It has just heavily rained in Sokoto. Muhammad Sawidi stands beside a roasted-corn vendor at Dandima Bus Stop, shivering like a wet fowl, crying, shedding a rivulet of tears, terribly. “May the blessing of Allah be upon you all; I am ‘Almajiri’, servant of Allah. Please help me with food that I will eat, for the sake of Allah. Please bring me alms, for the sake of Allah’s messenger,” he chants in typical Hausa language, holding his big bowl firmly.
Sawidi is a nine-year-old unparented child from Gidan Buba in Kwalkwala area, Sokoto State. His teeth and tongue battle each other as he recounts his travails to SaharaReporters. “I don’t know where I originally come from but I know my father brought me to Kwalkwala to be an ‘almajiri’ when I was younger,” he says, wiping off his thick tears and the mucus in his nose.
Asked whether his clerical guardian caters to his living, he says: “He only gives us millet as breakfast and asks us to go and beg.” I eat from the little I earn from begging and if I gain nothing from begging, I remain famished. Sometimes, I go to bed with empty stomach.”
The heart-rending situation of Sawidi is practically the verisimilitude of what countless and numberless of Sokoto forgotten children are made of. ‘Almajiri’ is the traditional patois to describe them. They are born to either take begging as a career or be the maid-of-all-jobs. They are inmates of the streets, dregs of the rich and fragments of the poor.
On daily basis, the streets of Sokoto are clogged with derelict children of the state. They are told by their clerical guardians to go begging for alms and foraging for food after reading their Quranic symphonies every morning. From the daylight till the, twilight however, the home-forsaken children are made to suffer the dangers on the streets in the course of finding their daily meals. How on earth will these forgotten children survive if they do not beg?
Findings revealed that majority of the itinerant children under Quranic instruction are between the ages of five and 19. A study also revealed 83.49% of the ‘almajiri’, as they are commonly called, are between the ages of five and 15, out of which 33% are in the age category of five to nine. According to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), there are up to 10 million street children in Africa, substantial number of whom constitute the almajiri in the Northern Nigeria.
According to UNICEF, Nigeria’s rapid population excrescence is the cause of the current economic pressure on the country's structure, stature, infrastructure, resources and even public services. It also asserts that children under 15 years of age account for 45 per cent of the 171 million of Nigeria’s population, adding that the burden on education has become overwhelming.
“Nigeria still has 10.5 million out-of-school children — the world’s highest number. Sixty per cent of those children are in northern Nigeria. About 60 per cent of out-of-school children are girls. Many of those who do enroll drop out early,” says UNICEF.
ORPHANS OF THE LIVING PARENTS
Rabiu speaks timidly with funereal tone. He hardly utters two sentences without punctuating them with tears. He stands at the vintage points, seeking fortune from the passers-by and the passengers patronising the Ilela garage, Sokoto.
"I can’t remember the last time I saw my parents. My father, Auwalu, brought me here for ‘madrasa’ (Arabic school) some years ago,” he says. “I don’t know where I come from, I was very little when I was brought to Ilela and ever since, I have never gone back home, not even on Sallah days. I don’t know why they didn’t take me to the Arabic schools in my area."
Rabiu does not know his exact age, but he should be between seven to nine years old. As young as he is, he labours like an elephant under the moiling Sokoto sun every day and eats like an ant. He serves as an errand boy at the Ilela garage and charges a token per errand. “Whenever we are done with the morning Quranic lessons, I come here to work for people as an errand boy. Sometimes they pay me and sometimes they don’t,” he splutters in a confused voice.
“Whenever I have no errand job, I go begging for alms so as to feed myself for the day. Sometimes, I go to bed hungry if I make nothing from begging.”
Like Rabiu, toddler Abdullahi lives a life of no parent; no proper guarding by his guardian and he is not well-sheltered as a child who has hardly known the difference between right and wrong. From Zamfara, he journeyed kilometers far to Sokoto for his preliminary Islamic studies. His father, Salisu who brought him to Sokoto has abandoned him uncared for ever since he left him with his clerical master.
Tired of his lumpen childhood, he said he had tried to run away from his guardian who would only ask him to beg for food and expect a return from him and his co-mates.
“I have retired my intention to run away from my master because I have nowhere to go,” he states. “I have no other means of livelihood than begging. If I don’t, I will die of hunger.”
Abdullahi stops talking for a while during the interview with him by the roadside in Gidan Koka, Sokoto, then breaks the few minutes’ silence, drawing the emotional attention of this reporter to his reddened eyes.
“Look at me, I have been begging since morning and nobody has given me food or money,” he cries.
EXILED: INNOCENT SILAMI CHILDREN
“You cannot talk to them unless you buy food for them or give them money. They are hard to talk to, especially when they see you with a camera,” Malama Rasheedah, a food vendor in Runji, Sokoto, hints this reporter.
However, SaharaReporters surveyed the pains of the six Silami children who were banished from their homes and told never to come back again. Bemused with the sharp attack of mental anguish, Musa, who seems to be the eldest and leader of the children, gives chapter-by-chapter details of their travails as children and humans, born by a woman but mothered by no parent. Silami children have not only forgotten their homes, their own homes have utterly forsaken them too.
“I was instructed not to come back home,” Musa says. “When my father died sometime ago, my mother married another man. So, my mother asked me to come here to do ‘almajiri’; she told me never to come back again.” Asked how he survives as an abandoned child, “I survive the way other children like me survive; I beg around."
Musa has been made psychologically dispirited about schooling; he has internal phobia for education. “I have never been to school. I am meant to be an ‘almajiri,’” he says. Apart from his Arabic studies in Darapci, the only thing he does for his supplementary survival is arrant street begging.
The six children — Musa, Bahari, Abubakar, Abudullahi, Salihu and Kareemu — have the same story line of forgotten homes. They have been dejected and rejected from their homes and left abandoned to strive for their living. They are unschooled let alone lettered. They wander the streets with tattered cloths and have no proper healthcare as children in their tender ages. However, while other children of Silami scorn education, one of them, Bashari, showed interest in schooling, saying, “I want to go to school so that I will be able to read, write and speak English.”
THE LUMPEN CHILDHOOD
Dr Jimoh Amzat, a sociologist and activist in Sokoto State, metaphorically compares the northern Nigeria ‘almajiri’ with the faseurs of Congo, the shegues, the talibes of Senegal and Egypt, the tsotsis of South Africa and the 'area boys' of Lagos, adding that they all share a common feature: negotiating for space and survival on the streets.
“The tsotsis children are distinct street children and gangs like the shegues of Congo. These two groups, however, are not school students but the search for livelihood pushes them to the streets. Hence, the street becomes their homes and space for survival. The shegues have also been distinct street children who share similar purpose with the faseurs. The talibes of Senegal and the ‘almanjirai’ of northern Nigeria share common purpose: the pursuit of Islamic knowledge and scholarship,” Amzat explains.
Emplacing the lumpen children sociologically, he says: “Lumpenhood depicts a deplorable condition which most often is inhumane. It is for this reason that ‘almajirai’ fits into the different descriptions: social dynamites, underclass, classless, alienated unemployable, social volatile and so on.”
As a practising sociologist in Sokoto, Amzat itemises some of the factors endangering the children on the streets, and explains that the ‘almajiri’ live at the margin within the society; while the margin is a place of both possibilities and vulnerabilities, the latter is with a high level of risk. For the ‘almajiri’, he continues, the street is the margin fraught with vulnerabilities.
“The ‘almajirai’ is left to strive for survival on the streets without adequate parental support," he asserts. "This partly explains the child’s susceptibility to different social ills in the society."
He, however, suggested that with appropriate value re-orientation, constitution of model Quranic schools, legal prohibitions, and empowerment with strong political resolve and so on, the problem of the lumpen children shall become something of the past.
AN ENCOUNTER WITH THE SOKOTO CANTEEN CHILDREN
It is a day of ill-luck for the hungry and angry among Sokoto's abandoned children in Gidan Dare, at a local canteen adjacent to Sokoto Furniture. The scavenging chaps stand vigilantly, looking for leftovers to fight over. The owner of the canteen, a middle-aged woman, scorns their presence. She suddenly gets mad at them, telling them to “go away from here now!”
”These scallywags are messing up this place,” she frowns, splashing dirty water on them.
Muhammadu Fahad stands a bit aloof to the customers, staring at one of them and eye-counting the numerous morsels of the man as he swallows his hot steaming maize dumpling ('tuwo).
“We come here every day to beg for what to eat,” Fahad says pitifully.
Aliyu, also one of the child beggars, affirmed that though they come to the canteen regularly to beg for food, the only thing relied upon are the leftovers of the people patronizing the canteen.
“These children do not even have morals,” one of the customers laments while speaking to this reporter. “We have told our people on several occasions to take care of their children. It’s sad to see them doing something bad without any caution on the side of their parents. The children lack parental upbringing and morals.
“Even if you send them out of a home, they don’t care because they have no morals; nobody can tell them to stop something and they will stop. We do call on the parents to send them to school, where they can go and come back under their watch, so they could look after them."
Another customer, who masticates while speaking to this reporter, asserts that although the begging propensities of the children are really irritating, they (the children) still need proper aids and attentions from citizens.
“What they do is very bad, but as a Muslim sometimes, we don’t really like criticising something like this," he says.
"What they came to do is good. Anyone who leaves his home looking for knowledge needs help, but the government and the rich never try to help. So they have no way to feed themselves if they don't beg.
“Even though it is bad, there is no other alternative. People should know that when they bring their child for ‘almajiranci’, they should bring along food, clothes and other things he will need. Even the prophet said: cleanliness is part of faith, but you will see them dirty and hungry, and their parents will be there at home with food,” he laments.
INFRINGING UPON THE RIGHTS OF THE CHILDREN
In Sokoto and some other parts of the north, the rights of the children are daringly trampled upon without the fear of law, as if there is no conventional constitution that cautions the I-don’t-care- attitudes of parents towards their children in Nigeria. In 2003, the Child Right Act bill was passed into law. The Act, which caters to the rights and responsibilities of the children, frowns at the parochial parental mindless propensities towards their children.
According to the Child Right Act, provision of proper care for a child is not optional for any parent but obligatory. Section 1(sub 1) of the Child Right Act states that, “every has a right to parental care and protection, and accordingly, no child shall be separated from his parents against the wish of the child except - (a) for the purpose of his education or welfare; or (b) in the exercise of a judicial determination in accordance with the provisions of the Act, in the best interest of the child”. Other rights of the child also stated by the Act include: the right to proper health care, right to compulsory basic education, and so on.
Meanwhile, the story of infringing upon children’s rights might have come in another thespian dimension if the Child Rights Act had been domestically enforced in Sokoto state, ever since its enforcement at the federal level. Some states, though, have domesticated the passage of the Child Rights Acts; states such as Sokoto, Kebbi, and Adamawa and so on are yet to ensure the domestications respectively.
THE BRUISE OF CHILD ABUSE
In a way of bruising the barbaric abuse of children in Sokoto state, Amina Yahaya, an advocate of youth and women inclusion in politics who is also an indigene of the state, says the “almajiri” system has lost and turned into child labour and abuse.
“If we go back to history, the sole aim of ‘the almajiri’ system was to encourage children to go seek knowledge under the watch and care of a guardian who is often the teacher,” she says.
“This is not the case today; these children are allowed to fend for themselves. You see them on the streets day and night, dressed shabbily, sometimes with no shoes, begging for alms. They waste valuable time roaming around and end up not even getting the knowledge they migrated for. It's sad! These children are exposed to all sorts of vices and dangers.”
Yahaya suggests that the government should have a sort of shelter for kids who have been forcefully exiled and that their needs should be taken care of by the government, with necessary action taken against people who mete out such punishment on children.
“I think it is absolutely necessary to domesticate the Child Rights Act in Sokoto tate. The delay is totally unacceptable. If the peculiarities of the state do not agree with some of the provisions, then stakeholders in the state should come together to discuss such discrepancies and modify them to suit the state. That is the whole point of the domestication; this Act is important to protect the rights of our children. It's pretty sad to note that I have been hearing about this Act since I was a child and in the Nigeria Children's Parliament. Today I am an adult and it's still a challenge implementing it in Sokoto,” she adds, when asked about the need to implement the Child Right Acts in the state.
She urges parents to stop sending their children out to random people. "Please stop," she says. "These children could be in danger."
This story is supported by the YouthHub Africa and Malala Fund.