Almajiri Children Grow Old, Too. But What Happens When They Do? 

After years of dedicated learning, graduates of traditional Qur’anic schools in Nigeria step into a world they are not quite prepared for.

Babagana Muhammad spent 14 years seeking religious knowledge. He started when he was five, around the same age children get enrolled in primary schools. Four years later, he transferred from the tsangaya (Qur’anic learning centre) in Gamboru Ngala to another one in Maiduguri, the capital of Nigeria’s Borno state. He finally graduated in 2009, having memorised the Qur’an.

Fourteen years. That’s roughly the same amount of time it takes to get a secondary-level education in the country when you start from scratch. Sometimes, he thinks of how different he may have turned out if he had attended a conventional school. He thinks of his childhood friends who did. Many of them are gainfully employed in the civil service. One has travelled to Egypt to further his education. One is a medical doctor. Another is an expatriate in Saudi Arabia.

Life has been tougher for Babagana, 30, because of the fewer job opportunities available to people in his shoes. He explained why when we met last September in the Tandari Custom area of Maiduguri at an uncompleted building close to his alma mater. The location serves as his office and provides shelter for some of his unmarried friends from the same school.

According to one estimate, about four of five out-of-school children in Nigeria are almajiris. Together, their population may be close to 10 million. But many of these children are technically not out of school. They only attend a different kind of school.

Almajiranci is an educational system that dates back to the 11th-century Kanem-Bornu Empire. The name is derived from the Arabic word “muhajirun,” which refers to a migrant. In essence, the almajiri is someone who leaves their house and travels to distant places in search of Islamic knowledge. The students learnt to read and write in ajami (a script derived from Arabic that is used to write Hausa and other African languages). They were highly respected. Originally, the almajiri system was funded by the state in addition to receiving support from common people. Almajiris gained vocational skills in between their classes and engaged in all sorts of trades and livelihoods. They were also engaged as teachers, judges, administrators, and clerks.

However, the support the schools attract, the relevance of the training, and the opportunities available to products of this system have shrunk over the years — a downhill journey beginning with the changes introduced by the British colonists. 

The almajiri system still clings to life. Today, you would find the pupils gathered under trees, by a mosque, or in a classroom, holding wooden pens and slates, learning to read the Qur’an and committing it to memory. When they are not learning, many of the children roam the streets — usually clothed in dresses that have seen far too much sunlight, sometimes barefooted. You may have seen them up close, colourful bowls in hand. Sometimes, they bang on gates to ask for spare food and beg for alms wherever they might find it. “Allaro, allaro,” they cry as they knock, imploring kind-hearted neighbours to donate in the name of God

Children end up in tsangayas for different reasons. Some are orphaned or raised by single parents who cannot afford to raise them properly. Some parents truly believe the almajiri system to be an excellent way to inculcate religious values and knowledge in their children. Likewise, to some extent, many believe the formal education system has a corrupting influence. But the most common motivation is poverty. 

“When some people get better financially, they withdraw their children from the school,” observed Babagana. Well-to-do families often enrol their children in Islamiyyahs alongside Western schools, or they invite scholars to train them at home.

An almajiri boy with his allo (wooden slate) in Maiduguri. Photo: ‘Kunle Adebajo/HumAngle.

Weening off alms

The reason you don’t usually see older almajiris begging on the street is that, traditionally, there is an age limit for this practice. When an almajiri child turns 15 to 18 — in other words, becomes a gardi (adult) — they are discouraged from begging. So, they have to find other means of sustenance.

Babagana said they got by on inconsistent food donations from neighbours. Sometimes, they engaged in menial jobs. 

When I spoke to Ahmad Muhammad, who had left Bauchi two years ago to study the Qur’an in Maiduguri, he was 14. Already at that age, he gets less sympathy and support from community members when he goes out to beg for food. So, often, the younger almajiris share theirs with him. I asked what would happen the following year when he turned 15. His response was he would have to stop begging and depend on the Mallam (teacher) for sustenance.

That’s not as easy as it sounds.

Person sitting against a wall beside prayer mats, with a contemplative pose, in a sparse setting.
An almajiri boy revising his lesson outside the Sheikh Ibrahim Sale Tsangaya in Maiduguri. Photo: ‘Kunle Adebajo/HumAngle.

Learning on empty stomachs

Abubakar Kale, 29, a student of the tsangaya in the Tandari Custom area of Borno, says hunger is the most pressing problem they face.

“There are small children who do not have anything to eat and have to sleep on empty stomachs. The next day, too, they only get food if they are lucky,” he explained. “There is also the problem of accommodation. Some don’t even have a mat to sleep on, let alone a mattress and mosquito net. There are those whose parents have died and don’t have support from anywhere.”

Jabu Ahmad, a 20-year-old hafiz (someone who knows the Qur’an by heart) at Sheikh Ibrahim Sale Tsangaya, confirmed this. 

“Our main problem is feeding,” he said, his voice waspy. “Mallam is trying, but it’s not enough. Sometimes, we don’t even get food and we pass the night without eating. We will just sacrifice and endure because we can’t go and be searching outside.”

Ibrahim Rahmat Bushara, who took over the school’s administration from his late father, clarified that they did not always have this challenge. In the past, they depended not only on support from community members to keep the school running but also cultivated a large farmland in Bamba, a village in Mafa about 20 kilometres from Maiduguri. Every year, they harvested 60 bags of grain and 20 bags of beans. They used the yield to feed the students and sold some of the beans. He would select 30 senior students and camp them in Bamba, and they would work until the farming season was over. But the last time this happened was over a decade ago.

“That area is no longer safe. The village has been destroyed by the Boko Haram crisis,” he explained. 

“It’s been very difficult feeding ourselves. The junior ones go and beg for food, while the senior ones have to depend on the little we cook here. Some community members, as well as some parents of the students, give us assistance. But the support is not enough.”

The current model involves the children moving around the neighbourhood in the morning for their breakfast, then again in the afternoon for lunch, and then one final time in the evening for dinner. The residents give them foodstuff from their reserves and leftovers. But with Nigeria’s worsening economy, he added, people are not as open-handed as they used to be.

“Some families cannot even afford three square meals, which makes it difficult for them to support their wards and children in the tsangaya schools,” said Tijjani Modu, who is the Borno state secretary of the aid arm of Jama’atu Nasril Islam (JNI), an umbrella group for Muslims in the country.

“It is difficult for the almajiris to get something to feed themselves. It is one of the greatest challenges. Even the families that support them do not even have excess food because of the insurgency. Livelihood activities have become difficult. You cannot go to village markets to trade your goods because of the fear of being attacked by insurgents. You cannot move up to 10 km from Maiduguri to go and farm.”

The other challenges faced by tsangaya students, according to Tijjani, are the poor — sometimes traumatising — teaching methods (such as the prevalence of corporal punishment, which forces some of the children to quit school and become street urchins), lack of adequate instructional materials, and lack of accommodation and WASH facilities.

[L-R] Babagana Muhammad and Abubakar Kale. Photo: ‘Kunle Adebajo/HumAngle.

A hard-knock life

Many graduates of almajiri schools depend on relatives and friends to raise money to start businesses, such as irrigation farming, trading, tailoring, cap making, and laundry. Or they save up over years of manual labour.

Babagana’s strategy was to write three copies of the Qur’an from memory and sell them. The handwritten copies are more valued and expensive. Each one cost between ₦50,000 and ₦55,000. He then used the money to buy his first set of rams and sheep. He has since dabbled in other things: petty trading, farming, transportation, and spiritual consultancy.

“It’s been very difficult,” he sighed. His income is not enough to support his small family of one wife and two children.

Many of his mates are still unemployed because of the lack of start-up capital. He personally knows 10 to 15 who struggle to fend for themselves. He noted that the problem is that people like them are not even qualified to get most jobs, which are reserved for those who attended Western schools. They feel like they have been neglected by the government.

I asked if young men currently enrolled in almajiri schools are aware of the problems ahead of them. The younger ones are usually naive, he replied. “But the elder ones know that a difficult time awaits them.” 

Man in traditional attire sitting in a room with a clay pot and window.
Ibrahim Rahmat Bushara’s tsangaya was established in 1979 and has over 350 students, 180 of whom live in the facility. Photo: ‘Kunle Adebajo/HumAngle.

A new dawn

The almajiri system is often quite informal. Many schools are not registered or named; they are simply known by the names of their founders or instructors. Many do not have a defined period leading up to graduation or a defined curriculum. Students learn at their own pace. Some graduate only after memorising the Qur’an. Some choose to remain in school even after memorising the scripture to revise what they have learnt. And others choose to graduate even before scaling this milestone.

The Borno state government is now trying to make the system more structured and efficient. In November 2020, it set up a committee to address street begging and the abuse of children, especially almajiris. Working on the committee’s advice, the government inaugurated the Borno State Arabic and Sangaya Education Board (BOSASEB) in 2022 and provided it with financial support.

The board has since verified and registered 2,775 tsangayas. Last February, its chairman presented a unified curriculum for these schools to standardise and improve the learning experience as well as prevent the growth of extremism.

The government is also taking steps to integrate vocational skills, literacy, and numeracy into the schools’ curriculum. It aims to have a system that qualifies graduates of tsangayas for admission into colleges and universities.

Last year, Radio Ndarason reported that the programme was “proving to be a great success”: external facilitators taking Math and English are paid ₦15,000 monthly, tsangaya instructors receive ₦10,000, some pupils are reportedly able to write letters and communicate in English, more books and writing materials are available, as well as food and mosquito nets. 

But when I spoke to Ibrahim, whose school is one of the beneficiaries, a few months before this publication, he did not have as many nice things to say. He said the only benefits they enjoyed at the time included a salary of ₦8,000 that went to his deputy and the employment of the external instructor.

This is not enough, observed Tijjani.

“Giving the teacher ₦15,000 monthly is different from supporting the whole students. There is one tsangaya in this area that has up to 300 students; how will ₦15,000 support them? It is not even enough for feeding in one day.”

But he believes the government is heading in the right direction. The standardisation of the education system and provision of certificates to qualified graduates will boost the academic, career, and even political prospects of almajiris.

“I definitely believe things will improve. They will be employable, especially now that the state government has started creating many vocational centres so that the graduates of these tsangayas can be admitted and trained in different skills,” he said.

He added that the challenge now is that some school administrators are still not open to the idea of integrating elements of the Western education system, believing that this would introduce alien cultures to their students.

Tijjani recommends that for the new system to work, parents need to be sensitised about the benefits of the Western-style education system. They should be made to understand that religious values are still taught in such schools.

“Two, let the tsangaya teachers and proprietors understand that integrating numeracy and literacy into the curriculum will help the students know how to read and write or calculate simple arithmetic in their businesses after graduating.”

Also, the government should enact a law that makes it compulsory for the almajiri schools to integrate Western education. It should additionally support them just as it supports conventional schools by helping with feeding, boarding facilities, and WASH facilities. “They have equal rights to enjoy free, qualitative education like the other Nigerian children,” he stressed.

Meanwhile, Babagana is excited about the government initiative, knowing that it has the potential to create more job opportunities for people like him. 

He doesn’t consider it the end of the road for himself in terms of learning. He said if he had the chance to get a formal education, he would grab it. That way, he would have enough skills to establish a thriving business outfit. He could even become a teacher.

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'Kunle Adebajo

Head of Investigations at HumAngle. ‘Kunle covers conflict alongside its many intricacies and fallouts. He also writes about disinformation, the environment, and human rights. He's won a couple of journalism awards, including the 2021 Wole Soyinka Award for Investigative Journalism, the 2022 African Fact-checking Award, and the 2023 Michael Elliott Award for Excellence in African Storytelling.

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