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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

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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  • Kabir Chaudhary

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

Next Story

Despite Stigma, Nigerian Parents Demand Justice in Child Sex Cases

All are new cases of suspected child abuse, according to Dr. Musa Shuaibu, a pediatrician

Child Sex Cases
Mercy Philip (left) with her 8-year-old daughter (right in white) meet with a lawyer in northern Nigeria. VOA

Mercy Philip will never forget January 12, 2017.

That’s the day she says her 8-year-old daughter walked up to her and asked if she could wash her panties.

Philip asked her daughter why she needed to wash her panties and her daughter said a male neighbor had “climbed on her body” and then told her to wash her panties afterward.

The mother immediately took her daughter to a clinic. And on the same day, Philip and her husband went to the police. The neighbor, who was arrested based on the medical report, was released from jail and is awaiting trial.

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Yet the family’s life has been upended.

They have been ridiculed by people in the community, pressured to drop the charges, and condemned for “trying to ruin a man’s life,” Philip said. When her daughter goes outside, people stare, laugh or throw stones at her, the mother said.

Social stigma

The shame and social stigma attached to sexual abuse stop most families in Nigeria from seeking justice. They usually end up settling cases of child sex abuse through cash payments often quietly negotiated by religious leaders.

“To settle means to forget about it … let sleeping dogs lie,” said Bukola Ajao, the Philips’ lawyer. “Please, we are sorry, but this kind of matter is not something that you just apologize for.”

The most recent data available on child sex abuse in Nigeria is from 2014. That study — from Nigeria’s National Population Commission, the U.N. Children’s Fund and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — revealed that 1-in-4 girls and 1-in-10 boys in Nigeria experience sexual violence before the age of 18.

child sex cases
Doctors at Barau Dikko Teaching Hospital at Kaduna State University say they see abused children on a daily basis. VOA

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The Barau Dikko Teaching Hospital at Kaduna State University in the Kaduna state capital handles requests to provide evidence for suspected child sex abuse. At the time VOA visited the hospital, in the space of 30 minutes, more than five women with children had entered the ward.

All are new cases of suspected child abuse, according to Dr. Musa Shuaibu, a pediatrician.

“Nearly on a daily basis, there would be one form of abuse or the other. And that is quite alarming in view of the fact that quite a negligible fraction, actually get reported to the hospital,” Shuaibu said.

Activists seek new law

Activists are lobbying Kaduna state to approve the federal Child Rights Act of 2003 that mandates a 14-year jail sentence for a child sex abuse conviction and life imprisonment for rape. Eleven states in the north, including Kaduna, have not ratified it. Instead, those states rely on Sharia courts and a colonial-era penal code to prosecute child sex abuse.

Kaduna State Minister of Women and Social Development Hajia Hafsatu Mohammed Baba told VOA the state government is committed to passing it. But the Supreme Sharia Council has said that the federal statute is a Western import and an attempt to restrict Sharia courts.

Meanwhile, families are often left with only difficult choices.

“You know how things are around here. Things like this can never be buried,” said Asabe Musa, whose daughter was molested when she was 5 years old. “This is the kind of story that goes around … maybe when the girl does find someone to marry, someone will go and tell his family what happened to her.”

After hearing about the abuse, relatives of Musa’s husband, who live in northern Nigeria, traveled to Kaduna to speak with Musa about settling the case. Afterwards, they took the child with them, hoping that she would be less stigmatized in a community where she is unknown.

Musa, whose face is lined with sorrow, said she wants her daughter back.

Few go to court

At one orphanage in the center of town, children dance around together in a circle. A slender young woman clenches the hand of her little girl. The woman, who asked to be identified as Ladi, said she can’t go to court as it was her father who raped her young daughter.

“My daughter was covered in blood. I picked her up and just stood there. He was someone I had always respected, so I didn’t say anything to him. I picked her up and went to town with her in the morning,” she said.

She has been running ever since. Going back to her village is not an option, she said, as her father is a chief there.

For the past decade, Hauwa Hassan, the owner, and manager of the orphanage has worked with about 20 families dealing with child sex abuse. She says only three of them took her advice to go to court. Those cases were never concluded.

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child sex cases
A fruit seller is serving a 3-year jail sentence for luring this 7-year-old orphan into his shop and sexually abusing him. VOA

One 7-year-old orphan said he was walking to school when an old fruit seller offered a pear to lure the boy into the back of his shop. The abuse went on until the boy complained to his uncle about pains in his body.

“When it happened, the first thing we did has we stopped him from going out and even from school and kept him at home,” the boy’s uncle, Anas Umar, said, blinking hard to stop the tears.

“I wrote the police statement myself. A lot of my friends first suggested we all go and beat him up, but I didn’t because of what could follow. I can’t take the law into my own hands… I can’t just go and take his sins upon myself,” he added. “Other people were telling me to just leave the matter because the man is too old, but what he did was serious…The judgment passed was not enough, but still, I thank God there was some sort of judgment.”

The court found the fruit seller guilty under a colonial-era sodomy law. He couldn’t pay the 80,000 naira — about $200 — fine so he is serving a 3-year jail sentence.

“That is what he deserved. That will scare others like him,” Umar said. “The judgment passed was not enough but still, I thank God there was some sort of judgment.” (VOA)