Mu'azu Abu was an arrant forager; from daylight till twilight, he would crawl — like a crab — on the streets of Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto, begging and seeking aids for daily survival. But dynamically, he soon seesawed characteristically from being a street boy to being a school boy. Born handicapped — keenly cripple and physically deficient — the chap has turned his disadvantage to advantage.
Sometime in 1997, in Gidan Doke Village, Abu was born in a community where only Islamic education was aggressively encouraged; he was brought up in a society where western education was highly discouraged and trained amidst many other itinerant children otherwise known as 'almajiris' in Sokoto State.
Conditioned to beg because of his physical disability, he had no choice than begging since he was not well-parented. Neglected and negated in the village, his parents would send him out to fend for his daily meal by himself and for himself, regardless of his physical challenge.
Meanwhile, while begging on campus, the academic breeze of the environment enchanted the helpless beggar so much that he fell in love with western education. He made a turnaround classically by learning elementary English from some of the students of the school who fell in love, in turn, with his rare interest in schooling.
The errant child enrolled himself in Gidan Yaro Model Primary School, Sokoto, where he learned the elementary basics of western education. Interestingly, when inquired from Abu, he gave a clear picture of what the term 'almajiri' means to him — having being one before now.
"Almajiri is a name widely used for poor boys who carry plates all around in search of food. And the appearance of the boys, who always have rag clothes on them, shows they are in need of help. But the term 'almajiri' is originally meant for those students who are in search of knowledge," he said.
Like it or hate it: Abu was right in his definition of the term 'almajiri' — after all, he spoke from his personal experience as a one-time, street-gallivanting child in Sokoto state. Like many other states in northern Nigeria, Sokoto is bombarded with thousands of helpless and hapless children who wander the streets of the state, while their mates are in school.
Malam Abu Shekara, the Director General of Media and Publicity to Sokoto Governor Aminu Tambuwal, affirmed that at all levels of leadership, northern Nigeria has more than acknowledged the reality and serious negative impacts of child begging on the social and economic fortunes of this part of the country. And although the practice has religious antecedents, there is appreciable realization that it does not find Islamic sanction, especially in the form it occurs in contemporary times.
Education At All Cost
In moments of torments, climes of hardship and restrictions of movements, poor Mu'azu Abu struggled to sponsor himself to school amidst lots of discouragement from friends and relatives. But, wait a second! What could have encouraged the courage of Abu to get education at all costs? "Because they say those that go to school have tendencies of having bright future. I feel for myself that if I don't go to school, I would beg all my life," Abu simply answered, wearing a smiling face for the first time in more than 30 minutes of interrogation between him and the reporter.
Chronologically, he recounted how he gathered a little capital to start up a recharge card business centre. "Not even a wheel chair could I afford then," he recalled. "I would crawl around the campus to beg students to buy my recharge card."
"I later worked with Airtel and UNICEF. What I did with Airtel was that I registered their SIM for people, so the more registration I did the more I gained. On each registration, the recharge card the person bought was my gain. Also I worked with UNICEF. The work I did then was PSG, that's what we called it. They gave us 10,000 at the end of every month. So during that time I was gathering money, before I finally established this business myself. And with this business, I like it than begging," Abu proudly added.
Amazingly, Abu is one of the doing-well entrepreneurs on the campus of Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto. He has apparently turned his acute disability to an ability as a phone repairer and petty trader of phone accessories. During the interview, the versatile chap was gallantly seated while his fingers perfectly pressed the keyboards of his laptop in his yellow-painted phone accessories kiosk. Obviously, this is the only job he does to support his schooling.
"Like I said earlier I was once a beggar on this campus before I stopped and focused on my study. Then, I accumulated money through Airtel and UNICEF jobs. Though, there are some people who believe that anybody that is physically challenged has to beg. And even if he doesn't beg in this life he will do so in the other life (heaven). I think what they lack is proper orientation.
"Though my parents are not among those who believe the first one, but I think they didn't realize quickly that I am not obliged to beg simply because I'm physically challenged. That's why I begged before I stopped it. Now, I'm happy to say that I'm the one paying my school fees myself," he told this reporter.
"When I was in Dundaye Secondary School, some people advised my father to let me stop begging so that I would focus on education. Among those who advised my father are: Professor Alli Muhammad Bunza, he is my father's customer; also Doctor Badamosi, HOD UDUS Clinic and Professor Abdullah Abbas and some others. They advised my father and they encouraged me too. Even Professor Alli some times would carry me in his car to school. So, that was how I stopped Almajiri and focus on my education," Abu added.
Apart from his physical challenges, little Abu also faced other challenges, especially from fellows who threw him hot words to discourage his courage.
"One of the challenges I've encountered so far were the words of some people when I first started the business.They were saying, it is better I go and beg than sitting here selling charger, and others. But, I thank God right now there's nobody that can see me now and say I should go back to begging.
"I have graduated from secondary school and currently I'm in 200Level as a Diploma student of Mass Communication in Usmanu Danfodiyo University where I registered for part time studies," said, Abu, joyfully.
Islamic Versus Western Education
It takes Mallam Muktar Abdullahi a strong mind to survive the shattering criticism of his fellow Islamic clergies who from time to time look him with disdainful eyes for harbouring a boy under his tutelage who combines Islamic education with western education, simultaneously. But then, despite the grave reprehension, the 66-year-old Islamic mentor insists that there is nothing wrong in allowing his mentee go to school since the said boy can sponsor himself.
Ali Aliyu is now a grown up boy; he was too little to know his age when he was put under the tutelage of Malam Abdullahi for Islamic studies. But he once heard his master say he was just 4 when he was brought by his father to the cleric.
As schooled as he is, the 24-year-old boy still lives — amidst others itinerant children — under the roof of the said Islamic tutor.
For over 30 minutes of interactions between this journalist and the one-time 'almajiri' in front of the mini-mosque situated by the roadside at Bello Way in Sokoto, Aliyu muttered effortlessly correct English sentences, expressively. He chronicled how he was once a maid-of-all-jobs child before he was inspired to go to school.
"Up till now, I still help a lady in selling food. That is what I use to support my education," he said. "Whenever I returned from school, I would go and help her in serving customers and washing plates. I had been helping Malama Inno since I was much younger. Then, I would go to her place to beg for food and help. And she said I should be helping her permanently."
According to him, he was simply motivated to leave the street for school because he was always moved whenever he saw children in uniforms, going to school. "I got interested in schooling because I always loved to see people speak 'Turanci' (English) and when I was little, I was always moved whenever I saw children like me going to school in their uniforms," he said. "Because of that, I put myself in school. I attended Sultan Abubakar Secondary School and now, I'm in Umar Ali Chinkafi Polytechnic, Sokoto."
Through thick and thin, he said, he survived the threats of hunger and peasantry, coupled with lots of difficulties, especially while in secondary school.
Contrary to the expectations of what most Northern traditional Islamic tutors believe an 'almajiri' should be, Malam Abdullahi said the term 'almajiri' is not tantamount to apt begging and illiteracy as many would think it to be. He added that 'almajiri' — in its real implication — means he who has journeyed from a far distance to seek knowledge and understanding. He insisted that the nomadic children should not be compulsorily subjected to suffering and gnashing of teeth.
"Anybody taking advantage of the kids because they are nobody is not a man of God; that person does not fear Allah," said, Malam Abdullahi.
When a child is compared with another, one will definitely beat the other, brilliantly. Comparitively, Abu Mu'azu and Ali Aliyu have been able to stand out among other less privileged children who have taken the streets as their permanent abodes because they are not well cared for. While other children are natives of the streets, foragers of food and are filled with trepidation, Abu and Aliyu are optimistic fortune seekers who strongly believe that being unparented is never an excuse for failure.
SDG 4 And The Child Rights Act
Let's let aside the paranormal Sokoto wandering children who perspire and aspire against all odds to sponsor themselves to school, while other children stoop and stick to the street. What are the rights of a child?
Man's inhumanity to man which is extended to the-left-alone children; societal ill-treatment of the children; lack of parental care for so many of them and other factors are responsible for embracing the Child Rights Acts Bill in Nigeria, in 2003. But then, Sokoto — amongst many other states — are yet to domesticate the Child Rights Acts despite the high level of child begging, child labour, child marriage and other phenomena that violate rights of children in the state
The 'Almajiri' blues and other barbaric traditions are killers of the Sustainable Development Goal 4, which caters for equal, qualitative all-inclusive education for all.
According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Orgarnisation (UNESCO), the Sustainable Development Goal 4 has 10 targets encompassing many different aspects of education. There are seven targets which are expected outcomes and three targets which are means of achieving the other targets.
The 10 targets as stated by UNESCO are: Universal Primary and Secondary education; early childhood development and universal education; equal access to technical/ vocational and higher education; relevant skills for decent work; gender equality and inclusion; universal youth literacy; education for sustainable development global citizenship; effective learning environment; scholarships and, teachers and educators.
The aforementioned targets are what UNESCO wants the world to have achieved by 2030. But then, one would wonder if Sokoto and many other states in Nigeria could meet up with these, when thousands of street children are not made to see the reasons why they need to be in school.
Nonetheless, in a commentary essay written to respond to a story by Sahara Reporters, which centers on travails of the Sokoto forgotten children, Malam Abu Shekara addressed the issue of domesticating the Child Rights Act in Sokoto state.
"The passage of the Child Rights Act is indeed critical to the resolution of the almajiri menace. And Sokoto is among the states that have made significant progress towards its ratification. But again, religious and cultural variables are being addressed, through consultation with and involvement of traditional and religious authorities before the final adoption of the law," he said.
He however added that "policy initiatives that compliment the spirit of Child Rights Act are however, being vigorously pursued in the areas of education, healthcare and economic empowerment. The recent acknowledgement by UNESCO of the Sokoto State Government as a "champion of education" is an encouragement for greater commitment to the sector."
Reporting this story is supported by YouthHub Africa