‘We wanted to bring lights into those Chibok families that had been dark’
Few weeks after his Virtual Reality (VR) film, Daughter of Chibok, won the 2019 Lion Award for Best Story at the Venice International Film Festival in September, documentary filmmaker Joel Kachi Benson returned to Chibok community in Borno State to fulfill his promise of touching their lives positively. However, the charity project, which commenced with the distribute fertilizers, pesticides, and ox-driven plows to the villagers, took a different turn when the team resolved to light up Chibok community with solar power. In this interview with CHUKS NWANNE , Benson spoke about the initiative and how it has impacted the community.
What informed your decision to return to Chibok for this charity project, especially the Light Up Chibok campaign?
Well, what happened was that the original concept we had was to make the film, show it to well meaning Nigerians and see how we can get support to do what we wanted to do; to make impact in the lives of these women in Chibok. So, I had the opportunity to show this film to a lady called Damilola Ogunbiyi, which incidentally was the person that got me into Virtual Reality in the first place. After she watched the film, she said, ‘I must do something about this.’ I asked her what she would love to do for them and she asked if they have power in Chibok, I said, ‘No, they don’t have power.’
So, Chibok community is without electricity?
There’s no power in Chibok. In fact, the women have to trek to the village centre to charge their phones and they have to pay to do so. People that run small businesses and have small generators have charging points; there’s a business of charging phones in Chibok. In the evening, the place looks like a Christmas tree with people’s batteries charging. When I told her they don’t have power, she just called me and said she would send me 120 portable solar kits; I didn’t believe it. In fact, I didn’t want to tell anybody so I won’t jinx it; I just kept my cool until the thing landed in our office. We opened the cartons and the things were there. I was like, ‘guys, let’s go light up Chibok.’
How does the solar kits work?
It comes with a solar panel connected to a small solar generator, with two charging points where they could charge their phones. It also has a radio and a standing fans; that’s the full kit. So, each home got one. We also trained youths within the community on how to install it. By the second day, the youths were already installing them.
Was it deliberate that you included girls among the people you trained on solar power installation?
I insisted we train girls too, and I want to thank Damilola for that because she also said we must train the girls; she’s very big on girls getting trained. So, we trained four girls and six boys. The implication of that is that when we decided to scale up to other homes, these youths are the ones that we will now pay to install; they can also train others.
You got a total of 120 solar kits, how did you arrive at the homes you selected for installation?
We had 120 kits, but there are 276 homes in Chibok. Our fist target was the homes of those, who were affected by the kidnappings; we wanted to bring some lights into those families that had been dark. We spoke to the community leaders, the parents of the children and we did our selection. We also focused on homes that have children that are still in school; we wanted to link the provision of these solar kits to the ability of these kids to be able to extend their reading hours; we wanted them to read at night.
What level of cooperation did you enjoy in Chibok?
There were no bottleneckw; we were dealing directly with the parents. However, the Local Council was helpful because the goods were stored in their office; it was from there that we moved the kits to the homes.
During your filming, you had promised the women that you would return to better their lives, what was the feeling like?
I mean, you could see the joy on their faces when the light came on; they were very happy. They really appreciated the gesture and requested that we scale it up so that other women would benefit. But generally, there’s a feeling of happiness and gratitude in the community; this is something they had not seen before. Nobody has done this for them before and they are happy.
Yannah Yakubu, mother of Rifkatu Yakubu, is one of the women, who are yet to get their daughters back. How does she feel about this intervention?
Well, I think that to some extent, if you ask the women in Chibok what’s their greatest need is, they would tell you it is for their daughters to come back. The second on that list would be just care; they don’t want to feel that the world has moved on and forgotten them. I think the actions and events of the past few months the film was released have gone a long way to show them that people care. For instance, Yannah has been to New York for United Nations General Assembly (UNGA); she has met with world leaders.
Was she invited by the United Nations?
Well, we showed the film at one of the side events at the United Nations General Assembly. So, we took Yannah along and she met with UN Secretary General, she met with head of UN Women, the guys at Facebook, people from Ted Conference… she met quite a few people. She has seen that they have not been forgotten; everybody keeps telling her, ‘we haven’t forgotten, we are with you.’ That alone is therapy of some sort; it goes a long way in reassuring her that the world has not forgotten them. We stay in touch constantly; we are always trying to find out how she’s doing.
How was her trip to the United States?
It was remarkable. Interestingly, it was Stephanie Busari of CNN that sort of helped to put that together. At the airport, it happened that Stephanie couldn’t get on the plane because she had some issues with her documents; Yannah had to fly alone. I was in New York at the time freaking out, ‘how’s this woman going to fly from Lagos to New York unaccompanied?’
Was that her first time flying?
Well, she had flown within Nigeria when she comes to Lagos, but that’s different. This is 12 hours on a plane, passing through customs, answering those questions… I was freaking out. I got to the airport about 5am in the morning and had to wait for two hours; that was torture. After a while, I just saw her strolling out with her trolley; she went to pay and collected her change. She came out with all her loads and was telling me, ‘I’m no longer a village woman o, I’m now international.”
But it’s been an interesting few months since we released the film. For me, what is really important and very gratifying is the impact that we can see what is happening in the lives of these women. We are bringing just a little bit of joy and light into their homes and hearts.
You’ve started with Light Up Chibok, so, what next?
This was the donation of one person, one woman. So, we are thinking seriously how we can scale this up to impact other home, especially when you realise that this is not light for light sake. With this light, kids can actually read at night. So, it’s something that we are thinking seriously about. I’m not an expert in fund raising; I meet people that I know and those that I feel care; I just show them the film and say, ‘what can we do?’ There are a couple of other interventions that are coming up that we are so excited about. I’m very much into, ‘if you want to help, help properly.’ I’ve rejected some offers that I felt would be exploitative and that’s the fear that these people always have.
Most filmmakers are more interested in making commercial films and grossing income, but it seems you are comfortable making advocacy films?
You know, when they invited me to TEDx Houston and they told me to speak, I wasn’t expecting to speak. I’ve been making documentaries for a while, but I think my focus and why I make my documentaries shifted three years ago after I had my kidnap incident; I came out of it.
You were once kidnapped?
Yes, three years ago, I was kidnapped from my home and I was held for 12 days; we had to pay a ransom. They took me into the bush and I didn’t know if I was going to come back; I had a good period of time to think about my life. It gave me a lot of time to reflect and when I got out, the question was, ‘you can leave at any time, what do you want to be remembered for?’ So, I decided that I will keep making film, but I would make films that makes a different; that’s where I’m ‘grossing’ to. I mean, this issue has already caused some friction within my company where one or two people felt that we are running a business here and not advocacy. But I’m happy doing this; my staffs are happy and we are paying salary on time. I’m getting jobs; I still do commercial works. In fact, the bulk of funds from my commercial work are used to fund my passion projects, but I’m happy doing that; I’m fine. I think one of the biggest challenges that we have in this part of the world is just understanding contentment; understanding what makes you happy. We all aspire for more, I want to drive a fancy car, but I don’t have the money now; it doesn’t bother me. Things like this give me joy; they woman turns on the light and she was happy. In fact, I made all of them sign that we did not collect one naira from them; they didn’t pay anything. We’ve documented them for posterity sake.
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