The word Almajiri is derived from the Arabic “Almuhajirun”, meaning an emigrant. It usually refers to a person who migrates from the luxury of his home to other places or to a popular teacher in the quest for Islamic knowledge. It is hinged on the Islamic concept of migration which is widely practiced especially when acquisition of knowledge at home is either inconvenient or insufficient.
Imam Shafi'I is the greatest proponent of migration for seeking knowledge which he also extended even to business and a number of things. He likened it to a precious stone which he said is nothing unless it is mined and transported away from its soil. He summarized everything in two verses: "Emigrate from your home in quest of excellence, and travel for in travel there are five benefits: relief from sorrow and earning a livelihood, then knowledge, good manners and friendship with the famous. Shafi'i himself was born in Gaza. He travelled almost the entire Middle East seeking for knowledge until he finally settled in Egypt. Danfodio travelled to Niger to learn from Sheikh Jibril. The malams of ilm in Zaria city still receive students from distant places like Mali, Cameroun, Chad, Central Africa, etc.
During the pre-colonial era, the Almajiri education system, originally called the Tsangaya was established under the Kanem-Borno Empire, one of the oldest ruling empires in the world extending from the frontiers of northern Nigeria across the Chadian region up to the borders of Libya. It was established as an organized and comprehensive system of education for learning Islamic principles, values, jurisprudence and theology. It was a replica of Islamic learning centers in many Muslim countries such as the madrasah in Pakistan, Malaysia, Egypt and Indonesia etc.
The system was funded by the state treasury and the state zakka funds, and was under the control of the emirs of the traditional government system that existed before the coming of the British. Since Islam encourages charity to a wayfarer and to a student of learning, the community as well readily supported these Almajiri most of whom came from faraway places to enroll in the Tsangaya schools. In return, the Almajiris offered services such as laundry, cobbling, gardening, weaving, sewing e.t.c as charity to the community that contributed to their well being; hence they gave the society what the society gave to them.
The Amajiri system, though funded was not over dependent on the state. The students were at liberty to acquire a vocational and occupational skill in between their Islamic lessons and so were involved in farming, fishing, well construction, masonry, production, trade, tailoring, small businesses etc. Many of them were the farmers of the northern Nigerian cotton and groundnut pyramids. They formed the majority of the traders in the commercial city of Kano. They were the leather tanners and leather shoe and bags makers in the old Sokoto Empire. The cap weavers and Taylors in Zaria city were said to be Almajiris. Thus they formed the largest percentage of the community workforce and made significant contribution to the economy of the society before the introduction of white collar jobs .After colonialization, they were recruited by the British as columbite and tin miners in Jos city which was then under Bauchi before the creation of plateau state
The system also produced the judges, clerks, teachers etc. and layed an elaborate system of administration in Northern Nigeria. They provided the colonial administration with the needed staff. The first set of colonial staff in Northern Nigeria was provided by the Almajiri schools and this went on for years. In fact, the Almajiri system was a civilizing agent second to none. Before they were gradually replaced, phased out & indeed abandoned.
Almajiri teachers and their pupils also freely provided their community with Islamic Education, in addition to the development of Ajami i.e. reading and writing in Arabic alphabets. Prof Fafunwa mentions that there were 6000 Almajiri schools in Northern Nigeria through which writing came to the North first before any other region. Based on this system, which is founded upon the teachings of Qur'an and Hadith, the then Northern Nigeria was largely educated with a complete way of life, governance, customs, traditional craft, trade and even the mode of dressing. The chronicles of the travellers said that the northern part of the territory was well organised, people were in walled cities, were literate and devout, the southern part was characterized by wars, savagery, superstitious butchery akin to Conrad's observations in his 'Heart of Darkness'.
Apart from being responsible for the literacy of hundreds of millions of our children over a span of ten centuries, More importantly, the almajiri system is the only one today known in the Muslim World that has retained the reproduction of the Qur'an in writing direct from memory. Without looking at any copy, an alaramma studiously writes the entire Qur'an portion by portion, chapter by chapter, verse by verse, beginning with all its consonants, then he returns to add all its vowels, then its fullstops and commas, dilations and nunnation, and so many little things that vary from page to page. He does all these without a single mistake and despite the abundant minute differences in many verses or portions that appear similar. The counterparts of our alarammas in the Middle and the Far East, people like famous calligrapher Usman Taha of Syria who reproduced the most widely circulated Qur'an today, do so amidst luxury accorded by petrodollars. Yet, they can only place a copy of the Qur'an and copy from it one word after another, not from their memory. Nigerian alaramma who reproduces it direct from memory may not even be sure of his next meal but he is never bothered since he is already used to such hardship from his early days as a balla, kolo, tittibiri or gardi. That is how every indigenous Qur'an we come across in Kasuwar Kurmi or elsewhere in Nigeria is written.
THE FALL OF THE ALMAJIRI EDUCATION SYSTEM
In 1904, the British invaded and colonized the northern Nigeria territories and took control of the state treasury. They killed and disposed those emirs who resisted the foreign rule, while those who were subjugated lost control of their territories and accepted their new roles as mere traditional rulers used only for the indirect rule. The British also refused to recognize the Almajiri education system as an important education system and deliberately abolished its state funding arguing that, they were mere religious schools. Boko, meaning western education was introduced and funded instead.
Circumstantially all the learned people who were at the helm of affairs in pre colonial north fell in one swoop and were considered illiterate or uneducated, (at least to the government), in the new status quo, making them not only unemployed but unqualified to be employed despite being able to read and write. Islamic scholars who were revered professionally for controlling the moral fibers of the society gradually became neglected. An imam who may be the source of arbitration to the people of his community was relegated only to delivering sermon once a week at the local Friday mosque. The same imam is considered not qualified enough to have a say in government or sit in the chambers of state House of Assembly to deliberate on the laws and constitution of the state because he was considered uneducated and illiterate.
With loss of support from the government and the helpless Emirs, the Almajiri system thus collapsed like a pile of cards. The responsibility of the Almajiri was then taken over by the local scholars who deemed it a moral and religious duty to educate these pupils for the sake of Allah. Although there was scarcity of funds and overwhelming number of pupils to cater for, the system continued to flourish with the support of the immediate community and begging was still not a norm instead they resorted to odd menial jobs to make ends meet.
Disregard for the Almajiri system in preference for western education ignited animosity and antagonism from the Mallams, the pupils and the society at large. The case scenario is aworsen by the belief that the western education (BOKO) was of Christian-European origin and therefore anti-Islamic. It bred the fear that a child with western belief will eventually lose his Islamic identity and embrace vices that negates the values and principles of Islam such as alcoholism, fornication, semi naked dressing, partying, abandoning the prayer, fasting, zakka etc. This predicament is often reflected in the grievances vented out at those attending the western schools as echoed in a popular Almajiri song "Dan makaranta bokoko, ba karatu, ba sallah, sai yawan zagin mallam" meaning "oh students of western education, you do not learn the Quran and you do not pray, except to be mocking the mallam."
With the increasing level of poverty in the country, the care of the Almajiri became overwhelmingly burdensome for the Mallams who were left with no choice but to send these little boys out to beg from the good will of the society. To make end meet, some of these Mallams began to impose on the Almajiri what is called “kudin sati”, a form of weekly fees for the lessons he derived. They were reassured that to beg was better than to steal.
These boys swam into the society with no bearing moving from street to street, house to house, vehicle to vehicle. They were everywhere….. Markets, car parks, restaurants, university gates name it. They became a burden as well as nuisance to the society. They sang, begged and prayed, appealing to the mercy and good will of the people. It's really sad when you see these Almajiris, hungry, malnourished, wounded; rushing for flies’ infested leftover food, searching through trash can for little morsels, just to stay alive. They consume all kinds of food, fresh or stale. Their common food called” jagala” which is stored by an almajiri over a number of days is a combination of locally made corn food (Tuwo), pasta and boiled yam altogether in one bowl like a fresh vomit.
The roam about dirty, tattered, bare feet, pale with flies pecking on their cracked lips and dry faces, which is filled with rashes or ringworm. How can the Islam of these dirty boys be complete when the prophet SAW clearly said “Purity is half of faith. They sleep on worn-out mat in uncompleted building. Goats may not find the small rooms where the almajiri and 15 others sleep conducive as there are no windows for cross-ventilation and the walls have given room to cracks looking as if it will fall the next minute.
These victims of neglect were also victims of exploit. Many give them a stipend or leftovers out of sympathy or after exploiting them for menial jobs, others abhorred them, hold them with contempt and even blamed them for their helplessness. It is common to hear many scold them “go to school” or “get a job” or “go back to your parent”. It is clear that the begging took away all iota of dignity confirming the words of Rasulillah S.A.W who said “Begging is a distortion that disfigures a person’s face (Abu dawud 663)
Many eventually became traders, drivers and so on. Those who could not make it are condemned to menial jobs, since they have no skills at hand. They resort to wheelbarrow pushing, touting and so on. The nomadic search for livelihood and the struggle to support the Mallam take much of their time rather than engage in learning.
The fact that pupils of Almajiri School go out begging to survive is not a necessary and intrinsic element of the system as a lot of exceptions abound. However, the complete negligence of the institutions by elites and successive governments that see themselves as the heirs, custodians as well as defenders of values of colonialism and colonialist institutions and legacies and who in the interest of their estate so much impoverish the Almajiri system by not only depriving it of state resources but by ensuring that the only ticket for meal and reward able employment with the state is a certificate of alienation or westernization [ western education] obtainable through state established and funded schools, forced the Almajiri, whose parents probably abhors their children being westernised and alienated, to roam the street begging for crumbs to survive.
Though this system has produced prominent Islamic scholars of northern extraction like Sheikh Dahiru Bauchi, Late Abubakar Gumi, Jaa`far Adam and Kala Rawi, Goni Habib, an octogenarian, who has produced over 300 Qur`an memorisers and run schools across various states in northern Nigeria, says the Tsangaya system as it is presently run is a corruption of the original. Hear him, “Almajiris, during our time about 60 years ago did not beg and were held in high esteem in northern Nigeria, houses in the neighbourhood bring food in calabash every day, we help our teacher on the farm, gather firewood from the bush which we use to read at night, assist his wife with domestic chores for food in return and no pupil is taxed as the teacher gets his reward from Allah.” He laments that at his age of 86, he sometimes feels like weeping because the present crop of Tsangaya students lacks the spirit of scholarship like endurance, morals, discipline and their intellectual capacity is low.
The National Council for the Welfare of Destitute (NCWD) puts the current population of the Almajirai at about 7 million and research shows that 6 out of 10 of them never find the way back home. Many are lost through street violence, ritual murder, while others through disease and hunger. With these, 7 million potential Scholars, judges, accountants, engineers, doctors etc.