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More than 5 million Almajiris begging on the streets of Nigeria: Activists Seek End to Child Begging ‘Culture’ in the country

The widespread hunger epidemic induced by Boko Haram's seven years of violence in the region has increased the number of children begging on the streets

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Almajiri mendicants stretching hands to collect sweet as Sadaka. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

More than 100 boys are sitting in the dirt off a secluded street in Maiduguri. Rocking back and forth, they recite a mantra of verses from the Koran written on wooden slabs. They are Almajiri, students who attend a traditional Islamic school called a ‘Tsangaya’. They were sent to the Tsangaya by their parents who live far away. But when their lessons are over, these boys will begin walking the streets, pleading for food. Begging is part of the Almajiri tradition. “Begging is luck. Sometimes you get food immediately when you go out. Sometimes you don’t,” said Abdul Abbas. He is 16 years old and has been at the Tsangaya since he was a young boy.

Activists estimate there are more than 5 million Almajiris begging on the streets of Nigeria. The Almajiris flood the local markets at noontime, looking for rotten fruit and discarded leftovers. They carry their signature begging bowls, walking from house to house and pleading for handouts. Cultural historian Bulama Mali Gubio says the Almajiri system goes back centuries when every boy from the age of about five was expected to attend a Tsangaya. The community was expected to take care of the Almajiris, as part of what he describes as a “communal feeding system.”

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The Almajiris have long been a normal part of life here. But these days, people increasingly see them as the nuisance. Gubio admits the system has gotten out of hand. “Almost on a daily basis, young kids the age of five, six, seven have been dropped in Maiduguri here in the thousands,” Gubio said. “They have no parents, no teacher, no guardian, nobody to take care of them.”

More begging due to Boko Haram

The widespread hunger epidemic induced by Boko Haram’s seven years of violence in the region has increased the number of children begging on the streets. Children running away from their destroyed communities end up in Maiduguri, standing on the streets alongside the Almajiris, trying to look like them.

“Because they know if they look like an Almajiri, people will be more inclined to give them charity. People see it as a religious duty to help the Almajiris, and they believe Allah will bless them,” said Usman Mohammed, who was an Almajiri many years ago. Now he is an activist, trying to reform a system that he sees as degrading and abusive. “If they are begging, some people will beat them, harass them, all kinds of insults. They have been experiencing all kinds of humiliation,” Mohammed said. “I know the humiliation they are going through.” Mohammed goes around the city to find Almajiris and take their photograph. He talks to them, learns about their background, and finds out where their parents are. He began this personal campaign five years ago to advocate an end to the begging culture.

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Government officials have noted that in its early days, members of Boko Haram recruited many vulnerable Almajiris. “The street is their father. The street is their mother. The street is their culture. The street is their tradition,” Gubio said, commenting on how the group targeted Almajiris. “They will be stealing, grabbing, getting arms where possible. This is what brought up Boko Haram.” Mohammed agrees. He says Almajiris usually do not have stable childhoods. “How are they going to not turn into something evil?” he asked. “Because they did not know anything called love. Nobody ever loved them, nobody brought them out from the rain, nobody brought them out from the sun. They don’t know where to get medication if they get sick.”

Deeply entrenched ‘tradition’

But the tradition of begging goes back to the teachers, the mallams, who the Almajiris live with. Abbas’ mallam, Umar Mohammed, has more than 100 students under his care. He says that forcing children to beg is un-Islamic, but it is necessary. “I can’t take care of them,” Umar Mohammed said. “They should even be the one taking care of me because I am an elder man. There is no organization that is helping us, so we have to allow them to beg. It has been there since our grandparents, so you can’t just wake up and condemn it.”

But in fact, more are condemning it. Mohammed Sabo Keana is another activist in the Nigerian capital of Abuja. He started AlmajiriProject.com where he posts pictures of Almajiris.

“What I understand about the issue and the plight of Almajiri is that everybody is turning a blind eye to it,” Keana said. “And how I feel to get people to focus on it is to have some prominent people — religious political and traditional rulers — from the northern part of the country to speak on it. Let’s have their position on camera. Are you in support of this? Do you condemn it? Let him condemn it on camera. “And once we have that, we’ll use it to form the basis of our advocacy so that we can drive citizens to rally the government to have it take major policies that will bring an end to this system,” he added. But bringing an end to this system means challenging a deeply entrenched tradition.

Back in Maiduguri, evening is approaching and dozens of Almajiris run to a waterhole. After a long day in the streets, they put down their begging bowls and splash in the water — in the tradition of children everywhere. (VOA)

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    The Nigerian Government should actively take part and support local organisations to end this culture of ‘child begging’.

Next Story

Children Paying the Price in Yemen’s War

Violence is just one of the many reasons the war in Yemen has crippled the country's ability to educate children

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Children, Yemen's War
Aid organizations have called the humanitarian crisis in Yemen the worst in the world, and a "war on children." Pictured in Sanaa, Yemen, April 20, 2019. VOA

When the blast went off in early April, shrapnel hit homes and schools all over the quiet residential neighborhood of the Yemeni capital.

Windows shattered and the 2,000 girls in a nearby school tried to evacuate at once, many racing down the stairs and some dying in the stampede.

Safia Al-Wesabi, a 10-year-old student of the Al-Ra’ai School, made it out safely, but she couldn’t find her older, teen-aged sister outside. “I was sobbing,” she said. “I thought she was trampled to death.”

​More than 15 children were killed and 100 other people injured that day, but violence is just one of the many reasons the war in Yemen has crippled the country’s ability to educate children, and often even keep them alive. As Yemen’s conflict goes into a fifth year, aid organizations are calling it a “war on children.”

Children, Yemen's War
Safia Al-Wesabi, a 10-year-old student of the Al Ra’ai School, survived a blast that killed 15 children and injured 100 children and adults in Sanaa, Yemen in early April, pictured on April 20, 2019. VOA

“We are at a tipping point,” said Henrietta Fore, the executive director of UNICEF in a recent speech. “If the war continues any longer, the country may move past the point of no return. … How long will we continue allowing Yemen to slide into oblivion?”

Missing school and health care

As the children fled flying glass and shrapnel at their school last month, Hamid Al Wesabi, Safia’s father, was in his home located on a hill nearby. His house shook and the windows broke. He ran to the school to find his daughters. “We didn’t know what was happening,” he said.

Later that day, both the girls and their father escaped the chaos and reunited at home.

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A few weeks later, the school was open again for final exams and Wesabi’s daughters went back. Many others chose not to return.

At least one in five schools is no longer in use in Yemen, mostly because they were destroyed by violence or are now being used as emergency shelters or military bases.

​Hospitals also have shut down at alarming rates and roughly half of Yemeni children under age 5 have been permanently injured by malnutrition. Every 10 minutes a child in Yemen dies from a preventable cause, according to a recent UNICEF report.

Teachers’ salaries are often not being paid, forcing many to look for other jobs. Sometimes children are simply too afraid to go to school, the report says.

Children, Yemen's War
Hamid Al Wesabi and Safia are pictured by their home after a blast nearby shook the house and broke the windows in Sanaa, Yemen, April 20, 2019. VOA

​As a result, Yemeni children are increasingly recruited to fight in militias, work at other adult jobs or married off at young ages. “If not in school, children would become an illiterate and unskilled parent and increasing the likelihood of passing on poverty to the next generation,” it reads.

Safia took her exams but her text books were lost in the blast, so she could not prepare.

Other children were not so lucky. Sitting next to Safia at a wooden desk, 8-year-old Bayan appeared absent-minded when asked about her older sister, who was killed in the crush of girls trying to escape. An adult asked if she missed her sister.

“Yes,” she managed to say quietly.

Humanitarian crisis deepens

The war in Yemen is between the Houthis, who currently hold the north, including the capital Sanaa, and forces loyal to the government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who was forced from the capital in 2015 and is recognized as the Yemeni president by the United Nations.

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These are hardly the only players in this war, which has left many world powers mired in proxy battles. Iran is known to support the Houthis, whose longest-held territories are near the border with Saudi Arabia, Iran’s archenemy.

Saudi Arabia and its allies have been launching airstrikes targeting the Houthis — often in locations populated by civilians — for four years now with support from Western powers like the United States and Britain. Tens of thousands of people have been killed, many of them civilians, including children.

Children, Yemen's War
Eight-year-old Bayan, right, lost her older sister when 2,000 girls tried to evacuate their school at the same time, in Sanaa, Yemen, pictured April 20, 2019. VOA

Already the Arab world’s poorest country, this battle has turned Yemen into what many call the world’s worst humanitarian disaster, with the threat of widespread famine now looming as peace talks continue to be derailed. Last week, a cease-fire in a key port city broke down, exacerbating the threat as food and aid remained stalled outside the country by the war.

It is not clear as to who or what caused the blast that hit the school last month, with pro-Saudi news reporting an airstrike, and later deleting the report, according to Human Rights Watch.The organization says Houthi authorities were storing dangerous material in a civilian neighborhood.

Children, Yemen's War
After the blast, teachers said they felt obligated to return to school despite their fears, to encourage children to do the same, in Sanaa, Yemen, April 20, 2019. VOA

Besides violence, hunger, and disease, children in Yemen are also deeply threatened by the psychological trauma they are experiencing, accordi