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For the first time in his life, 17-year-old Muhammed Sani can identify the letters of the English alphabet, read simple sentences in English, such as: "I want to eat" and "I want to go home".
He can also work out simple mathematical sums. All this he has learnt over the past six months of attending the ‘Feed and Read’ programme of the American University of Nigeria (AUN) in the northeastern Nigerian city of Yola. "They also teach us how to be clean and neat," he said.
He is one of northern Nigeria's "almajiri", young boys who are seen as vulnerable to recruitment by Boko Haram militants, whose six-year insurgency in northern Nigeria has killed thousands and displaced more than two million people.
Almajiri is the Arabic term for someone who leaves home in search of knowledge in Islam. The ancient tradition sees families send their sons thousands of miles from home to boarding schools across northern Nigeria, where they are left in the care of an Islamic scholar or "Malam". Over time, the system became overwhelmed and neglected. Unable to cope, many Malams began sending their wards onto the streets to beg for their upkeep, leaving them vulnerable to destitution, trafficking and other abuse.
They are also ideal recruits for the armed group Boko Haram. According to Nigerian government estimates, there are at least 10 million almajiri children in the northern region.
A few years ago, when AUN President Margee Ensign decided to do more than give money and food to the many young boys who thronged around her at the university's gates, she faced opposition.
"The rumour went round that I was trying to convert the boys to Christianity," she said, leading her to abandon plans for the university to offer the almajiri some form of free education. But with the rise of the Boko Haram insurgency and the university's involvement in caring for those displaced by the conflict, Ensign once again felt a strong need to help the boys. This time, she decided to do things differently. "We invited the Imams and Malams to campus and explained what we wanted to do," she said.
Feed and read
The ‘Feed and Read’ programme is careful not to interfere in any way with the children's religion or study of the Quran. The boys attend Quran classes in the daytime, then meet under canopies at the university's car park in the evenings, for their lessons in basic English and mathematics. They are also taught vocational and trade skills. Whenever it is time for prayers, everything stops and the children pray. They are also fed nutritious meals after each day's lessons.
The Malams, meanwhile, are given a regular stipend, so they do not suffer any loss of income from the boys not begging on the streets.
"At the beginning, the Malams actually came with their boys to ensure they knew exactly what we were doing," Ensign said. The 200 boys in the scheme are grouped according to age and time of enrolment, with the curriculum expanding as the boys advance. AUN students teach the classes, as part of their own assessment.
"The reason why we have been successful in this programme is because we work directly with the Malams," said Joseph Oladimeji, the programme's coordinator. One of the aims of the programme is to encourage people to stop referring to the boys as almajiri, a word that tends to have negative connotations. "We want them to be known as just boys," he said.
The boys themselves are encouraged to stop seeing themselves as misfits.
Instead of the typical plastic alms bowl given to them by their Malams, which, says Oladimeji, is a symbol of their itinerant beggar lifestyle, they are given shiny new bowls and cutlery which they leave behind after eating their free meals. The boys are also taught the basics of personal hygiene. They are regularly issued bars of soap, and any child who arrives unwashed or with dirty clothes is denied his food ration for the day. "We want to remove that beggar mentality from them," he said.
At first Ensign provided funds for "Feed and Read" from her own pocket, but as the programme has expanded, the university has begun appealing to international donors through the AUN Foundation, a non-profit based in the United States.
Recently, the university received funding from the Irish government, with which it launched a "Feed and Read" programme for girls in February 2016. This will target girls who are increasingly taking to the streets, having been orphaned or displaced from their homes by Boko Haram violence.
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