By Usman Aliyu
Koro Afoju is a popularly colony strictly for the blind in Ilorin. Situated in the heart of the Kwara State capital between Gambari and Ojagboro areas, its residents always referred to as “Almajiris” reportedly migrated to the area from different parts of Northern Nigeria to engage in street begging to meet up their daily needs.
Ibrahim Yakub is one of the blind Almajiris in the colony. He hailed from Kano State, but he said he had lived in Koru Afoju for almost 20 years.
“I came through my uncle who is not physically challenged as I am. He lives at Sango, another Hausa community. Though I was living with him before, I later relocated to this community where I can relate with people like me. We thank God that we have been living here for decades without any regret”, Yakub said.
Yakub’s situation is relatively similar to other members of the settlement. So for that, they, over the years, cohabit and share common history, heritage and particularly, a common goal of begging by going outside the community on daily basis to seek alms.
As time passed by, they began to intra-marry, and consequently, the population started to multiply. This led to an upsurge in the population of the community.
More often, these street beggars are assisted by their children, who hold their hands or sticks to guide them to various places in the city and even outside. However, the peculiarity of Ilorin Almajiri system is that while their counterparts in other parts of the North sleep on the streets, they have a colony they all retire to after their daily activities.
The Kwara State Government recently carried out interlocked pavement of the sloppy road leading to the colony from Gambari to Oja-Igboro and Awodi area. It made access to the colony easier.
Sadly, many of these Almajiri children lack access to education. Many grow up to join their parents in the alms-seeking activities, some turn to scavengers while others resort to illegal businesses and activities for a living.
Studies by the United Nations Education, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) have shown that one in every five of the world’s out-of-school children is in Nigeria.
The studies explained that though primary education is officially free and compulsory in the country, about 10.5 million of the Nigerian children aged 5-14 years are not in school. These studies were conducted seven years ago. The numbers must have gone up as no remedial actions have taken place since then.
The findings added that only 61 percent of 6-11 year-olds regularly attends primary school while only 35.6 percent of children aged 36-59 months received early childhood education.
Koro Afoju was in the same situation until 2020 when the Kwara State branch of the Federation of Muslim Women’s Association of Nigeria (FOMWAN) intervened. The federation shortly before the outbreak of covid-19 pandemic enrolled 200 of these children for elementary education to improve their chances at a better future.
These vulnerable children were enlisted at Karuma LGEA Primary School Ilorin, an educational centre 500 metres to their residence. They were provided with uniforms, textbooks and exercise books among other learning materials at a ceremony witnessed by some officials of the state government, members of the community as well as representatives from neighbouring communities.
Speaking on the rationale for the intervention, Hajia Halima Yusuf, Chairperson, Almajiri Education Committee for the Muslim women organisation, said the children observably constituted nuisance to the neighbourhood.
Yusuf, who is a former Commissioner for Education in the State and resides in the neighbourhood, described as worrisome the increase in number of Almajiri children in the streets without access to education.
She condemned how they were used for begging, mostly in areas like Gambari, Ojagboro, Oja-Oba and Post Office, among others, describing the idea as a violation of the right of children to education, health, security, food and dignity.
“They will be the one guiding their parents; holding their arms to various places in the town and outside the town. The children were so small; they are growing up to teenagers.
“We deemed it necessary to help them because the adverse condition being experienced by these children could deprive them of a bright future and their rights as citizens of the country”, the educationist said.
Besides, she noted that the intervention was in line with the principles of the Muslim women’s association of ensuring inclusive education for all children irrespective of origins, tribes and religions.
The former Education Commissioner stated that the move particularly became necessary due to the high rate of out of school children in the country and its resultant effects on the security of lives and property.
Sharing a similar sentiment, Hajia Maimuna Sheu, the Amira (President) of the Ilorin branch of FOMWAN said that the association was only able to adopt 200 children because of the financial burden involved. She said the committee had informed relevant government agencies and that the state government had expressed interest in taking over the sponsorship.
Sheu explained that basic education was free in Kwara State, nonetheless, students were being made to pay Parents/Teachers Association (PTA) levy. This, she said must be abolished if the progress made so far was to be sustained. The registration of these children, she said has reduced the number of the children in the streets.
While reacting, the traditional head of the community, known as Sarkin Makafi, Alhaji Muhammadu Thani lauded the intervention as he said they would not want the children to end up like them.
“We are always helpless to send them to schools because no assistance was forthcoming either from government or anywhere.
“Besides, we don’t have any health facility in this community in case our children fall sick. This is an aspect we would like the government to look into. Our houses, apart from the fact that they cannot contain all of us again, are fast dilapidating.
“If the government says we should stop begging today, we are ready to quit the business, but something has to be provided in return because begging is our only source of livelihood.
“It has been like that from time immemorial. We have been begging to feed ourselves. It is not our desire to continue to beg but we don’t have other means of feeding ourselves and our family.
“That is why we will forever be grateful for this intervention by the Federation of Muslim women’s associations in the country”, Thani said.
Hitherto, he said some of the children enrolled in several vocations and apprenticeship as automobile mechanics, tailors and shoe cobblers among others.
Mr Salihu Mohammed, a parent of one of the enlisted children, said the intervention would definitely redefine the future for the children.
Mohammed stated that the opportunity is a privilege and urged other Non-Governmental Organisations, government and well-meaning individual to emulate the step taken by the FOMWAN.
“I appreciate FOMWAN for this good job that they are doing for Almajiri people. We really appreciate the association and we will never take the gesture for granted”, he said.
The Headmistress of the school, where the children were enrolled, Mrs Halimat Lawal sees the intervention as timely. She said the children exhibited the zeal to learn.
Lawal assured that enlisted pupils would excel in their academic work, but urged other philanthropists to complement government’s effort in its policy of education for all.
In the remark of the State Ministry of Education and Human Capital Development, Mrs Susan Oyetunde, who is a Deputy Director commended the organisation for investing in the educational pursuit of the children. She described the effort as a great contribution to the education sector in the State, and urged well meaning individuals and organisations to imitate FOMWAN.
The senior government official sought more public-private partnership in the development of education in the State and Nigeria as a whole.
Hajia Nimat Labaiak, the deputy Amira of FOMWAN in the State and the State’s immediate former Coordinator for the Civil Society Action Coalition on Education for All (CSACEFA), identified payment of PTA levy as one of the challenges against the free basic education policy in the State. Unless the levy was abolished, she notes, many children from poor background may find it difficult to acquire western education.
According to her, FOMWAN wants to make the enrolment an annual event, but lean resources was a challenge. While the cardinal programme of FOMWAN had been to encourage and support children to have western education as well as to support the implementation of programmes that will gradually take the children off the streets, she urged other non-governmental organisation, corporate bodies and well-meaning individuals to assist in the programme.
“Education will save them from adverse health outcomes and empower them to participate in decisions that affect their lives”, she said, expressing optimism that the State government would take necessary steps on this in line with its policy of education for all.
FOMWAN’s action is a wake up come on other stakeholders in the education sector on ensuring inclusive education among the vulnerable Almajiri children. However, government still needs to fashion out a sustainable approach to this issue so as to ensure that the rights of vulnerable children to basic education as guaranteed in the Kwara State Child Rights Law (2008) and the Universal Basic Education Act (2004) are no longer violated.