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I’m Almajiri (1)



My name is Almajiri from Tsangaya, my school. Unlike what the manyan mutane (big men) are trying to do now; building classrooms and all these strange Boko things, my Tsangaya is a group of huts made of cornstalks and plastered on the inside with clay. Here, we sleep in an open space, even when it rains. Our bed mates are driver ants, lice and bed-bugs. You may find some Tsangayu (plural of Tsangaya) in cities nowadays. Mostly they got to the cities before the cities got to them. Put differently, the Tsangaya, in such a case, was not situated in the city; rather, the city grew around them. Just like Malcolm X said, “We didn’t land on Plymouth Rock, Plymouth Rock landed on us; landed right on top of us…”

I will tell you something about my life as Almajiri, how we live in Tsangaya, our syllabi, and why we have to beg for food; mark the word food. I will also tell you my doubts about the government’s sincerity on the Almajiri school project, and suggest a solution to the almajirci problem.

For those who do not know the meaning of my name, Almajiri is the name we call one who left behind the comfort of his home and the love of his dear ones to live with total strangers in a life people like you only know through books like Oliver Twist in search of knowledge of the Glorious Qur’an. The only thing we take along with us from home is the iron portmanteau, may be of a granny, in which we fold our clothes, a wooden slate and a tattered copy of the Qur’an tied together with a leather string. Some of us are lucky to have their parents take them; otherwise, an uncle or an elder brother will do so for their first day at school. We don’t choose the schools; that is for our parents to decide after listening to former students and even teachers. In some cases, they just tell the Sheikh or head of the Tsangaya that a new student has arrived. We don’t fill forms; we never get admission letters or ask for one; no Boko things of any sort and we do not pay any fees.

We take shelter from the storm of worldliness and ignorance in the peaceful home of scholarship, frugality and learning. We don’t need passports, visas or ID card. We go to the Qur’an, and we are welcome.

My father left immediately he handed me over to our Malam. He did not give me a kobo as pocket money and I do not see anyone from my home until Sallah-break, twice in a year. After Sallah, we return to school within two weeks. Our mallam has no other job and this one pays nothing; we beg for food to survive daily. Our parents are mostly poor peasant farmers but some of us came from affluent homes; their parents just want them to live a Spartan life while studying.

After my dad left on my first day at school, I was on my own, and part of the ƙolawa (plural of ƙolo), new students of between the ages of 7 to 14; I was not yet a gardi (matured independent student). As a ƙolo, my seniors showed me pepper! I got flogged all the time for any mistake.

Let me tell you about bara (begging). I will explain how, where and when we may go for bara. Not everybody begs at the Tsangaya. Once you are over 14 years, you do not take part in bara. You are now a senior student. Only ƙolawa go out for bara for what to eat; we beg on behalf of the rest. Because ƙolawa are still children, we could enter any house without risking the anger of the mai gida (master of that household).

We say: ‘ko dan ƙanzo iya’, “please, give me even the crumps, mother”; we go from house to house, looking for leftovers from the mistress of the house. We pack together all we get from this bara which are all kinds of leftovers like rice, beans, tuwon shinkafa, dawa, with miyan kuka, kuɓewa, and what not, and bring them back to the Tsangaya and everybody eats to remain alive and learning. This food of many colours, especially what we bring for dinner, is what we also have for breakfast. We do not beg in the morning. Any boy you see in the morning begging is not one of us; he belongs to something else. This is how we feed here.

We do bara for about 3 hours from around 11 am to 2 pm to get lunch, and between 8 pm and 9:30 pm for dinner. We do not have any other time to spare; our school hours stretch between Subhi (dawn) prayers to 7 am; 9 am to 11 am; 3 pm to the time for Maghrib (sunset) prayers, and from the time Ishaa (late night) prayers are said until 10 pm. Any beggar you see during these periods is not one of us.

We don’t beg for money and we do not clean your windshields. Bara is done only by us the young children for what to eat. We are only allowed to visit uwar gida (the mistress of the house) – she has kids of her own and will show us mercy – eateries and restaurants. If you see beggars over 14 years old in traffic hold-ups, fuelling stations, markets, and other places apart from where I have mentioned, asking people for money, they are not one of us; we cannot beg in such places. Tsangaya is not responsible for that kind of begging. If only these big men would do what they promised when they were asking everybody to vote for them, all these other kinds of professional beggars won’t come and spoil our name. I am angry at those governors, Allah knows!

Our school does not have any written syllabus; what for? We just memorise the whole Quran in 4 years, and that is just the beginning. We will, in another 3 years try to write portions of the Quran from memory until we have written the entire book without any mistake. Our Malam will not take any nonsense or laziness.


First published September 2012