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Beyond bowels in hand: The Almajiri of Enugu extraction

By Rev. Fr. Udenwagu Anayochukwu (PhD)

Introduction

On a holiday trip from Europe, a friend of mine camped in Kano, in the northern part of Nigeria. Cruising through the city with his host, they made a stop for lunch in a restaurant. “What is wrong? what is happening here?” Those questions were expressions of surprise. He barely finished his meal, when a group of Almajiris scampered for the left overs on his plate.  And being his first time in the north, and as well, his first experience of such incident, his host explained to him; “they are the Almajiris, with a culture of begging.”

Driving within Enugu metropolis, one observes in utter dismay a trending culture of begging. The act is of such a magnitude that the beggars claim legitimacy; and are ready to fight in defense of their ‘trade’ and ‘catchment areas.’ Such areas include the Holy Ghost Cathedral gate, through the railway line behind Ogui motherless babies’ home and the traffic light at the junction linking Ogui urban through the stadium. The Agric Bank bus stop at Independence layout is not left out. One of them (beggars) almost broke my side mirror because I did not ‘patronize’ him. At the Spar/ESBS (Enugu State broadcasting services) junction, it is the same story. Suffice it to say that road users are now wary of these traffic lights, especially when they must stop in compliance to danger signals; they are unaware of the next step of these street beggars. Scattered all over the place, their ‘illegitimate’ trade (begging), alludes to the style of present-day Almajiris in some northern states if not all.

The cap in hand lifestyle of the children involved inspires this article. It serves as the link between what is obtainable in the north and what is trending in Enugu metropolis. This article identifies part of the roots of this ugly development, the ordeal of these street beggars, and the threat they pose to unsuspecting citizens and the larger society. It will also proffer solutions to nip the ugly trend in the bud.

Understanding the term Almajiri

The term Almajiri as used in this write-up, derives from the Arabic – ‘Almuhajirrun’ meaning an emigrant. It recalls Prophet Mohammed’s migration from Mecca to Medina. Those who migrated with him were referred to as ‘Al-Muhajirrun’, meaning migrants. According to Fowoyo(2013), these emigrants on getting to medina had no means of livelihood; and so, depended on the fraternity established by the prophet between them and their hosts. Therefore, Almuhajirrun designates a person who migrates from his home to other places or (to) an Alaramma/Mallam (Qur’anic teacher) in search of Islamic knowledge.

 In pre-colonial northern Nigeria, the Almajiri system worked out well. It was a system of Qur’anic literacy that began in the Old Kanem Bornu empire, spreading later to the Sokoto caliphate. It evolved with the sole intention of teaching children between the ages of six and eighteen to learn the Quran and imbibe some Islamic religious tradition.A tradition with a semi-formal structure that allowed parents to send their wards to wandering Islamic teachers.(Cf. YUSHA’U, M., ‘Problems and prospects of integrated Almajiri education in northern Nigeria2013.) Such schools were maintained, through corroborative efforts of the communities, parents, teachers, the state and if need be, the students (through farming activities). Begging was never a part of that Islamic structure of learning.

 Today, begging is almost synonymous with the word Almajiri. This undignified status associated with the Almajiri system dates back to the colonial era. It began with the ‘invasion’ of the northern part of Nigeria by the British government. Holding sway of government structures, the Colonial masters deposed the Emirs, who on losing control of their territories, lost control of the Almajiri system of Islamic education. There was also the factor of western education which necessitated the abolishing of state funding for Almajiri schools.Withdrawal of such funds was based on the argument that they were religious schools. Such a move, further weakened the fabrics of the Almajiri system as A. AbdulQadir affirms: “With [the] loss of support from the government, its immediate community, and the helpless Emirs, the Almajiri system collapsed like a pile of cards. Western education (karatun Boko) was introduced and funded instead. The pupils now turned, Almajirai together with their Mallams, having no financial support resorted to begging and other menial jobs for survival.”(Idris A. AbdulQadir, ‘The Almajiri System of Education in Nigeria Today’.) This quest for survival, evident in the bowel/cap in hand attitude, has become the trademark of the Almajiri system; like a virus, it has found a favourable domain within Enugu metropolis. Just as their northern counterparts, whose reasons for migration have shifted from Islamic studies to begging. Begging has also become a cover up for the clandestine activities of these migrants into Enugu metropolis.

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The Enugu experiences 

There is a conspiracy of silence among the elites of Enugu extraction, (the academic class, the business class, traditional rulers, religious leaders, politicians and other leaders of thought) regarding the menace of street begging that has become a tradition. Among the ruling class, one would see it as a lack of political will. But one cannot dismiss the efforts made by past and present administrations to curb this ugly development. At least, there was a move last year (2019) by the Honourable Ugwuanyi led administration to move these ‘less privileged’ ones to the rehabilitation centre at Emene and the mentally challenged ones to psychiatrist hospital, all in Enugu. (Cf. Lawrence Njoku, ‘Dumping of beggars… raises concern’, 2019.) However, that move did not yield the desired results; either there was no follow-up action or those contracted to do it ‘politicized’ the project. As a result, it ended as a palliative solution that succeeded in removing the cap of the nail while it is still stuck in the wood. The continued influx of these migrants at strategic positions within Enugu metropolis compel us to further investigations.

Parental ignorance and irresponsibility are part of the reasons for this ugly trend of begging. It no doubt affects the fabrics of the family. In Book one of the Politics, Aristotle extols the benign nature of the family, holding that it is the foundation of the society. The family he argues is natures creation for the satisfaction of man’s daily wants. It is a composite of natural relationships, featuring parents (husband and wife), children, and in the early society slaves. But the expansion of families imposed greater responsibilities; needs went beyond the daily wants of individual families, to the common good of all within the context of political society. To achieve this, children require basic education (both informal and formal) to live responsibly in pursuit of this greater goal. For this, parenting transcends childbearing to the training of kids for self-definition. Nevertheless, the failure of some families (for varying excuses) to live up to this challenge identifies parental ignorance/irresponsibility as a major factor contributing to this social malaise – street begging.

Given the demeaning character of begging, it is surprising that some parents send their children bowel in hand into the streets. This could be out of the ignorance of the consequences of such actions. But, whether invincible (lack of knowledge beyond a person’s ability) or vincible (lack of knowledge that a rational person could possess by making efforts) ignorance is not anexcuse for this ugly trend. Apart from ignorance, other reasons include among other things, poverty and frustration.

 Living below one dollar per day, some of these street dwellers are psychologically unstable due to hunger and its attendant exasperation. No wonder their attitude and reaction are as good as that of one ready to die in defense of legitimate trade. Besides, greed and laziness are not left out. Be that as it may, facts have shown that the latter factors play dominant roles; some of these parents who ply the trade along with their kids are not physically challenged, alluding to the reason(s) they migrate from their local communities to the metropolis; a way of evading the associated shame. Some even assume physical deformation to attract the attention of passers-by. However, that we have people with genuine reasons for assistance is not negated; but pushing the kids to street begging smacks of parental irresponsibility thereby, debunking whatever reasons they adduce for such ‘abuse’ of children and teenagers. In the process of begging, aimed at improving their poor conditions, these kids are exposed to untold societal ills that not only worsens but makes their conditions endemic.

Such endemic conditions are heightened by the collapse of governance, which is another factor encouraging street begging in Enugu. In social studies, “collapse usually refers to the disintegration of human societies often along with their life support systems. It may include other long-term declines of culture, values and civil institutions.” Nigeria is a perfect example of such a monumental collapse with virtually every life support system /institution in comma; the covid 19 pandemic is an eye opener to our ram-shackled health sector. The collapse extends to power supply, pipe-borne water, schools and higher institutions of learning. Hence, applying the principle of the relation between the part and the whole, when the whole is dysfunctional, the part is as good as nothing. Consequently, in Enugu, there is an air of hopelessness among the people attendant on the decay accruing from the collapse of governance. Under this situation, where life support systems as running water, recreational parks, pensions, gratuities and job opportunities are far-fetched, cap in hand business becomes a bailout for the feeble-minded. It has untold consequences on the victims and the general public.

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          Unlike Pontius Pilate who faced his God through a chain of events, the Almajiri’s of Enugu extraction through their bowel in hand adventure, are not as ‘lucky’ as Pilate. Instead, their begging ‘career’ has brought them face to face with present-day Pilates and your guess is as good as mine.These street beggars are subjected to all kinds of flagellation, sex abuse, ritual killings, kidnapping and other inhuman conditions. The subjugation has various dimensions that away from home, they also have the natural elements to contend with; torrential rains and scorching heat from the sun. For these, they are subjected to all sorts of illness evident in their famished appearance and shabby dressing. It is either they meet their untimely death or they get used to violence and so a threat to the wider society.

To the general public, the consequences of this unwholesome business are aptly captured by Fowoyo. Describing the ugly trend as a monster, he argues that such monsters when created and perfected destroys whatever comes its way. (Cf. Fowoyo Joseph, ‘Transforming the Almajiri Education for the Benefit of the Nigerian Society.’) From the Almajiri of Enugu extraction, the effect could be both immediate and long term. On the one hand, these ‘friends’ of ours who loiter the streets cap in hand constitute a cog in the social life of unsuspecting citizens. Between Holy Ghost cathedral gate and the gate leading to the motherless babies’ home, one risks losing one item or the other to these angry teenagers who flee through the railway to their hideouts. At other points, like the stadium-Ogui urban roundabout, the Agric Bank bus stop etc., you are abused as if you have committed a crime. But your offence is nothing save the consequences of a decadent society palpable in the loss of ‘the etiquette of begging.’ (cf. Ray Ekpu, DailySun, Tuesday, April 7, 2020) On the other hand, the long-term effects are worrisome: political thuggery, robbery, cultism, and worse still terrorism. Yes! subjected to torture by the elements, neglected by the society and worse still deprived of the opportunity for education and the virtue it imposes, these street beggars are so disadvantaged. The effect is of such intensity that they have become one with violence and ever ready to be used for its perpetration. Boko haram sect in northern Nigeria is a case in hand. No wonder scholars argue that they draw some of its recruits from the Almajiri. (cf. Oge Samuel Okonkwo, ‘The Almajiri system and violent extremism in northern Nigeria: Finding the nexus.’ July 18 2017.) With the infiltration of these bandits (Boko haram) into the south-east, only adequate preventive (orientation and re-orientation) measures would prevent them from extending their recruitment to the Almajiri of Enugu extraction – the street beggars.

Recommendations

Free and compulsory education for the kids and teenagers roaming the streets with cap in hand is one of such preventive measures. Formative by its nature, education compels man to live beyond his instinctive nature and to conquer his environment for well-being. Such empowerment from education enables its end, identified by Aristotle as fostering of virtuous activity in man. (Cf. Aristotle, Politics, 1332a9) Therefore, to realize this objective, the government should set up a task force to ensure that these kids and teenagers enroll in schools. And to lure them out of their supposed ‘comfort zone’ onto the demands of education, certain conditions must be met: the necessities of life (food, shelter and clothing) must be assured. To effect this, voluntary organizations, churches, and philanthropists can augment the efforts of the government. This kind gesture will not only give them a sense of security but will in the words of Mary Nichols, calm the tension between the quest for survival and the goal of well-being. (Cf. Mary P. Nichols, Citizens and Statesmen. A Study of Aristotle’s Politics, p. 151.) In addition to that, their education must be free with teachers trained to understand their background.

Apart from the education of the teenagers, there is a need for rehabilitation centres for the parents and by extension their children. As a process, rehabilitation helps someone who has suffered in one way or the other to get back or improve on the abilities needed to face the challenges of daily life. Recognizing the importance of this rehabilitation process, the Enugu state government Adibe notes, has already started work on the renovation of its facilities within the state. (cf. Tony Adibe, ‘Enugu government renovates rehabilitation centre.’Dailytrust.com.ng. Jan. 24, 2020) What a commendable initiative by the government. Beyond this, however, adequate measures should be put in place to see that the facility is functional: installation of necessary equipment, trained personnel and care-givers. These will serve as an incentive to the inmates who alreadydisoriented by the trauma attendant on street life (both physical and psychological) require some help. They could learn handcrafts like the weaving of textiles, sweaters, and shawls; production of shoes, handbags, and other household materials. Carpentry, mason, brick laying and other crafts could be put in place. But to attain this end, Enugu state government must read the signs of the time. The repatriation of Almajiris from some northern states like Kano and Nasarawa to their home states to contain the covid-19 pandemic is an invitation to ascertain the identity of these street dwellers. Such a knowledge would empower the government to follow suit, not just as a copycat. But because that is the only way they can sift out the indigenous people of Enugu who will really adapt to the plan in the rehabilitation centres as against ‘foreigners’ with different cultural orientation and background. Acquisition of such skills will not only keep these street dwellers busy but will also give them a sense of belonging while integrating them properly in society.

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Moreover, with proper orientation through education and the process of rehabilitation, virtues are acquired, not necessarily for the individuals but that the aim of governance (common good) may be achieved. Armed by such laudable achievement (integration of those on the edge of the society), the government can take the bold step of passing a law on the abolition of street begging. On arrival, such laws are effective on two counts: First, it has a human face, seeking to break demeaning social practices like begging. Also, it presupposes the goal of every legitimate government – common good of all her citizens. And with common good assured, our street dwellers will look beyond bowels in hand and its palliative rewards.

Conclusion

This article explored the dangers of street begging that has become a tradition within Enugu metropolis. Tracing this ugly phenomenon, we likened it to the present-day understanding of the term Almajiris – beggars. The Almajiri was a system of Islamic education that enabled kids to learn the tenets of the Q’uran. However, the incursion of the colonial masters into Nigerian politics had a twist that turned the table; with western education introduced, the imams (who thought these children) lost their jobs, leaving them with the option of using the kids as instruments for their selfish ends.For this reason, the Almajiri became synonymous with begging. Therefore, the phenomenon of street begging analyzed in this article goes beyond the Almajiris in the north. It extends in different dimensions, to the children and adults found a cap in hand within Enugu metropolis.Furthermore, the article traced the probable causes of this ugly development noting parental irresponsibility and collapse of governance among the factors sustaining street begging within Enugu metropolis. It has immediate and long-term consequences both for the beggars and the society at large. On the part of the street dwellers, they become victims of abuse on varied platforms. Such an act could leave them perpetually under trauma. When that is the case, everyone is affected; they not only disrupt social order by their nefarious activities, but are used as thugs for untold crimes orchestrated politically or otherwise. As a matter of urgency, all hands must be on deck to stop this ugly trend. Finally, this article suggests a process of rehabilitation that will involve special education based on skill acquisition for self-actualization and fulfilment. It is a process that will not only protect the interest of these street beggars but will also ensure the common good of all.

Rev Fr. Udenwagu Anayochukwu (PhD) is a formator at Bigard Memorial Seminary Enugu

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The Choice Flame Newspaper is dedicated to smart, truth centered and objective reporting on the church and the society at large. It is the publication of the Catholic Diocese of Enugu with the aim to dispel the darkness of ignorance and misinformation.
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The Choice Flame Newspaper is dedicated to smart, truth centered and objective reporting on the church and the society at large. It is the publication of the Catholic Diocese of Enugu with the aim to dispel the darkness of ignorance and misinformation.
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