The coronavirus pandemic has relaunched a debate on the treatment of children in Koranic schools in West Africa. The pandemic has made them more vulnerable. But very little has been done so far to support them.
Little boys in tattered clothes, holding a plastic bowl and begging for money or food are a ubiquitous sight throughout West Africa. Usually, they wander around in small groups, reciting from the Koran. They are often seen at crossroads and bus stations, or trying their luck in large crowds, much to the displeasure of many passers-by. They chase the children away instead of helping them.
In 2014, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) estimated their number of these children, known locally as Almajirai, at around 9.5 million in Nigeria alone. In French-speaking countries, the children are known as Talibes. According to the NGO Human Rights Watch, there are more than 100,000 Talibes in Senegal.
But regardless of where they come from, these children essentially take part in the same system of Islamic education. Most are sent by their parents from rural regions to larger villages and cities. Many of them are still primary school age.
This practice has existed for 300 years and is neither new nor strange, says Sheik Nuruddeen Lemu from the Da'wah Institute for Islamic Studies in Nigeria. "Almajiri is the Hausa word for [Al] Muhajir, which in Arabic means migrant," he told DW.
Read more: COVID-19 restricts Africa's Ramadam routine
The imams are responsible for the religious education of the children. They also teach tax and marriage law, among other things. In Nigeria, the Almajiri tradition is particularly common among the Hausa and Fulani ethnic groups and is considered more of a cultural than a religious phenomenon.
But many of the children who are forced by the imams to beg for survival live in dire conditions. Their accommodation is poor and the children are often punished with beatings. There are no sanitary facilities and they have no access to safe havens.
The coronavirus pandemic is therefore particularly dangerous for these young children. Poor living conditions increase their chances of infection. Many people also believe that they are helping to spread the virus, despite there being no evidence of this whatsoever.
Nevertheless, some governors in Nigeria have started to send the boys home — often against their will, in the middle of the night and sometimes by violent means. The State of Kaduna and its governor, Nasir El-Rufai, have even gone one step further. They submitted a law to parliament banning the practice of Almajirai.
"We want to dismantle the system so that children can remain with their parents," said El-Rufai, "They should receive a modern education in the morning and Koran lessons in the afternoon."
An old controversy
The proposed legislation has triggered a new round of the old controversy over the traditional practice. Critics view the El-Rufai initiative as a precipitate to an even worse situation for the children.
"I don't think it will necessarily help bring the children back to their home villages," Hannah Hoechner, a lecturer at the University of East Anglia who has done research on Koranic schools, told DW. "There were reasons why they left those places. The families have difficulty feeding all their children." Hoechner believes that instead of sending away the children, measures should be taken to strengthen the rural economy.
Others think a fundamental reform of the systemis required. "It offers religious learning, which is considered very useful," Peter Hawkins, UNICEF's representative in Nigeria told DW. But he also acknowledges a lack of transparency and binding standards.
"We don't know what knowledge is being imparted to the children and how they are developing," he says. "But we do know that children and young people coming out of this system face difficulties on the labor market. They find it difficult to adapt."
The Malian example
Countries like Mali have been creating Franco-Arab schools, which could serve as a model. NGOs spent years campaigning for these institutions and managed to gradually convince the imams of the benefits. Children are still taught the Koran, but also mathematics and French. A growing number of girls are also attending these schools. Nigeria has a similar system called Islamiyya.
But Hoechner isn't completely convinced: "Schools can't solve all the problems," she emphasizes. In both cases, parents have to pay fees, as well as for uniforms and learning materials.
Koranic schools also have another advantage over traditional schooling for these children: "They adapt to the cultural work cycles," explains Hoechner. "Students have holidays when they have to help their parents in the fields. Afterwards, they can easily come back, which is not the case with Islamiyya and Franco Arabes schools."
Society must assume responsibility
Mohammed Sabo Keana, the founder of the Almajiri Child Rights Initiative, demands a reorganization of the whole system. His initiative, which supports the Almajirai in northern Nigeria, believes that Koranic schools should no longer be the responsibility of individual imams, but be supported by the village communities instead.
The activist demands equal involvement by the state, parents and society at large, saying they should also be in charge of finding a way to finance the schools. No one should be able to skirt responsibility for the children so easily. "But what we need above all are set rules," says Sabo Keana. As of yet, there are none.