Do Almajiri Children Also Attain ‘Success’ In Life?

Upon graduating from their religious studies, many Almajiri children find themselves ill-equipped for the broader world due to a lack of vocational skills and formal education. However, some have defied this narrative. 

It was harvest season in 1972 in Damasak, a community in Borno, Nigeria’s North East. Ten-year-old Goni Ali had just finished assisting his father in packaging some of the maize from their farm. It would be a gift for his uncle, Ba’a Goni Muktar, who would arrive the following day. After his uncle’s arrival, Ali’s father made a solemn statement to the man, one that resonated deeply and has stayed with him through the years: “I entrust my child to you for him to learn and commit the Qur’an to memory, on my behalf, on his behalf and on behalf of the entire ummah. If he dies, bury him. If he falls sick, cure him.” And with that, Ali set out on a literacy quest to Maiduguri.

Some years later, in 1998, another teenage boy, Alhaji Bukar Sale, embarked on a similar journey at the tender age of ten. Leaving his village of Kumshe in Borno, he headed towards the busy state capital, Maiduguri, like many other Almajiri children in northern Nigeria. Their departure often marks the last time they see their parents, siblings, and the village they call home. For Ali and Sale, however, this journey would mark the beginning of a remarkable transformation for them.

Upon graduation from their religious studies, many Almajiri children find themselves ill-equipped for the broader world due to a lack of vocational skills and formal education. They often struggle with limited job opportunities compared to their peers who attended conventional schools, resorting to begging, petty trading, small-scale agriculture, and even spiritual consultations to make ends meet.

Ali and Sale, however, defied this narrative. While their beginnings were challenging, they have since become active contributors to the economic development of their communities. 

How did they achieve this remarkable feat?

A glance at the Tsangaya institution

Upon arriving in Maiduguri, Ali was shown a large room at the Tsangaya school to drop his luggage, which contained three pairs of clothes, a slate, and a bowl. He soon realised he would be sharing this room with over thirty other boys his age.

Sale, too, was assigned to a room with other young boys. He would later join them in reciting verses of the Qur’an written on slates, all under the supervision of their teacher.

The Tsangaya institution has been a cornerstone of Islamic education in northern Nigeria for centuries. Tsangaya refers to the traditional Quranic teaching schools. For centuries, young boys like Ali and Sale have flocked to the schools, eager to absorb the wisdom of their teachers and deepen their understanding of Islam. Conditions in most of these schools often leave a lot to be desired; the children are often tattered, cramped into small rooms, and have very little to eat.

According to Professor Ibrahim Umara, Deputy Chairman of the Borno State Arabic and Sangaya Education Board (BOSASEB), “the governance and oversight of these schools were initially a responsibility of the traditional institutions.” They were funded through the Baitul mal (a system of community contributions, taxes, and alms). 

The students were in four broad classes: the kindergarten, made up of local children who attended freely, often following older siblings; day students, made up of formally registered local children; boarding students staying in the dormitories like Ali and Sale coming from other communities; and those that have memorised the Qur’an but chose to study other branches of Islamic knowledge.

During festive periods like Eid-El-Maulud, Eid-El-Fitr, and Eid-El-Kabir, parents would visit the Tsangaya to interact with teachers and assess their children’s progress. If a student’s behaviour was unsatisfactory, the teacher would request the parent to take their child home during these visits. This system ensured parents remained engaged in their children’s education and well-being.

Despite its once-revered status, several factors have compromised the Tsangaya system over time. Professor Umara explains that “the local government reform of 1976 and the 1999 constitutional changes, along with economic and social degradation, weakened the traditional oversight mechanisms.” 

Parents began abandoning their children under the guise of seeking Qur’anic education, leaving teachers overwhelmed and under-resourced. The Boko Haram insurgency further exacerbated the situation, displacing families and increasing the number of children left to fend for themselves. Consequently, the Tsangaya system now struggles with a negative perception, often associated with begging and child abandonment rather than rigorous religious and academic training. The lack of student registers and the exploitation of begging by some teachers have further tarnished the institution’s image.

Children studying with traditional wooden slates beside a mud wall.
In the tsangaya, young boys and girls are commonly seen seated with legs crossed, reciting verses of the Qur’an inscribed on their wooden slates while under the watchful guidance of their malam. Photo: Al’amin Umar/HumAngle.

Currently, many of the children seen begging on the streets are mistakenly identified as almajiris, but they are often victims of displacement due to the Boko Haram insurgency. Professor Umara states that genuine almajiris follow a structured schedule. 

“Sessions at the Tsangaya begin at 2:30 p.m. on Fridays after congregational prayers, akin to the start of a school week. This would run until 5:30 p.m., resuming again from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. The weekend starts from Wednesday afternoon to Friday afternoon.” 

A rough road to success

As Ali and Sale matured, they experienced firsthand the struggles of hunger and homelessness.

Often, after morning sessions by 10, Sale would write new verses on his slate upon memorising the previous ones. Afterwards, he would go out to beg for food in the company of other colleagues, which often ends at the commencement of the afternoon session by 2 p.m.

“And by 4 p.m., we would be out again to source our dinner. The older ones who have employers or godmothers would go to their homes for menial jobs. And in return, they get food and other benefits. While others would source firewood and sell to homes to make ends meet.”

Ali faced similar struggles. After lessons at the Tsangaya, he would inscribe verses of the Qur’an on a slate, then wash and sell them to individuals seeking spiritual protection from ‘harmful forces.’ Additionally, he would join the other young children in begging with his bowl.

They soon outgrew begging, forcing them to seek alternative means of survival. Sale joined other older students, frequenting motor parks and busy areas for menial jobs. “That was when we heard stories of the lake, the fish, and opportunities in Baga. We became interested and decided to go see the place,” he recalls. However, his father’s friend caught him and brought him back, leading to severe discipline. This, however, renewed his focus.

On the other hand, Ali found a ‘godmother’ for whom he would write verses of the Qur’an every evening. He also did menial jobs such as fetching water, doing household laundry, and disposing trash. In return, she fed him, occasionally gave him money, and clothed him during festive periods.

With a renewed focus, Sale began hawking groundnuts at a primary school in Gwange. “Interestingly, I would sit in the corridors of the classrooms and listen to ongoing lessons. I began picking up the English alphabets and numbers, even attaining some form of literacy,” he told HumAngle. His interest in formal education was noticed by the headmistress, who enrolled him in primary five and provided evening lessons to accommodate his Tsangaya schedule.

By 2004, he had memorised the Qur’an and had also obtained his primary school certificate and enrolled in the Mafoni Day Secondary School. Financial constraints forced him to drop out in 2007, but he continued his entrepreneurial journey. “I returned to focusing on my garlic business at the Gambaru Market as an apprentice under my boss,” he recalled.

“In 2009, having saved some money, I resumed taking lessons. And in 2011, I sat for my WAEC [West African Examinations Council]. By 2014, I enrolled in Ramat Polytechnic, Maiduguri, where I graduated with a National Diploma in Public Administration in 2016,” he recounted.

He then resumed his apprenticeship until 2020, when he established his own garlic business.

Ali, on the other hand, had memorised the Qur’an twice. Influenced by his ‘godmother’, he was able to attain secondary school literacy. “I am partially literate in the Western system of education, too. When I first graduated, I attended both primary and secondary school. I sat for my WAEC.”

Following his education, Ali embarked on an apprenticeship under his uncle’s friend at the Maiduguri Monday Market. “My boss frequently travels to various communal markets in Borno, Chad, Niger, and Cameroon. When he imports goods, we sell them and deposit the proceeds in the bank. After about nine years, I established my own business and started venturing into the markets he used to visit.”

Today, Ali is a successful entrepreneur, wholesaling food items and various provisions at the Maiduguri Monday Market. He has also taken on the responsibility of mentoring others. “Currently, I have over 60 apprentices, all of whom were once almajiris. Some work as storekeepers, others handle accounting and record-keeping, while the rest serve as salespersons. I oversee several stores and shops within the market. I also have over 20 former apprentices who have established themselves well. Some remain here in the Monday Market, while others have ventured to places like Baga Road, Mubi in Adamawa, Kano, and even Chad and Niger.”

Vibrant outdoor market with people, products stacked high, and a man carrying a heavy load of boxed goods.
“I have completed my secondary education and memorised the Qur’an. I have been here for nearly four years now. Soon, my boss will grant me independence and support to start my own business,” shared a cheerful young apprentice (pictured to the right on black) at one of Ali’s shops in the busy Maiduguri Monday Market. Photo: Al’amin Umar/HumAngle.

At 39, Sale has also established himself as a wholesaler, specialising in garlic at the Mubi International Cattle Market in Adamawa. “I source my products from farmers in Sokoto state and distribute them wholesale to retailers across the North, Cameroon, Niger, and Chad. On average, we distribute around 150 bags per week.” 

And like Ali, Sale has also taken on apprentices. “I currently mentor five apprentices, all of whom were once almajiris. Two of them have even obtained a secondary school certificate,” he reveals.

Sale has ambitions for the future. “I am pursuing further knowledge of the Qur’an, and I aspire to obtain a university degree at some point. I also have a son, and I aim for him to benefit from both traditional Islamic education and formal schooling, following the example of scholars like Professor Ibrahim Maqari, Imam of Abuja National Mosque, and Professor Ibrahim Umara of the University of Maiduguri.”

Recommendations for reform

While Ali and Saleh’s paths differed—Sale integrating formal education into his journey and Ali focusing on traditional and vocational training—their experiences underscore the need for a reformed Tsangaya system that incorporates elements of formal education and vocational training. To do this, Professor Umara suggests several measures.

“Restoring the supervisory and monitoring role of traditional institutions is crucial,” Professor Umara said. “Tsangaya heads should be required to register and prove their teaching credentials, maintaining a register of all students. The government should also establish adequate dormitories and sanitation facilities and provide stipends to the teachers.

“Integrating basic education subjects like English and Mathematics into the curriculum, especially on weekends, can equip students with essential skills. Establishing a ministry for special education to oversee Tsangayas and issue certificates to graduates will help place them within the broader educational and professional framework.”

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