Murtala Ahmad Abulfathi, a Maiduguri-based Islamic scholar, is also a director in A. A Foundation, a group of schools concerned with the propagation of Islam. In this interview with Anthony Akaeze, assistant editor, in Maiduguri, recently, Abulfathi provides an insight into the nature of the Tsangaya educational system, the traditional form of education that is popular in the northern part of the country. Excerpts:
Newswatch: How did you come about your foundation?
Abulfathi: We inherited it from our father. Our father, Sheikh Ahmad Abulfathi is a well known scholar. He also inherited it from his father. That’s how it’s been.
Newswatch: How long has the school existed?
Abulfathi: In our family, it’s almost 200 years.
Newswatch: Is it just about Islamic education?
Abulfathi: Yeah, we have where we combine it with western education. It depends on choice. We move with the people. We don’t impose things on people. I, a sheikh’s son, is an example. I go even to Britain. I stayed in Britain for two years. But my foundation has never been formal. I’ve never been in primary or secondary school. I was taught under a tree. Talking of begging, I was one of the beggars on the street in a town near Saiyekara. I stayed there for three years with my teacher.
Newswatch: Is that part of what Islam demands?
Abulfathi: No, it’s a matter of training. This is one of the training of the Arabs, the earliest muslims. It was the way they trained their young ones. They took them in their early years to where they had nobody, in order to bring them up to learn to endure hardship. It’s part of the self-reliance training, to teach them how to live.
Newswatch: So, how do you feel, when you hear, for instance, that people recruit these young boys to do their bidding, like serving as political thugs?
Abulfathi: I don’t agree with that. The people who are saying that the Almajiris are the ones doing such things are wrong. The people who do such things are of the informal schools where the authorities don’t take their responsibilities seriously. Almajiri are good boys. You see him begging. If you scare him away, he goes with a smile; if you ask him to come, he comes with a smile. However, there’s a certain age he would reach and you won’t find him on the streets begging. They have an age limit, and from there, they would graduate to cutting nails or some other jobs, for a fee. And it’s not that they enjoy begging, it’s just a way of surviving. The Almajiris are not what people label them, no. Each Almajiri has a leader. The fact that they are found on the streets doesn’t remove from that fact.
Newswatch: Do they give you some of the gifts they get from people?
Abulfathi: No. What they get is not enough for them. Where are the generous people to give them gifts that will be enough to share with me or any of their teachers? The idea is not to give anything to anybody. It’s simply a matter of, since I cannot give you, go and fend for yourself.
Newswatch: What do you make of President Jonathan’s plans to assist the Almajiris live a better life by making better provision for their welfare as he promised during the campaign.
Abulfathi: I don’t know what his plans are. Mostly, I take the politicians promise as a politician’s promise. Until I see it happen… I rather agree with the ways of foreign non governmental organisations who will come and ask questions and visit the sites and bring their money to assist. Not people who will award the contract to a local government chairman or whoever, without anyone monitoring them, who will embezzle the money without caring whether anyone dies as a result. They do whatever they want.
Newswatch: How do you recruit your pupils?
Abulfathi: You know, I told you we have a long history of teaching. Two hundred years is probably a long time to be known and reckoned with.
Newswatch: Must one be poor to be admitted?
Abulfathi: No, it cuts across. You bring your child or children to us and we ask what you expect of us. You may say, I want him to study only the Koran. Then, we would ask: what are your plans? We tell you, ‘this is what we have. This is the accommodation we have. If we have so many guests, some people will sleep inside, some will sleep outside.’ If it doesn’t suit you, there are so many places you can rent. But the problem is, you don’t have someone to guide your child there. So, we may ask you to buy mattress and net or whatever you want to buy, and leave your child with a guardian. We can use part of the classroom or mosque for accommodation. For food, it is never enough.
Newswatch: Do the parents support you in the aspect of food provision?
Abulfathi: Some of them support. For example, I have four children who were brought from Kano. When I was in Kano, the parent brought his four children to me. He sponsors his children. Whenever they need assistance, he would make provision for them and send it. That’s for his children. But many others do not have the means. The challenges are there but it’s not a bad system. The intention is good. Have you seen any Almajiri looking for job? They employ themselves. Immediately they finish their studies, they employ themselves. Go to all these small scale industries and you will see them. The shoe shining business they do, for instance, is done when they are still studying. Most of these petty traders are products of these type of schools.
Newswatch: Do you teach them how to make crafts?
Abulfathi: We don’t. They find people who teach them that. We only teach them how to read and write and how to behave well in the society. That’s the major function of Sangaya.
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