In September 2015, I began reporting and filming for a project I called “Education is Forbidden.” I was curious to learn and understand what it is like to be a student on the front line of Boko Haram’s terror campaign in northeastern Nigeria.
I traveled to schools and universities in Adamawa, Yobe, and Borno states to see first-hand how students were attempting to complete their education despite constant disruptions caused by the deadly six-year conflict with Boko Haram. What I found there were moving stories of trauma, memory, and a complicated history.
I interviewed many students, teachers, educators, politicians, and activists who all spoke of the urgent need for the rehabilitation of the education sector in Nigeria and the need for safety policies for schools. Statistics and reports can’t by themselves convey the anxiety and vulnerability felt by the students I met during my reporting trip.
Though Boko Haram has shape-shifted over the years, waxing and waning in strength, one thing has stayed consistent: deadly attacks on educational facilities, students, and teachers.
Boko Haram began as a radical Islamic youth group that gained a following by advocating against secular education, hence the name “Boko Haram” which translates as “Western education is forbidden” in Hausa.
The roots of Boko Haram’s uprising can be traced back to colonial times when a series of half-baked development policies disregarded ancient Islamic system of learning, that had existed for centuries, in favor of a new English education system. This decision, some experts say, was a pivotal turning point that created deep social inequality in northern Nigeria that worsened over the years and contributed to mass unemployment, corruption, and poverty.
Traveling around northeastern Nigeria, one is confronted by the level of destruction on schools after years of fighting between the national army and Boko Haram, the deadliest insurgent group in the world according to the 2015 Global Terrorism Index.
But what remains often unseen and undocumented by the mainstream media is how the students have over the years become reservoirs of fear and trauma. The bodies and minds of thousands of students affected and displaced by the conflict contain this fear and trauma like dormant volcanoes.
The Chibok school girls whose story of abduction and abuse in the hands of Boko Haram gained international attention in 2014 went to government school just like the ones I photographed. I imagined that on the morning of April 14, 2014 when the Chibok girls left home to take their exams, some of the girls may have had a premonition of the danger ahead.
As I traveled around northeastern Nigeria in search of less known stories of young people returning to educational institutions after the attacks and prolonged closures, the specter of the missing Chibok girls shadowed my thoughts. They became my moral and emotional compass north.
Rahima Gambo is an independent documentary photographer and visual journalist based in Abuja, Nigeria. Her project “Education is Forbidden” was made possible by a grant awarded by the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) Howard G. Buffett Fund for Women Journalists. With special thanks to the Magnum Foundation and Fotofactory.Lagos.