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Search for Knowledge and Recognition

Hannah Hoechner

8. Conclusion

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1Northern Nigerian traditional Qur’anic “boarding” schools and their students have attracted intense negative attention over the last three decades. The Almajirai have been at the centre of anxieties not only about child abuse and exploitation (e.g. Daily Trust, 21 November 2009), but also about sectarian and inter-religious violence in Northern Nigeria. As “gullible children” (Awofeso et al. 2003: 320) and “angry… youths” (Weekly Trust, 13 December 2002, in Adamu n.d.) enrolled in a system out of tune with the “exigencies of modern times” (The Nation, 11 January 2010), they have been depicted as both a burden on and a threat to society.

2This thesis provided a grounded analysis of the Almajiri system, drawing on ethnographic fieldwork which included semi-structured interviews as well as participatory research with Almajirai in two schools in metropolitan Kano. It addressed two questions: why families opt for Almajirci and what the Almajirai learn through their enrolment. Such empirical investigation was long overdue, given the emotionally charged overtones of many discourses about Almajirci and the role such discourses play in carving out new realities—by informing policy and by becoming a factor itself in the “cultural production” of “educated persons” in the Almajiri system.

3Firstly, why do families opt for Almajirci? This poses a puzzle, as the Qur’anic scholars, once a highly regarded and influential social category, have largely slid into political, social, and economic marginality. Many have resorted to a rhetoric of crisis to explain the continued existence of the system, invoking acute poverty and parental neglect and ignorance. This thesis has provided an alternative account.

4I found that the structural factors highlighted by the existing literature on Qur’anic “boarding” schools in West Africa are indeed important: poverty and a declining rural economy, coupled with rapid population growth, are the background against which the Almajiri system has to be evaluated. However, structural factors do not tell the entire story. Rather, we should understand Almajirci as the explicitly educational endeavour of economically marginalised communities, who—in a context where poor-quality modern education is not a route to economic prosperity—focus their educational aspirations on realms where they have prospects of succeeding. Conscious spiritual, social, and moral rather than economic objectives sustain the system. Almajirci aims to mould children into socially suitable beings by teaching them respect and self-sufficiency. It seeks to prevent them from “becoming spoilt,” by exposing them to a certain degree of hardship, and endeavours to ensure that they acquire spiritual capital by memorising the Holy Qur’an.

5What the Almajirai actually learn throughout their enrolment formed the second question for this thesis. My tentative answer is that what the crisis rhetoric suggests—that the system produces students that are “gullible,” “angry,” and unprepared for modern life—is unlikely to be true.

6As I have outlined, the Almajiri system socialises its older students to a considerable degree into economic activities they are likely to pursue in their future lives. While they are unlikely to acquire more than basic “survival skills” in Kano’s urban economy, these have to be evaluated in light of the alternatives available in a context where the returns from modern education are limited and formal-sector jobs scarce, while the rural agricultural economy is declining and population pressure on the land growing. Further research is needed to enquire into how their education sustains former Almajirai in adult life.

7The Almajirai have been described as resisting modern developments, especially those originating in the West, with the Maitatsine riots in the 1980s being the most prominent example (e.g. Lubeck 1985). While I have no doubt that there are Qur’anic teachers, and parents opting for Almajirci, who hold such views, the Almajirai I got to know during my research regarded modern education highly, possibly as a result of their interactions with modern-educated persons in their workplaces. Several students who had attended primary school before becoming Almajirai regretted their parents’ decision to interrupt this education; many nurtured the hope of pursuing modern education in the future.

8In July 2009, several hundred people died in a violent conflict between members of the Muslim sect boko haram (“modern/Western education is forbidden”) and the police in several cities and towns in Northern Nigeria. Many members of the sect were modern-educated but unable to translate their education into economically successful lives (Oxford Analytica 2009). Judging from the high regard in which the Almajirai I got to know hold modern education, I find it difficult to imagine that boko haram (or Maitatsine) views hold much appeal for them. Further research is needed into the views of graduated Almajirai, given that the hope to advance through modern education (to be pursued in the future) offers large scope for disappointment.

9In my research I encountered neither the “gullible children” nor the “angry youths” ready to engage in sectarian or inter-religious violence portrayed by the crisis rhetoric. Rather than being downtrodden and frustrated, the young people I met managed to cope with disapproval and rejection—and less-than-rosy future prospects—by embracing explicitly moral ideas of what it means to be an Almajiri. The ability to conceive of themselves positively, I think, made it possible for the young people I became familiar with not to resent the better-off and to retain the hope that future modern education will enable them to improve their lives. Further research should investigate under what circumstances this “protective shield” may break down. To explore the interactions of Almajirai working in houses with their employers (and their children) could provide valuable insights into a potential source of tension and the young people’s “tactics” to deal with apparent inequalities of opportunity.

  • 1 While I doubt that any education system can instil ‘blind obedience’, given that young people are (...)

10While the Qur’anic schooling system certainly stresses the importance of respectful behaviour towards social elders, it does not instil “blind obedience” (Harber 1984).1 The young people I got to know were critical of the Almajiri system, to the degree possible in a gerontocratic order; and probably encouraged by a social environment that valued other forms of education (i.e. modern and Islamiyya education), they challenged it through their aspirations for skills and forms of knowledge they were, formally at least, excluded from.

11The recognition that what the Almajirai learn is the result of their “tactical” agency as well as intentional instruction, and therefore inherently context-dependent, is at the same time the main finding and the main limitation of my research. More research will be needed to explore alternative outcomes of the open-ended learning process of the Almajiri system under different circumstances. Students in rural and peripatetic schools and Almajirai begging for money on the street may have quite different experiences from the Almajirai who participated in my research.

12In summary, this research has shed light on the processes taking place within an Islamic schooling system that has attracted much criticism and anxiety, and as such this research may contribute towards the demystification of Islamic educational institutions more generally. What is its wider relevance for development studies?

13On a theoretical level, my research demonstrates the potential added value of integrating insights of the anthropology and sociology of education into development studies. It offers a rationale to think about “education” outside the boxes of formal schooling and intentional instruction. Alongside explicit instruction, implicit learning processes and unintended consequences of educational arrangements may be crucial in what young people learn.

14Whereas their acquisition of spiritual capital is largely the product of intentional instruction, the Almajirai accumulate moral/social capital particularly as a result of their “tactical creativity” in dealing with the disapproval and rejection they encounter during their rambles throughout Kano city. What the Almajirai learn in terms of economic capital and in terms of aspirations for such capital (the hope to acquire modern education)—they learn outside school.

15My research supports the work of Levinson et al. (1996) in suggesting that forms of capital other than “human capital” should be taken seriously in debates about education, as the contextually embedded importance of such capitals may inform the educational choices families make. Families opt for Almajirci not with economic goals in mind, but to ensure that their children acquire moral, social, and spiritual capital. In practical terms, an approach recognising various forms of capital can help one to understand why families may resist attempts to universalise basic education—despite its centrality to the current development paradigm.

16Moreover, my research contributes towards theoretical debates about the role education plays for inter-generational transfers of poverty and life chances. I offered an analytical framework that integrates a broad view of what counts as education and educational achievement with an analysis of wider power structures and students’ opportunities to exercise agency within them. While further research involving graduated Almajirai is needed to confirm this, it suggests that the Almajirai may effectively disrupt processes of social and cultural reproduction through subversive “tactics,” such as aspiring to skills and forms of knowledge not offered and life-styles not envisaged by the Almajiri system. This insight is an extension of Last’s (2004) finding that “moving away” rather than open confrontation is the dominant form through which the young may express discontent in a gerontocratic order, which may help one understand inter-generational change in Northern Nigeria.

17My last observation concerns the methodological merits of this work. My research builds on previous studies by taking young people and their views seriously and choosing methods that allow them to express their views freely. Many if not most of my insights could only be gained because my methods reflected the young people’s preferred forms of expression. If this work increases understanding of the Almajiri system, it is because the Almajirai were involved in creating the data on which it builds.


1 While I doubt that any education system can instil ‘blind obedience’, given that young people are not passive ‘containers’ to be ‘filled’ with certain values, the Almajiri system, given the emphasis laid on the students’ ability to be self-reliant, seems a particularly improbable candidate.

© IFRA-Nigeria, 2013

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