“THE PROBLEM OF DESTITUTION, THE CULTURE OF BEGGING AND THE STUBBORN ALMAJIRAI SYSTEM”
by HRH Alhaji (Dr.) Umaru Sanda Ndayako, CFR, The Etsu Nupe (B.798)
Keynote Address on the occasion of 1998 Annual Dinner, November 21, 1998
It is to me a great honour and privilege to be invited by the National Executive Committee (NEC) of Barewa Old Boys Association to give a keynote address on this delightful occasion. It is particularly pleasing to find myself among friends, classmates and college mates, many of whom I have not met for a long time. I now know what I have been missing over the years.
The National Executive Committee in their collective wisdom has decided that I should speak on the “Problem of Destitution, The Culture of Begging and Stubborn Almajirai System”. If I were given the choice, I would personally have settled for a more cheerful and less complicated subject. For there is no doubt that this is an intractable problem, the solution to which has engaged the attention of many concerned citizens of this country, including the beloved former President of this Association, the late General Hassan Usman Katsina. May his noble soul rest in peace, Amen.
In order to give ourselves a clearer idea of the person we are referring to when we talk of a destitute, we should perhaps start by defining in a few words who in our view is a destitute. For purposes of our present exercise, it should be in order if we regard any person who is without food, clothes and other things necessary for life as a destitute. In other words, a destitute is a person reduced to inadequacies in things considered essential to life and living; put simply a person reduced to a state of
complete poverty. This should give us an idea of the extent of destitution in this country today. Large numbers of our people just can not afford three square meals a day. They live far below the poverty line and have to do something to supplement what they can get from the toils of their labour. It is little wonder, therefore, that they resort to begging. Furthermore, there are some other people who on account of some form of disability or other, or on grounds of culture inhibitions, old age, mental instability and some other health problems as well as on account of ignorance and lack of skills, pride and self-respect have also been reduced to destitution and begging.
At this juncture, I would like to quote the famous Irish Satirist Jonathan Swift who in an essay titled “ A MODEST PROPOSAL” said: “it is a melancholy object to those who walk through this great town, or travel in the country, when they see the streets, roads, and cabin doors crowded with beggars of the female sex followed by three, four or six children, all in rags and importuning every passenger for alms.” This description, although it relates to the situation Jonathan Swift noticed in Ireland, mirrors quite accurately what obtains today in Nigeria. It is indeed a melancholy sight to see all these beggars-young, old, male and female-on our streets. It is a bad commentary on the collective psyche of Nigeria.
I would also like to quote an Hadith regarding the issue of begging: The Prophet Muhammad (SWA) is quoted as saying that: if a man begs without any dire necessity (it is) as if he puts hot chorales on his hand”. The Prophet is also known to have advised that anyone under hardship should collect wood from the mountain and sell it to earn a living rather than go around begging. Obviously, the negative impact begging has on society has not only been recognized for a long time, but has been decried by Islam.
It is unfortunate but true, when one says that in this country the problem is most prevalent in Northern Nigeria. Even in other parts of the country where the problem is not so severe, the few beggars found are mainly
of northern origin. This has to do with the orientation of the average Northerner-that it is important to give to the needy. Unfortunately, a large percentage of the beggars found on our streets today are capable of engaging in some form of employment that will provide them with an income capable of taking care of their basic needs.
Causes of Begging
To address the issue, it is necessary to have a clear understanding of the causes of begging and the Almajirai in the country. Three main reasons explain why these problems have become so prevalent in Nigeria, they are: Disease, Poverty and Ignorance. I shall now examine these causes in some detail:
As pointed out earlier, a lot of the people we see on our street today begging suffer form one form of disability or the other. Common among them are the blind, the crippled, the leper and the mentally sick. There are, however, a growing number of beggars who are healthy but find begging an easy way to make a living-the mother of twins/triples, the praise-singer and his retinue of idlers etc. I gather that some of these beggars have even become landlords in the process but have remained on these “jobs”, continually exploiting the generosity of many Nigerians who still believe in providing for the needy. The number of this category of healthy beggars has swelled in recent times, many of them using the present difficult economic circumstances as a ready excuse.
It is common knowledge that the wealth of this nation is in the hands of a few and that the majority continue to wallow in abject poverty. In recent times the severity of poverty has been compounded by the downturn in the fortunes of this country which has resulted in the closure of many industries and widespread unemployment. These factors have significantly increased the number of people who cannot afford three square meals a day or to go about in decent clothes or provide shelter over their heads.
As we said at the beginning - these are destitute in the true sense of the word. When I was a young man, the extended family system in this country was very robust and took care of the indigent members of the family. The family regarded it then as a stigma of the worst order, if any of its members were seen begging. The lepers, the blind, the poor and the handicapped were all taken care of by the other more privileged members of the family.
Today, as we all know, our society is not what it was 50 years ago. It is more individualistic and less caring. Sadly, the individual members of a family are increasingly less enthusiastic about helping each other. The result is that the poor and the sick tend to seek assistance outside the family circle.
Secondly, a lack of appreciation of the difficulties experienced in urban
areas has given the rural populace the false belief that there is easy money to be made in the cities. This has resulted in large rural-urban immigration putting additional pressure on urban areas where demand for basic requirements such as potable water, electricity and jobs has already outstripped supply. Rural migrants have found to their consternation that there are thus no ready jobs and no huge fortunes to be made in their new homes. Unfortunately, rather than return home empty handed, and lacking in any form of rudimentary skills, they resort to begging on the streets. The women, on the other hand, are compelled to beg because their husbands are unable to look after them and their children. All this has tended to increase the number of beggars on our streets.
The AImajirai that are seen on the streets of most of major northern towns are a product of the traditional Islamic teaching system. The old school of thought believed that for the young to get a sound Islamic education and be of moral rectitude, they needed to be sent to far away places where there were few distractions. This might not have posed a problem in the past when the young were sent to bigger traditional towns like Sokoto, Zaria and Bauchi from the smaller satellite villages.
However, the new system of sending these young fellows to large urban centres like Kaduna and Kano cannot achieve this, as there are in fact, too many distractions in these places. These children, who leave home penniless and with no provision for feeding and accommodation at all, are forced to go out begging everyday after their Islamic lessons, so that they may be able to provide for themselves. In some cases they are sent out begging for their Islamic teachers to pay for the education they are getting, thus creating an army of beggar children on our streets. Unlike the developed economies of Asia where the problem is one of child labour, here the problem is that of child beggars.
Furthermore, the high birthrates in the rural areas mean that with lower income levels, it is more difficult for parents to fend for their children and they are thus ever ready to push this responsibility elsewhere. Attempts by past governments to regulate child birth in the family have proved unsuccessful.
ILLS OF BEGGING
This Almajirai system has brought in its wake a number of social ills namely:
Ø Increased number of petty theft incidents by the young. This later becomes a bigger problem as they grow up and form the core of the more daring armed robbers;
Ø Increase in the number of prostitutes; increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases (STD’s);
Ø Low nutrition levels allowing for a higher risk in the spread of contagious and infectious diseases like cholera, meningitis, tuberculosis etc .
Ø Providing fanatical religious movements with ready-made re cruits.
You will agree with me that these are serious problems which no society can ignore.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I cannot pretend to have ready answers to these
overwhelming problems which have defied solutions for a long time.
Nevertheless, I will like to make some recommendations. The solution will no doubt require rearranging the very foundations of our cultural, economic and social systems as they are today and will demand a great deal of time, hard work and patience. Some of these recommendations include.
a) We must go back to our traditional family values where every member of the extended family is each other’s keeper.
b) Government must make amore determined effort to bridge the gap between the rich and the poor. Government must endeavour, through appropriate economic policies, to create a new egalitarian Nigerian society that would harness the country’s enormous resources for the creation of employment and the alleviation of poverty.
c) Parents should be restrained from sending their children to urban centres for Islamic Education when the rural areas are themselves capable of providing such education. Islamic Education System known to some as Almajirai School System is to many millions a form of formal education system and many parents are contented sending their children to such schools and no more. The requirement under this recommendation therefore, can not be attained by legislation alone. It will be necessary that Government should re-examine its education policy and restructure the present education system in such a way that full recognition is accorded to Almajirai School System. Government should be prepared to properly integrate it with the present educational system and fully fund it. In this way, the goals of the two systems will be achieved under the same roof all over the country, particularly in the North. This will without doubt take off a large percentage of Almajirai from streets and keep them in their villages. At the same time, government can come out firmly against the purely Almajirai Schools System, especially the aspect of it that allows children to be separated from their parents and taken to far away places without adequate provision being made for their feeding accommodation and clothing.
d) We must make a greater effort to improve the lot of the rural dwellers so that the urge to migrate to the cities would be curtailed.
e) More homes should be provided to the homeless so that the poor and the handicapped can be trained and be kept off the street. There should be a new approach to the whole question of rehabilitation of the destitute so as to make them useful and economically productive members of the society. Rather than establishing rehabilitation centres in isolated places, far away from generality of our people, the destitute, except those with contagious and infectious diseases, should be rehabilitated and taught skills and trades from their homes or from homes established for them and their families within towns and villages inhabited by generality of the people. In this way, the problem of re-settling them later in life after they would have learned skills and trade will not arise and problem of facing challenges of life will not prove too difficult for them, nor will they feel like fish out of water or like people in prison when they are being rehabilitated.
f) We should make a better use of charity and the Zakkat. Zakkat as one of the five pillars of1slam is mandatory on all Muslims who possess the prescribed minimum level of wealth for one year. Its payment, collection and proper management, must be made compulsory and a joint responsibility of all governments in the Federation and the Muslim Ummah. There should be bodies set up at local, state and national levels to be charged with the responsibility of establishing Zakkat Fund and its efficient management. If properly executed, it should complement government efforts in the field of alleviating poverty, creating employment for the able bodied destitute and helping to keep beggars off our streets by looking after them in well-organized settlements.
Finally, it is important that we appreciate the fact that these solutions can not be regarded as the responsibility of Government alone. It must be seen as the collective responsibility of all of us. The solutions are also by no means easy but it is important that we make an immediate start. Once more, I will like to thank the National Executive Committee of BOBA for giving me the opportunity to address you .
I thank you all for listening.
May Allah Bless you All! Amen.