satisfy their appetite. The surfeit is saved for the next day. On some specific days, usually fridays, taxes of 100 naira is imposed on every child.
This unimaginable strenuous life of a child defines the Almajiri system of today. The cycle of abuse and atrocity committed on these children is commensurate to the system and part of daily activities of an Almajiri.
Hapless, trying to memorise their verses, and hopeful of someday completing the scripture. They retire to their cold floors, without warm blankets, amidst rodents and insects, for a shut eye.
It's hard to imagine a child living such a life.
My experience watching and interviewing them left me in deep melancholy. Truly, meaning can be found in research, but so do many questions.
A question that persisted with me was if they found joy in any part of this. "Surely", I thought to myself, "It can't be all bad". As the night drew and my curiosity persistent, I asked one of them, "What is your best day throughout all of this".
"Sir , I have been in this system for quite some time, I remember one time I was walking late at night in the rain, injured from a farm activity, quite severe that tears flowed down my cheeks. I hadn't gotten malam his food so I still went to beg. I came across a house. With a shaky voice, I tried my luck. I sang my tune for a while until I heard a voice. "Come in" it said. A woman called me into the house and out of the rain, with her family seated in the verandah, she offered me food, and asked me to eat it there because surely she wasn't going to let me out in the rain, I couldn't. I knew it was for Malam, I couldn't go back without it. They pressed on and I told them I had to take it to him. Nevertheless, they made me eat and promised to give me another to take to him. I guzzled as fast as I can.
Seeing me drenched from the rain, they gave me new dry clothes after they tended to my injury. I could not take them for I was afraid Gardi may seize it. So I said, "I'll come tomorrow morning and take it" . It became a place I frequent daily, I began to help them as much as I could. I even came to infatuate with one of their daughters who, if I had been at the age of marriage, would have become my wife. I will never forget the kindness they showed me."
Living under an apathetic government, without proper education, neglected and often ostracised, kindness is the least we can do to assuage their daily strife. The victims didn't choose the system for themselves, nor do they know any other system beside it.
Over an estimated 7 million of the Northern Nigerian population. The Almajiri must be seen as children in need of help, and not a problem that needs to return to where it came from.
Next morning, I woke up to one of their tunes again, this time it was no longer an unwanted alarm clock. It is a cry for help from someone stronger than me.