In Nigeria’s Kano, Islamic schools provide affordable education

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Kano, Nigeria – It is a bright Thursday morning in Kano, Nigeria’s second most populous city and the economic nerve centre of the northern part of the West African country.

The streets are teeming with people dressed in colourful traditional clothes while tricycles compete for customers and space on the busy streets. A group of young boys zigzag through the street traffic with a cloth and a bottle of soapy water in hand, asking people on rickshaws and car drivers if they want their windows washed. But they are quickly ushered away.

Disappointed, the boys rush down a side street knocking on doors and asking anyone who opens if they have any work.

The boys are on a three-hour break from one of the Al Majiri schools – religious places of learning – on the eastern outskirts of the city. They are part of more than 250 students who attend the Tahfidul Quran school.

After few knocks, the boys strike it lucky. Two women usher them into a compound and point to a heap of unwashed pots, bowls and utensils.

Short on time they quickly get to work, spending the next two hours washing the dirty cookware. In return, they receive a breakfast of boiled rice.

“I have been doing this twice a day for the last three years,” 13-year-old Muhammad Sagiru, told Al Jazeera, his tiny frame hidden behind the wall of dirty pots.

“Some people, like this lady, feel sorry for us and give us work to do and then give us food,” he added, expressing relief that he found a job and can eat breakfast.

Many students come from other parts of Nigeria to attend the religious schools [Hamza Mohamed/Al Jazeera]

Kneeling next to Sagiru, sweat covering his brow and breathing heavily, is 15-year-old Umar Muhammad.

“I have been doing this for four years. I’m happy today because I will have breakfast,” he said, the hint of a smile crossing his face.

“It is a struggle because sometimes we spend all our break looking for work and food. Many times we go back to school hungry.”

An hour later and a five-minute drive away, the rest of the school’s students sit beneath a tent reciting verses from the Quran from a wooden tablet next to an open sewer infested with flies.

Alaramma Isa Suleyman is the principal of the five-room boarding school, which he inherited from his father. He runs it with six other teachers.

“I know the challenges the students face. I know most of them go out to beg because we can’t provide them breakfast, lunch and dinner. But what can we do?” he said, holding a cane in his right hand and prayer beads in the other. 

“It is not safe. Anything can happen to them when they go out. But we can’t provide for them. We have more than 250 students. They have nowhere to sleep or food,” he said. 

The living conditions in most of the schools are basic [Hamza Mohamed/Al Jazeera]

Parents of each student pay $19 a month for their child to attend the school. This is cheaper than most non-religious schools that can charge more than double the price. 

“Most of the parents are poor and sometimes are not even able to pay the fees. We do our best not to turn anyone away. But we need help. We need the government to step in,” Suleyman said, barely audible over the loud recitations.

The five rooms also double up as the sleeping quarters. One of the rooms is home to a goat and several pigeons. Space is premium, forcing most of the students to seek shelter elsewhere.

“They sleep outside. We don’t have enough room for them to sleep,” Suleyman admitted.

Standing in front of a classroom-turned-sleeping quarter is Shafiu Muhammad. He said he is happy to attend the school but wishes their living standard was better.

“I’m very proud to be here and thank God for the opportunity. You see where we sleep, a human being should not sleep there,” Shafiu said, pointing his finger towards the room behind him.

The students are not just from Kano state. Shafiu, like many other students, comes from neighbouring Jigawa state. His parents are aware of his living situation but are happy for him to stay there.

“Islamic education is what will save him in the hereafter and I believe God will come to his rescue,” Muhammad Abdullahi, his father, told Al Jazeera over the phone.

“I don’t have money to send to him. I put my trust in God to look after him,” Abdullahi, a 52-year-old father of eight, said.

Each student pays $19 a month to attend the religious school [Hamza Mohamed/Al Jazeera]

Kano is Nigeria’s most populous state, home to more than nine million people. The state government says it is doing all it can to improve the situation for young people.

“We have a population challenge where 60 percent of the population is under the age of 40 years. It is a huge challenge to provide for them. Even if we spent our whole state budget we could not look after them properly,” Hafiz Abubakar, Kano state deputy governor, told Al Jazeera. 

“There are more than 14,000 such schools in our state and almost three million students. Kano is a hub of Islamic studies and people send their children from across Nigeria. We are doing our utmost best to provide to the best of abilities,” Abubakar added.

For Sagiru and Muhammad, their love of receiving an Islamic education stops them from dropping out of the religious school.

“Life here is not easy but we do this for God and the hereafter. We will continue to study our religion no matter the difficulties,” Sagiru said as Muhammad, standing next to him, nodded in agreement.  


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