The Platform

Almajiri children receiving instruction at the Almajiri Scholar Scheme.

In 2022, Victor Bello founded the Almajiri Scholar Scheme in Jos, Nigeria. The program is making a difference for 80 children, but not without challenges.

JOS, Nigeria – As a teenager, Victor Bello encountered many sights as he walked the bustling streets of Kaduna in northwest Nigeria to school every morning. But the sight of children—most of them younger than him—begging in the street haunted him the most.

“I remember always wondering, ‘Why were they on the street instead of in school like me?’”

One day, Victor approached his dad and asked questions about the street kids. “They are Almajiri,” his father answered, explaining that the parents of the Almajiri prioritized Quranic knowledge over Western education.

Stemming from the pre-colonial era, the Almajiri system (derived from the Arabic word “Al-Muhajirun,” meaning “seeker of knowledge”) emerged in the old Kanem–Bornu Empire, which extended from Nigeria to Niger, Cameroon, Libya, and Chad under a Muslim king.

Inspired by the Prophet Muhammad’s migration in search of knowledge, the system involves young boys leaving their homes to an Alarama’s (a teacher’s) home to learn for about six years. Starting with the basic Arabic alphabet, they progress to memorizing the Quran.

Almajiri children receiving instruction
Almajiri children receiving instruction.

Because many of them are not adequately cared for and left to fend for themselves when not being taught, they end up on the street as beggars. Although the exact number remains unknown, UNICEF estimates that 81% of out-of-school children in Nigeria belong to the Almajiri system, typically between the ages of 4 and 10.

As a young Christian boy, Victor was a member of a Bible club in Kaduna State while attending school, so his father’s explanation of why the parents of Almajiri preferred to restrict their kids to just Arabic knowledge made little sense to him. “Why can’t they have both religious and Western education?” Victor wondered.

Soon, his thoughts deepened into an urge to address these children’s lack of basic education. The desire grew with him and became stronger when, at age 16, he stumbled upon a quote by the late Myles Munroe, that read: “The problem that you are most worried about means that God has called you to solve it.”

“In my heart, I knew this was bigger than me,” Victor said. “It wasn’t about ending the Almajiri system, but about finding ways to make it better, to offer something meaningful to these children.”

Ramadan meals and resistance

In 2017, Victor was a fresh undergraduate at the University of Jos in Plateau State and lived in Filin Sukuwa, a predominantly Muslim community near campus. This brought him face-to-face with the Almajiri children again.

“This time, I knew I couldn’t stay silent,” said Victor, who was 20 at the time. He approached community leaders with an idea to provide Almajiri children with literacy skills. However, his efforts were met with resistance from the conservative elders, who said Victor’s “being a Christian created a barrier of trust” or a veiled attempt to convert the children.

At the time, Victor was the assistant youth leader at a Pentecostal church in Jos, where he led young women and men to carry out spiritual and humanitarian activities.

Undeterred, Victor prayed for “divine guidance” and consulted with his mentors. In April 2020, when Ramadan coincided with the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, the university shut down, but Victor stayed back. Inspired by Jesus’ words – “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat,” he used his savings to prepare Iftar meals (evening meals for breaking fast during Ramadan) for about 15 Almajiri children.

Almajiri children receiving instruction
Almajiri children receiving instruction.

Victor invited community leaders and the Almajiri children to the meal and used the chance to share his ideas with them. However, again, the teacher in charge of the children was uncomfortable with the idea, so Victor halted the plan.

During the 2021 Ramadan, Victor repeated what he did in 2020, preparing meals for Muslims. But this time, he went beyond his community to share his Iftar meals at the Jos Central Mosque, where he met the leader of Almajiri education in the state. Luckily, the leader was impressed by Victor’s ideas for education for Almajiri children.

The leader introduced him to Mallam Habali, the teacher in charge of a group of Almajiri children in Angwan Rogo, an area most Christians in Jos avoid owing to polarisation. Jos has continued to face ethnic and religious tensions since communal violence in 2001 that resulted in thousands of deaths and some areas marked as security risks.

With the support of Mallam, Victor teamed up with eight friends in Jos—five Christians and three Muslims—to launch the Almajiri Scholar Scheme in 2022 to build Almajiri children’s mastery of the alphabet, numbers, and comprehension.

The Scheme

The scheme started with 20 kids in a school owned by a community leader. Respecting their routines and taking advantage of Thursdays, their free day, Victor and his volunteer friends organized class schedules aligned with Quranic studies and Friday prayers (Jumat).

“The Almajiri Scholar Scheme isn’t about converting anyone. It’s simply a Christian showing love to his neighbors, just like Jesus taught,” Victor said.

The program also introduced vocational training in shoemaking and tailoring, recognizing the importance of future self-sufficiency. Within eight months of the program’s launch, the number of enrolled children jumped to 60.

“I am sure they noticed something different about their friends,” Victor said with satisfaction.

Twenty-year-old Badamasi, a Muslim, said he became a volunteer because “[while] learning religious values is important, the children need to be employable in society and basic education is necessary.”

“They are a blessing…”

Isah, a bright-eyed seven-year-old, proudly recites the alphabet, counts 1, 2, and 3, and identifies his body parts in English. When he came to Jos from Dutse, Jigawa State, for Almajiri, Western education was unfamiliar territory until he joined the program.

“They’re a blessing,” Isah, who now dreams of becoming a lawyer, confessed. “Now, I’m learning new things alongside the Quran.”

Occasionally, the ‘scholars’ take field trips to local attractions and learning centers across Plateau State. “These excursions aim to expand their knowledge and appreciation for their surroundings,” Victor explained.

Many hurdles

One persistent challenge the program faces is students leaving it to return to their homes during farming seasons to assist their families.

“The first time it happened, the class size dropped from 60 to 40. It was heartbreaking,” Samson, another volunteer, lamented. “When they return, we’ve progressed in the curriculum; this requires us to restart for those absent.”

Also, due to the polarised nature of Jos and the school’s location, the program experiences a shortage of volunteers. “Many potential volunteers are hesitant to come due to its location in a Muslim-dominated community,” Victor said.

He recently hired a full-time local teacher to continue the program, but Victor laments that “there’s little we can achieve with one teacher.” Victor pays the teacher’s salary from his pocket, which has also been challenging as he hopes to get financial support.

Failed national efforts

Successive Nigerian governments have tried to solve the Almajiri problem with little success. In 2010, former President Goodluck Jonathan launched a project that built 157 specialized schools across northern Nigeria where the Almajiri system operates. The schools were designed to bridge the gap by combining Islamic teachings with Western education for future employment.

Unfortunately, the schools, initially designed to accommodate around 300 students each, are currently dilapidated owing to continued negligence by state governments. In 2023, Nigeria passed legislation establishing a commission dedicated to tackling both issues simultaneously. However, it is too early to conclude whether the effort will succeed.

This story was supported by the Centre for Religion and Civic Culture at the University of Southern California, through its global project on engaged spirituality.

Johnstone Kpilaakaa is a Nigerian journalist covering tech and social responses. He is currently a GovSpend Media Fellow at BugdIT, a pan-African civic tech organization.