Tag Archives: nigeria

5 Thursday, June 2014

‘I knew I needed to do something’ — haunting images from Nigeria

They were supposed to finish their final exams, then return home to their families. Instead, the nearly 300 girls from a government school in Chibok, Nigeria – stolen from their dormitory in the middle of the night – have been missing eight weeks now.

While the search for the girls continues, and outraged citizens take to the streets and to social media, families are left with only traces of their loved ones: school uniforms, class notebooks, a pair of shoes.

Documentary photographer Glenna Gordon, a veteran of assignments in West Africa, traveled to Nigeria in search of an intimate way to tell the girls’ stories. She agreed to share with us a bit about her approach and some of the haunting images she made of what the girls left behind.

Fatima Tabji left behind her school uniform. She is one of more than 200 girls who were kidnapped from a school in Chibok in Borno State on April 15 by Boko Haram, a terrorist group in northern Nigeria. Schools in the area had been shut down to due to Boko Haram attacks, but the girls had returned to sit their final exams. --- Glenna Gordon
Fatima Tabji left behind her school uniform. She is one of more than 200 girls who were kidnapped from a school in Chibok in Borno State on April 15 by Boko Haram, a terrorist group in northern Nigeria. Schools in the area had been shut down due to Boko Haram attacks, but the girls had returned to sit for their final exams.
— Glenna Gordon

How long have you been working in West Africa in general, and specifically in Nigeria? How did you end up in that part of the world?

After working as a writer and reporter in Uganda for a few years, I moved to Liberia in 2009 where I started focusing more on photography. Even in Uganda I was taking pictures, but it only became my main pursuit when I started working in West Africa.

I first went to Nigeria for a photography festival in Lagos and knew I wanted to go back, so I started a project there about Nigerian weddings in 2012. That eventually led me to Northern Nigeria, a place I really love working. When I heard about these girls, I knew I needed to do something.

Kidnapped Chibok girls include, from left to right, top to bottom: Rifkatu Ngalang, Hauwa Mutah, Saratu Ayuba, Dorcas Yakubu, Hajara Isa, Yana Pogu, Comfort Bulus and Rhoda Peters. --- Glenna Gordon
Kidnapped Chibok girls include, from left to right, top to bottom: Rifkatu Ngalang, Hauwa Mutah, Saratu Ayuba, Dorcas Yakubu, Hajara Isa, Yana Pogu, Comfort Bulus and Rhoda Peters.
— Glenna Gordon

Were you already in Nigeria when the story about the kidnapped girls broke or did you arrive afterwards? How did your previous work experience in the country prepare you for this story? Have you ever covered anything quite like this? What, if any, are the extra challenges you face in trying to cover a story as complicated as this one?

I wasn’t in Nigeria, but I already had a few assignments to go and do some other stories about women in the north during this exact time frame.

On a practical level, I think that if I hadn’t previously worked in Nigeria, and even more so in Northern Nigeria, I wouldn’t have been able to do this. It’s a difficult place to work. It’s hard to even make a phone call because the network is so bad, let alone do a project. There are many layers of bureaucracy and authority, and the person who seems to be in power isn’t necessarily the actual gate-keeper. There are a lot of ways you can easily misstep and you have to know the right way to ask for things and how to operate.

And, on an emotional level, if I hadn’t already worked in Northern Nigeria, I’m not sure I would have had the deep commitment to getting this done. It was so logistically difficult and personally trying to do this, that if this had just been another story, I probably would have given up. But, even though I’d never been to Chibok or met any of these girls, I know so many girls just like them. Thinking about those girls kept me going.

The story is complicated and has also become very politicized in Nigeria, but I wanted my images to be very straightforward and simple. I haven’t addressed any of that in my work, and I’m okay with that.

Hauwa Mutah wants to be a biochemist. She is the sixth born of nine children.  --- Glenna Gordon
Hauwa Mutah wants to be a biochemist. She is the sixth born of nine children.
— Glenna Gordon

When the girls were first taken, it took quite a while for the Nigerian government to organize any kind of search. Is that indicative of the way girls and women are valued in that part of the world? Or do other factors contribute to such a delayed response?

Women are certainly of less value in Nigeria than men, but I think the delay actually has more to do with class than gender. These are poor girls in a remote area and the government doesn’t care about them. Boys have been kidnapped and forcibly recruited as well, and the government hasn’t done anything about that either.

But, their fate is ultimately very gendered: they are being taken as forced “wives.” In Nigeria, the inequality of husband and wife in a normal marriage is astounding — women do everything – from cooking meals to cleaning his shoes to washing his clothes to carrying his water. And forced marriage is indescribably worse.

The skirt from Monica Enoch's sports uniform from Chibok Government School. Monica, 18, loves singing. Her father is a pastor. Her friend Saratu escaped an attack from Gambaru, another village nearby, but lost her family and came to live with Pastor Enoch and Monica. Both girls were among the  more than 200 who were kidnapped in mid-April. --- Glenna Gordon
The skirt from Monica Enoch’s sports uniform from Chibok Government School. Monica, 18, loves singing. Her father is a pastor. Her friend Saratu escaped an attack from Gambaru, another village nearby, but lost her family and came to live with Pastor Enoch and Monica. Both girls were among the more than 200 who were kidnapped in mid-April.
— Glenna Gordon

The pictures you’ve made of the items the girls left behind are haunting and heartbreaking, especially since we don’t know how many of them will come home. How did you develop this unique approach to the story? Did you know from the very beginning that this was the way you’d cover it? And why did you choose this direction?

I knew I didn’t want to cover the protests. I felt so disinterested in the micro-updates of which celebrity was holding up a sign, and in the breaking news of how the world was reacting. To me, that was all so secondary to the girls themselves. I knew it had to be about them.

It took me awhile to come up with an idea.  I’d been chatting with a friend of mine who covered the South Korean ferry that capsized by photographing notes the students wrote to each other. I had ideas of the girls swimming around in my head when I went to the Met right before I was leaving New York for Nigeria. And then it just all came together – that I wanted to present the objects beautifully, as if they were in a museum. The next morning I sat around calling all of these stellar ladies I know in the North and asked them if they thought it would be feasible and they were really supportive and encouraging and told me it could be done. So, I hopped on a plane and went to do it.

Margaret 'Maggie' Pogu, 16, loves playing with her friends. Her father is a teacher in Chibok.  --- Glenna Gordon
Margaret ‘Maggie’ Pogu, 16, loves playing with her friends. Her father is a teacher in Chibok.
— Glenna Gordon

What sorts of access have you needed to cover this story? Have you interacted much with the families or school officials? Tell us about your interactions with the people searching for the girls.

Access has been incredibly difficult. I felt like I was trying to move a mountain to get these items. I did it by going to the capital, Abuja, and going to the protests to meet people from Chibok. I greeted many people and told them my plan, and eventually one person agreed to help me do this. A Chibok guy living in Abuja named Sunday Samuel who is missing two of his cousins, was basically my main point of entry. He called his brother and his other relatives in Chibok and introduced me and explained what I wanted to do and helped me make it happen.

I then met more people in Maiduguri, the regional capital of the state the girls are from, who also were willing. But for every one person who was willing to work with me, a dozen would make a phone call that would go nowhere, or not even make a phone call to begin with.

These relatives were my points of access, and I didn’t interact much with school officials or government officials.

Rhoda Peters loves going to church, and her favorite food is rice and beans. Her dad is a civil servant in Chibok, and she's the kind of girl who writes thank you notes to her in-laws when they bought her a notebook.  --- Glenna Gordon
Rhoda Peters loves going to church, and her favorite food is rice and beans. Her dad is a civil servant in Chibok, and she’s the kind of girl who writes thank you notes to her in-laws when they bought her a notebook.
— Glenna Gordon

Where have these images been published so far? And what has the reaction been?

The images have been in the Wall Street Journal, Time, on the Lens blog, and in a few European publications. The reaction has been astonishing and incredibly rewarding to me: people are so hungry for pictures of these girls, for some way to make them real and human, and I’m glad I’ve been able to offer that.

Hauwa Ntaki wants to be a nurse or maybe an economist. She is third in her class. She loves volleyball. Her school notebook includes a letter to her brother and notes on the solar system.  --- Glenna Gordon
Hauwa Ntaki wants to be a nurse or maybe an economist. She is third in her class. She loves volleyball. Her school notebook includes a letter to her brother and notes on the solar system.
— Glenna Gordon

Is there anything you would like our audience at Too Young to Wed to know about this project or your work?

Yes! One thing about this project, in fact: I’ve gotten several comments and messages from people who are angry that I’ve named the girls and shown pictures of them, arguing that I’m contributing to stigma and that I shouldn’t do this.

I thought long and hard about this, and what was the right way to move forward. It wasn’t an easy decision to make nor one I made lightly, but ultimately I stand behind my work and my decisions.

Often, there’s this impulse to not show the faces of women who have been raped, or to name girls who have been abused. (Of course, there are women who are at risk for speaking out, and there are minors for whom there are legal implications, and those are very different situations.) But, I’ve very often felt frustrated when working with girls and women who are old enough and wise enough to speak for themselves and want to be named, and want to tell the world, “This happened to me and it isn’t okay,” and an NGO or someone else will tell them or tell me that we can’t do it.

To me, this adds to stigma. This tells the girl that she shouldn’t be shown, and this contributes to stigma by buying into the idea that we have to keep her hidden.

These girls are known – to the government, to the public, to their community. Nothing I do has any ability to change that. If or when they come back, they don’t get to be village girls anymore. Maybe they get to go for rehabilitation in the capital, maybe they get a scholarship fund to help them finish their schooling, maybe they recover, maybe they don’t. But, they don’t get to go home to Chibok and marry that guy they were supposed to marry, and have a daughter who goes to school where they went to school, and sit under a mango tree with their mothers and cook dinner every night.

The fact that this life is no longer available to them has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not I put their names in my captions. Their lives have been changed forever by a government that failed to protect them and a world that allows violent jihadi ideology to flourish in the midst of poverty and inequality.

If or when these very real girls get back, they will need to have opportunities for rest, recovery and education. I can only hope that my photographs humanize them enough that they aren’t just numbers we can easily dismiss. Nigerians and the international community need to take responsibility and ensure that Dorcas, Fatima, Elizabeth and Hauwa get everything they need to start over.

To see more images by Glenna Gordon, visit her website: www.glennagordon.com

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15 Thursday, May 2014

Schools — and the girls who attend them — are not weapons of war

By Gordon Brown, former UK prime minister and UN special envoy for global education

It is now urgent that leaders of all faiths speak with one voice against the perversion and distortion of Islam by Boko Haram terrorists. Their recently issued video, which talks of the forced conversions of the 280 abducted Nigerian school children, follows their warning last weekend that their religion justified them selling girls into sex slavery for as little as seven dollars per girl.

Women gather on May 8, 2014, in western Niger to ask the UN to pursue Boko Haram Islamists who are responsible for the abduction of more than 200 schoolgirls. Nigeria’s president said the mass abduction of the schoolgirls in Nigeria marks a turning point in the battle against the Islamists, as world powers join the search to rescue the hostages. Boko Haram chief Abubakar Shekau has claimed responsibility in a video, saying his extreme Islamist group is holding the schoolgirls as ‘slaves’ and threatening to ‘sell them in the market.’ BOUREIMA HAMA/AFP/Getty Images

Their violent assaults in the name of religion against innocent school girls have to be condemned throughout the world as we alert the Nigerian people to the true evil of a sect that claims to have its own special insight into Sharia law.

More than three weeks ago, I called for international action with logistic help for surveillance and satellite reconnaissance to locate and rescue the girls. Now, members of the Global Faiths Coalition for Education, including those representing the Islamic faith, are calling for condemnation of Boko Haram’s distorted theological claims that seek to justify slavery and rape.

Their proposed trade in girls — that they be exchanged for Boko Haram prisoners captured by the Nigerian authorities — shows that they have no interest in the welfare of the girls other than as pawns in their military game.

That is why faith leaders across Nigeria — some of whom I am in contact with already — and across the world must come together under the Global Faiths Coalition for Education in condemning any attempt to use schools as weapons of war and to justify atrocities on a fabricated interpretation of the Koran.

The new video gives us some hope that the girls may not have yet been dispersed across Africa and can be found. It challenges rumors that 50 girls had been seen as far away as the Central African Republic and lessens fears that they are now scattered throughout Chad, Cameroon and Niger. The video, however, increases pressure on the Nigerian government to mobilize its international help which now includes China, France and Israel as well as Britain and the USA.

Having met Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan on Friday [May 9] in Abuja, I can confirm his determination now that he has international technical support to move quickly to locate the girls and attempt to rescue them.

Students hold signs outside the state government house in Lagos, Nigeria, where groups called for the release of nearly 300 Chibok boarding-school girls, kidnapped by Islamist extremists a  month ago. B PIUS UTOMI EKPEI/AFP/Getty Images

I have now seen interviews with the very brave Chibok girls who took their chances to escape after the devastating burning and looting of their school and village. It is, however, clear that as the girls were being taken from their dormitories and marched off in lorries late at night, many were so in fear of being shot that they missed their opportunity to run away

The Boko Haram pattern of behavior makes it all the more important that the safe schools initiative launched by Nigerian business leaders last week gets off the ground quickly. While Boko Haram are a small extremist faction with limited demographic reach, it will take a tougher approach to school security and safety to reassure girls’ parents and teachers that their school in the northern states is safe enough to attend. That is why foreign governments are now offering financial support for security guards and for proper fortifications and security equipment to give any school threatened by a terrorist attack the best possible chance of surviving it intact.

We can do more to create safe schools. In 2011, the United Nations designated attacks on schools as war crimes, and on March 7, 2014, only two months ago, the security council of the U.K. required UN authorities to increase the monitoring of the military use of schools and asked all states to take measures to deter any militarization of school precincts.

In the next few days under the banner “See it, Name it, Stop it: End and Prevent Attacks on Schools,” Leila Zerrougui, Special Representative of the Secretary General for Children and Armed Conflict, will call a vigil and launch her guidance note to enable better protection of pupils in conflict zones. It has taken four weeks for the world to come together to provide military, security, and financial and moral support for the Chibok girls. Not a moment must be lost in locating the Chibok girls and making schools for all girls safer.

Follow Gordon Brown on Twitter: www.twitter.com/officegsbrown

This piece first appeared on The Huffington Post on May 12, 2014, and was reprinted with permission from The Office of Gordon and Sarah Brown, which supports A World At School.

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7 Wednesday, August 2013

Child marriage debated in Nigeria

A recent review of the Nigerian constitution has inadvertently sparked controversy over child marriage in the West African country.

The constitution allows Nigerians to renounce their citizenship if they’ve reached “full age,” defined as 18 or older. It further states “Any woman who is married shall be deemed to be of full age.”

A committee tasked with reviewing the document recommended repealing the second provision, but Senator Ahmed Yerima insisted that would discriminate against Muslim women, who he said are considered adults at marriage no matter their age.

A family in Bagega, Zamfara State, Nigeria. Photo © Marcus Bleasdale / VII.
A family in Bagega, Zamfara State, Nigeria. Photo © Marcus Bleasdale / VII.

The resulting debate over Section 29(4)(b) has put the legality of child marriage squarely in the spotlight, with many claiming that leaving the clause in the country’s constitution legitimizes the practice even though Nigerian law sets the minimum age of marriage at 18 (only 23 of its 36 states have adopted that law).

Yerima’s been here before, causing widespread controversy in 2010 when he married a 13-year-old Egyptian girl.

Egypt—where a new TV series tackles the issue of child marriage—would not sign off on the union, but the Nigerian senator managed to get it approved in his own country, where criticism has dogged him ever since.

A recent blog post by Girls Not Brides does a good job of explaining the issue, which is far from resolved.

On the victory front, UNICEF reports that its Child Protection Action Network (CPAN) is having success in curbing child marriage in Afghanistan. This article highlights the case of a 10-year-old girl who was scheduled to marry a 50-year-old man before local officials intervened.

It’s unlikely that the 10-year-old Afghan girl and the 13-year-old Egyptian ever knew each other. But the common denominator in their cases appears to be money.

Yerima reportedly paid his Egyptian driver $100,000 to marry the man’s daughter. In Afghanistan, the 10-year-old’s father, who was struggling to feed his children on $30/month, accepted $9,000 from a wealthy man in exchange for his daughter’s hand.

A local religious leader and member of CPAN who intervened on the 10-year-old’s behalf cited financial problems and misunderstandings about Islamic law as the leading causes of child marriage in his community.

“One of the main reasons for child marriage is poverty, and that forces parents to agree to early marriage,” explained Sultan Mohammad Yusufzai. “The second reason is low awareness amongst families about Islamic principles and human rights.”

Likely, those same issues had more than a little to do with Yerima’s wedding three years ago.

No matter the country, no matter the constitution, no matter the religion, girls ought not be bought and sold.

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