On the old trade routes at the southern edge of the Sahara, literacy has been alive for at least one thousand years. In that tradition young male children were sent to study with a teacher. The education they received had several dimensions. Book learning was just one factor. The almajirai learned to operate small businesses, seek a living, accept the sustenance that came to them, and acquire knowledge of the world by living in it with humility and grace. The tradition was so deeply embedded in the culture, that even today, traditional architecture includes an empty room, straight off the street, that could be used as shelter each night.

Times have changed. The doors that were once open and welcoming, have shut. A century ago Lord Luggard outlawed the use of Arabic script to write the local language and set up some schools to train clerks and civil servants for the period of colonial rule.

The times have changed. The students however continue to come to have their lessons and the apprenticeship in life that will account for about seven years of their youth.
Gidan Almajirai is a cooperative that arose in 2012 when a curfew was placed across the city of Kano after attacks by Boko Haram had taken the lives of more than 1200 people. It was a time when foreigners fled the city, withdrawn by the travel advisories issued by their governments. I chose to stay as all my colleagues were indigenous and none of them were running. We were training community teachers and our work continued. I also didn’t want to rebook my ticket and leave, having travelled so far to get here in the first place.

I found myself alone in a house with four rooms. I invited almajirai, who had been sleeping in my doorway, inside. We are now in our fourth year as a family.

Initially only Sadisu spoke any English. We relied heavily on him and upon some regular visiting friends who translated our house meetings and discussions. We talked about how they could provide for themselves a little better and each almajirai had his own idea. I realised I was living with a houseful of entrepreneurs.

They came to manage our household budget and organised themselves with all the duties of the house while they studied. I was able to give them small loans and they launched into business.?The intelligence, diligence and good character of each member of the house revealed itself and within a few months there was an opportunity to send them on an ICT training programme. The fees came from donors who were informed when each boy graduated. The love of learning came to be expressed in a desire to attend a school that delivered the Nigerian National Curriculum. The aspirations were much higher than petty trading. These guys wanted to learn everything and their aspirations are nothing short of excellence.

We are ever grateful that the school fees come from a donor who has since expanded their contribution to include several other almajirai who live locally and come each term with their report cards, always holding a place in the top ten among their classmates. |

One person visitor to the house wrote a much-circulated blog about us. Media interest grew and when we spoke for an hour on a local radio station, one listener sent a handsome sum that covered a year’s rent. We have had many such helpers on the way. The sense of responsibility carried by everyone in the house is strengthened by the realisation that others too believe in what we are doing.

A young man from New Zealand contacted me and said he would like to contribute. His contributions, every month for years, have continued to feed our growing household. We have distributed bicycles that came as gifts for those who travel long distances to school and work. A past pupil of mine raised money for a data projector so we can add some visual aids to classrooms and community education.

We are ready to move on to a third stage. The stage where I move out. The stage where the almajirai themselves take over the responsibilities for running the house by themselves.?We are a household of eleven and my room, once vacated, gives space for more if we can find the support for their feeding, soap and other expenses.
We have a lease until August 2016. We can’t plan beyond then.

There are always new fields of study to pick up too: solar engineering delivered in a series of weekend courses, apprenticeships with tailors (for “skills acquisition” says one of the almajirai as he made his request for the sum to cover a year’s training), more knowledge in the field of ICT to operate AV equipment so locals can enjoy some lectures and documentaries played through our system in a neighbourhood where AV has barely made a mark, First Aid training, and the steady requirement of books, stationery, uniforms and fees as the members of this household aim for their university studies. Our thanks for these opportunities continue as prayers for the people who have responded to our story.

At present we are attempting to play our part in assisting the displaced people from the Tchad Basin. With contributions from many sources we have worked with almost 400 people who have been housed. The head of each family has been given a small sum to start a business of their own, with lots of advice from the almajirai who know what it is to live day-to-day on the streets of this ancient city.

We welcome visitors and appreciate the discussions we can have with a retired school inspector, an author, a geologist, a doctor, a lawyer, a businessman, a psychologist, a social worker, a lecturer, an agronomist, an economist, an excellent cook, a journalist, a photographer… not because we are in need of these services but because, one day, we may be able to deliver them.