He was about 12 or 13, good looking, intelligent, hardworking and smart.
He was confident and likeable. From his appearance, it was impossible to distinguish him from a boy of similar age from a well-off family; perhaps a secondary school student, just becoming self-conscious. But Iliya was an almajiri, sent by his parents from Kebbi State to study with an Islamic teacher in Zaria.
For a number of years, he was a permanent feature around the Post Graduate hostel at the Ahmadu Bello University's Kongo Campus.
Because he was much smarter than other almajirai, he was able to secure a kind of ‘work permit' from the security staff and the hall managers to come and go as he pleased. I suspect the street-wise Iliya passed on tips in return for this privilege. He even had a mobile phone via which one could send him on errands.
Thus, he ran more errands than other almajirai, washed more cars, fetched more water and as a consequence, got more tips from the marginally better-off postgraduate students. We all called him Iliya. Being curious, I one day asked him to tell me his story.
I had no idea that the pleasant demeanor was a façade to swathe stories of sinking sadness. Iliya tells very sad stories.
Iliya told me how, at the age of five or six, his father entrusted him to the teacher in Zaria to be taught the Quran, law, jurisprudence and other areas of study in Islam. His father had left the day after he met his teacher, and that was the last time he saw any member of his family.
The memories of his mother, brothers and sisters still haunted him, and he missed them sorely. But being a smart kid, he was able to deal with those challenges. He was confident of completing his studies and returning home to Kebbi.
It is the stories Iliya tells of less fortunate almajirai that that are most disturbing. He told me candidly, about an almajiri who was knocked down by a car while begging for alms on his first day on the streets.
He sustained a fracture on his leg, but was never taken to hospital He was treated by a local bone setter, but due to poor care, the bone didn't set properly, and the leg became gangrenous. It was amputated, ironically, at the same hospital to which they had failed to go.
From him, I heard the story of another almajiri who used to run errands for a ‘kind' man neighour. The kind man lured the poor boy with money and food and eventually began to sodomize him. And because the poor boy needed the food, he was silent about the abuse and it went on over a long period. The man fell ill and died.
Not long after, the almajiri also fell ill and died. The man's relatives later confirmed that he died of kanjamau (AIDS). Many other boys suffered this fate.
My friend, Iliya, told me the story of another boy who went out to beg and was never seen alive again. After searching fruitlessly for over a week, it was assumed he had run away to another town. But a few days later, the boy's bloated body was found at a dump.
His eyes had been forcefully removed and his sexual organs were missing. He had fallen victim to ‘ritualists'. No one knows how many more have ended up in the same way.
Another story I heard from Iliya was about other almajirai who were ‘hired' out to blind men as guides. Rather than be taught as their parents hoped, these boys hired out to go to places as far as Lagos, Ibadan, Enugu, Abuja, and Aba with their blind masters.
The story I found most shocking, here, was that of the almajiri, who after spending the whole day weaving through traffic, would then lead his blind master to a bar where he was plied with alcohol and sodomized.
Though this particular pair was eventually caught, how many more are getting away with this form of base exploitation?
He also told me the story of another that was killed in a big city during a recent ethno-religious conflict. Since almajirai were often half mad with hunger, it was very easy for them to engage in mindless violence, especially under a religious pretext.
They usually had no idea who they were attacking, and many times killed or maimed as many Muslims as they did Christians. It was just violence for the sake of violence because, he told me, non-Muslims sometimes treated them better than Muslims.
Another significant thing Iliya told me was about those that graduated from studies before him. He told me that because they had spent years learning only Islamic education, they lacked the practical skills required in the real world to contribute meaningfully to modern society, or even to earn a livelihood.
They become additional burdens on the community and ended up as commercial motorcyclists, cobblers, itinerant manicurists, security men and hawkers of everything under the sun.
But the most interesting thing about Iliya was his ability to discern, and voice the opinion that the whole ‘almajirai' system was antiquated, distorted, unproductive, and indeed, contrary to the real teachings of Islam.
Nowhere did Islam teach that parents should send out their children (or anyone) to beg. Nowhere is it stated that pupils who are supposed to be learning should go out and beg for alms or food.
Islam teaches that it is the duty of parents to take care of their children (and the children of family and neighbors), and not dodge responsibility by sending them far away in the name of education.
It is the duty of parents to not only educate their children, but provide them with the opportunities to develop practical skills required to function in today's modern world. The almajirci system as practiced is a negation of these teachings of Islam.
The story of Iliya is a cry for help, not only for other almajirai like himself, but for the many divorcees and orphans, the aged, the incapacitated, the handicapped as well as the millions of unskilled, unemployed, and unemployable people, especially in the North.
It is a call to re-evaluate our intrinsic values and our humanity. It is a call to take bold steps.