By Sola Abe
Dressed in a white t-shirt and a pair of faded jean trousers, 17-year-old Usman Doguwa walks around with a basket containing work materials and a small wooden box in his hands. As a cobbler he beats the box to attract his customers who may want to mend their shoes.
“This is what I do to eat. This is a temporal skill and not what I want to do. I’m just doing it pending when I finish my studies at the Islamic school,” he says.
Although the son of a medical doctor, Usman’s late father wanted him to attend a Qur’anic school. Hence, his journey into the Almajiri system started.
The Almajiri system is a non-formal system of education where a learner migrates from his hometown to learn the Quran under an Islamic instructor. Students are left to beg or do menial jobs as they are responsible for themselves and some of their instructors’ needs.
According to UNICEF, it is difficult to know the number of Almajiri kids in Nigeria. It however, notes that some estimates say 81 per cent of the more than 10 million out-of-school children in Nigeria are Almajiris.
An indigene of Bauchi State, Doguwa started his Islamic studies in his community in Jaja before moving to another centre in Bojuga, Gombe State, where he schooled for four years.
He continued his studies in Yobe State for another eight months before proceeding to a new centre in Jos, Plateau State, where he currently studies. While Doguwa is versed in the Quran, he lacks basic education skills.
Although the young cobbler is interested in following his late father’s footsteps as a doctor, he believes it is too late to become one. Doguwa is, however, counting on the Almajiri Scholar System (ASS) to help him achieve his other dream of being a businessman.
Almajiri Scholar Scheme
The Almajiri Scholar Scheme was created to help Almajiris have access to basic quality education, vocational skills, and enable them develop a mindset that they are part of Nigeria’s future leaders. In addition to their knowledge of Islam, ASS aims to ensure that they can read and write.
The project lead, Victor Bello, grew up to see hundreds of Almajiri kids begging on the streets for survival. His research about the Almajiri system spurred questions like what the fate of such children is without basic education.
A few years later, Bello started the ASS project at the Angwan Rogo community in Jos.
These Almajiri kids can read and write
ASS kicked off in May, 2022 with 30 Almajiri children between the ages of seven to 19. The 9-month programme is aimed at educating the kids on numeracy, literacy, and vocational skills acquisition.
According to Bello, vocational skills acquisition was included in their curriculum to give them a better life off of the streets and keep them from idleness.
“The kids would be taught shoe making, fashion design, carpentry, and poultry farming,” he said.
To ensure their commitment to learning, the project started without giving out food but that did not deter the kids from attending classes.
“They know the impact of education on their dreams. Moreover, my approach is that I fit in to what they believe in. I didn’t fix a class on the days of their religious lessons. Our classes run every Thursday and Friday because we realise that Monday to Wednesday are the days they learn their religion,” he said.
Seeing their commitment to school work, the ASS initiative began a feeding program.
“We have seen over time that one of the reasons these children go out to beg is due to hunger and poverty. As a result of this observation, we feed them as we teach them to ensure that they have nothing to worry about,” Bello said.
Four months since the programme kicked off, the Almajiri kids can now read and write.
“They can read and write; recite parts of their bodies; greet and respond to greetings in English. In the next six months, the story is going to be different,” the ASS founder shared, adding that the kids didn’t even know how to spell their names before they started lessons.
To ensure they understand their lessons, the scheme organises quiz competitions based on what they were taught.
Asides school work, the education advocate takes the kids to fun places to see the world outside what they are used to and also interact with people outside their social class without any form of judgment. For Sallah, the kids visited a beautiful relaxation spot where they engaged in different games.
No capacity to do more
Running the scheme, however, comes with challenges. One of which is funding. According to Bello, he gets financial support from family, friends, and a few organisations but it isn’t enough.
He disclosed his desire to establish a few more learning centres for the Almajiris in Jos before taking the initiative to other states but for inadequate funding.
“The major challenge we face is resources to expand our reach. Our capacity is not strong enough to have learning centres in other communities. Getting writing materials, tables, chairs, and venues for our centre cost money. The venue we are using currently is an abandoned school,” Bello said.
“We have volunteers who are ready to work. We got calls from people in Kano, Zamfara, and Gombe to have learning centres but we have no financial capacity to carry that out,” he revealed, adding that the people who currently work with him are volunteers from different backgrounds.
Another challenge the Almajiri Scholar Scheme faces is the issue of migration which affects the children’s education.
“Five out of our 30 kids travelled to their villages to assist their farmer parents with farm work. They would be back after the rainy season. The challenge is that the ones that travelled may find it difficult to catch up with their peers who have gone far with the curriculum,” Bello said.
A failed solution
The ASS initiative is not the first of its kind in Nigeria. In fact, the former president Goodluck Jonathan attempted to solve the out-of-school problem in the north on a larger scale by building 165 integrated model schools for the Almajiris. The curricula combined both Western and Islamic education but the programme failed.
The programme was officially launched in April, 2012 with the commissioning of the first Almajiri integrated school in Gagi, Sokoto State. 10 years later, the Almajiri schools are reportedly in ruins as pupils are back roaming the streets for alms.
The governor of Kano State Abdullahi Umar Ganduje described Goodluck’s Almajiri initiative as a wrong policy, noting that it has social problems. In 2016, during an APC media roundtable, Ganduje stated that a segregated school system would confer a stigma on the Almajiri children.
Other critics of Jonathan’s approach to solving the Almajiri problem faulted the former president for building the schools without involving the relevant stakeholders like the Imams who are in charge of the kids.
How ASS is filling the gaps
For Bello, sharing his plans for the Almajiris with their religious teachers and getting their approval was paramount to him and the success of his project. Although he noted it took two years to reach the head imam of the Angwan Rogo community, their persistence paid off.
“I had a lot of meetings with the head imam and his executives and we discussed how the project can be a sustainable one,” Bello said.
The education advocate also stated that his two-day of school approach encouraged the students to come to the learning centre as they had time for other things.
Noting that ASS does not feed the kids everytime they come for lessons, the plan to integrate vocational skills into the curriculum was to improve their lives, ensure they can cater to themselves without begging, and give them a sense of purpose and satisfaction.
This story has been made possible by Nigeria Health Watch with support from the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit organization dedicated to rigorous and compelling reporting about responses to social problems, http://solutionsjournalism.org.