It’s early morning, maybe 8 or 9 am and you’re in your car. You’re driving. Maybe you’re on your way to work. Maybe you’re taking your kids to school. The sun is already almost at its peak; and without a cloud in the sky you know it’s hot but you don’t really feel the heat because your air conditioner is on full blast. Traffic is barely moving, you’re all stuck in the early morning traffic jam. You sigh. You need something to help pass the time. Over there you spot someone selling newspapers. You roll your window down and beckon to the hawker. He runs over and you trade your money for his paper. You roll your window up and he quickly moves on to the next car. But as he moves on, you can’t help but remark to yourself how young he looks before your attention moves to the front page headline. He was 10 years old.
Now we zoom out a bit. We see many children, from 6 to 18 years old, going from car to car and running in between cars to take advantage of this captive audience to sell a variety of goods all before they’ve had their own breakfast.
No, you’re not in Nigeria. Or India. You’re in the United States (US), some time in the early 1900s.
In the US in the early 1900s, schools were available and even free for children; there were various social movements to remove children from the streets and factories and place them in schools. Local and state laws were passed to limit child labour and encourage school attendance. Yet child labour in the US persisted at scale well into the mid 1900s. Why? Because the economic conditions were in favour of child labour. These events in-turn triggered further education reforms and enforcement of truancy laws.
Fast-forward to 2020. You’re still stuck in traffic except now you’re in Nigeria (somewhere in the North) and you’re on your way back home from work. Your car is surrounded by young boys, with a few young girls peppered in, all hawking various products. A few attempt to wash your windshield. Amidst this throng of child hawkers, a small boy maybe about 6 years old pushes his way through and shoves a red empty plastic bowl forward. He looks directly at you and chants a prayer for you. “May God protect you. May God take you home safely”. And then he stands there silently and waits, bowl outstretched, never taking his eyes off you. You sit there, eyes facing forward. You know he’s there, you can see his silhoutte in your periphery and you can hear his prayers. But you can’t look at him. Because if you look at him, if you make eye contact, you will break and you will reach into your pocket and you will give him money. But you won’t do it because you don’t want to encourage “the Almajiri system”. Traffic moves and you inch forward. He moves on to the next car.
Nigeria’s “Almajiri system”, institutionalised largely in the North, has a long history that goes way back to before the British showed up to colonise the country. In the beginning, the system functioned as designed; to educate children locally on the Qur’an (similar to Sunday school for Christian kids). Then somewhere between the British showing up and today, the system has evolved (maybe devolved) into what we have now – a system that, to some, appears to be defunct and out of sync with the times and therefore requires reform. Since the 1990s, various efforts have been made to reform the system. We have attempted reform in the name of national security in order to stop Almajirai from being recruited into Boko Haram. We have attempted to reform in the name of poverty reduction. The recent COVID-19 crisis presents yet another opportunity to push reform in the name of national health. Each attempt at reform has made some progress but there is no sign that these efforts are poised to snowball into a massive movement.?
Remember the Almajiri child standing outside of your car window, red bowl outstretched? He was not abducted from his home in the village and forced into the Almajiri system. His parents or guardians voluntarily put him into the system. They were probably aware of the alternative – secular education – or maybe they were even presented with the option of integrated education where children get both secular and Qur’anic education. Maybe they were even aware that their child would end up begging for alms on the street. But they still chose to put him into the Almajiri system. What do they see that you don’t?
Do you see all those young men who are hustling to move food across our country from north to south, and Chinese products from south to north? What education system do you think produced them? The okada/machine/keke/motorcycle/going boys who take you from point A to point B for 50 or 100 Naira – what education system do you think produced them? Do you need to get your shoes or purse repaired? Do you need your clothes washed? All that farming we’re supposed to be doing now to bring back Nigeria’s agriculture sector? All that construction? All that work you don’t want to do and you don’t want your secular-educated kids to do but you’ll pay someone else to do…what system of education do you think produces those labourers? And yes, every now and again you’ll hear about an exceptional chief justice, a selfless doctor, an ethical businessman who had his foundation in the same system.
The Almajiri is a system out of which we get the hustlers that don’t have to wait for a godfather to hand them an office job. But maybe there is a way to still produce hustlers without going through the beggar phase.
The North will reach a tipping point where the economic environment will shift drastically and a different type of mass education system will be needed. That new system needs to take into account predictions about regional economic pressures. So what will the economic environment of the North look like 10 years from now? 20? 40? 80? I don’t know. But there is a brilliant economist in exile in Lagos who might know. So maybe Northern leaders should ask him. And then listen to him.
Human beings are generally resistant to change because change requires a lot of effort and it’s just easier to keep doing things the same old way, especially when that way seems to be working for you. But remember…before the Almajiri system, the North had a different system of education. Then the economic environment changed with the arrival of Muslim traders from the Arab world through North Africa. So the education system was modified to adopt the Almajiri system. It made economic sense. Then the British showed up. But I would argue that the arrival of the British did not change the economic conditions in the North the way it changed conditions in the South; the South faced more pressure to adopt secular education at scale. It made economic sense for them to do so.
To survive, the Almajiri system must change. But that change should be in accordance with what our economic environment demands. And maybe for a short time, the new system will have to straddle both the current environment and the coming one.
Rahmat Muhammad, PhD, Nigerian, American, Neuroscientist, Founder & CEO Triple-E Media Productions.