Home to Sambisa and Chibok, where about 200 girls were abducted by the terrorist group Boko Haram, Borno has become an unpopular place known mostly for terror and anguish; a place where the bomb attacks and violent raids have become too numerous to count. These events quickly erase memories of a serene and calm place, that a state whose slogan is ‘Home of Peace’ now comes across as a paradox of their present day reality.
Displeased with the solely negative reports in the media, Fati Abubakar, a young woman born and raised in Borno, decided to challenge the perception of her hometown by telling a story through a photography series titled – Bits of Borno.
The series is a collection of images featuring everyday people in Borno on Instagram curated by Abubakar. Believing that these people have more stories to tell she took the focus off the bomb blasts and mostly sad stories in the media to ensure that Borno is less viewed as a conflict zone. Her drive for this series stemmed from the need for her people to be seen as survivors and not damaged and traumatized.
Abubakar started this project without necessarily thinking of an audience. She thought it would only be seen by her friends. Before long, ‘Bits of Borno’ traveled quickly, gaining the attention of not only Nigerians but an international audience and media as well. She told this story in a way that is new, bringing to our consciousness images that compel us to be rid of our biases and the single story sold to us in the news.
“I chose photography because visuals are powerful. The story of Borno cannot be imagined, and that is what is expected when an article is written about it. I felt that only visuals could do justice to the true situation.” Abubakar answered when I asked her why she chose photography in an interview with her at the Bits of Borno exhibition at the Omenka Gallery.
Compared to reading, people are more arrested by imagery. However, to convey a wholesome story, she accompanies her images with brief captions. She visits several places on the lookout for a story that needs to be told. Whether it is a village, a market, or a school, she travels far not fearing for her life though she acknowledges the unpredictability of the state.
Some of the most touching stories she has come across are from children and the elderly. They are usually the most vulnerable. She states that she is haunted by the difficulties and problems they have faced due to the conflicts in the state. Their photos are the most difficult portraits she has captured. For her, these trips are usually not one-offs. Thankfully, the page has garnered enough attention to spur donations, making it possible for her to visit these communities with supplies to support her subjects.
The Kwayam tribe, a subgroup of the major tribe in Borno, the Kanuri. The Kwayam are found in rural areas within Borno. Farmers, their nomadic lifestyle is similar to the Fulani. Colorful, the Kwayam have maintained their ancient attire and do not wear anything but vibrant colors and bring handmade beaded jewelry.
Abubakar admits that it is rare for a woman in her community to be seen walking around with a camera, taking pictures. It took a lot of adjustment for people to get used to her as a photographer. This had brought up questions and concerns, which over time has been quelled by the frequency and the outcomes of these images.
In sharing their stories, Abubakar does not compromise the consent and dignity of her subjects. Already, it is a delicate thing to capture these people at their most vulnerable. She understands the culture and speaks the same language. This readily gives her access to the people in a way a non-indigene would find difficult. They are happy to have their stories told by an indigene who completely understands them instead of an outsider.
In addition to her mission, she uses this project to debunk notions and ideas people have about Northern Nigeria. Northern Nigerians are mostly perceived as either “uneducated people who practice Almajiri or people with a lot of money who have no idea what to do with it” among other negative views. These assumptions are some of the reasons she presents the good, bad and ugly of the region so that there is a balanced narrative that is accessible online.
With less than two years’ experience in photography, ‘Bits of Borno’ is Abubakar’s first attempt at photography. She never imagined that the series would receive a global interest of this magnitude. “It still feels surreal”, she told me. With ‘Bits of Borno’ exhibited in the US and covered by the New York Times and Financial Times, she is eventually readjusting herself to the reality.
‘Bits of Borno’ was also recently exhibited in Abuja, Lagos, Oslo and now showing in Maiduguri, Borno state.