Life as an almajiri in Kano was very tough. I could still remember how we went about in tens begging for alms and food. It’s really not a life anyone should live. I lived it years ago and could still tell exactly how it hurts; the memory of it and the hellish experiences we had to bear. Almajiri life isn’t a life. It’s like being dead-alive. I lived that life.
I was ten when I decided to remove the cloak of destitution and face life squarely. It still remains the turning point in my life and the wisest decision I’d ever taken.
I could still remember vividly what led me to take such a decision one afternoon. It was at Sabon Titi Kano. We were nine in number. We had trekked all the way from Bida Road. Ali, my best friend was saying something about how very unfair it was that girls were not allowed to wander about begging as boys did. He said something about girls being lucky and fortunate because they were not subjected to the demeaning life that we lived.
“But you don’t have to think that way,” I said. “You know that if you lived a good life here on earth, you surely would enjoy in heaven when you die.”
Ali had always thought differently. He was thirteen years old. Several times he would tell me that we should elope.
“He said he didn’t like the way the Mallami treated us. According to him, we were treated as slaves and it was very unfair. Ali was the first ever almajiri I had seen who did not like his being a poor beggar. He always compared himself with the children of the rich.
Do you think Mallam Ladan will ever allow his own children to move about aimlessly in the streets begging as we do?” he often asked me. “He will never do a thing like that. His children eat good food and go to the white man’s school but we don’t. And every day, we take money that we make from begging to him. That is not fair.”No one hated Mallam Ladan as much as Ali did at that time.
Mallam Ladan had always said that Ali was rebellious and that he behaved like an infidel.
One day, and according to him, all infidels would never gain paradise where there were lots of merriments. I remembered one day Ali had asked a question during our usual group recitation of the holy book and Mallam Ladan, red with indignation ordered that Ali should be whipped.
According to him, Ali had asked a blasphemous question. Since then, Ali expressed his displeasure and irritation about the Mallam secretly to me.
So, the day I finally made up my mind to quit Almajiri was at Sabon Titi.
We gathered around a very busy canteen owned by a woman from Lafia whom everybody referred to as Mama Nassarawa. She had a very large open space with huge patronage. Most often when any of her many customers ate to their fill and there was leftover, we would swing into action.
It was usually like warfare. Our survival-of-the-fittest lives were hugely dependent on the miserable remnant from the food Mama Nassarawa’s customers left in their plates.
Keenly, we watched from a close distance as the customers ate. Our eagle eyes moved from customer to customer and hand to hand. Contrary to what people think, the almajiri usually had more than enough to eat but we ate like swine; unhealthy and without control.
There was a very beefy fellow eating a fat meal. He had so many pieces of meat in his soup which attracted some of us; I especially had had the rare opportunity of eating meat and fish many a time. This would happen when some people barely touched their food before passing it to us. I had often wondered then why some people would eat only little food and be satisfied. Ali had also wondered too. He had told me once that he had never had a full stomach.
He would emphasize further that until his hand got tired of conveying the food from the plate to his mouth, he would always continue to eat.
The beefy fellow at Mama Nassarawa made me have a rethink that day. He was eating pounded yam. Ali and I fixed our eyes on him. Suddenly, I noticed something rather strange. This fat customer was drooling like a toddler.
Saliva dropped from his mouth into his soup as if there was a burst tap in his throat. We were supposed to take a dive for the leftover of that food!
Mere looking at him made me sick.
“Ali, can you see what is happening?” I muffled. “Can you see the way that man’s saliva fall freely into his soup?”
Ali smiled. “Abubakar, I am really shocked at what you are saying.” Do you mean to tell me that you haven’t seen something like this before?
I can swear by my life that most of these people there are sick. And because we eat what they leave behind, we are very likely to share in their misfortune since most illnesses are contagious. Abu, we are walking corpses.”