Borno: Not all blood and sorrow – Part 2
Manna from WFP
Hajia Gana Bukar, 30, walks bare foot on muddy ground to meet a World Food Program (WFP) Officer who comes to supervise food distribution at El-Miskin Islamic Centre, an Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) Camp located in old Maiduguri, Borno State.
She is among the over 5000 IDP from Bama, majority of whom are women and children. Boko Haram terrorists have killed several of their spouses during the invasions of Bama in 2014, and have forced the survivors to abandon their homes and farms. Many escaped to Maiduguri with nothing of their earthly means.
The food ration, therefore, means so much to Bukar and her four children – Aishat (11), Fatmat (9), Zainab (6) and Sadia (2 years). The family depends on such donation for survival.
As she presents her food ticket to the WFP officer, her toddler clings to her slender frame. It just rained and the weather is cold. Another woman who stands a distance away notices the little baby shivering, and walks closer to help the mother pull her long head covering over the infant. Bukar thanks the woman with a nod, but her attention is focused on the food ticket in the hand of the WFP officer, or whatever he is writing on it. At that moment, the cold weather is the least of her problem.
“If we miss our turn, it will take another month, or longer to get a supply,” she says after she completes her verification process as she makes way for the next person.
Over 1 million IDPs in the Borno, Yobe and Adamawa States rely on WFP and SEMA for their food supply. Bukar is among the lucky ones with food ticket.
Others like Rabi Mustapha, 40, a mother of 12 children is not so lucky. She returns to her tent empty-handed and crestfallen because her name is not on the list.
“I tried to register the time other people registered but they said the battery for the registration machine was dead, and many of us could not register that day, ” she says, her face, sad.
The eight-year insurgency in the Northeast of Nigeria has disrupted food supply, hindered access to basic services and limited agricultural activities. Persistent insecurity in the region has eventually crippled the economy of the region, and has turned many people to beggars in their own country. But humanitarian agencies such as WFP, Food and Agriculture Organisation, Unicef and Doctors Without Border and others have been waging war against hunger and diseases, and “we are winning”, says an official of the WFP, Deji Ademigbuji.
WFP Head of Area Office, Ms. Chimuka Mutinta, told The Guardian that all 815 eligible households or thereabout have received food tickets, except those who missed the registration. There are also new arrivals who have been registered, but are yet to receive food tickets. Rabi possibly belongs to the category of the yet unregistered arrivals at the El-Miskin camp, Mutinta says.
Despite assurance by the WFP officer that her problem and others’ will be addressed, Rabi remains unconvinced. In a mail sent to The Guardian, Mutinta therefore makes a definite pledge. WFP has set up complaints desks and mechanisms within the camp, and works closely with the community committees to ensure cases such as of Rabi’s are promptly reported, and that assistance is provided equitably, she says.
While Rabi waits to get registered, whenever that happens, she will have to rely on the kind gesture of neighbours in the camp. One of those kind individuals in the camp is Aisha Ali.
Seamstress who loves to share
With practised deft, Ali passes white thread into the eye of the needle, positions a cream-colour fabric right on the needle plate, and steps on the foot pedal of her Haiseng sewing machine. In one hour or so, the dress will be ready for wear and she will earn N500 for her service. She has been doing this for a living for the past fifteen years, only that she now earns a little more without advertisement. A Kanuri woman from Abadam local government area, Aisha is the only seamstress in El-Miskin camp, a settlement of nearly 6000 IDPs located in the neighbourhood known as Old Maiduguri, a suburb of the capital city. She has been a small-time tailor in her town, Malumfatori before Boko Haram terrorists invaded the community in 2014 and killed many people. Ali, together with her husband and their nine children escaped death by whisker and fled to Maiduguri. They trekked for days before they arrived the city. They later received report that their house and other belongings, including Aisha’s sewing machine, had been burnt.
“For months, I was not myself. I did not understand why some people have to be so wicked to others.” Like most victims of terror and broken communities in Borno State, Ali said she went into deep despair, but not depression. She has nine children to cater for and to protect, so she could not afford a slip into inactivity.
A relief came her way when a friend informed her how she could return to her sewing job even in the camp. “With N1500 fee you could hire a sewing machine for a month,” her friend told her. The idea turned out to be her saving grace.
Now Aisha works all day making dresses, and struggling to meet numerous customers deadlines, especially those who can afford a new dress for sallah. Festival period is the busiest time for tailors in Maiduguri. When business flags, she makes school bags for children which are sold for N500 each or less.
“I earn as much as N3000 per day,” she says with a smile. Three thousand Naira seems much in a community where economic activities have been paralysed by years of violent militancy, but it is hardly enough for Aisha’s household of 11 and numerous kith and kin. As the breadwinner of the family, she says it is her responsibility to also take care of her parents and parents-in law since her husband can no longer farm. Some of her neighbours in dire need occasionally also ask her for help, and she dutifully obliges them. “Allah is happy with those who share their property,” she says.
But she wishes she can also teach her neighbours how to sew and earn a living too. “I cannot let them handle this machine though because I borrowed it. If it gets spoilt I won’t be able to buy another one for the owner. When I buy my own machine, I can invite those who are interested in learning the vocation.”
Aisha’s desire to empower other victims of insurgency offers a bigger picture of the struggle by the people of Borno States to overcome the tragedy of terrorism.
And she is the kind of symbol of strength that Fati Abubakar, a Borno -based photography documentarian is looking for to tell the story of resilience in the region.
A woman and her camera
Fati holds her canon camera firmly, positions it to the right angle and starts to click the black button. She takes several shots of Aisha from different angles, then she realises she has not gotten those faultless shots for which she is known, she bends her frame body close to the muddy earth, and continues to click again.
She has been documenting the experiences of Borno people since 2015 when she returned from United Kingdom where she completed a master’s degree in Public Health at the university.
While in the UK, the news of Boko Haram insurgency at home assailed her consciousness all the time. Everyday, it was story of bomb blast, blood, sorrow and hopelessness of a people caught in the vortex of internecine strife.
“The imagery coming from Borno State depressed me all the time.”
But she has lived in Maiduguri all her life and knows that the narrative of conflict in the northeastern Nigeria is not the only story of the region as the mainstream media’s representation continues to suggest. When it was time to do her final thesis, Fati opted to study impact of war and conflict on refugees’ psychological health.
“I wanted to understand how it affects people and why it happens.” So, she interviewed many refugees from Somalia and Sudan, the two other African countries with large influx of refugees in the UK. And one word stands out from that research effort: Resilience. She finds that after conflict; people become stronger than what they were before. And when she returned to Maiduguri after her study, that reality was exactly what she found in her community. The lived-experience of the people contrasts sharply to the media portrayal of the region, she says. “The foreign media will have nothing to document except poverty and war and diseases. Yes, there is conflict but there are people who also don’t care, people who want to go to the market regardless of whatever happens, and there are children going to school despite the routine bomb explosion; that is what I see everyday, and I want to capture that resilience.”
Fati believes that archiving the story of the conflict in the Northeast is very important for collective memory because “50 years from now people may look for the story in the local media and they will not find it except in the foreign media. So it is important to have a local voice to tell the story of what happened.”
She eventually got herself a camera, attended a two-day photography class in Abuja and returned to Maiduguri to profile the life style of regular folks in the old city: Kids playing on sandy field, a single mother and her happy children, young girls and boys in colourful dresses on sallah day, and other images that catch her fancy.
Her Instagram page later drew the attention of the International media such as the CNN, Reuters, BBC, VOA, France 24, DW and NYT, and barely a year after she started the project, Fati has become a celebrity, popular far beyond the geography of her immediate community. Because of her effort, many youths in Maidugiri have started showing interest in photography, and the inaugural workshop of Photo Community will hold soon, she says.
“I would like to continue expanding the horizon of development photography, telling visual story of how cities evolve over time”.
An Igbo Man and his Suwa Wife
At the Post Office area in Maiduguri is a modest restaurant run by an Enugu man, Moses Nwafor, and his wife Angela, a Suwa woman from Gwoza. Moses sits at the entrance of the shop to welcome his customers with smiles and warm greetings.
He speaks three languages that most of his customers speak – Hausa, Igbo and English or pidgin English – depending on the language his customers speaks to him.
Then his waitresses, four of them, will ask the newly arrived customers his preferred meal. There are rice, fufu and gari with egusi, bitter leaf and okra soup.
During Ramadan period, few restaurants open shop in Maiduguri, so Nwafors’ restaurant draws many more customers than it will ordinarily. After meal, customers would stop at his desk to pay. As early as 11 am, his small bag of money which he ties around his waist is full. Business is good, thanks to the insurgency, he says.
Before Boko Haram fighters took control of Maiduguri, Nwafor and his wife were mere salary earners. He used to work at Vita Foam branch office as marketer while his wife worked as a secretary at the local government in the metropolis.
Then the insurgency started and disrupted their humble living. When neither of the couple could go to the office, they started a restaurant near their home. Then they started receiving threat messages from Boko Haram.
Being a Christian and an Igbo man, Nwafor was among those who received letter of death from the terrorists. “In the beginning, churches and Christians were the primary targets. And the fact that I am an Igbo man makes matter worse for me,” he says. His marriage to Angela, a Suwa woman from Borno, is a defiance to cultural norm of a society where ethic affinity is as strong as religious bond, and therefore a unique one.
Three times, terrorists attacked St. Patrick Catholic Church, Maiduguri where his family worships, and many people died, and three times, he escaped death despite the fact that his name was on the list of the condemned. He finally took the only reasonable option and fled the city.
“I ran away to Abuja to live with my mother but Abuja is not like Maiduguri which I know like the back of my hands. So few months after, I returned home to give life another chance.”
Since his return, Nwafor restaurant has been opening six days a week except Sunday when he goes to church. And customers have never stopped coming to take their fill at his market located near Post Office area.
He says, “though bomb still explodes from time to time, Maiduguri is home.”