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Search for Knowledge and Recognition

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Hannah Hoechner

7. Producing “educated persons”

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7.1 Introduction

  • 1 The time spent at school may indicate how much room there is for other influences to become import (...)

1In this chapter, I explore what it is that the Almajirai actually learn while enrolled, in terms of their emerging sense of self or “subjectivity” (Hollway 1984), aspirations, and different forms of capital (expressed through skills and knowledge). I contend that one cannot understand what kinds of “educated persons” the system produces unless one looks beyond the narrow confines of the classroom at the wider societal context in which the Almajirai grow up and one takes into account their extensive movements in contexts (e.g. earning their own livelihoods) that are not part of the school, although they are part of an Almajiri education.1

  • 2 Most of the material in this section stems from students aged 10–15 years, with whom I had a very (...)

2Many researchers assume that Qur’anic schools invariably instil certain values, such as blind obedience (Harber 1984), Islamic traditionalism (Umar 2001), or a propensity for terrorism (Awofeso 2003). I argue that, on the contrary, what the Almajirai learn is the product of their “tactical” engagement with different experiences and influences and therefore inherently variable and context-dependent. What I present in the following is my guess at what the Almajirai I got to know at Mallam Gali’s school, Sabuwar Ƙofa, learn.2 Firstly, this is crucially influenced by the experience of frequent rejection during their rambles throughout Kano city. We should understand the Almajirai’s struggles to maintain a positive self-definition in the face of disapproval and denigration as “tactical” in de Certeau’s sense. Unable to “leave” the confrontation with rejection behind, they “escape” its detrimental effects by, amongst other things, conceiving of themselves in specifically moral ways.

3Secondly, living in a social environment at Sabuwar Ƙofa that, overall, views modern and Islamiyya education in a very positive light significantly influences what the Almajirai learn. Attracted by such forms of education, the Almajirai make ample use of their “tactical creativity” to achieve forms of knowledge and skills their elders—e.g. parents and teachers—either do not value or can exclude them from by virtue of the powers that the gerontocratic order (Last 2004: 2) bestows upon them. While many of the skills and forms of knowledge the Almajirai aspire to remain unattainable for them currently—as a consequence of their structurally weak position—by nourishing the hope that they will attain them in the future, they can deflect the exclusion they are presently experiencing.

4Addressing three different “fields”—first the cultural/spiritual, second the moral/social, and third the economic—I explore in the following what the Almajirai learn as the result of intentional, explicit instruction, implicit learning processes, and, most importantly, unintended side-effects and their use of subversive “tactics.”

7.2 Cultural/spiritual capital

5The only explicitly taught content of the Almajiri system is the memorisation of the Qur’an. While teachers may communicate some moral lessons through the rules they enforce (e.g. cleanliness, punctuality, respectful and calm behaviour, and prohibitions on rough play), I gained the impression that there is little interaction between teachers and students, particularly between teachers higher up in the school hierarchy and younger students, as students keep a respectful distance. Often, it is older students that ensure order. As Qur’anic memorisation and its spiritual-capital value have already been addressed in some detail in the previous chapter, I explore here mainly how, in the context of increasing competition for what I argue is also a form of cultural capital, the students aspire and struggle to broaden their religious knowledge beyond mere memorisation.

6The “mnemonic possession” of the Qur’an, in addition to being a spiritual asset, has been shown to be a form of cultural capital (Bledsoe & Robey 1986; Boyle 2004: 16) which can be converted not only into power and prestige but also into economic capital. Though its “conversion rate” is likely to be devaluing in the face of increased competition (triggered by the greater availability and accessibility of religious forms of education) and cultural change, the fact that several of the teachers I met throughout my research lived off the money they received in exchange for prayers, recitations, and other spiritual services (e.g. Mallam Gali) proves the economic exchange value of Qur’anic knowledge. It has also been argued that ex- Almajirai become “religious as well as opinion leaders” in charge of various ritual engagements in their home localities and thus can transform their religious knowledge into social standing (Iguda n.d.: 13).

7Access to the cultural-capital value of religious knowledge is highly stratified in the traditional “knowledge economy” of the Qur’anic schooling system. Only upon completion of memorising the Qur’an are students able to use their accumulated knowledge as capital. Only those who know the translation are able to demonstrate their degree of mastery—and thus to reap prestige—by making appropriate practical reference to the memorised text (see Chapter Six). Within the traditional “knowledge economy,” knowledge of Islamic subjects apart from the Qur’an was the sign of a very advanced learner. With the spread of Islamiyya schools that readily give away access both to translations of the Qur’an and to Islamic subjects other than the Qur’an, the Qur’anic scholars’ monopoly on religious knowledge has been removed.

8In this context of stratified access to knowledge—not only across age but also across different educational institutions—it is not surprising that the Almajirai aspire to achieving Islamic knowledge apart from the memorisation of the Qur’an. This is a wish they expressed repeatedly. They even went so far as to express clear dissent with their teachers:

  • 3 ‘Radio interview’, 12 September 2009.

Habibu: If they brought the hadith teachers now, would your teachers agree to them staying and teaching [the students]?
Abubakar: We are not of the same opinion as our teachers, but we want the hadith teachers.3

  • 4 Habibu, ‘radio interview’, 9 September 2009.
  • 5 Salmanu & Auwal, 1 September 2009; Sani-Musa & Jamilu, 8 September 2009; Ibrahim, Bashir & Shu’aib (...)
  • 6 e.g. “Even Allah says you should know him first before you worship him” (Habibu, ‘radio interview’ (...)

9The Almajirai used the “tactics” available to them to acquire religious knowledge excluded from their curriculum. Some students in Mallam Gali’s school secretly enrolled in an Islamiyya school in the neighbourhood but had to drop out after their teacher found out.4The Almajirai learned the meaning of the text they memorised as far as possible from the Qur’anic exegesis (Hausa: tafsiri) at the Friday mosque, from books they owned which contained both Arabic verses and Hausa translations (which the boys who had received some modern education could decipher), from the radio, from preachers on the street or in the market, and by guessing from similarities between Arabic and Hausa.5 From the way some boys frequently invoked God’s presumed position on certain contentious issues to make their point,6 I gained the impression that they claimed to possess some degree of insider knowledge—an ability to interpret and thus turn religious knowledge to their own purposes—even though they were formally not entitled to such knowledge. As if to prove their “tactic” successful, several officials at the Kano Ministry of Education to whom I presented some of the children’s statements frowned upon their presumption to make their own interpretations.

7.3 Social/moral capital

10Both intentionally and unintentionally, the Almajirai acquire a substantial amount of what I call moral/social capital. While I found that in several respects the teacher’s attitude towards morality coincided with that of the students, “moral lessons” were not an explicit part of the teaching curriculum, and some Almajirai even lamented that their schools did not teach enough “religion” (addini), referring to the practicalities of religious practice as contained in the hadisai (the teachings of the Prophet Mohammed). As indicated above, teachers certainly communicate certain moral values through the rules they enforce and through setting an example themselves. I gained the impression, however, that the teacher was only one factor in how the students developed notions of self and morality.

11Importantly, an environment of societal disapproval, and sometimes open contempt and maltreatment, consolidates and encourages the Almajirai’s compliance with some of the “lessons” offered through school while simultaneously prompting them to challenge others. This context of societal disapproval, within which the Almajirai struggle to maintain their sense of self and self-worth, I argue, shapes the Almajirai’s subjectivities in important ways. The young people I met during my research were painfully aware of the public attitudes towards them. They frequently voiced their distress about being insulted, chased away and even physically assaulted while begging, and denied even a minimum of respect as human beings. Bashir (12 years old) felt they were treated as even less than animals, for no reason other than being Almajirai:

  • 7 Unlike cats, which may be kept as pets, dogs entertain little sympathy in Hausa society. They are (...)
  • 8 ‘Radio interview’, 17–18 September 2009.

Some of them don’t think Almajirai are human. To some, a dog is better than an Almajiri7… It’s not good, when you are supposed to treat someone well, you just treat him bad. You don’t know whether that person is a good person or a bad person. To some, an Almajiri, as long as he is an Almajiri, they just take him to be a bad person. They think he is an animal, that a donkey is even better than an Almajiri.8

12Widespread stigma and social exclusion have been shown to jeopardise the development and maintenance of children’s self-esteem (see Mann 2009: 6-7 for further references). It has, however, also been suggested that young people are not passive victims in the face of assaults on their dignity (Mann 2009). In the following, I illustrate the “tactics” the young people I got to know during my research employed to uphold dignity and self-respect in a context of disapproval and rejection.

13The Modern Hausa-English Dictionary (CSNL 2006) provides two translations for the term Almajiri: first, “pupil, student, learner, esp. of Koranic school,” and second, “destitute or poor person.” In the popular Hausa lexicon, further connotations have been added to the term in both its positive and negative dimension. Chapter Four explored the negative meanings; this section engages with the role of the Almajirai’s “fight for dignity” in an “economy of meaning” (Mann 2009: 11), in which they produce alternative meanings competing for recognition.

  • 9 ‘Radio interview’, 9 September 2009.

14Surprisingly, many of the Almajirai I got to know during my research embraced the concept of “Almajiri” willingly and felt no shame in identifying as such. Many of their “radio speeches” began or ended with a forceful self-identification as Almajiri (e.g. Habibu: “This is my answer. From Muhammed Habibu, Dambatta, the Almajiri, Alhamdulillah.”9) Indeed, Mann writes about refugee children in Dar es Salaam that it is their “efforts to maintain their morals and notions of what is “‘good’ and ‘correct’ behaviour” that keep them feeling strong” (ibid. 8). The Almajirai I got to know during my research embraced an explicitly moral conception of what it means to be an Almajiri, which allowed them to take pride in their identity as Almajirai despite widespread societal disapproval. They had very clear-cut ideas about what it means to be an Almajiri, what moral code of conduct obtains, and what legitimate expectations one can have towards those identifying as Almajirai.

  • 10 Field-notes, 2 September 2009.

15Often older Almajirai would reprimand younger ones for not behaving as an Almajiri should. When Shu’aibu (10 years old), for instance, began singing into my tape-recorder and fooling around, his older brother Bashir (12) told him that he, as an Almajiri, should not be singing like that.10 From the children’s behaviour, I gained the impression that the prestige and self-esteem deriving from the moral code of conduct pertaining to every Almajiri was an asset they could access whenever they needed to.

  • 11 Isma’ila, 21 August 2009; Nazifi, ‘radio interview’, 9 September 2009; Maharazu & Abdullahi, 24 Au (...)

16While they did “take time off” from following the principles they had adopted for themselves (e.g. in order to play football on a lesson-free Thursday out of the sight of the teacher, who disapproved of their play), the Almajirai placed an enormous emphasis on “behaving well,” pointing out that horseplay and playing football were inappropriate particularly for Almajirai and that children should rather focus on their studies.11 Even though they were aware of their own “trespasses,” to know that they knew how to behave well and possessed the “moral knowledge” society often claimed they lacked helped them to maintain dignity in the face of negative attitudes. The following “instruction” Habibu gives as teacher in a role-play to “his” students reveals the link between behaving well and coping with societal rejection:

  • 12 ‘Radio interview’, 12 September 2009.

Please, if you go out to beg, I want you to always pull yourself together, because some people are used to saying, Almajirai are not well-behaved, that they like engaging in rough play.12

  • 13 e.g. Mallam Gali, 17 August 2009; Mallam Ni’imatullah-Rabiu, 5 August 2009.

17The economic bases of the system also reinforce the importance moral capital has for the Almajirai. I heard several times that Almajirai are “in demand” as household helps because they are “well-behaved.”13 Their moral/social capital thus can be converted into economic capital—paid employment. Trustworthiness is a particularly important aspect of the Almajirai’s “moral code.” Access to employment as household helps and errand boys depends on a reputation of trustworthiness, as it entails entering the employer’s house freely. Almajirai are frequently sent on errands by persons whom they are not acquainted with, who trust in the Almajiri coming back with the requested item rather than running away with the money. The Almajirai I got to know during my research surprised me time and again with their concern for being regarded as honest. Let me illustrate this with two scenes from my fieldwork:

  • 14 Field-notes, 20 September 2009.

18First, in the backyard of the house in which I was living stood a mango tree. Some of the younger Almajirai asked me several times for the fruits, which I promised to share with them once they were ripe. The Almajirai, concerned that I might have left Kano before the mangoes were ripe and before I could fulfil my promise, asked for unripe mangoes, which I refused to give them as I did not think they were very healthy. One day, two of the Almajirai came in and asked me for unripe mangoes—as medicine (magani) for rashes on their heads. I laughed and told them I did not believe them that unripe mangoes were medicine, but, intrigued by their inventiveness, gave them the fruits and they left. Some minutes later, they knocked on the door, with serious looks on their faces, to show me how they had distributed pieces of unripe mango on their heads—to make sure I did not believe they had wanted to trick me into giving them mangoes.14

  • 15 Field-notes, 22 September 2009.

19Second, my flatmate received a clothes’ donation from her relatives in Britain. She gave them to Habibu (who worked in our house) and asked him to distribute them among his fellow students. As she did not see the students wearing the clothes during the following days, she suspected Habibu might instead have sold them on and asked him about their whereabouts. He replied that he had distributed them to the students in his school (and the remaining ones to students in other schools in the neighbourhood), but that they wanted to wait until a Friday before putting them on. On the following Friday, a large number of Almajirai paraded into the house to present themselves in their new clothes.15

20While I do not claim that no Almajiri would ever lie, the impression I gained from my fieldwork is that the children are very concerned about maintaining a reputation of being honest. One Almajiri voiced how he resented other children’s behaviour that might undermine the Almajirai’s reputation of honesty:

  • 16 Shu’aibu, ‘radio interview’, 17–18 September 2009.

I don’t like the children in town that behave like Almajirai [children pretending to be Almajirai] and collect money from people that want to buy something and just run away with the money.16

  • 17 e.g. food that has been kept for too long and gone off. Some Almajirai wash, dry, and re-heat such (...)

21The Almajirai’s reasoning about how to react appropriately when people gave them evidently spoiled food17 offers a striking example of their making use of their “tactic”—their claim to conduct themselves in an explicitly moral way in the face of denigrating treatment. The boys discussed how one should react when given food that was so obviously spoiled that there was no way for the “donor” not to be aware of it and which put the one eating it at risk of contracting diarrhoea. They had observed Almajirai plastering the spoiled food on the door of the people who had given it or littering it in front of that house. Such behaviour, they asserted, would make those giving spoiled food realise their fault:

  • 18 Habibu, ‘radio interview’, 9 September 2009.

If you come out [of your house and see the littered food] and you are reasonable, you know that what you did was wrong.18

22While the children were concerned that it might be interpreted as their fault, they were well aware of the public message of such an act and its potential to embarrass the “perpetrators” in front of neighbours and passer-bys. Despite having such a potentially subversive means of retribution at their hands, the Almajirai reasoned that such behaviour was actually wrong:

  • 19 Habibu, ‘radio interview’, 12 September 2009.

They misbehave. It’s better for them not to collect the food if they don’t want to eat it… Some of the Almajirai move away from the house before pouring the food away. Some will go and give it to goats.19

23In the context of widespread negative attitudes towards them, to occupy the moral high ground was more valuable to the Almajirai than to publicly retaliate against bad treatment. After all, they could resort to the belief that God would eventually ensure justice:

  • 20 Nasiru, ‘radio interview’, 3 September 2009.

God will also punish them for giving him bad food.20

24The Almajiri system has frequently been reproached for instilling “blind obedience” in the students (e.g. Harber 1984; Winters 1987). It should be clear from what I have shown so far that “blind obedience” does not form part of the Almajirai’s moral code of conduct. The students’ sense of respect/obligation towards their teacher is admittedly strong, as he acts in place of a father (see Chapter Five). This does not, however, eclipse the students’ sense of judgement. Abubakar, for instance, while recognising the teacher’s right to administer physical punishment, asserts that there are clear limits to the legitimate use of this right:

  • 21 ‘Radio interview’, 3 September 2009.

If [the teacher] sees anything wrong, he should correct them. If they refuse to accept the correction, he can get them and smack them. So that they will stop what they are doing. But the teacher is not supposed to smack the students over everything.21

25There is, furthermore, a clear age limit put on the power of teachers and even parents. Some students express the clear intention to disobey their parents once they graduate—e.g. by going to Islamiyya or modern school (see below).

  • 22 Field-notes, 11 August 2009.

26In addition to claiming superior “moral knowledge,” the Almajirai I got to know during my research embraced a specific interpretation of their begging that helped them maintain self-respect. “[T]he Islamic status of the Koranic student,” Lubeck writes, “carried with it certain material and social expectations by the subordinate strata towards the affluent and dominant strata,” considered by many as religiously ordained rights (1985: 376). It is important to the Almajirai that such an interpretation of their begging is available, I think, as it offers them a “tactic” to maintain self-respect in the face of rejection when they go out begging. The Almajirai I got to know during my research, as students of the Holy Qur’an, were able to imagine themselves as legitimate recipients (and even claimants) of sadaka (alms), who, by begging, reminded the affluent of their religious obligations rather than merely appealing to their sympathy. On one occasion, I gave an old woman begging in front of my house money, which led Abubakar and Bashir, who had observed me, to run up and tell me I should give them alms too, as they were Almajirai. They had never begged from me before but seemed to have concluded from seeing me giving that I acknowledged my obligations and could thus effectively be confronted with claims.22

  • 23 Ibrahim, 23 August 2009.

27Even though all students I spoke to preferred work in houses over begging, begging was deemed morally acceptable and less compromising than some other forms of work. Habibu and Ibrahim, for example, argued about a boy picking empty toiletry flacons from the rubbish dump to be refilled and resold under false labels that his work was immoral, as it involved cheating the customers, and that he should rather engage in more respectable activities: “If he’s an Almajiri he can still go and beg or get a house to work.”23

  • 24 Mallam Suleiman, 16 September 2009.

28To give to begging Almajirai was widely perceived as a form of worship by insiders of the system. One father, for instance, explained to me that Almajirai would receive more support nowadays as everyone was searching for a way to earn rewards in Heaven.24 Such a conception of their begging was also apparent in the phrases the Almajirai used when begging. They thanked, for example, by saying “may God accept this gift” (Allah ya karba), suggesting the donors had rendered a service to God rather than merely to them. Bashir (18 years old) and Nura (ca. 19) equated supporting Almajirai with having strong faith:

  • 25 ‘Radio interview’, 3 September 2009.

Bashir: In Nigeria, how many Almajirai do the rich take responsibility for?
Nura: Actually, the rich in Nigeria, not all of them are very God-fearing [imani].
Out of a hundred, you can only get 1% that are very God-fearing.25

29Mann writes about young refugees in Tanzania that “[a]nother strategy that children use is to assert their cultural superiority over that of their hosts in Dar es Salaam” (2009: 9). The Almajirai I got to know during my research used similar tactics, criticising those denying them respect for being malign and lacking faith and knowledge. Nasiru argues that Almajirai in urban areas are treated worse than in rural areas because

  • 26 ‘Radio interview’, 3 September 2009.

most of the village people are [Qur’anic] teachers, they know the Qur’an and its importance very well. In Kano, some of them are illiterate. They only have the boko studies.26

30Often they invoked God, whom they thought “on their side,” to substantiate their criticisms. Habibu, for instance, argued about people giving spoiled food to Almajirai:

  • 27 ‘Radio interview’, 9 September 2009.

Allah said what you cannot eat, don’t give it to someone to eat, even if he’s a mad man. The people who are doing this do not know. May Allah show them the way. May Allah give them understanding.27

31Other Almajirai interpreted this behaviour as malignant:

  • 28 Isma’ila, ‘radio interview’, 12 September 2009.

They just want to treat us badly… And they know that this is bad treatment.28

32One boy invoked the principle of equality of all Muslims in the eyes of God to criticise those denying the Almajirai respect by giving them spoiled food. Paradoxically, he invoked a value usually associated with Islamic reformism, whose supporters tend to oppose Almajirci (see Chapter Four), and its concern with breaking up the rigid hierarchies sanctioned by Sufism, rather than with traditional Qur’anic schools:

  • 29 Habibu, ‘radio interview’, 9 September 2009.

I want people to remember that the way Allah creates you is the same way Allah creates an Almajiri; the way Allah loves you, that is the way he loves an Almajiri; and also remember it’s Allah who gave you the money for the food. But you keep the food and allow it to spoil first before you give it to an Almajiri.29

  • 30 Ibrahim, Bashir & Shu’aibu, 22 September 2009.
  • 31 Habibu, 23 August 2009; Isma’ila, 21 August 2009.
  • 32 Ibrahim & Shu’aibu, 22 September 2009.
  • 33 Shu’aibu, 22 September 2009.

33One last “tactic” discussed here is that of distinguishing themselves from Almajirai considered to be at risk or fault. By setting themselves apart from other children, they could escape some of the stigma associated with the Almajiri system in general. For instance, the young people drew a strong dividing line between children begging for food at houses and children begging for money on the street. While they considered the former acceptable and safe, they deemed the latter corrupting and dangerous. There was some disagreement as to why Almajirai take to the street to beg, whether it was because of “profligacy” (iskanci) or because of a need for cash.30 The children concurred, however, that begging on the street was physically dangerous, as children risked being hit by a car,31 and that it went hand in hand with truancy.32 One boy went so far as to claim begging on the street was not even “proper begging,” as begging (bara) was “house by house.”33

34The young people agreed that in order to earn cash income, working in a house was preferable to begging for money on the street—even though the latter was considered financially more rewarding. Habibu refers explicitly to the respect available for different cash-earning activities as a reason to prefer house-work over street-begging:

  • 34 23 September 2009.

It is better to work in a house than to beg on the street; you earn more respect when you work in houses to get money than if you beg on the street. Your parent may see you on the street begging and think you are not studying well.34

  • 35 23 September 2009.

35Mallam Gali also held strong views about Almajirai begging for money on the street and made the link between their presence on the street and the moral corruptibility hinted at in the children’s accounts explicitly, as exposure to money and street life would spoil their character. From being good and trustworthy persons, they would turn into beggars and thieves.35

7.4 Economic capital

  • 36 26 July 2009.

36A number of authors suggest that the Almajiri system serves to initiate its students into urban life and the spheres of trade, craft, and labour (Winters 1987: 179; Reichmuth 1989: 49; Iguda n.d.: 21-22). I also came across the argument that the Almajirai, thanks to their down-to-earth education, did not have the inflated expectations for formal-sector jobs existent amongst high-school and university students, which lead the latter to turn to crime and violence once their high hopes get shattered. The Almajiri system, it is claimed, actually safeguards against the production of additional, unemployable, modern-educated school- leavers who “believe they can’t do the petty things the Almajirai do” and who therefore become “yan daba (hoodlums). “You rarely find an unemployed Almajiri,” Adamu explains. “The Almajirai learn to fend for themselves at an early stage. This may be hard, but they are skilled in the school of life”36 (see Iguda n.d.: 14; Okoye & Yau 1999: 41).

37One problem with such an argument is its essentialist leaning, reminiscent of the ‘youth bulge hypothesis” (e.g. Urdal 2004) that portrays both Almajirai and modern-educated youth as homogenous with predetermined futures. While it seems likely that the Almajirai integrate into the urban petty economy with relative ease, my research suggests that they—probably as the consequence of their interactions with them—actually nurture fairly similar hopes to those of their counterparts in modern schools. But let me first address the economic skills the Almajirai actually acquire.

38The Almajiri system socialises its older students to a considerable degree into economic activities they may likely pursue in their future lives. The students’ informal initiation into the urban economy was never pointed out to me as an active reason for opting for Almajirci. I doubt, however, that parents and children are unaware of the fact that being enrolled as Almajiri in metropolitan Kano opens up new economic activities for the young people. While I am reluctant to praise the kinds of skills the Almajirai acquire as anything more than basic qualifications and networks allowing them to earn a living in the urban petty economy, they have to be evaluated in light of the alternatives available to the Almajirai. The returns from modern education are limited; formal-sector jobs are scarce; the rural agricultural economy is declining, while the pressure on the land is growing.

39The older students I met throughout my research all looked back on impressive track-records of petty employment and small trading (into which the younger students are gradually socialised by undertaking minor tasks such as running errands). They have washed and ironed clothes, have been involved in the sale of tea, juice, food colours, vegetables, Hausa novels, drinking water, and clothes, have washed cars, watered flowers, carried loads, worked as motorbike-taxi drivers (‘yan acaba), and occasionally helped a teacher on his farm. In Mallam Hamza’s school, most of the older and some of the younger students were involved in yoghurt trade, which they managed in all its steps from the purchase at a factory in adjacent Kaduna State down to the street peddling. A few students learned a craft systematically from relatives or friends. Some manufactured caps. One student was learning to sew; one trained as a mechanic; another trained as a carpenter.

  • 37 1 September 2009.
  • 38 Further research is needed to explore in more depth the Almajirai’s opportunities to engage in ins (...)

40Through their frequent exchange and close cooperation with modern-educated persons (either in the houses where they worked or in the marketplace), the students acquired some basic literacy and numeracy skills. When we asked Ibrahim (24 years old), who played a crucial role in the distribution of yoghurt to retail sellers, how he managed the calculations, he maintained that “living among people that go to school,” he had learned some English and to read and write in Hausa.37 Habibu had learned to write the Latin alphabet fairly well from his friends. Certainly, most Almajirai do not, however, acquire enough literacy to be eligible for formal-sector employment, and I am doubtful about the extent to which they are able to participate in any form of institutionalised politics.38

  • 39 Mallam Haruna, 16 September 2009.
  • 40 Field-notes, 8 September 2009.

41Through their involvement in various activities, passing from petty job to petty job with great ease, constantly keeping their eyes open for new and better opportunities, acquiring trading and very basic literacy and numeracy skills, and enlarging their network of informants, collaborators, and potential employers, the students, I think, become experts in eking out a living in Kano’s urban economy. At the same time, they risk becoming increasingly de-skilled for a rural livelihood: spending most of their time in the city, they miss out on the informal socialisation into farming cycles. One father commented that he sent his sons to a rural school even though he was convinced they would study better in an urban area, as he wanted them to learn properly how to farm and rear animals. A more important deterrent, however, was the prospect that his sons would get used to city life and not want to return to their village after their studies39—a fairly well-founded fear, given the future aspirations of most students (see below). On one occasion, students in Mallam Hamza’s school, after a quarrel, insulted each other as “villagers.” That “villager” is used as an insult firstly signals that the intention of fathers (from rural areas) to send their children on Almajirci so that they learn to respect them may well be defeated. Secondly, it suggests that the prospect of returning to village life has little appeal to most Almajirai.40

Future aspirations

42Their aspirations can inform us about young people’s present experiences as well as their visions for the future and sense of self-efficacy, Crivello argues. Aspirations, she claims, provide a conceptual bridge between structure and agency, linking “socioeconomic structures (what society has to offer) and individuals at the cultural level (what one wants)” (2009: 2-3). It is useful to distinguish between “aspirations” and “expectations,” as MacLeod suggests.

43While the former express personal hopes and desires with little consideration of limitations arising from (lacking) personal skills, knowledge, mobility, etc., the latter take such constraints into account (1987: 20). To enquire into the Almajirai’s future aspirations (as distinct from their realistic expectations) reveals how they position themselves within society and what kinds of ideals they are pursuing.

  • 41 Alhaji Isyaka Rabi’u, founder of the airline IRS (Prof Adamu, 23 July 2009), and Sadi Yahaya, Moni (...)
  • 42 17 August 2009; 30 August 2009.

44Firstly, what can Almajirai realistically expect to be doing in their future lives? A number of government officials and successful businessmen in Kano have gone through the traditional Qur’anic education system.41 My assumption, however, is that as modern education has become more widespread and traditional Qur’anic education increasingly sidelined, such “success stories” become less and less imitable for the students currently enrolled in the system. An in-depth study of what actually happens to ex-Almajirai is still lacking. From what teachers and current students told me about graduated students, however, I could gain an idea about what they are likely to do. According to Mallam Gali, some of his former students have returned to their villages to become farmers. The majority stayed in Kano, engaging in petty business. Some became Qur’anic teachers themselves. When I asked whether former students supported the school, he explained that most of them did not have the means, and if anything he would help them out.42

  • 43 In the following, I rely on the statements of older students, most of them in Mallam Hamza’s schoo (...)
  • 44 Abubakar, 12 September 2009.
  • 45 Ibrahim, Auwal, Abubakar, 19 August 2009; Nasiru, 21 August 2009.

45How does this contrast with the students’ future aspirations?43 While some of them aspired to becoming Qur’anic teachers or preachers, only one told me that he wanted to return home and farm.44 Some voiced the wish to become a judge, soldier, primary school teacher, or government official.45 Most students hoped to get involved in a well-paying business activity of some sort.

  • 46 8 September 2009.

46Interestingly, despite the fact that moral, spiritual, and social rather than economic aspirations underpin the Almajiri system, its students nevertheless aspire to living economically successful lives. While one may argue that amongst the younger begging students, a claim to communal solidarity amongst Muslims (and thus a sense of entitlement to alms) may prevail to some extent, amongst the older ones engaged in the urban petty economy, this seems to give way to a more individualistic, entrepreneurial spirit, reminiscent of the reformist ideologies presented in Chapter Four. Making money was considered an important step in growing up. Sani-Musa (24 years old), for instance, dropped out of the comforts of stable employment as household help because he felt too old to depend on the small sums his employers would give him and wanted to earn his own money and set up his own business.46

  • 47 Ibrahim, 23 August 2009.
  • 48 Isma’ila, 21 August 2009; Nasiru, ‘radio interview’, 3 September 2009.
  • 49 Safiyanu, 23 August 2009; Ibrahim, 1 September 2009.

47Furthermore, there seemed to be agreement amongst the students that mutual obligations in the school existed only between brothers and close friends. Only a close friend could be expected to share his food.47 Only older brothers could be expected to take responsibility for young Almajirai’s bodily hygiene.48 Older Almajirai trying to start up a business felt no sense of entitlement to support from former or fellow Almajirai.49

  • 50 1 September 2009.

48While students had high-flown hopes for their economic futures, they were aware that it would be difficult for them to realise them. Jamilu, for instance, indicated, after the students had talked about their future aspirations, that there was no way they would be able to accomplish what they had set out for themselves, particularly as they had attended only Qur’anic school. They could work neither in the government nor in public schools and would depend on external support to set up successful businesses.50 An optimistic belief that they would in the future be able to pursue/further their modern education, combined with the belief that such education would eventually help them obtain the jobs they aspired to, I felt, kept the students’ spirits up (see below).

Modern education

  • 51 e.g. Maharazu & Abdullahi, 24 August 2009.
  • 52 Dahiru, 21 August 2009; Auwal, 25 August 2009; Mikail, 26 August 2009; Sani-Musa, 8 September 2009
  • 53 These relationships are obviously not restricted to families with whom an employment relationship (...)

49Though this was rarely articulated, I gained the impression that the Almajirai’s interactions with the households in which they worked importantly influenced their perspectives and attitudes. Despite some cases of abuse (i.e. employers denying the children their wage or shouting at them),51 most children and youths experienced their employment relationships as positive. Employing households helped Almajirai find other forms of employment, sewed clothes for them on Eid al-Fitr, and offered a space to socialise and relax in the shade during the day.52 This positive relationship with families sending their own children to modern education, I think, partly accounts for the Almajirai’s enthusiasm for modern education, despite reportedly critical attitudes on the side of some parents and teachers.53

  • 54 Anonymous, 27 August 2009.

50One vehement opponent of the Almajiri system told me that in his view the most promising strategy to end it was to encourage households to take in an Almajiri as employee and protégé, as over time a relationship would develop and the employers would eventually see to it that “their” Almajiri received a modern education.54 Even though not crowned with success, this is what happened in the case of Habibu:

  • 55 23 August 2009.

In the house where I work, and other people that are nice to me, they asked me to ask my teacher and my brother if they would allow me to go to boko school, but my brother said no and my teacher also said no.55

  • 56 23 August 2009.
  • 57 21 August 2009.

51While further research is needed to explore this issue, I gained the impression that the relationship between the Almajirai and the children of the households in which they work is complex, with the Almajirai struggling to defend their self-definition vis-à-vis a form of childhood they may secretly desire (I surmise), yet which is unattainable. I have never seen Habibu and Ibrahim as lost for an answer as when I asked them whether they would want to swap places with the children of the houses in which they work.56 Isma’ila negated my somewhat impertinent question, stating he would “prefer to fend for [him]self,”57 thus reasserting the social superiority of “his” form of childhood. The Almajirai agreed unanimously, however, that the education pursued by these children—a combination of modern school in the morning and Islamiyya school in the afternoon—was good.

  • 58 Aminu, 25 August 2009.
  • 59 Nura, ‘radio interview’, 3 September 2009.
  • 60 Ibrahim, 22 August 2009.

52Most of the Almajirai I got to know during my research saw modern education in a very positive light and were convinced of its importance for an economically successful life—to which they aspired. They deemed modern education important in order “to progress,”58because it would “help [them] on Earth,”59 and because they felt “if you have only the Qur’anic studies, there are places that when you go there, people will think you are nobody.”60

  • 61 e.g. Sunusi, 6 August 2009; Ibrahim, 12 September 2009.

53Several of those who had attended primary school for a number of years expressed regret about their parents’ decision to interrupt this education to send them on Almajirci.61 Many of the students, aware that they were missing out on something they deemed important, consoled themselves with the thought that they would be able to pursue modern education some time in the future. One of the boys (whose parents were strictly opposed to anything Western) resolved the tension between his need (and wish) to obey his parents and his sense of frustration about being denied a valued opportunity to learn, by reinterpreting his obedience towards his parents as a service to God, and, as such, easier to render:

  • 62 Habibu, ‘radio interview’, 9 September 2009. Despite his ‘resolution’ to obey his parents, Habibu (...)

If your parents took you to Qur’anic school, and you refuse to study and say you only prefer boko, what will you tell Allah in Heaven?… After I complete my school, I can go to boko, because my parents will not give their consent for me to go to boko now. I have to obey them, because it is said that “whoever obeys his parents, obeys Allah…” we still have hope that we will go to boko. We will not lose hope.62

54Habibu asserted that he would not send his own children on Almajirci, and I am tempted to think many of the other Almajirai will do the same:

  • 63 ‘Radio interview’, 9 September 2009.

May God bless our parents and we thank them very much for bringing us to Qur’anic school, and we also will teach our children, even if they don’t go to Makarantar Allo [Qur’anic “boarding” school].63

7.5 Conclusion

55This chapter investigated what the Almajirai actually learn through their enrolment and how this translates into spiritual/cultural, moral/social, and economic capital. It found that in many respects their social environment is at least as important for what the Almajirai learn as the school setting in the narrow sense. It suggested that in a context where the “market value” of Qur’anic memorisation is declining, the Almajirai apply their “tactical creativity” to gain access to forms of capital they consider important for living successful lives, but which they are (formally at least) excluded from.

56My research focused on the experience of the Almajirai themselves. I am therefore not in a position to make comparisons with other groups in Nigerian/Hausa society. However, my research suggests that there may be similarities—such as an appreciation for modern education, the hope to advance through it, and a fairly individualistic entrepreneurial spirit—that reduce the tensions between insiders and outsiders of the system and potentially make it possible for ex-Almajirai to insert themselves seamlessly into mainstream society. At the same time, my research shows that there are unresolved tensions that may prove problematic in the future: the hope to advance through modern education (to be pursued in the future) offers large scope for disappointment; and it remains to be seen how the ambiguity inherent in the relationship between Almajirai serving as household helps and their better-off employers can be resolved.

57From what I understood from the students, they do not feel rejected systematically by any one identifiable group. I am therefore inclined to believe that they are not likely to project the blame for their marginalisation on any group in particular. Furthermore, the Almajiri identity and the “moral capital” associated with it, I think, work to cushion assaults on their self-esteem and dignity. The ability to conceive of themselves positively makes it possible for the Almajirai not to resent the better-off and to embrace the hope to advance themselves through modern education in the future. The concluding chapter will spell out directions for further research to verify such conjectures.

Notes

1 The time spent at school may indicate how much room there is for other influences to become important: while Mallam Gali’s students spent most of the day in the neighbourhood (and only the lessons in the teaching space of the ‘school’, i.e. the mosque), Mallam Hamza’s school was virtually deserted throughout most of the day, as students spent their free-time elsewhere (e.g. in their employers’ houses).

2 Most of the material in this section stems from students aged 10–15 years, with whom I had a very close relationship (a requisite to gain insights into such delicate matters as self-esteem and notions of morality) and who were eager to participate in my research. I recognise that nuances and variation in opinion may have eluded me, given my inability to speak Hausa and my focus on relatively few young people within the temporal constraints of my research.

3 ‘Radio interview’, 12 September 2009.

4 Habibu, ‘radio interview’, 9 September 2009.

5 Salmanu & Auwal, 1 September 2009; Sani-Musa & Jamilu, 8 September 2009; Ibrahim, Bashir & Shu’aibu, 22 September 2009; Habibu, 23 September 2009.

6 e.g. “Even Allah says you should know him first before you worship him” (Habibu, ‘radio interview’, 9 September 2009). “God will also punish them for giving him bad food” (Nasiru, ‘radio interview’, 3 September 2009). “Allah said what you cannot eat, don’t give it to someone to eat, even if he’s a mad man” (Habibu, ‘radio interview’, 9 September 2009). “It is said that ‘whoever obeys his parents, obeys Allah’” (Habibu, ‘radio interview’, 9 September 2009).

7 Unlike cats, which may be kept as pets, dogs entertain little sympathy in Hausa society. They are considered polluting, and Prophet Mohammed also disliked them (personal communication with Murray Last, 7 December 2010).

8 ‘Radio interview’, 17–18 September 2009.

9 ‘Radio interview’, 9 September 2009.

10 Field-notes, 2 September 2009.

11 Isma’ila, 21 August 2009; Nazifi, ‘radio interview’, 9 September 2009; Maharazu & Abdullahi, 24 August 2009.

12 ‘Radio interview’, 12 September 2009.

13 e.g. Mallam Gali, 17 August 2009; Mallam Ni’imatullah-Rabiu, 5 August 2009.

14 Field-notes, 20 September 2009.

15 Field-notes, 22 September 2009.

16 Shu’aibu, ‘radio interview’, 17–18 September 2009.

17 e.g. food that has been kept for too long and gone off. Some Almajirai wash, dry, and re-heat such food before eating it. Often young children are sent to gather food remnants to give them to Almajirai. They might indeed be unaware that what they give away is inedible.

18 Habibu, ‘radio interview’, 9 September 2009.

19 Habibu, ‘radio interview’, 12 September 2009.

20 Nasiru, ‘radio interview’, 3 September 2009.

21 ‘Radio interview’, 3 September 2009.

22 Field-notes, 11 August 2009.

23 Ibrahim, 23 August 2009.

24 Mallam Suleiman, 16 September 2009.

25 ‘Radio interview’, 3 September 2009.

26 ‘Radio interview’, 3 September 2009.

27 ‘Radio interview’, 9 September 2009.

28 Isma’ila, ‘radio interview’, 12 September 2009.

29 Habibu, ‘radio interview’, 9 September 2009.

30 Ibrahim, Bashir & Shu’aibu, 22 September 2009.

31 Habibu, 23 August 2009; Isma’ila, 21 August 2009.

32 Ibrahim & Shu’aibu, 22 September 2009.

33 Shu’aibu, 22 September 2009.

34 23 September 2009.

35 23 September 2009.

36 26 July 2009.

37 1 September 2009.

38 Further research is needed to explore in more depth the Almajirai’s opportunities to engage in institutionalised politics.

39 Mallam Haruna, 16 September 2009.

40 Field-notes, 8 September 2009.

41 Alhaji Isyaka Rabi’u, founder of the airline IRS (Prof Adamu, 23 July 2009), and Sadi Yahaya, Monitoring & Evaluation Officer on the State Education Sector Project of the Kano Ministry of Education, are, for instance, ex-Almajirai.

42 17 August 2009; 30 August 2009.

43 In the following, I rely on the statements of older students, most of them in Mallam Hamza’s school, as they engaged more concretely with their future prospects than the younger students, most of whom stated they wanted to become Qur’anic teachers.

44 Abubakar, 12 September 2009.

45 Ibrahim, Auwal, Abubakar, 19 August 2009; Nasiru, 21 August 2009.

46 8 September 2009.

47 Ibrahim, 23 August 2009.

48 Isma’ila, 21 August 2009; Nasiru, ‘radio interview’, 3 September 2009.

49 Safiyanu, 23 August 2009; Ibrahim, 1 September 2009.

50 1 September 2009.

51 e.g. Maharazu & Abdullahi, 24 August 2009.

52 Dahiru, 21 August 2009; Auwal, 25 August 2009; Mikail, 26 August 2009; Sani-Musa, 8 September 2009.

53 These relationships are obviously not restricted to families with whom an employment relationship exists but may be strongest with them. For older students no longer working in houses, relationships with modern-educated peers in the workplace may be more important, although relationships with former employer- households seem to persist also after a student’s employment has ended. The fact that even some Qur’anic teachers send their own children to modern school certainly also plays an important role.

54 Anonymous, 27 August 2009.

55 23 August 2009.

56 23 August 2009.

57 21 August 2009.

58 Aminu, 25 August 2009.

59 Nura, ‘radio interview’, 3 September 2009.

60 Ibrahim, 22 August 2009.

61 e.g. Sunusi, 6 August 2009; Ibrahim, 12 September 2009.

62 Habibu, ‘radio interview’, 9 September 2009. Despite his ‘resolution’ to obey his parents, Habibu eagerly took up my offer to give him English lessons.

63 ‘Radio interview’, 9 September 2009.

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