Statistics can be scary. But because they are largely abstract, we move on after a brief moment of lamentation or excitement. Global children’s rights humanitarian agency, UNICEF released frightening figures last year detailing out-of-school-children across Nigeria. Over 69% percent of such children wandering aimlessly in permanent destitution are in northern Nigeria. Bauchi state has the highest with 1.1 million out-of-school-children, followed by Katsina state whose arid streets are littered with 782,500 children, in perpetual uncertainty. A 2015 survey put out-of-school-children in the country at 13.2 million. Surveys are always based on sampling, therefore, a census of out-of-school children in Nigeria can turn out 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 may look like. But now, let us leave the future to the future and deal with the present.
Staggering number of children-out-of-school in the north always trigger debates on ‘Almajiranci.’ Such debates have always been ranging from idealistic, shallow, simplistic and a kind of blame-game. Often, it is turned into ethnic exchanges full of sophistry.
There is always the false assumption that out-of-school children are always ‘Almajirai.’ Many believe the noble institution of ‘Almajiranci’ has long ago outlived its usefulness. It is now, some say, a by word for faceless and nameless children who roam streets of northern cities, urban towns and villages in rag, bearing plastic begging bowls and with much emptiness in their faces. Many of those who are assumed to be ‘Almajirai’ today are orphans. Many are children whose parents let them into the world in childhood because the parents could not give them an upbringing. Many of these children never had any childhood. Many of such children may not have a future – and the future may not have a place for them. Striking a conversation with such children for some minutes leaves one with a picture of innocent lives failed by their parents and failed by the society.
Let us look at how the society failed them. Many people dismiss them instead of engaging them. Many can use them as domestic servants without feeling guilty. Hostility towards them when they beg genuinely with the intention of feeding is a disgrace. Some see them as objects they can exploit. The society excluded them from everything. Many of those who look down on them are not better than them in anyway. It is just that they didn’t get the opportunities many had. At whatever stage they are they can be educated. They can acquire skills. When they 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. When they do domestic work they should be paid according to the labor involved.
Many volumes of academic work have been written on ‘Almajiranci’ and many think tanks and scholars have written a lot about it. Ulama, 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, without clear prospects. Despite these it is clear that right now, there is no any concrete step at whatever level to address ‘Almajiranci.’ Excluding them from the society is dangerous. Modernizing ‘Almajiranci’ can be a good start, but it has never started.
Cheik Hamidou Kane – the Senegalese writer whose work ‘Ambiguous Adventure’ (1961) dealt with the dilemma of merging African culture, Islam and western influence best describes where northern Nigeria is today. Leading character of this epic novel Samba Diallo went through tough religious education. At a point, his family was divided over whether to send him to western school or not. Many of those who offered him western education as a support believed he needs it to survive in a modern world. Some of those who insisted he should stay through the tradition of his family by becoming an Islamic scholar view western education with suspicion. The novel was full of arguments about realism; the need to survive here on earth by embracing modern ways, so that one can work to earn better afterlife. This novel is, at the same time, all about how children are brought up. Samba Diallo was a good Muslim even while studying philosophy in Paris. He read Pascal and observed five daily prayers. Earlier, although Samba Diallo was learning religious knowledge he also had to beg to sustain himself. Sustenance can be enlarged to include acquiring skills – which can only be done at that time through western education. Importantly, there is a character in the novel that was only referred to as “Fool.” He appeared as the guardian of Diallobe culture; he is the symbol of what may happen when one cuts himself off from modernity, which can as well mean reality. The Fool killed Samba Diallo in an attempt to safeguard tradition. Calling that character “Fool” carried a lot of meaning. An attempt to protect the traditions of the Diallobe aristocracy was put in the hands of a man who is better described as a mad. He was so foolish that he only see one way; the way of traditions. What the Diallobe faced then may sound similar to what Hausa society has gone through, and is partly still going through now.