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Rough Diamonds: Season 1 Episode 1: The Almajiri Tale By Maryam Sa’eed

INTRODUCTION

Rough diamonds is a blog series of personal stories and experiences of Almajiri boys in Northern Nigeria. Almajiri is a Hausa word that can roughly be translated to mean student (of the Quran). Established over hundreds of years ago, the system has long collapsed to become a way out for parents to abnegate their responsibilities. To learn more about Almajiranci clickhere

UMAR ILIYASU

In life camp, a small residential area situated away from the heart of Abuja, is a mosque established over 15 years ago. It houses more than 20 young boys from far and near whose parents see nothing wrong with sending their children away from home and leaving them in the care of strangers who may or may not treat them kindly. Strangers who fail to provide guidance or comfort.

Umar Iliyasu, 11, used to live in Kano with his father, mother and two siblings. Although originally from Kebbi, Umar’s parents migrated to Kano before he was born. Six years ago, Umar’s father decided to travel with him to Abuja to visit a ‘friend’. However, he returned to Kano alone, leaving Umar behind to ‘study the Qur’an andits teachings’.  He hasn’t once visited since then. Umar was only 5.

We met Umar on the evening of a Thursday, a holiday for Qur’anic school pupils. He was playing football with his friends, wearing a shabby brown coloured kaftan with one leg of his trouser rolled up revealing a slightly deep cut on his left knee. A trickle of blood travelled down his leg. But he had the biggest smile on his face and looked every bit the 11 year old, playing football and having a good time.

“The hardest part of living on the street isn’t not knowing where your next meal would come from, rather it’s seeing kids your age have a stable life, smiling and holding hands with their families, being driven to school by their fathers and not worrying about getting sent out of class because they can’t afford to pay their school fees or buy a recommended textbook. Lack of food makes me hungry, but this, living without a family, makes me sad.”Said Umar

For good reason, people have grown scared of these boys who move about without supervision. The increase of suicide bombing in Nigeria has made every Kaftan wearing male and hijab wearing female a suspect and these boys are not left out of the harsh stereotype.

“I no longer get angry when they call me a beggar or a nuisance because maybe that is what I have become. They even call us thieves, sometimes, but the worst is when they call us boko haram and it hurts. We get chased more harshly now. We play football with the boys in the neighbourhood, but when they go back home, shower and watch some TV, we knock on their doors asking for leftovers. They act like they don’t know us and their parents send us away. I understand now that they don’t really care what happens outside the field. Who we are where we are from do not interest them. All they want is for us to pass the ball or score a goal.”

Umar’s problems seem to have extended to the classroom. He was enrolled in a nearby public school when he came. Currently in primary six, he barely understands English and as a result, finds learning exceedingly difficult. Looking down at his joined hands, he stayed quiet for a while, occasionally sniffing and wiping tears.

Almajirancicreates a society of hardened adults who grew from being neglected kids.When you lie on your beds at night, blanket drawn over you, staring at pictures of children in Syria and Yemen with pity and an intense need to help, remember that there kids just like those at your doorstep. You see them every day, you hear their voices. Barefoot and wandering with bowls and eyes filled with expectations of kindness from you, the passer-by they encounter on the street.

Umar has not had a bath in days, does not know where his next meal will come from and has no idea how to fulfil his dream of becoming a doctor.

“When I’m alone and can’t sleep, I think about my family, what they are doing and whether they are happier without me. I like to imagine that they miss me a lot and they’d like me to come back home and live with them. I have so many things to tell my parents. If I saw him today, I would tell him to take me back because I’d rather suffer with them than suffer alone.”

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