Plastic bowls in hand, often chanting religious texts, growing numbers of child beggars are roaming Nigeria’s second largest city, Kano in a trend that is worrying authorities and residents. The number of child beggars in Kano State has nearly doubled in five years to about two million, the bulk of them wandering the streets of the eponymous state capital.
Fearing a “social time bomb” waiting to explode, residents have started to create pressure groups to stem the tide, but critics worry that the move could backfire and encourage more children from poverty-stricken homes to try their luck. In filthy, tattered clothes, they move from door-to-door across the city, hang around traffic lights or cluster outside expensive private schools asking for food and money.
“The presence of these children is a social time bomb which, if not defused, will certainly consume everyone when it explodes, because these children know nothing about parental care, love and affection and therefore see everybody as an enemy and responsible for their deprivation,” said Kano resident , Abdullahi Yusuf.
He was speaking outside a mall where a group of two dozen children were stretching out their bowls toward shoppers.
For generations, it has been tradition in Muslim-dominated northern Nigeria for parents to send their sons from as early as 6am to local Islamic scholars known as Malam to learn the Koran. Koran lessons are free, but the children must fend for themselves, usually by begging and in some cases through menial jobs.
“Some are dumped with the Malam by their parents who never show up again,” said Jibrin Gunduwawa, a 70-year-old cleric who has been running his Koranic seminary for 30 years. “We don’t have enough for ourselves, so we allow them to go out and beg for food and alms for their upkeep,” said Gunduwawa, who was surrounded by about 80 children who were reciting verses from the Koran on wooden slates, sheltered from the scorching tropical heat by a big neem tree.
Child begging is not unique to Kano, but experts say it exists there on a larger scale than elsewhere in Nigeria.
Sharon Oladiji, a national child protection specialist at the UN Children’s Fund UNICEF said child begging happened all over but was “predominant in the north.”
Senator Eme Ufot Ekaette, who heads a child welfare panel in the National Assembly, said they were called ‘almajiri’ in the north, ‘area boys’ in the south and west, and ‘abandoned children’ in the east.
“We feel very bad about this; it’s a generation lost, a whole generation,” she said. To Ahmed Bello of Nigeria’s anti-trafficking police, the National Agency for the Prohibition of Traffic In Persons, a thin line exists between child begging and trafficking for labour. They are sent not only to beg, but also to work on their teachers’ farms. The children provide free labour for the teachers. It is sheer exploitation.”
Bala Muhammad, who heads a state directorate created to promote morals and good behaviour in Kano, which follows strict Muslim Sharia law, chided parents who have more children than they can afford and see Koranic schools as a means to rid themselves of the extra burden.
He said there had been a “recent influx of thousands of these little boys into the city, some of whom are no older than babies.”
Child beggars sleep rough, often in the open or on floors in crammed rooms provided by their teachers, and sanitation facilities is a luxury. “The situation is becoming more pathetic by the day,” said Aminu Ismail Sagagi, an adviser to the Kano State government on child beggars.
Wealthier residents are forming groups to assist the “hapless” children in an effort to end begging. Seven of such groups have sprung up in recent months, the number Sagagi feels is “grossly inadequate.” They supply seminaries with the basics like food, clothing, sleeping mats, as well as building toilets and boreholes. They also go on campaign tours to the villages encouraging parents not to neglect children they send to Koranic schools.
“We were motivated by the dire social consequences the harsh life these children live will have on society if they are not provided for,” said Adamu Aliyu Kiyawa, founding member of the Almajiri Foundation, as he handed out supplies to a seminary in downtown Kano. Kiyawa warned that with the north notorious for ethno-religious strife, child beggars could provide ready foot soldiers.
“Hungry and angry, these children could easily be mobilised to engage in killings and looting during such crises as an avenue to pay back (society), because they see everybody as an enemy,” Kiyawa said.
Saudatu Sani, a federal legislator from Kano State who formerly headed a parliamentary committee on children’s affairs, agreed. “We, the elite, have to provide for these child beggars for our safety and our children’s safety. The pathetic life they live breeds heartless criminals.”
UNICEF’s Oladiji said the strive to curb such begging signaled “a welcome change in attitude by society to reduce the vulnerability of these children.” Lawmakers say the funds budgeted for child welfare are not enough and are proposing a new national law to curb the trend. But some residents fear that yielding to child begging may only worsen the problem.
“Providing for these children will only compound the situation because such pampering will entice more and more children from villages to the city, and we will be grappling with more than we can handle,” said resident Musa Kabir.
Abubakar is of the News Agency of Nigeria