Students from a government school pose for a photo. Maiduguri, Nigeria, 2016. All photographs by Rahima Gambo.

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.

Room and residents of B.O.T. hostel, University of Maiduguri, Maiduguri, Nigeria, May, 2017.
File images of some student and staff from Adamawa State University and Adamawa Polytechnic who lost their lives during or after the Boko Haram attack on October 29, 2014. Mubi, Nigeria, 2015.
Abdulmumini, 18, and Babakura, 20, in class. Maiduguri, 2016

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.

Boys pose for a portrait at a government school. The burned out shell of a class room in Markas, Banyan Quarters where Boko Haram sprung up.
Students in a class and an illustration from a Nigerian school book, Maiduguri, 2016.
Winnie, 31, in her room in the girls hostels of Adamawa State University, Mubi, Nigeria, 2015.
Students napping during the day in the students hostels, Mubi, Nigeria, 2015.
The 19-year-old pictured here, who wanted her face hidden, was one of the surviving students of the Shehu Sanda Kyarimi school shooting. She was shot in the leg as she tried to escape. Maiduguri. 2016

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.

Fatima, 22, student and resident of B.O.T. women-only hostel. She is seen here in the backyard of the hostel not too far from where a Boko Haram suicide bomber entered the campus. University of Maiduguri, Maiduguri, Nigeria, May, 2017.

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.

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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.