Northern Nigeria’s Almajirai –  Dominant Discourses, Collective Guilt, and the wider Nigerian Problem.


Hadiza Kere Abdulrahman PhD


It is well understood that Almajiranci as it now exists in Northern Nigeria is not a pretty sight. One is constantly besieged by scores of young boys, begging bowls in hands, looking bedraggled and begging for food or sustenance. These boys can be found at every stop and it is very hard to look away. If you do manage to look away, then the newspaper headings and researchers like me will not let you forget its existence. The issue of Almajiranci especially in its current manifestation has become not only a topical issue but also highly politicised – who remembers Mrs Patience Jonathan and her jibe at Northerners who “born troway”? I remember that well and I also remember our collective anger, collective guilt you might say. It is this scenario that keeps attracting people to Almajiranci and keeps us all invested in finding lasting solutions.

It is also these emotive images and rhetoric that robs the system of its nuances and complexities. It is hard for anyone subjectified by these discourses to conceptualise Almajiranci differently or as more than it appears. When people hear ‘Almajiranci’, all they can think of, are its many negatives. And it is this that forms the basis of my research with former Almajirai – especially men who have found some form of value in the system. The way we represent people is very important, Hall (1997) says that how you represent people, goes on to affect how you treat them. So if you call an Almajiri ‘a beggar’ or ‘a member of Boko Haram’ often enough, he soon becomes established as that. That becomes the constituted knowledge of Almajirai and the Almajiranci system, and will subsequently affect not just their representation but policy formation and future Identification.

These representational mainstream discourses including titles such as, Soyinka’s “Butchers of Nigeria” and Purefoy’s “Almajirai, learning a life of poverty and violence”, are typical of how the phenomenon is described in media texts. The sensational headlines risk sucking us in and making us lose any objectivity when looking at the issue of Almajiranci. ‘Almajiri’ has now become a derogatory and pejorative word. While there is absolutely no doubt that there are several things not right with the system as it stands, the worry is that our collective guilt makes it easier for us to buy into these descriptions, negative representations and ‘Othering’ of the boys and the system in the general. If we see the boys, their parents and the practice as removed from us – the Western-educated elite, then it becomes easier not only to shed empathy, but to criticise and demonise them and also their practices as backwards and of another era. We also risk demonising a whole group of men for whom Almajiranci has worked. These men are those who feed our informal economy, former Almajirai, rather than being the ‘underbelly’ of the Nigerian society as the dominant discourses will have us believe are actually the ‘bread and butter’ of the Arewa society – the farmers, market traders and the local artisans. Linking Almajiranci with Boko Haram is also not exactly helpful as it masks the many reasons and multiple causes for the existence of Boko Haram by simply saying the men are former Almajirai.

Many successive governments have attempted to tackle what is considered to be the problems of Almajiranci with very little successes and this is because we have chosen to conveniently forget that Almajiranci and its problems are not only set within a wider problematic Nigerian educational terrain but also a wider Nigerian societal problematic. Almajiranci is the mirror of the society within which it subsists, the issues with Almajiranci are the issues of the Arewa society at a microcosmic level. Some parents of Almajirai find it hard to access the promised Universal Basic Education and consider it either too expensive or coming at an opportunity cost they cannot bear. Many of the parents are also not convinced that this ‘Western’ style of education that the state offers is more beneficial for their children. The major drivers of Almajiranci include a mix of suitability, availability and affordability, what many in the media and in the scholarly literature have often chosen to do is reduce the drivers to a simple cause-effect reason why Almajiranci still sustains. This is often not the case, research has shown that the drivers are as complex as they are numerous and poverty is not the sole determinant neither is fecklessness or neglect on the part of the parents. For many, the choice of Almajiranci is well thought-through and rational as rational can be. For the parents there is the fervent desire to inculcate in their children the knowledge of the Qur’an, which they still consider the most valuable of all knowledge. ‘Western education’ in Nigeria today has also not turned out to be the panacea it has been touted to be and good quality ‘Western-style education’ is now really the preserve of the rich and the middle classes.

Until we begin to question these discourses and the reasons for their existence, we continue marginalising a group of people who could hold the key to moving this practice forward. The men who have gone through the system are rarely asked what they think about it or even how to reform it. The dominant narratives will rather have us all believe these are men ready to kill or available to unleash violence at the behest of any money bag, they will have us believe that, these are men without agency, who are little more than puppets in the hands of any master. My doctoral research shows that many of these former Almajirai are people whom this form of education has served, in a society which has offered them so little, with not many other viable or desirable options. Some have even gone on to acquire the desired Western Education, while others are quite content with what Almajiranci has given them. Their stories and lived experiences could therefore be an important part of the moving the Almajiranci story along.

What this write-up hopes for, is a moment to stop and reflect on the possibility of doing things differently moving forward. Policy after policy has failed to address the issues that Almajirai and Almajiranci face. Perhaps it’s time to stop looking at Almajirai as ‘the problem’ and ‘Western-Educated’ Nigerians as the solution, time to collapse that binary. Time to review our own complicity in the state of Almajiranci and will ourselves to act differently. To treat its practitioners with less contempt as a start, to involve them in finding solutions and afford their subjugated knowledges some epistemic respect. Possibly even open our eyes to what the system can teach us as an educator of men, because the postcolonial education system we have at the moment only guarantees success to a few within a closed system of social reproduction and the ‘Education for All’ agenda has certainly failed to reach ‘All’.



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Why I am doing what I am doing.

My major driver.

The rationale behind this research is a rather personal one. The research is set in Northern Nigeria, a predominantly Muslim area with a very high percentage of children out of school.  Many of these ‘out of school children’ are often Almajirai, even though they attend a form of school, their schools or schooling are not recognised and so they start off life being marginalised and often times disenfranchised. This Northern part of Nigeria is the region I call home and if one has lived in these parts then one can truly not hide away from the impact of this practice on our everyday lives and reality. Many of the little boys seen on the streets are Almajirai, though there are other beggars but they are usually the disabled or the elderly. Almajiri has now become almost a derogatory word. (Tilde, 2009), a word often times synonymous with begging itself.

My research will be set within a backdrop of a problematic education system in Nigeria as a whole and in Northern Nigeria in particular. Research by Sunal et al (2003) revealed various problems with the Nigerian education system especially at primary level and especially with the universal basic education system in existence at the moment. The north of Nigeria is by no means the only region with children out of school, but it certainly has the largest proportion. Parents find it hard to access the basic primary education and often consider it too expensive. Many of them also are not convinced that the western style of education that the state offers is more beneficial for their children. The major drivers of Almajiranci today include a mix of suitability, availability and affordability. Many of Northern Nigeria’s masses still send their children to these traditional because they consider them suitable to their needs – that fervent desire to inculcate in their children the knowledge of the Qur’an, which is still considered the most valuable of all knowledge. For other parents, the promised western and free basic education is neither available nor accessible, many villages still have no access to schools and its a case of almajiranci or nothing. It is also glaring that only the children of the masses are almajirai these days and this tells us clearly that affordability is a factor and a driver. even where the basic education is free it often comes at an opportunity cost, there are also many other hidden costs that put it beyond the reach of these struggling often peasant farmers.  So a major  imperative will be to try and take a holistic view of the Almajiranci practice within a wider and larger setting of another problematic alternative. Good quality western education in Nigeria these days is the preserve of the rich and middle class.

Almajiranci, as it has now become is not a pretty sight.  One is besieged by scores of young boys – begging bowls in hands looking bedraggled, looking for food or sustenance. They almost swarm you at every stop and it is hard to look away never mind sweep under the carpet.  The rationale behind this study is an ethical and social one. As a researcher and educationist, one cannot stand back and do nothing whilst thousands of boys swarm the streets in order to survive.  The least one can do is to research the issue as objectively as possible and to try and give those involved a voice where possible. Every qualitative research should have at its heart a social justice agenda. This study certainly does. Education systems have long held the power to reproduce social inequities, the layers of almajiranci and its place in our society must be peeled and it addressed to make sure that the system and religion especially is not used to legitimise structural and societal injustices using religion as an ‘anaesthetic’.


Hoechner (2013) also identified what she calls a ‘crisis rhetoric’ but which I chose to call the ‘dominant narratives’ in the telling and reporting of the Almajiranci phenomenon. Concerns about the system are growing in the press and adding to the much heated existing discourses. Various online titles including ‘pains of Arewa’s beggar children’ by M Shehu (2010) and ‘Nigeria’s almajiri children learning a life of poverty and violence’ by C Purefoy (2010) are typical of the headlines describing the issue. Whilst not totally unjustified, the fear is that in looking at this phenomenon only through the lens of the reported stories – including Soyinka calling them “Boko Haram’s foot soldiers”, we all risk being sucked into these dominant narratives. The linkages made between almajirai and non-state terrorists including boko haram or even with political thuggery is another worrying trend. There is absolutely no doubt that there is a lot of things not right with the practice of Almajiranci as it exists today, but one worries that in buying into the hype and rhetoric we  risk losing the ability to look at the practice with the objectivity that it deserves, and also then men with the same objectivity – for many rather than being the underbelly of Arewa society are actually its “bread and butter”. We risk demonising a group who are already seemingly disadvantaged by the educational system which serves them. The potential values inherent in a system that has endured might also be overlooked. All of these reasons are what have brought about the thoughts that surely a system of education that has endured for at least a century cannot be completely useless. The aim is for this piece of research to add to the narrative.  As well as giving the practitioners a voice and to help them ‘own’ their story.  I want to ‘own’ the story as well. For there is no doubt that the story of Almajiranci is ‘mine’ – my region’s and a lot of it is being told and written by others.

In carrying out a phenomenologically influenced ethnographic research with the various stakeholders involved in this practice but especially focusing on the men that this system produces, I am hoping that their past experiences and present realities might hold the keys and provide the answers in moving forward. That the insight they share with us will move us beyond the tokenistic approaches to addressing this issue. They are afterall centrally involved in the formation and contestation of the meanings of almajiranci.

This research is very much needed and reading through the literature has revealed that majority of the existing literature has focused on the menace that Almajiranci and Almajirai have become, with only a few charting its historical journey till date. even fewer who show us then people involved in almajiranci. Lone voices such as Hoechner (2013), Baba (2010) and Aliyu (2000) talk about the positives but those are few and far between, I have yet to come across any research which studies the men who have gone through this system, who are “the men they become”? This group have not  been asked what they think of the system or even how they would like to see it changed. It is my belief that their story is an important piece of the jigsaw in moving the story along and this is what I identify as the gap and my potential contribution to knowledge. It would be very fascinating to hear what these people have to say and where they see this system going. Where they are now and what has become of them in the society they call theirs might be our answer in determining whether the system is fit for purpose or should be consigned to the bins of history.

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My dad- ten years on.

It’s really hard to believe that it’s been ten years since you have been gone daddy- your memories remain with us very strongly, It’s in a smile, a word, a song and in the next generation of Kere Ahmeds. You would have delighted in these next generation daddy, 5 feisty and spirited young ladies and 6 promising and intelligent young men alhamdulillah, Your legacy lives on. In other amazing ways as well. The kind words and testaments of virtual strangers make it an honour every day to bear your name. You somehow left behind a trail of kindness and lots of goodwill.

We have plodded on without you and have tried very hard to live true to your principles and to honour your name. It hasn’t been easy but we have kept faith and Allah has been with us. Your friends have also been with us, many of whom have supported is through good and difficult times.
We are also thankful for the strong and wonderful mother you gave us. She has been our anchor and our guiding light.
So much has happened since you have been gone. And Allah knows best why he took you when he did.
You will always be with us, the ‘Kere Ahmed sized’ hole you left in our lives can never be filled. We pray we meet again in jannah. And we remain always thankful that of all the dads in the world Allah gave us you. Thank you for our wonderful lives and Adieu our daddy- zaguru


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A synopsis feedback

SYNOPSIS FEEDBACK – written for a group interesting in disseminating and cultivating information

It has been a very busy december and I bit a bit more than I can chew, I am also very protective of my writing and find it hard to share it in any capacity never mind on a formidable forum like this. As I write this I still don’t know what I am going to share, I wear many hats you see and I don’t know which of my passions to table before you all.

I suppose I am first and foremost an educationist but then aren’t we all? All my life experiences and studies have led me towards the championing of educational causes. My truest passion is child development and education especially across cultures and contexts and that should and would have been the logical choice for any in-depth research right? Well I would think so too but after much deliberations and prayers it came to me what my PhD should be on and it was the much discussed and often maligned topic of almajiranci.

It just kept staring at me in the face all the time and I dared not look away. The issue of almajiranci – young boys in an alternative system of education but often described as ‘out of school’ and often times seen roaming the streets, has been all over the news lately. As is to be expected, it has attracted the interest of many a researcher and policy makers. Most of my background reading so far, has been a case of viewing almajiranci as something completely bad and needing to be eradicated.
In looking at this phenomenon, I realized that we all risked being sucked into the dominant narrative – I did too till I decided to take a step back. Whilst there is absolutely little doubt that there is a lot not right with the practice of almajiranci as it stands today, but in buying into the hype and the rhetoric we also risk “throwing away the proverbial child with the bath water”. Surely a system which has endured for at least a century cannot be completely bad or can it?
And that was how the focus of my research did a ‘360’. Rather than join the throngs of ‘naysayers and messiahs’ , I knew my duty was less grandiose, it was to try and investigate another angle to this story, to add my voice to the narrative. I also wanted to own ‘our’ story. There is no doubt the story of almajiranci is ‘ours’ albeit removed from our everyday realities.
Much as it has become part of our landscape we still see the realities of a system gone wrong, it’s in the eyes of the little boys – begging bowls in hand with weeping eczemas crowding round you as you come out of a fancy shop clutching your similar-aged son who in turn is clutching a meaningless toy or yet another bag of sweet.
It is your hidden conscience when you give these boys a fifty naira note comforted that you have at least done something for the day while you console yourself that there really isn’t much more you can do as an individual anyway.
It is in that feeling ( shame? Guilt? Anger even? Irritation? ) you get, when yet another damning story is added to the dominant narrative.

So I have read and trawled through the existing literature, I am grateful to the Hoechners who have added many positives, I also found myself getting irritated by the many writers who have written seemingly to score cheap political points. I have been informed by the majority who in their own ways have shone lights on the different angles of the story. And now I know exactly what mine will be. My aim is to attempt an ethnographic research into the lives of past almajirai. I think we need to hear from them what their story was and is. It is my believe that, this might hold the keys- their past experiences and present realities might provide the answers in moving forward.
As for the new almajiri schools. Well it’s too early to tell. A commendable initiative no doubt which I have tried to view with an open mind. I just pray that it is not yet another ‘tokenism’ and cheap point scoring. I also worry about the potential two tiers of education it could promote, but I also know that it is better than doing nothing.
Then there are other questions we must ask ourselves in moving forward. What counts as official knowledge? Who are our knowledge gatekeepers also? The ‘intellectual elites instrumental in deciding these things.
Knowledge and power are inextricably linked and in our quest to developing a democratic and egalitarian education system, there is little doubt that we must analyse and review the issue of almajiranci.

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Kai! tafi ka bani wuri.

Nigeria Five Naira banknote

Nigeria Five Naira banknote (Photo credit: barbourians)

Okay, do not lie. We have all done it sometimes. You stop to buy your favourite brand of newspaper, to refill your tank or simply coming out of the supermarket and before you say ‘Jack Robinson’ ten young boys swarm you or your car, begging bowls in hand.

if you are like me, most times your conscience kicks in  – well the pesky conscience wont go away will it? You have just spent thousands of naira in the supermarket and you are lovingly holding your little boy’s hands- also in his hands are toys and goodies the almajiri can only dream of. so yes! it kicks in and you dip into your very deep pocket and hand him a N10 note maybe a one hundred naira note telling them ‘ku je ku raba’. You drive away safe in the comfort that you have done something for today. You try to blot out the images of their scab-ridden bodies and weeping eczema which must itch like hell. The voice in your head tells you peharps you should have taken him to the chemist, your little boy says ‘mama open this for me’ and you move on. You tell yourself well how many can I help? they are far too many anyway. 

My question is who are we really kidding? certainly not ourselves and definately not those little boys. And if you are asking who i mean by we?  i mean you! you and I. Yes, you! thats right you reading this post. For how long do we go on like this? putting a sticky tape on a compound fracture.did i hear you say but what can we do? there is so much WE can do. we being the educated elite. the select few who won life’s lottery and ended up on the giving end.

what i would like the readers to join me in doing is coming up with solutions, practical solutions we can all partake in. Enough of us being arm-chair critics. There is no use getting angry when the problems of almajiranci are thrown again and again at our faces by our southern counterparts.

I have to state my stand here, i do not believe that the almajiranci system is a lost case. i do believe that it needs to be re-examined, reconceptualised and adapted to fit a changing time. i would hate us to come with our lofty, over-inflated sense of importance and intelligence and think we can sweep away a system that has existed for centuries. To do that will be to throw away the proverbial child with the birth water. I do believe however that to pretend there is nothing wrong with the system will be dishonest and that is why I am here and dragging you all along with me. So please friends and foes, lets get athinking. The future of our nation depends on us.

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still practising

Selling cowpea in a market

Selling cowpea in a market (Photo credit: IITA Image Library)

i think i might gradually be getting the hang of this. Just as the title says, this is all about my inner ramblings-walk away now. I need to do this so as channel my thoughts and give myself the proverbial kick on the…….

i hear you ask what this is about? anything and everything but mainly about educational stuff. my niche area is parenting and childhood and youth studies. I am currently registered as a student researching Almajiranci in Northern Nigeria.

In order to attempt to do this topic any justice at all, i need to think out loud. i need people to think with me, to provide a different perspective, i want to look at almajiranci with fresh eyes and also research is a lonely process, i am a social butterfly.

so come along folks! let see where this journey takes us. hop on my thoughts train. It just might take us somewhere.

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