In communities hosting Usmanu Danfodiyo University, an ivory tower in the outskirt of Sokoto State, girl child education is rejected and boy child education is neglected. Despite the free education scheme in the state, children of school age wander the campuses of the university as maids-of-all-jobs, beggars and scavengers, IBRAHIM ADEYEMI writes.
WHENEVER Umar Abdulzeez, 8, begs for food, his filthy look and outcry of hunger rend the heart. Abdulazeez is no orphan. But his parents do not care whether he is alive or dead. “Give me food, any food, I’ll eat!” he wails.
On a sunny Tuesday in September, Abdulazeez is seen crying as he begs for alms at the terminus of Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto.
“Help, please help me, I’m hungry,”
Like Abdulazeez, seven-year-old Usmanu Usmanu is also neglected by his parents – but he seems less worried. Usmanu is a chain smoker, By his own admission, he can finish a packet of cigarettes daily – beating his peers in smoking competition. During school hours, Abdulazeez and his out-of-school playmates carouse in the jungle of his slum, playing, smoking and exchanging banters.
Usmanu lives in a village just behind the university mini-market. He had dropped out of school at primary three because his father could not afford to buy him a school uniform.
“We were ordered not to come without uniform,” he tells this reporter.
When asked how he feels whenever he smokes, he says “smoking cigarettes has this special bitterness.”
While responding to questions from this reporter, Usmanu appears bold and cuts the image of a smart student. But his parents care less about his education, though his father works in the university as a bus driver.
Usmanu Danfodiyo University is a hub of underage scavengers where parents don’t give a hoot about child education. The children roam the streets of the campus looking for odd jobs. ‘Yaro boy’ which contextually means ‘errand boy’ is the popular cognomen used to refer to such male children on the campus while ‘Yarinya girl’, which is simply translated as ‘errand girl’ is for their female counterparts.
The out-of-school children are mostly sent by their parents to hustle on the campus and fend for themselves. They have become parts and parcels of the university system; they feed on the remnants of the food disposed of by students – and sometimes receive a token after running errands for them. In their quest for daily livelihood, many of these children, instead of going to school, wake up every morning roaming the students’ apartments.
University Sokoto (UDUS) was established in 1975 with the aim of improving education in Sokoto and its nearby states. Decades after its establishment, communities hosting the university still have a strong aversion for western education.
‘An educated person is a clown’
Anybody who is a student at the Department of Modern European Languages and Linguistics, Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto will know Mallam Abubakar.
Like other cleaners in the school, Baba MELL is poor. The 66-year-old man resumes his cleaning work in the early hours of the day. But he doubles his hustles by begging from students and staff of the department. Therefore, he is more renowned as a beggar than as a cleaner.
Baba MELL is from Gidan Yunpa, a stone throw to the University Senate Building. As an elderly person, he shares a flicker of lights on the reasons why many of the communities hosting the university dwell in the darkness of ignorance. The obsessive fear of schooling and the excessive love of their farmlands have made them forfeited education, especially when an ivory tower was brought near to them.
Baba MELL says that up till today, many people in his community have not seen reasons why they should send their children to school. “If you take a look at this university today, you will notice that the old staffs are all children of the poor that were wise enough to send their children to school,” he says.
“It was even worse to the extent that some of our people that had the money then would bribe the authorities not to pick their children among those that they intend to sponsor to school.
“All these were because they were afraid that they would have no one to take care of their farms. Even, some of the children who went to school were dragged out forcefully.”
Interestingly, Baba notes that his people are blinded by ignorance and do not think well of education. As he speaks well of education, one would wonder why none of his children was sent to school, but the old man expatiates that he never knew the importance of “the so-called education, until I started working here as a cleaner.”
“You see, there is something I want to tell you!” he draws the attention of the reporter in a way that suggested that the next point he would make is salient. “When this university came, they came to our village and were seeking that we worked with them in small capacities, but we turned down the offers. Why? It was because of the phobia we had about anything concerning the government. Our thought was that an educated person is a clown.
“But today, if you don’t have a long leg, you won’t get any job that even pays N7000. Those who were wise enough to accept the offer have now retired and are being paid huge amount of money that is enough for them and their families.”
Girl child education is a no go area
“It is the right of the parents to choose whether to enrol their children to school or not. If they believe it [education] is harmful to their children, they will not enrol them,” says Mallam Tukur Abubakar, an Islamic cleric with a sky-high reputation in Gidan Marayu, a village behind the school mini-mart.
Mallam Tukur despises girl child education and he does not hide this. To him, the acquisition of education is not the right of a child; it is, rather, the choice of the parent. Blunt when he talks and blatant in his demonstration, the Islamic cleric states that beyond the lack of interest that overwhelms his people towards education, the long distance to school premises is another hindrance that outflanks the urge of many kids to go to school.
“Another major challenge is the distance our children have to cover to get to school. We really want schools to be much closed to us here but you know how politicians are: The problem is with the government,” he says.
According to him, only fifteen to twenty percent of their children go to school. He added that most times, there are just 3 out of 10 boys in school.
“Look here! I have sat side by side with Governor Waziri (Waziri Tambuwal of Sokoto State), so many times. When you have too many hungry men, you cannot feed them all, at the same time. You can only try your best. The government has so many issues to handle. Recently, about one thousand schools were built but it did not get to us,” he says adding that “in fact, there are places in Sokoto where education is still very strange to the people.”
When the topic of the interview switches to girl child education, Mallam Tukur laughs over the matter. “We don’t have any female that will school to the level of getting a degree; the least a girl can go is to have primary education and the next thing for her is marriage, if her husband wishes, he can send her further. It is his right. Nobody here will keep his daughter unmarried because she wants to go to school. I can’t advise anybody to do that,” he says bluntly.
Mallam Tukur said, “One of the rights your female children have over you as parents is to get them married; I can permit my wife to go to school but for my daughter that is old enough to marry, I will rather get her married – I owe her the responsibility of getting her married – that is more important than educating her.”
“Even in America, there are places women are not allowed to go to school, let alone here in Nigeria, according to Mallam Tukur. “You can’t have everybody with the same belief. If out of hundred in this community, one person says he will allow her daughter go to school, then there are still 99 that will disagree,” he says.
Begging in the day, hawking at night
They know where they are, where they are coming from – they know their names but none of them can remember their surnames. They’re kids of school ages living to survive on the campus of Usmanu Danfodiyo University. The three kids: Abu, Abba and Junaidu say they have forgotten their surnames and have no idea of their dates of birth. The pale-looking children with rags as their wears hold their bowls firmly, begging and seeking alms from passers-by who are mainly students.
“We are Almajiris; we are not going to school because our parents sent us here to beg,” says Junaidu who seems to be the mouthpiece of the team; as he speaks on behalf of the two others, they nod in affirmation to matters concerning them.
The children attend a local Islamic school, coordinated by one Malam Abu in one of the villages in the university vicinity who neither feed them nor cater to their needs but get a return from their daily begging. “We keep some of the things we earn from begging to ourselves, and give some to our Mallam.”
Even in broad daylight, children from communities surrounding the university flood the campus as beggars and hawkers, while some of the children work as maids-of-all-jobs for the students. Although, majority of these children are not wholly forsaken by their homes, they are made to fend for themselves – roaming the campus, in quest for livelihood. However, the conglomeration of the students and the children has halted the relationship between the student and the residents of the communities hosting the university.
At night, while many students of the university vacate their bedrooms for classrooms to study overnight in preparation for their semester exams, 10-year-old Abdulrahman Abdullahi and many other children on the campus skip their sleeps to keep the students’ nights free of stress. At 12:15 am, Abdullahi peddles sachets water to students studying for exams in various classrooms of the school. A yard away, two kids lay flat on the floor at the entrance of a spacious classroom in deep sleep, receiving the warmth of the cosy nights while notorious mosquitoes penetrate their skins. “I beg in the day and sell water at night for my mother,” says Abdullahi.
Abdullahi’s parents have refused to send him to school, they prefer him to hustle around and bring them a return on a daily basis. According to the boy, he makes nothing less than N100 – in one peddling trip – and delivers the gain to his mother. Interestingly, his father is a security man in the university, who directly or indirectly has contacts with students every day. “His profane impression about education made him to stop me from going to school,” the boy says.
‘This girl is 4; she’ll get married in the next 10 years’
Back in the village in one of the communities hosting the university, Abubakar Mamman, 45, leaves many mouths unclosed when he announces that his only daughter, Amina, has already been betrothed and that she would be married in the next 10 years. The man sees no reason why a girl child should bother to go to school since she would end up being taken away by a man.
Mamman is a farmer in Bakassi, a village near the non-teaching staff quarters of the university. He has three children with him, but none of them goes to school. While others can still make attempts to go to school, Amina, his girl child dares not. “To be honest, you will hardly find a female that goes to school here,” he states.
“For us, once a girl comes of age, we get her married immediately. For example, (pointing at his daughter) this girl is 4 now, and in the next ten years, she will be married off.”
Amina’s father would be risking being convicted to a fine of N500, 000; or imprisonment for a term of five years or to both fine and imprisonment – according to section 23 of the Child Rights Acts – for betrothing the little girl without her consents. Section 22 (1) of the same act prohibits child betrothal, stating that: “No parent, guardian or any other person shall betroth a child to any person.”
According to a report by the United Nation Children’s Fund, over 10.5million children are out-of-school in Nigeria with a rising percentage in the northern part of the country. “Even though primary education is officially free and compulsory, about 10.5 million of the country’s children aged 5-14 years are not in school. Only 61 percent of 6-11-year old regularly attend primary school and only 35.6 percent of children aged 36-59 months receive early childhood education.
“In the north of the country, the picture is even bleaker, with a net attendance rate of 53 percent. Getting out-of-school children back into education poses a massive challenge,’’ UNICEF notes.
UNICEF also states that: “Gender, geography and poverty, are important factors in the pattern of educational marginalization. States in the north-east and north-west have female primary net attendance rates of 47.7 percent and 47.3 percent, respectively, meaning that more than half of the girls are not in school. The education deprivation in northern Nigeria is driven by various factors, including economic barriers and socio-cultural norms and practices that discourage attendance in formal education, especially for girls.”
The rattle snakes on campus
However, students of the university have decried the consistent spikes by some of the grown up children of the villagers who have become somewhat of rattlesnakes
that bite the students. Moshood Mariam, a 300-level student at the Department of Economics, laments bitterly on how she lost her phone to pilferers who accosted her with a stick and knife on her way back to her hostel at night.
“I was a victim of an attack by these armed villagers during the first semester,” Mariam narrates. “While I was returning from class that night, they accosted me with a long stick and knife. I was hit with the stick and my phone was collected from me. Till date, I am still scared every night to go inside the school for reading.”
Jimoh Ibrahim, a 300- level student from the Faculty of Education suffered a similar attack. “During the first week of our first semester exams, at around 10 pm, I was inside the room when I received a call. Due to network problems, I walked out of the room to receive the call.
“While speaking on the phone, two strange guys walked up to me and tried to snatch the phone from me, but I dragged it and they both brought cutlasses out and threatened to cut my hand off if I refuse to surrender the phone to them. That was how they forcefully collected the phone and ran away,” he revealed.
Moreover, the daily influx of the children searching for livelihood in students’ halls of residence has turned the table around; many students fall victims of the dubious ones amongst the children. In her conversation with this reporter, Aminah Abdullah, a 400-level chemistry student narrated a bitter experience on how an unknown errand girl ran away with her money. “When I was a new student and I had no idea of what the errand kids were capable of doing, I innocently gave my one N1000 to a girl to buy me tomatoes of N100, I waited for this girl for more than three hours but she didn’t return.
“I even tried asking her fellows, giving them a description of how she looked like but none of them seemed to admit they knew her – they claimed that she was not the only one bearing that name. I had to forget about it. Till this very day, I have not set my eyes on this girl and my money,” she recalls.
Another 300-level student of Microbiology who pleaded anonymity explained that, despite her knowledge of how some of those errand girls operate, she has once fallen into the trap of an errand girl who ran away with her N500.
“Almost all of us at the hostel give them work to do, like washing, but I’m not a fan of sending them on errand until that day. I was so tired and had to buy something at the mini-mart. The only option I had was to send one of them, I could remember what I sent her was just N70 out of N500 I gave her. But I later discovered my money was gone after an hour,” she says.
Ignorance is our problem, not government
Garba Ahmad, 65, has worked as a security man for 35 years now in Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto and he’s got a thousand and one reasons to accept that education is worthy of embrace. “There are many disadvantages of not going to school. For example, I have been working for the school’s security department for 35 years now; if a young man with a secondary certificate is appointed today, he becomes my superior,” Mallam Ahmad says.
Mallam Ahmad appears to be more sincere and honest; he declares that their backwardness in education despite the presence of a university in the community is their own faults and no one, he says, is to be blamed but them.
“Yes, it is our fault because we are the parents of these children. I know for a fact that most of you in this school are from poor homes, but you are still schooling. I see students who struggle to eat in the hostel, yet they are in school,” the old man says.
Mallam Ahmad lives in Gidan Fati, another village adjacent to the Vice Chancellor’s quarters. But then, residents of the village are yet to see reasons to send their children to school. However, Mallam Ahmad chides his people for embracing ignorance at the expense of erudition.
He says: “To be honest, we have more fault than the government. The schools are there and are free of charge. One only needs to buy uniform and books for his children. For example, all the time my son spent in Dundaye secondary school, I did not spend up to five thousand naira. You see, the government has helped.”
Words from the authorities
Faruk Barade, the Student’s Union President of the university spoke to this reporter on efforts made by the Union to tackle the recurrent spikes by neighbouring communities of the institution. “We are working hand in hand with the University to see that the insecurity in this school comes to an end.
“We must put a stop to these attacks by the villagers, it is becoming unbearable. We just settled a matter with some of them who claim to be the owners of our school stadium,” Barade said.
Abdullahi Gwandu, the Chief Security officer of the University affirms that the institution being surrounded by many villages could be a security threat for students of the school. “In the mini market, there was a village there, VC quarters, there was a village there but the former management tried as much as possible to move them and got them relocated. There is an area reserved for that purpose,” he said, noting that students should be very security conscious at all time.
When contacted, the Dean of Students’ Affairs, Prof. Aminu Mode said the school management is “working tirelessly to ensure that something is done about it.” Prof Mode also noted that the authorities of the school are working on fencing the university to save the school from external forces.
This report was done with support from the Ford Foundation and the International Centre for Investigative Reporting, ICIR.