Monday, 14 November 2011


The term ‘Almajirai’ is a word borrowed from Arabic  that refers to  people who leave their home in search of knowledge of the Islamic religion. It is an ancient  tradition in northern Nigeria where is has acquired a rather sinister reputation founded on exploitation and injustice bordering on cruelty.

I first heard of the Almajirai during our recent stay in Jigawa when we were shown a DVD produced by Almajirai children themselves. For the Almajirai have had no voice. They are boys, usually, who , from the age of 4 or 5 and up to twenty, are taken by their parents away from the family home – sometimes hundreds of kilometres away, to be placed in the home of a ‘mallam’ or Islamic teacher for the purpose of learning the Koran by heart in Koranic schools.

Perhaps a dozen boys will be provided with sleeping accommodation – no more than a mat and floor space in a room crowded with others. They receive no food and have no option but to beg .
Every morning they are sharply woken by an older boy wielding a whip or stick and quickly flow out into the street with their begging bowls where they are abandoned to fend for themselves. Scavenging from waste bins behind hotels and restaurants or in compounds is common, as is roadside  and door-to-door begging, and scrabbling round in markets for damaged or rotten fruit..
The entire system is unregulated and the mallams untrained, some running their schools in a ‘faginesque’ way, praising those who return with useful items and beating those who do not. There is a common belief among mallams that the more beatings they mete out, the more rewards they will receive in life, which is no consolation to the boys who, after an hour or two of begging must return to the school for prayer and lessons i.e. committing chapters of the Koran to memory – the school, often a shack made or rusted corrugated iron sheets, or a dark musty room in an abandoned building.  Several hours a day are spent reading and chanting the scriptures, sitting cross-legged, unkempt, unwashed with a small slate or torn scrap of paper with Koranic verse scribbled on it. Sometimes one-to-one with the mallam who will gauge their progress and administer punishment to those who do not meet expectations.  The threat of 100 lashes if they fail to recite a chapter accurately would, I imagine, focus minds intensely. The regime is harsh and unrelenting. An Almajiri boy has no rights and receives no respect; they are usually seem as a nuisance. Occasionally an Almajiri may strike lucky and be given alms or be taken in by a family to run errands, as a house boy or may get a job as a shop assistant but wherever they go, they are viewed with suspicion and mistrust.

Eventually, having graduated from the school, the boys are sent back to their families having had no useful education and completely unemployable. Having struggled to exist in the fast lane of urban life, they find it hard to settle back into rural life, estranged from their parents and siblings  and so drift back to the cities where their prospects are bleak – often a life of crime, or being the victims of crime.
In Kano alone it is estimated that there are 1.2 million Almajiri children. Some had been groomed by mallams as foot soldiers in religious clashes and sent to fight, and a real fear exists that Almajirai will be the breeding ground for future terrorists and suicide  bombers.

The State governments concerned pay only lip service to addressing the problem although there have been pilot programmes to try to integrate the Koranic schools into the state system.

So why do parents put their children through this suffering?  Some believe they will reap rewards in the after-life; others believe the official line that the children are being taught a true understanding of poverty and humility – I guess they are also learning about injustice, cruelty, intolerance and bigotry along the way too. Some families clearly see that off-loading children in this way means financial savings to impoverished households                                  
In Sokoto, VSO has provided funds for a shelter for Almajiri boys, but with an estimated 8 million of them in Nigeria, Niger and Chad, the problem seems only capable of being properly addressed at federal level.
The DVD, produced with help from the Goethe Institute in Kano, is the daily life story of Almajirai in their own words and according to their own direction and acting. It is a remarkable achievement and deserves a wide audience

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