A Glimpse into the World of Almajirai in Northern Nigeria

I first met Hannah Hoechner in May this year, at the Oxford University Pan African Conference. I was outside the conference hall, getting some fresh air and chatting with several people when this friendly long haired brunette came to us and said hello in Hausa. Fascinated, we proceeded to ask her how come she could speak the Hausa language, to which she replied, that she had lived in Kano for some time, doing field research for her DPhil, as a student at the Oxford Department of International Development (ODID). We chatted briefly before she left.

Fast forward to October 2012, as a new DPhil student myself at ODID; I met Hannah again, and I learnt about her DPhil research on Traditional Qur’anic Schools in Kano. The research “aims to understand the experience of Qur’anic students (almajirai) in Kano State in Northern Nigeria”. One of the most interesting things she said during a presentation of her field research findings to ODID a few weeks ago is that not all almajirai in northern Nigeria are beggars and not all child beggars are almajirai. Infact if one comes across an almajiri (singular) who isn’t begging, it’d be difficult to identify him as such. Think about it!

During the course of Hannah’s 13-month field work in Kano, she produced a docu-drama offering an arguably never-before-seen comprehensive view of the life and experiences of an almajiri on celluloid. The movie, titled, “Duniya Juyi Juyi” (How Life Goes) was co-produced by the Goethe-Institut Kano and had some touch of the Kannywood (Hausa) movie industry. What I found quite fascinating is that real life almajirai were fully involved in the movie – nine almajirai from different parts of Kano were trained to write the script for the film, to do most of the acting, to handle the camera, and to give the stage directions.

On set of the Duniya Juyi Juyi movie. Almajirai playing the roles of cameraman and actor. Photo credit: Carmen McCain's Flickr photos
On set of the Duniya Juyi Juyi movie. Almajirai playing the roles of cameraman and actor. Photo credit: Carmen McCain’s Flickr photos
Some of the crew members of the movie. They are almajirai. Photo credit: Carmen McCain's Flickr photos
Some of the crew members of the movie. They are almajirai. Photo credit: Carmen McCain’s Flickr photos
Some cast and crew. Photo credit: Carmen McCain’s Flickr photos

Watching the movie at ODID, several strong emotions — mainly of gratitude and guilt — coursed through me. I was grateful that first hand stories of these young boys, involuntarily enmeshed in the complicated traditional-Qur’anic system (whose present utility is hotly debated) have been shared. These boys are often vilified and even demonized by society. For instance, Nobel Laureate Wole Soyinka inaccurately described almajirai as the “Butchers of Nigeria”, depriving such boys of their humanity and agency, depicting them as would-be arsonists, killers and terrorists who in his view are “deliberately bred, nurtured, sheltered… ready to be unleashed at the rest of society”.

I was also grateful that Hannah’s in-depth and highly analytical research provides new information and sheds light on the almajiri system – the truths, the stereotypes around it and confirms what many have pointed out, that is a system in dire need of urgent reforms. At the same time, a streak of guilt flashed through momentarily, that Hannah, from Germany, is the one providing an insight – and she does it brilliantly – into one of the most contentious socio-cultural issues in Nigeria.

I obtained Hannah’s permission to share the absolutely amazing work she is doing with her research and the fascinating first hand story of these boys on this blog. Due to technical (in)compatibility issues, I couldn’t embed the Duniya Juyi Juyi video directly here, but find below two links to the video posted elsewhere:

To view the video in small format, click on this link HERE
To view the video in medium format, click on this link HERE

The movie is just about one hour in total. Enjoy!!! …and please leave your comments and/or questions below, I am sure you will have many!

26 thoughts on “A Glimpse into the World of Almajirai in Northern Nigeria

  1. Zainab. Excellent piece ai. I enjoyed it and quite honest with you it opened my thoughts to other issues that we need to confront as the voice of our people in the North, That is we need to respond to dwarfs like Wole Soyinka.

  2. The Almajiri system is misrepresented by the Northerners who practice it, as individuals and group we are not doing the system justice. We give outsiders loophole of criticising the system, we need to recognise it as part of us, accept and change it for good. Excellent piece, we need to blow our trumpet!!

  3. Every ethnic nationality does have its own norms and values, or shall we say culture, the problem of the Almajiri and the North is the same with every other ethnic Nationality in Nigeria in which the Political class has failed the people by not providing good qualitative leadership and service to the people. We should therefore be thinking of how we can take leadership back from the greedy few and put it in the hands of people who believe in serving the people and better their lives. Above all as a member of any ethnic nationality we do have a responsibility in promoting our own culture as a symbol of our identity and make necessary reforms where necessary in our cultural values,this is perhaps where our Political class and leaders have failed us.

    Amazing enough its taken the western world to research into our culture and belief before we start appreciating what we have and how rich we have been blessed.

  4. It’s an interesting social research piece, which I will happily give an 8 of of 10 in terms of relevance as a social issue. In terms of the message though, it scores very low I am afraid (a 3 out of 10 at most)…it is a one sided view of the Almajiri system, which portrays them mostly as the victims of prejudice within the society (which is true in most cases). What Hannah and her team failed to address (no.. failed to “mention” actually) though, are the reasons behind some of these prejudices…most of the things said about them will ring true with any one that has had a prolonged dealing with them (ignore the Wole Soyinkas and the Hannahs of the world who most likely have had only academic interest in the subject and hence “probably” only limited real life “uncontrolled” contact)….I have lived in an area of Gombe with a large concentration of Almajiri schools and have used their services (not very dissimilar to the Hajiya in the movie)..I have personally never had any issue with them, however I know quiet a few people that have had very negative experiences with them, and in fact just FYI, the ” ‘Yan Kalare” (‘thugs’ in Gombe) phenomena has among its membership a very large number of Almajiris (Soyinka may have a point here..albeit a bit harsh)

    But then again, looking at it from another angle, the Almajiri schools are similar to the Madarassas in Pakistan, which we all know to be a breeding ground for extremists and would be terrorists (no apologies). Should we do away with the system altogether? No! Does the system need reforming? Yes! absolutely, by putting a bit of structure in place (regulate it if we have to) that ensures that not only do these kids get the opportunity to learn the Koran and their religion properly (which I understand is the whole point), but at the same time gives them the opportunity to acquire the skills necessary for them to function in the modern society (ICT, Literature, History etc etc) which in a way will also protect them from exploitation and save them from the life of penury (well on Earth at least….)

    If on the other hand they wish to pursue a life of devotion to God and religion, then perhaps theTibetan model will work? Create safe areas for them and ensure that we have a system in place that supports them (or at the very least ensures they don’t starve to death), That way Wole Soyinka and probably a large number of us (in as much as we hate to admit it) will begin to see them as just normal people rather than as a nuisance to society.

    1. You couldn’t have said it better. It is time to look at what needs to be done to improve the condition the children are forced to live . This is not a time to be defensive , not to totally disregard harsh criticisms. It is from diverse criticisms that one can get feedback of people’s perception about us, god r bad, false or perverse/true; the opportunity to objectively filter out the heavily biased by putting in place systemic changes that would mirror to these same harsh critics who and what we really are is created.Academic surveys and criticisms are quite different from experience informed surveys and criticisms.

      We need the Wole Soyinkas as wake up calls

  5. Hi Zainab,

    Soyinka is a “Nobel” Laureate (cf. para 4, line 5 above). Having said that, your misrepresentation of his point about the almajirai does you no justice here. Reading his complete essay about the theater of violence that (some parts of) the North has been (gradually) transformed into, you can’t but agree that a lot of what he said, in the whole, is quite true. The almajirai are ready instruments in the hands of the ne’er-do-well political elites in the North. He backed up his claims with a lot of examples and you’d have to be very blinkered, as most commentators above are, esp. the one calling WS a ‘dwarf’ (I’m curious to know what he is if WS be a dwarf), to not see the whole point he was making.

    Fortunately, apart from that lapse in attacking WS (for sharing his perspective on the vexed issue/problem of almajirai and the whole system that uses them for criminal purposes), you did agree with him, in the main, that it’s a system that need to be urgently reviewed/restructured. About time, I guess.

    I don’t believe these fellas should be demonized for being in-bred into a system involuntarily. A society that does such damage to majority of her youths is surely prepping for disaster. One thing we can all agree on, as WS said rightly argued in his essay, is that the whole almajiri system makes these fellas easily susceptible for use as tools of destruction by those who have deliberately designed the system for such.

    I do hope your ‘guilt’ about a German doing our work for us will galvanize you (and all of us) into getting off our butts and begin to do something about our country and the myriad problems bedeviling her. I hope thinkers like you can begin to turn the face of the North (and, by extension, Nigeria) around. I hope we can shift the debate from the present crassness of tribalistic/ethnocentric claptrap to one of viable and productive engagement of our faculties for the betterment of our motherland.

    A great job you doing here and my regards to Hannah (and the Goethe institute) for ‘doing our work for us’. Thank you.

    1. Thanks for pointing out that typo. I neither “attacked” nor “misrepresented” Professor Soyinka. I respect him so much that I hold him to the very highest intellectual standards a man of his calibre and reputation should embody. And because of that, an intellectual like him should know better than make sweeping sensational generalisations. Yes, some of those boys have been coopted into thuggery and criminality, and some of them are a nuisance. BUT, the keyword here is “some” not “all”, and this is what this research and this video does, to debunk misleading stereotypes. If we’re looking for solutions, then we need to sincerely understand the problem for what it is. Has Soyinka for example ever spoken to the parents of Almajirai especially in rural areas to find out why they send their kids to cities to acquire Qur’anic education under this currently flawed system? Do they all want their children to turn into street urchins, rogues, beggars or instruments of political thuggery or terrorism? Sweeping and baseless generalisations are the prelude to dangerous stereotypes which create all sorts of problems.

      That said, I agree with you on everything else. I think the biggest tragedy here, is that, as you mentioned, someone is “doing our work for us”.

      1. Thanks Zainab for the reply.
        ” Sweeping and baseless generalisations are the prelude to dangerous stereotypes which create all sorts of problems.” -Zainab

        I couldn’t have put the above sentiments better. I abhor generalizations from particulars with the same venom I abhor the reverse. I now understand your misgivings with WS just as I also appreciate where WS was coming from – the utter exasperation one feels from the continuous eruptions of this (un)provoked violence from up North countless times with the tacit/overt encouragement from the pernicious/greedy elites. I’m not try to hold forth for WS but I do understand the emotionality that led to this ‘sweeping generalisation’.

        Beyond understanding the reality of the almajirai system (and Hannah’s step is a wonderful start), we need to go further and see how we can begin to restructure/rethink/rebuild the system for the sake of not only these (un)fortunate fellas but the society as a whole. I hope you can get like minds together to kick-start this process with little or no regard to the voracious elites (except they are ready to yield to new ways of thinking). I’m not from the North but I’m ready to be a part of any movement that can move our country away from the pervasive madness, mediocrity, and stupendous stupidity in both low and high places. Who knows what hidden treasures/talents lies within most/some of these fellas?

        To @Almajiri Azbakiyyah below, your overt jab at WS forces me to question your PhD studentship. If the Nobel prize were given for ‘only translating “Tales by the (sic) moon light”, perhaps many more from where you came from (Nigeria) would have been winners? Your comment does not portray you as someone who uses his reasoning faculties as often as you should. To think that you’re a PhD student with such a mindset (as depicted in your comment) makes me shudder. Perhaps, I’m mistaken. Maybe what you’re referring to is “Pull him Down’ student? That had be more apposite with your breathtakingly inane comment.

        @Zainab, we’ve got a huge task on our hands. The restructuring/rebuilding probably starts from our minds. I’m sick of all these tribalistic/ethnocentric nonsense that pervades our society. It was the route travelled by those before us and we’ve seen where it has led us. Haven’t we, or can’t we, learn anything from them?

        Re-orienting our minds is the first step to establishing a new Nigeria. Thanks again for helping me keep the faith (albeit a weakened one) in the possibility that our generation might (just begin to) get things right.

  6. I have being an Almajiri myself and currently a PhD student focusing on vaccine development in my research. In fact Soyinka has given us a bad name; but to me is like giving a dog a bad name to have a basis for killing or hanging it. However, it is also to portray the Northern region in bad lights. I am sure Hannah have seen it all, and this research will go along way in resolving the negative perception about Almajiri system of education. Had it being I am involved I would have selected her research for a Nobel prize which is better than only translating “Tales by the moon light” for the prize.

  7. Hi Zainab,
    I stumbled on this blog and could not but just register my pleasure at watching the clip on Almijarai. The society has treated them as outcasts because Governance is non-existent in many parts of Northern Nigeria. I also thank Hannatu Musawa through whose twitter feeds I got the link to the movie clip. We need people in Nigeria who will engineer society for the benefit of all. Kudos to Hannah Hoechner and the Goethe Institute. Hannah is following in a long line of Germans who open up our society to us including Ulli Beier and Susanne Wenger.

  8. Nice piece, however you could find out more (especialy statistics of almajiri population, ages, location of schools, teachers and more)from the office of special adviser to Kano State Governor on Education & ICT. The have a good database on the subject.

  9. Zainab keep up the good work.
    @D_Oracle: I can not agree with you less that its time we all join forces to chart a new course for the nation. The Northern episode is just one of the so many battles facing the nation and until we learn and ready to do away with tribal and ethnocentric virus that have eaten so deep into our fabric, we’ll continue to wallow in abject poverty. May God help us.

  10. Writers exists with benefit of hindsight to shape the future with their criticisms. That is exactly what Soyinka did in the work quoted by Zainab. The society ought to have responded to that criticism with a total overhauling of the subject of ‘attack’. Writers strikes at the very conscience of the society; i once lived in Kaduna and i attende Bayero University in Kano, i can tell you authoritatively that the Almajari system has produced young men that became yandabas and were willing tools of destruction and killings. The best way to respond to criticism is to perform.

    Now that a young white girl came around, learnt Hausa language and recruited a few boys to shoot a video does not change the system that has been in operation for ages! we need to think as a people on how the menace of this system as pointed out by Soyinka could be phased out or reduced to the barest because to deny it would be hypocritical; while we also think on how the positive side as shown by the white researcher could be enhanced! Calling Soyinka evil because of what some of us saw point blank in the north seem to me an emotional attachment to nothingness.

  11. Most,if not all Almajiris are from the poor of the poor in the interior villages of the Muslim north.The real motive of their parents is to expose them to the “urban” areas,where there are opportunities of making a living in the future by becoming truck pushers,labourers,conductors etc
    If you went to these villages you would observe that those went for Almajiiri system are the ones sending money background.
    If agriculture could be made attractive in the rural areas,Almajiiri system would disappear within the shortest possible time,considering the dangers-well known to these parents-hazards associated with it

  12. Its interesting and true, the most recent research I did is on the Almajiri- Quranic integration system, its one area we all need to focus on

  13. Thanks for your informative post.It’s just enough message to everybody that almajirai are law abiding and potentially productive citizens not “butchers”.Except to those who have eyes but seeing not,

  14. An excellent and informative piece. Though, there are two sides to a coin- likewise there are good and the bad sides of the al-majarai system as well. My 6yrs stay in the Northern Nigeria (Katsina, Zaria, Funtua and Lafia) were filled with mxed experiences with the al-majarai boys. I had my house burgled and i was chased in the middle of the night with a sword by these same boys. Also, my friend’s life was saved by some Al- majarai boys when Zaria city boys invaded Tundun Wada, Zaria in 2008.
    Anyone that says bad about Al-majarai shouldn’t be blamed because of their experiences, but this kind of piece should spread across the nation for the mal and mis informed Nigerians about the true picture of those boys.

  15. I’m to criticize these movie for my masters anthropology course and I’m grateful for all the insights and comments and the post @zainab. Looking at an issue inside and outside is the only way to growth. I can now see the ills within the amajiri system clearly and also its strength.. Thanks..

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