At the age of eleven, Lawwali has been an almajiri (traditional Islamic school pupil/student) for five years. He had seen his father once when he came to visit the Malam (teacher), but not his mother since he left in their village near Gummi in Zamfara State. His younger brother is also an almajiri in Suleja, Niger State. Looking at him, you will not see evidence of loneliness or longing for warmth. If you give him alms, he will thank you and pray for you. If you do not, he walks away with his thoughts of you and his society. Sentiments and signs of weakness have been erased from his countenance and replaced be an unapologetic posture that tolerates an existence at the mercy and compassion of strangers, and an acceptance that his life has been designed by parents and teachers along lines of a long tradition.
Lawwali has lived under a tough regime that has no room for self-pity or weakness. He has learned to fight for everything, from sleeping space under a punishing learning system, to bullying and other abuses from seniors and, many times, to little food or sleeping on an empty stomach. He has survived illnesses and diseases, and lives with the permanent burden of providing for himself, teachers and minders. You will not get him to speak on life on the streets. His story is in the dirty, empty plastic bowl he holds and the rags on his back. Like your child, he was born out of love and affection of parents. He is the face of a people who pity, fear or loath him. He is us. Lawwali participated in a riot or two in Kaduna, and has seen murdered people on streets. He had been a member of the spectacular multitudes in many political events and campaigns of Governor el-Rufai and President Buhari, and had run for miles following motorcades and convoys shouting ‘Chanji!’ His stoic acceptance of generosity or denial in equal measure is a study in systems that tolerate pain and privations as rewards.
Lawwali is the face of the monumental failure of the northern Muslim community to find a point where traditional methods of teaching young Muslims elements of their faith will be isolated from its structural limitations and political indifference. He is one of millions of young Nigerians who are going through the same mode of study their ancestors went through. Northern Muslim communities moved on a century ago in pursuit of western education, making available every opportunity for some of their children to acquire western education. Millions of other children stayed behind, tied down by a strong and stubborn value system that was neither threatened nor cajoled by the state to join the scramble for a future anchored around western values and systems. This is where the basic roots of class differentiation in the North lie. Research on almajirci from beneficiaries of western education will fill entire libraries, many with profound insights and suggestions on integration of systems, and measures that could eliminate begging and the wretched existence of the almajiri as the hallmarks of Islamic education. They have not made a dent on the institution.
If the near-universal consensus among Muslims that Islam does not support begging had any potency in the north, there will be very few beggars on the streets. If laws and regulations against child hawkers and beggars and like Lawwali worked, the prisons will be bursting with almajirai, their parents, teachers and people who give them alms or other forms of support. If genuine intentions and the strength of faith and compassion had a place in us, the army of the needy in the north, including almajirai will not go out the entire day looking for a meal or two. If northern leaders had political will and vision, the alarming numbers of child beggars who are ill-prepared to live in today’s complex and punishing environment will not represent the dangerous blight at the heart of the north, whose most valuable potential asset is its human population. If political leaders had the support of the people and the courage to deal with deeply-rooted social problems, many battles would have been fought and won against powerful religious sects and leaders who consign Lawwali’s existence to rigid patterns.
Now the Governor of Kaduna State, Malam Nasir El-Rufai has found his own solution to this ancient problem. He will ban street begging, and fine or jail anyone involved in it, and others who give them alms. He is likely get support among citizens who are angry that Islam is being portrayed as a faith that encourages destitution and dehumanization. Many who are irritated by beggars because they tug at their hearts and confront them with the dilemma of giving and encouraging beggars, or ignoring the beggar in the hope that begging will stop will also have sympathy for the governor. Some will support him because they want clean, beggar-free streets to drive through. Some will believe that a ban will force beggars, including almajirai to look for alternative sources of basic subsistence.
Malam Nasir el-Rufai is not an easy man to dissuade when he makes up his mind. He is, however, likely to meet stiff resistance against this latest foray into the heart of our limitations and weaknesses as a society. To discourage him will be wrong and unpatriotic, but not to advise him to give this issue a deeper consideration will be irresponsible. Lawwali and thousands like him could be stopped from begging in the streets and homes if the governor has enough enforcement capacity not to make a mockery of law-making. If those who live off charity are sufficiently deterred form begging for food and basic subsistence, the governor has to worry over how they will feed and survive, because one way or the other, they will. The sheer number of almajirai and an assortment of the disabled being chased or jailed in a context where you have not cultivated strong support for caging them way from neat and destitution-free environments will pose a problem of perception and poor public sympathy for a government already fighting on many fronts.
Stopping Lawwali from begging will not eliminate the institution of almajirci. An enlightened policy that feeds the almajiri from public funds, the same way the government now feeds primary school children is more likely to keep them off the streets. They may even stay back in schools, and teachers and sect leaders may accept some practical accommodation of some elements of western education along with what they teach. Not the farce that Jonathan slapped the north with, but a sustainable arrangement that substantially stops street begging, allows for continuation of Islamic teaching and creation of room for some western education. If he has not done so already, el-Rufai should look at experiences of states such as Kano in dealing with this problem. It is important to remind leaders that their task is to bridge distances between state and religion, not to widen them.
Lawwali and millions of almajirai will be with us for a long time. No one should celebrate or tolerate this tragic projection. In spite of the belief of his parents that his youth, sacrificed virtually in rags, hunger and exposure to damaging social tendencies is a useful investment for his adult and next life, the reality is that he deserves and can get better options for the same goals. He needs support that challenges these beliefs, creates those better options and saves him from being both a victim and a villain. In Kaduna State, he will spend the next few months in a cat-and-mouse with government agents. His new challenge will be resolved either in a manner that leaves his life substantially unaffected, or by circumstances that alienate him further from a society that believes the solution to his problem is to make it worse.