It was a Wednesday morning, about 10:30 am, when a vehicle picked me up from the Sir Ahmadu Bello International Airport in Kebbi state.
We made our way out of Jega Janzomi Ambursa road of Kebbi, to Birnin Kebbi central motor park, Sabuwar Tarsha, to enable me to connect to my final abode for the few days I had to stay there.
There, at Sabuwar Tasha, I saw children: boys and girls trooping out in their numbers from every nook, cranny and corner of the motor park, seeking people to help with their “Kaya” (luggage).
These children are of school age, and they ought to be in classrooms learning at this period but found themselves at Sabuwar Tasha, fending for themselves.
As I made my way to another vehicle, these children who were very unkempt, ran to me in their numbers with bowls in their hands, ready to beg and ready to help with my hand luggage.
As I looked lost, staring at their tattered clothes, a fellow began to translate to the boys for me as I engaged one of them in a discussion.
I spoke to a young boy who called himself, Jamiu. On further enquires to know if they attended school, he simply said: “Auntie, we don’t go to school, my friends and I, are Almajiris and we have finished studying for the morning session. We came to the motor park to beg for money and help travellers carry their bags for them to ‘dash’ (tip) us money.”
While I listened to Jamiu, a girl of about fourteen years old asked me to patronize the Dry fish she hawked in the company of other older and younger girls.
I asked for her name and why she was not in school. Sadiya said that she and her sisters hawked dry fish for her mother while they attended Makaranta Arabiya later in the evening.
“I have never been to school apart from Makaranta Arabiya. I only hawk fish for my mother in the morning till 5 pm while I return home to prepare for Makaranta,” Sadiya said.
Approaching the town of Makerar Gandu, I saw Sule, Tahir, Munir and their friends picking up used bottles from the bin in exchange for a token to eat.
These children told me how much they love formal and conventional education just like their age mates around but they have no privilege except to attend traditional Islamic School also known as Almajiri Makaranta.
Children who attend this form of education are mostly called Almajiri children in Nigeria. They form part of the 814,945 out-of-school children in Kebbi State, recorded in the 2015 Nigeria Education Data Survey, NEDS.
Almajiri is a system of Islamic education practiced in northern Nigeria, the word Almajiri is derived from an Arabic word, “Al-muhajirin”, which means a person who leaves his home in search of Islamic knowledge.
The Universal Basic Education UBE programme of the Nigerian government introduced in 1999, was planned to provide access and ensure quality basic education across the country.
The UBE was aimed at ensuring uninterrupted access to 9-Year formal education by providing free and compulsory basic education for every child of primary and junior secondary school age.
Among the key goals of the compulsory free universal basic education act of 2004, is for the federal government to provide assistance to the States and Local governments in Nigeria for the purposes of uniform and qualitative basic education across the country.
The UBE act also stated that every parent shall ensure that his or her child or wards attend and complete primary school education and junior secondary school education.
The law also added that stakeholders in a local government area shall ensure that every parent or person who has the care and custody of a child performs the duty imposed on him or her under the Universal Basic Education Act,2004.
The Universal Basic Education Commission, UBEC, is the federal government’s agency saddled with the responsibility of coordinating all aspects of the programme’s implementation.
Under the UBEC Act, State governments are expected to provide fifty (50) percent as a matching grant, so as to access funds released by the federal government for the development of basic education in their States.
Despite this arrangement, Nigeria still accounts for 10.5million out-of-school children OOSC, a figure given by UNESCO’s Institute for Statistics database of 2010.
The 10.5million figure was declared inaccurate by the Nigerian government in 2015 and later resulted in the government carrying out its own survey.
A Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS5), of 2016/2017 published in 2018, conducted by the Nigerian Bureau of Statistics and the UNICEF, revealed that a total of 9.1million children are out of school in Nigeria.
Another claim from UBEC, after what it tagged, the Nigeria Demographic Health Survey NDHS, conducted in 2015, put the out-of-school (OOSC) figure in Nigeria at 13.2 million.
Irrespective of the said discrepancies in the figures of OOSC in Nigeria, there are arguments on who these sets of children referred to as out-of-school are.
According to the United Nations, out-of-school children are those who are yet to be enrolled in any formal education excluding pre-primary education.
These children are believed to be in the age range of six and eleven years.
The situation of the OOSC in Kebbi State is not any different from what is seen in the North-east and North-west of Nigeria.
Baba Tanimu Isa, a resident of Rafin Atiku in Birnin Kebbi and a trader told me that western education (boko) is a waste of time for children; he pointed at the unemployment challenge facing the country.
According to Tanimu, “Why should my children go to school for western education? Can’t you see the numbers of graduates we already have everywhere who don’t have jobs to feed themselves and feed their parents who also sent them to school?
“Parents are losing by asking their children to go to school for half of their lifetime, yet it is still the parents that would be struggling to give them food, even after the school when they do not get jobs.”
Another resident Hauwau Usman, a housewife in Bayan Kara area of Birnni Kebbi, said she and her husband were not interested in western education for their children following fears of molestation by male teachers and what they described as security of their girls in schools.
“We are not interested in sending our female Children to school because when they go to these schools male teachers sometimes molest them and spoil them for us. Again, some of the schools are not fenced; again you know the issue of insurgency is affecting some states so we don’t want our children to be taken away,” Hauwa said.
“Apart from this worry, “Boko” (western education) requires a lot of money to sponsor children there and we cannot afford the money to give to the school. So my girls simply help me hawk dry fish while our boys go to learn at mallam’s place, sometimes they even sleep there,” she added.
Voice of Nigeria visited Gwarindjaji Tsangai Primary School in Birnin Kebbi, one of the Almajiri Model Schools built and abandoned after former President Goodluck Jonathan’s administration, but put into use by the MALLPAI Foundation, to ascertain the enrolment of Almajiri children in schools for western education.
The school, now known as MALLPAI Foundation Tsangai Almajiri boarding primary school Gwarindjaji, has 360 pupils and it operates the full wing of primary one to six.
I met Abdulbasid Awwal, a primary six pupil who originally was an Almajiri, but was picked from the streets and encouraged to be in school by the MALLPAI foundation. He says he wants to be a teacher and “desires to be a big man calling students around.”
Awwal from Maiyama Local government , told me he was sent away from home by his parents to mallams in Birni Kebbi at the age of six (6) to stay at “makaranta”.
” I am not happy with the tradition that makes some children of my age and below my age to carry bowls and beg for money on the streets. I myself I came from Maiyama in Kebbi State. I followed my Almajiri Makaranta teacher to Birnin Kebbi and just when we were on the street, MALLPAI people came to me and asked if I would go to school some years ago,” he said.
Awwal narrated how he used to wander about motor parks, market squares to feed himself.
He told me how they used to sing songs of a dirgeful nature to get what to eat.
“I now know now how to read and write and I am also learning to tailor in school as well as studying the Quran,” Awwal said with excitement.
The MALLPAI Foundation Tsangai Almajiri boarding primary school Gwarindjaji, presently has 33 pupils who are indigenes of Zamfara State and are former Almajiris picked up from the street and enrolled into the school to reduce the numbers of OOSC in the State.
Among them is 6 years old Jamil Ibrahim, a former Almajiri, who was also picked from the street by the foundation. He said he came to Kebbi State on an Almajiri mission but was enrolled to Tsangai Gwarindjaji boarding primary school.
Jamil who spoke in Hausa language said, “I came to school to know Islamic and western education. My parents are in Zamfara State and I came into Kebbi with my Mallam, I used to do Almajiri before I came in here”.
Project Cordinator MALLPAI Foundation, Aminudeen Attahiru, said the foundation, which was majorly set up to change narratives of the Almajiri education system, has two initiatives for conventional school and the integrated Quranic education with the sole objective of taking thousands of Almajiris out of the streets.
MALLPAI has enrolled over 600 Almajiri children under its initiative of Integrated Quranic School Programme.
According to Aminu, “Almajiri child is a normal child like you and I and MALLPAI foundation believe these children should be given equal opportunity and should be taken off the streets to the schools, but before we do that, we negotiate with their Mallams”.
“We have over 300 Almajiri schools under our integrated Quranic education initiative whereby we meet their mallams one on one and discuss further engagement of the students in our adopted Tsangai boarding schools.
“We teach them how to read and write so as to have knowledge of western education alongside the acquisition of the Islamic knowledge. We want them to be great in future, MALLPAI picks the best among them to higher Institutions.
“So the target of MALLPAI is to reduce Almajiri street begging for food, we provide food for them in their Tsangai boarding schools in order to make them remain in school,” he explained.
MALLPAI is presently intervening in five Almajiri traditional schools in Birnin Kebbi and across 21 local governments of Kebbi State.
Over 1,200 Almajiri students were being given some form of skills acquisition such as tailoring, carpentry, soap making and many more as some of them insisted on not going for western education.
“We empower them with materials to take care of themselves, we do all of these to take the children off streets but basically we are concerned about them having western and Quranic education,” he added.
On another visitation to Makaranta Mallam Nagojia Badariya, a mixed school under the MALLPAI with over 500 pupils, investigations revealed that teachers of the Islamic traditional Quranic school collaborate with the foundation in bringing pupils to their informal learning centers to the school to become literate.
Investigations on the plight of the Almajiri child in Birnin Kebbi also revealed an Islamic learning centre for Almajiri Girls, where females between the ages of 13 and 19 years old are kept in the same location, in an unorganized informal setting, around Tipper Garage area.
5 of these girls out of 92 of them studying in Makaranta Mallam Kabir Girls Almajiri school, are enrolled in western education while others engage in street begging after their 8hours study at the Almajiri school.
Neither parents nor guardians of any of the girls are traceable.
MALLPAI claimes to have made attempts to locate the parents and trace the identities if these girls to be able to enrol them in formal education, an effort that was proved fruitless.
62 of these girls told me they migrated from Niger State in central Nigeria to Kebbi State with the aim of seeking advance Quranic knowledge.
Thirteen-year-old Hafsat Ibrahim, dressed in orange hijab with excitement on her face, when asked what she would like to become in future, said that she wanted to be a teacher but had never been to the four walls of a classroom.
She said MALLPAI brings skills acquisition such as soap and fragrance making, as well as sewing classes to their Almajiri school.
Miss Ibrahim narrated that she would love to have western education if the opportunity came.
Like Hafsat, 26 other girls at the Makaranta Mallam Kabir Girls Almajiri school, indicated interest in western education, but only 5 among the 92 are presently enrolled in Tudunwada Primary school.
MALLPAI, a-non govermental organization, an initiative, of Aisha Atiku Bagudu, the wife of Kebbi State Governor, also holds class sessions for children whose parents cannot afford education but are interested in western education under its initiative to reduce out of school children through conventional education.
A visit to MALLPAI schools situated in the same compound with the MALLPAI Foundation headquarters on Haliru Abdu Area in Birnin Kebbi, revealed that 176 pupils currently benefit from the foundation’s free education and free meal programme.
The foundation also provides an opportunity for adult education where 376 women who are dropouts from school presently attend.
It was school learning hours and the MALLPAI school center was filled with children all dressed in mufti.
They were of different categories and different classes. They appeared paired together in the same age range. The majority of them were wrapped in the attention of the lessons they are being taught while only a few were distracted.
At Makerar Gwandu also in Birnin Kebbi, is an ongoing direct intervention of the foundation at Madrasatul Umar Azki Islamic studies centre, a formal almajiri school with about 630 students but presently being infused with western education.
Investigations revealed that some estates had been purchased from the residents of the traditional Almajiri school, so as to turn the centre into an Integrated Quranic School with the conventional education system.
The foundation is also collaborating with Mallam Gaiya Islammiya, Makaranta Mallam Adamu, Tigi to rescue street children.
“Welcome!,” I heard the pupils of Gwarindjaji Tsangai Primary School scream aloud. This got my attention to know who Mallam Usman was.
Mallam Usman Mohammed Modibbo is the convener of Almajirinchi Education Foundation , a non-governmental organization with its Head office in Kebbi State.
He confirmed that the process of Almajiri traditional education does not confirm with global educational standards.
Usman, who was also a former almajiri in Kebbi State said it was better to recognize the category of children in Islamic traditional Quranic School as children who are in school and not out of school.
He argued that learning within the four walls of classrooms is only being done in a different environment.
“Anywhere you can conduct teaching should be regarded as a school irrespective of the environment; even under a tree, anywhere you have the opportunity to learn which may be organized or unorganized,” Usman said.
“Somebody learning in Islamic traditional school cannot be categorized as illiterate or children out of school, as far as I am concerned they are still acquiring knowledge,” he added said.
The initiator of Almajirinchi foundation identified limitations and shortcomings with the form of education acquired in an unorganized setting saying there is a need to complement the efforts of traditional Islamic Quranic education teachers.
“The issue is that learning how to understand your religion can be limited without adding how to read and write. So if we assist this group who are learning informally, we will help them imbibe new ideas and that is why we are requesting for conventional education,” Usman said.
Usman Modibbo, who also claimed to be a retired teacher, called for the integration of conventional education into the traditional Almajiri school. He said this would help bridge the existing gap between the two.
“A pupil in Islamic traditional Quranic School uses 24hrs with their Mallams. The curriculum they learn per day only affords them to earn the Holy Quran, Arabic, hadith’s etc; let’s say in 8hrs.
“The remaining hours are wasted in carrying bowls around for begging or resting. What then happens to the remaining hours? It’s therefore, better to borrow the curriculum from conventional education to fill these wasted hours. By then, we would say a child is attaining the full capacity of acquiring expected knowledge of Quranic education and western education.
“The pupils in traditional Quranic School are under learning, so the idea of integration and modernization is indispensable and necessary,” he explained.
Modibbo, a formal teacher of Quranic education himself narrated his experience with other Mallams of the Almajiris.
“The mallams of these Almajiri children have realized that the system is challenged and limited and they are already coming to terms with the obvious limitations, hence there is the need for better leadership so as to have a better outcome on their services.
“The problem here is that the traditional Islamic Quranic teachers are not well informed as regards the integration of conventional education curriculum into what they do and the government is not carrying these Mallams along to enlighten them,” he said.
Tradition, not religion
Modibbo confirmed that some parents in Northern Nigeria insist that their children will only learn Quranic Islamic education following certain factors.
According to him: “There are factors that push these sets of parents to take this very position. Some of these categories of parents themselves are illiterates and they lack the understanding of the concept of western education because they are ignorant.
“Secondly, they fail to take responsibility for their children; they see conventional education as being too expensive for them to afford. When we go on campaigns for them to release their children to be enrolled in school, they tell us that they would rather seek the cheapest, according to them, which is the traditional Islamic school.
“Because there is no financial responsibility on them because, by the time they take their child to Quranic school, they surrender the responsibilities of the child’s feeding, clothing and accommodation, even healthcare of the child including the instructional materials to the Mallams and the child to take responsibility for themselves, “Mallam Modibbo elucidated.
“This is tradition, it is never religion. Hardly would you see a child of the elite or even traditional rulers or well-read Islamic Scholars enrol their children in that type of school,” The Almajirinchi NGO founder added.
He said the less privileged parents believe the informal school is not demanding and it is 100% free.
“When we all know education is not supposed to be free 100% , it is supposed to be contributory by parents and the government.
“These sets of parents are not saying they like to enrol their children in the non-formal form of learning. It is not because of their unwillingness to enrol their children in a formal school setting; it is only because they seek all means to avoid burden and avoid responsibilities,” he added.
He lamented the level of orientation and called for more awareness on the need for western education for the people of the state.
“Awareness of child enrolment into school in this state is very low. The majority of the people who need awareness are very poor and they are not anywhere close to the television. The campaign for them to bring their children to school must be taken to their doorsteps,” Modibbo said.
The Almajirinchi Foundation advocates for the reform of Almajiri education in Northwest and Northeast of Nigeria.
Meanwhile, OOSC in Kebbi State, according to the Permanent Secretary of the State’s Ministry of Education, Rafatu Hammani, are children who have never been to school at all and are dropouts.
According to Hammani: “Even though I don’t consider them as out of school but in the general term, when somebody doesn’t have western education, he or she is termed as out of school but to me, a child that goes to Quranic or Islamiyya school is not necessarily out of school because he is learning something and he is able to read and write in Arabic.
“So they are learning because in Saudi Arabia they don’t use English they use Arabic, so also in China, children learn in their languages, so I don’t see them as out of school.”
Emigration, cultural challenges
Kebbi is a border state with two African countries and it has been suffering an upsurge in the numbers of out-of-school children (OOSC).
“Because of our borders with Niger Republic and Benin Republic, we have a lot of these Quranic Mallams coming in with children from outside Nigeria.
“Secondly there are migrants that come into Nigeria, through our state, for economic and other reasons and they come in with their children. Major reasons increased OOSC have increased in the State. The more we are working hard to reduce these children, the more the numbers don’t seem to be reducing,” he said.
Hammani narrated that beyond the two major widely known indices to the increasing number of OOSC in Northern Nigeria: early marriage and poverty, the problem of unemployment is a big issue in Kebbi.
The Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative, OPHI, in its 2014 report, revealed the headcount ratio of the Multidimensional poverty index at the Sub-national level.
It rated Kebbi State next to Bauchi State with 73 percent of Kebbi people living in extreme poverty.
The report identified a person to be poor when they are deprived in education, health and standard of living.
Hammani continued that the government of Kebbi had faced challenges with parents in some local governments over the enrolment of their children in schools.
“We have had problems with parents in Zuru and Bena where parents will insist their children must get marry in primary school. In fact, some of them get their children engaged at the age of 8 and 9 and they say they don’t want their children to “get spoilt”.
“They even alleged that once they further their education, wrong forms of knowledge will be transferred to them,” he said.
The government of Kebbi State says it is aware of the challenges and claims to be targeting the hard-to-reach areas of the state like the Fulanis in RUGA settlements such as Zuru and Bena local government areas.
Kebbi government in 2018 claimed to have built 40 primary Nomadic primary schools in Zuru and Bena local governments.
Hammani narrated that the nomadic schools are purposely located close to the Fulanis.
For the almajiris, Kebbi started Integrated Education System where teachers are assigned to different Islamic schools where basic literacy skills like reading and writing are taught in both English and Hausa language.
Kebbi government introduced Better Education Service Delivery, BESDA which also targets Out of School children including the provision of textbooks to the children in the existing conventional schools. The programme engages the Almajiris, nomads, migrants, fishing communities and other settlements in the State.
“The BESDA programme in Kebbi is to see that we enrol children who are out of school and to reintegrate those who are drop out, back into the system. This includes children who are in vocational training centers. We have been able to get teachers that teach them basic reading and writing,” she explained.
On the RANA programme, Reading and Numeracy Activity is domiciled in primary schools and integrated into Quranic schools as well. This, the government intends to use to deliver an evidence-based approach to the basics of literacy and Numeracy.
“In Kebbi, RANA is delivered in Hausa language. It’s a programme that also targets children’s learning skills to enable them read and write. The government engages the Emirs, District heads, village heads, even at the ward levels across the communities, everybody is involved,” Hammani said.
“Some parents say it’s because of poverty they are not able to send their children to schools, we have free education in the State, even textbooks and exercise books including pencils are provided for free by the State government
“The challenge we have is that the more we enrol the children in school, the more we have migrants coming into the State, the impact of what the state is doing is not well seen, “she lamented.
The government of Kebbi also launched a programme similar to the Almajiri system, where it ensures that every village has an Islamic school or Almajiri school, to enable the children are resident in their homes and they are made to at least learn how to read and write under the RANA programme.
“The campaign is to ensure that the children even if they are not allowed to attend western education school, at least across the Almajiri schools in the villages, they will have access to literacy lessons like reading and writing of RANA programme
“Another strategy that the government deploy is that we recruited teachers who speak the local dialects of these RUGA villages and as well understand their culture, so when they are sent to the schools they associate themselves easily and the community people don’t feel alienated and the initiative doesn’t feel strange,” Hammani explained.
Under the BESDA Programme, Kebbi State government is targetting 6700 Almajiri schools.
25-year-old Fatimah Abbas, a mother of four and a beneficiary of the cash transfer programme, CTP, narrated on my visit to Maiyama local government of Kebbi, that the CTP has impacted positively on the lives of her children, herself and the status of her family in all ramifications.
In her words, “I want my children to become prominent people in Nigeria so that they can help build our country. We now know the value of education and our desire is to see our children complete western education up to university level”.
Cash Transfer Programme is another social programme, though an initiative of UNICEF sponsored by Qatar Foundation in partnership with Kebbi State government, the CTP addresses some of the underlying causes of inequalities in education outcomes, such as poverty, social exclusion and malnutrition.
Fatimah has collected N16,000 cash transfer on Nazifi and Ashiru her two sons to support their education under the Educate A Child Qatar sponsor CTP project.
Under the programme, a total sum of N8,000 ($50) is paid to each beneficiary through the mother or caregiver to facilitate their children’s enrolment in school.
So far, payments have been made to 7,342 mothers.
“When I was paid the money, I gave it to my husband and he asked me to use it as the UNICEF people instructed us. So I use some of the proceeds to assist my husband and we both ensure that our children have school uniforms and all that they need to use in school. My husband and I relate better since the money was given to me,” Fatimah narrated.
The programme was aimed at the empowerment of women, to support the education of their wards as well as ensure retention of the children in school through the investment of the financial resources.
UNICEF Cash Transfer Project facilitator in Kebbi State, Isa Usman clarified that the money was being paid to the mothers of the pupils seen as caregivers, knowing that they could turn it to small scale business and use it to sustain their wards in schools.
In the first year of the programme, the cash transfer was introduced to Dank-Wasagu, Zuru and Maiyama Local Government Area.
The UNICEF CTP coordinator in Kebbi revealed that Kebbi State government intends to expand the programme to Argungu, Bagudo, Dandi, Gwandu, Koko Besse and Shanga LGAs by the year 2021 after the end of the Qatar sponsorship in 2020.
On the impact of Kebbi State government’s Intervention to reduce children on the streets across the 21 Local government Areas of the State, Modibbo said the government hasn’t done enough as the numbers of the out of school children have increased significantly in the State.
He called on the government to place a ban on street hawking to end the scourge of girls not attending conventional education.
In Modibbo’s words, “Significantly we still see the huge numbers of these children hawking and begging on our streets across the State. Yes, the government is presently using some strategies to get to the grassroots people, but they need to do more in creating more awareness on the importance of education to the parents of these children.
“What the government is doing is like a drop of water in the ocean. Kebbi government needs to carry the teachers of these traditional Quranic school along as well in their Programmes, education must be made compulsory for all children in Kebbi whether the parents agree to it or not, the government must enforce the laws on this,” he added.
“Our legislators in our House of Assembly can also help by enacting laws that would curb street begging and hawking at the same time,” he said.
The enrolment figure of Primary school pupils in Kebbi State in 2017/2018 was 510,590 while enrolment into Junior Secondary school was 135,567.
Kebbi State has 1,901 primary schools and 298 secondary schools.
The investigation into the issues of out-of-school children in Kebbi State was sponsored by the Wole Soyinka Centre for Investigative Journalism under its Regulators Monitoring Programme REMOP for 2019.