By Nelly Ating
Some little boys in tatters sit by the American University of Nigeria gate, with scruffy hair and food bowls strapped around their necks. The others across the road are playing.
Further from the gate are vendors who sell food to local construction workers. A few of these children hover around the open-stall restaurants waiting for leftovers to be trashed so that they can feast and dine from the scraps.
Haven eaten, their bowls still strapped around their necks, these boys spot a passerby; they scamper around the person, begging for alms. Some passersby will drop a token into a bowl; some forge ahead without looking in the boys’ famished faces.
But the children can also spot a generous giver. Each time Dr. Margee Ensign, President of American University of Nigeria, drives by the gate she stops to wave to them and drop something in their bowl. She will often chat them up before driving off. Ask any beggar, nothing beats a generous giver with a charming smile. In no time, Dr. Ensign’s generous routine became a Yola legend and the number of child beggars by the University’s gate began to swell.
That should end the tale of out-of-school children begging at the gate of a modern African university campus, right? Not quite.
As the Almajiri children grew in number, Dr. Ensign understood that the children could not be chased away from the University precincts; that would defeat the American University of Nigeria’s mantra as a ‘Development University’. Within a short period, historical, sociological, and psychological studies on the Almajiri phenomenon were commissioned.
The Almajiri is the mendicant pupil of a Qur’anic lesson leader who retires to the teacher with proceeds of the day’s alms, usually food or money. The proceeds usually suffice for his lesson fees.
Set against the dire security situation in the Northeast, with Boko Haram finding easy recruits among vulnerable youths and with 10 million kids out of school in Nigeria, the Almajiri that massed at AUN’s gate to receive the President’s generous tips became a true test of the University’s commitment to devote its research, academic, and educational resources to changing lives in the local community.
On April 17, 2014, in a bid to improve lives within its immediate surroundings, Yola community leaders met at the invitation of President Ensign to address the needs of the Almajiri children. The meeting involved leaders of the Adamawa Peacemakers Initiative (API) as well as other community leaders. Traditional leaders from two wards in the Yola area, Bole and Mbamba, followed up with another visit to the campus to discuss this issue, and how to assist the children, who are mainly from poor backgrounds, with no formal education. They also explored agricultural opportunities and self-sustenance initiatives for their well-being.
In June 2015, President Ensign officially announced the Almajiri ‘Read and Feed’ initiative, stating that with the support of the local community the Almajiri children will be receiving “one meal per day, prepared by a local vendor.” AUN’s faculty and student volunteers assist with the ‘read’ component – a literacy program held every Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday at 5 pm.
The program now incorporates a peace sensitization curriculum for the children. The pilot scheme which began with fewer than 20 children now has more than 100 enrolled, and more are still joining.
The program’s Coordinator, Mr. Joseph Oladimeji, believes that the program is already recording success as the University not only provides the children one quality meal per day but also teaches them basic things such as personal hygiene. They get bathing soaps and detergents, their old feeding bowls have been replaced with new ones, and they are expected to be neat and orderly before joining the breadline each day. He added that some of the children have started building on dreams to embrace education and are gradually picking up basic English.
Oladimeji exudes optimism: “This project has short- and long-term interventions. First, we introduced ourselves to the children by letting them know that we are not here to force them to abandon their Qur’anic education but to help them develop more reading and writing skills, and to live healthy lives. We want them to abandon begging and feeding off the remnants of other people’s food. It degrades our humanity; they are special kids, future Nigerian leaders. Poverty should be no excuse for debasing humanity. In actual fact, Islam forbids begging, so we having a starting point there.
“In the long-term, we plan to teach them some vocational skills that can make them earn a living off the streets. To get this far, we have avoided the pitfalls that derailed similar previous interventions. Our model is inclusive and transparent, we have no hidden agenda. After a rigorous study, we identified and keyed into five strategic stakeholders whose acceptance of what we are doing has made the difference. They are the Almajiri kids themselves, the Mallams, community, their parents and the Government. We approached each stakeholder and explained our objectives. Some needed more persuasion than others but in the end, we have made good progress”.
The impact of the pilot scheme is amazing. A beneficiary, 16-year old Mahmud Musa, recited the English alphabet with aplomb while appearing on Gotel TV Morning Breakfast Show ‘Safiya’. Mahmud aspires to be a medical doctor someday. Feed and Read coordinator Oladimeji said Mahmud’s strong memory was nothing extraordinary because all the Almajiri kids had developed very high retentive memory from memorizing the Holy Quran.
President Ensign is convinced that educating the Almajiri children empowers them and takes them out of the line of vulnerability. She said that one of AUN’s goals as a Development University is to put educational materials on smartphones, tablets, and mobile devices for learning and make these available to a large segment of disadvantaged populations in the country, especially in the Northeast.
“We are showing that in a poor part of the country, using advanced technology is making a huge difference in children’s reading, writing and math scores… Our big vision is to do the same for the Almajiri children.”
This informal education, says Oladimeji, “is going to integrate these street children into the formal education system and give them a chance to acquire vocational skill sets. They will become self-reliant members of the society and turn from beggars to providers–a win-win for the Almajiri and the society.”
And who knows, one of them might turn out to be an architectural prodigy, who would return someday to redesign the same AUN gate where he and his bowl-flexing mates once begged for a living.
Ms. Nelly Ating contributed this piece from Yola, Adamawa State.
Got a news tip/information for us? Email firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow us on twitter @thesheetng
BBM Channel: C0042057A
Like us on Facebook @ www.facebook.com / The Sheet
This is a 2015 Copyright of thesheet.ng. You may wish to request express approval from thesheet.ng to republish