Diary Of An Almajiri, By Mustafa Adamu
I am popularly called Almajiri, that Northern Nigerian street urchin easily identified by my ever-soiled cloths, bare feet and eating bowl. I do not actually know why I was brought to the city two years ago at the age of seven, but I was told it was for the acquisition of Qur’anic knowledge. I and other boys left my village in company of a mallam, our supposed instructor, with only two sets of cloths which have since become worn out and threadbare. No provision was made for my feeding, accommodation or healthcare. My feeding, I was told, must come through begging. I realised that here in the city, everyone, including the Mallam, is too preoccupied with their affairs to pay me any attention which means I have to cater for myself at this tender age by whatever means I could. Thus, I beg in the markets, motor parks, restaurants, worship centres and the rest. Due to continuous begging, I doubt if I have even an ounce of my self-esteem remaining.
Some of my friends who are naturally bashful opt for the markets and motor parks as porters. Some use their time in some houses and school campuses (where they call them Dan-Mallam or Yaro Boys) rendering laundry and cleaning services in return for food and money. Those are the elites among us because their feeding is almost guaranteed.
When begging on the streets, needless to say I encounter many hazards. There was a time I narrowly escaped being hit by a car. As I fell on the ground panting, the annoyed driver showered words of abuse on me. I heard somewhere that a friend of mine was not so lucky, for he was crushed to death by a truck. In the course of begging, I got used to trekking very long distances, barefooted. No doubt that was what made my feet this rough.
Of all seasons, I dread the harmattan the most because that is the harshest time of the year to me. With its coming, my skin gets dry and cracked as I have to sleep in the open with most parts of my body exposed. As dawn approaches and the cold becomes intense, I often shed tears alone in self-pity and remember fortunate boys who at that instance not only enjoy their cosy rooms but thick blankets as well.
What moves me to tears most is seeing other boys proudly carrying their bags to school, some even driven in cars. I always admire and envy their neat school uniforms. I also envy them when I hear them read their books or recite the Qur’an- what I was allegedly brought here for- even far better than I could. I once asked a boy how he learned his excellent recitation and he told me it was in the Islamiyyah school he attends.
Anytime I fall sick, I have no access to proper medical care. Even due to my long treks, at this age, I am prone to injuries. Bed bugs and mosquitoes are my constant nocturnal companions and I have even become used to them. I sometimes wonder how I survive all these threats to my health. Alhamdulillah.
It is known to everyone that I endure a lot of humiliation. Even among those that give me charity, some do it with much exasperation. They treat me like the irritant they think I am. A woman, apparently for my annoying begging style, once slapped me and murmured some angry words in English. Actually I didn’t blame her, for if my father had not shown me this level of disdain, she might not have even seen me let alone treat me so badly.
As young and helpless as I am, I always try to picture my future. I do hear that the world is becoming more and more competitive by the day. How will I fit into that kind of world without proper and balanced education? These boys that go to both conventional boko and islamiyyah schools, will I be able to compete with them when I grow up?
Now, I keep wondering: is this how everybody will fold their arms and watch my life ruined to the tilt? If my father in the village is said to be ignorant – despite the fact that he does very well in his farming- are there no responsible authorities to call him- and those who support him- to order at whatever cost? As a Muslim child, where are the rights that Islam has given me which are taken for granted by other children? As a Nigerian child, where are the rights my country has conferred on me? As a world child, are there not globally agreed upon rights which UNICEF is there to ensure every child enjoys?
If my society could accept positive changes in most aspects of its life, I cannot see why in this age the system of my education, used for centuries, should be left out. If the society has accepted that donkeys have become obsolete means of transportation, why must the system that gave birth to my suffering still be considered modern? The society, as far as my case is concerned, keeps dancing to the old tune despite the piper’s use of a different instrument.
Without playing the ostrich, my problem is primarily a Northern Muslim problem; where I belong. I do not expect outsiders to come and address the issue on my behalf. It is the leaders, particularly my political and religious leaders; with the help of everyone, that must squarely address this daring challenge.
I feel confident to say that the weight of this sheer child abuse meted on me and my friends is on anybody who has something to do and refuses to do it. It is, I think, a sort of fard kifaayah, a collective responsibility which if left undone, the whole community is in sin; but when a part discharges it, the other part is free from blame.
Even though I am yet to reach the age of vote, leaders had been voted on my behalf. I particularly think that the president and governors- the executive- along with the legislators have the highest responsibility to work with all the other concerned parties and come to my rescue. I believe that my problem is not mine alone, as majority of the society thinks. Our population, the almajirai, even at a conservative estimate, should run into some millions. Is Northern Nigeria the only country where Muslims teach their wards the Glorious Qur’an? I guess the answer is no. Why then is it that it is only in Northern Nigeria that we are still subjected to this cruel method before we could learn the Qur’an? If not here, I doubt if there exists any responsible place where such a gross waste of human resource would be condoned or even encouraged.
I wish – and this beggar’s wishes could actually be horses- that President Muhammadu Buhari, our state governors, law makers, both federal and state; religious leaders and anyone else that has some role to play, will have a glance at this diary and appreciate my challenge and be brave enough to face this perennially stubborn bull by the horn and chart a way that will bring an end to my plight and remove this ugly scar from my society. Or am I wishing for too much?