As Told By Fati Abubakar
Visual storyteller Fati Abubakar was born and raised in Maiduguri, Borno State. She developed a passion for photography, which led to the creation of her series ‘Bits of Borno’. Since September 2015, Abubakar has interviewed, as well as taken pictures of the residents with a mission to change the perception of Boko Haram brutality associated with Borno State.
When did you begin the series ‘Bits of Borno’, and why?
I officially started in September 2015. I was unhappy with the media coverage at the time. The focus had been completely on the conflict; it was breaking news all the time and we had been reduced to statistics. So I was sad and angry about it. I felt we needed to come out to control the narrative, to tell our stories ourselves and not wait for international portrayals, which obviously won’t be in our favour. I didn’t want us to be remembered only as a conflict zone but as survivors of a conflict, so I decided to document everyday life in Maiduguri for people to see that other human beings still live there. That’s why I also made the ‘Face’ series, which are the portraits in the exhibition. I wanted people to see the faces of those who had survived the conflicts and that we are not statistics, but are human. For me, it was crucial to do that.
How many works are in your series and what do you focus on?
I engage in different topics, sometimes I talk about education and at other times the economy. Sometimes it’s about the impact of the conflict on other people. So whatever issue I find that I want an answer to, I just investigate and talk about it.
Are they centered on the people of Borno?
Yes, all centered on the people of Borno.
How were you able to negotiate intimate portraits of some of your subjects, considering that you are a woman in a male-dominated society?
As a woman it was difficult because there is a lack of understanding; culturally our people are not used to seeing a woman with a camera. They also struggle with a woman in the position of power; it is a male society, and even the profession itself. So I received many questions and comments like “what are you doing?”, “you need to get a job”, “you are just aimlessly wandering about, it is not a woman’s job to do this”. But I had to ignore them and continue because I just knew what my goal was.
You’ve obviously formed a deep relationship with many of your subjects and shared some of their experiences. How have these impacted on you?
To be honest, I always make sure that I engage with them because they are people within my community; it is not that I just parachute in as a journalist, take an image and leave. I encounter these people every day and develop a relationship with them because I want to see as much as possible that they receive something from their portraits being shown. I don’t pay them for the portraits, but because I know that they have needs, we buy things then return to give them. We also receive many donations from people, so we buy whatever they need, and go back again to give the community. It is painful for me to see journalists come in, get the story and then leave; they take away their privacy but don’t solve their problems. That’s why when I know the problem is with someone, I insist on doing something, even if it is a little. Sometimes I go back with toys for the children, at least something to make them happy. I Tweet a lot about some of the problems I see. For example, I complained about the page that many of the children are bored, because they don’t have toys, and someone in London sent money to buy some for them. So when you talk about whatever issues you see, you don’t know who is listening. It has been so wonderful and fulfilling for me that I can solve their problems, even if it is in a little way.
What story through your photography would you like told about the people of Borno State, who experienced the horrors of the terrorist group Boko Haram?
I capture stories of resilience. I want people to see the strength of our people through which they have endured, and that they are keen to move on. I want us to be known as a people who are strong and resilient and are moving on.
Would you say your background as a nurse has made you more sympathetic to their plight, particularly with the kidnapping of the 200 “Chibok Girls”?
Yes, I think my background in health has helped because I can understand the mental ongoings. I can even sense and empathise when someone is depressed because I see many of these things in the hospital. They have made me sensitive. As a photographer, I am able to see a person as a human being as opposed to a subject or topic, which is what unfortunately, other people do. This has also been of tremendous help in making me sensitive and empathetic at the same time.
What would you say has been the major impact of Boko Haram on the Borno society, and in your opinion how successful have efforts been by the state and the federal government to assimilate those found, as well as the larger community of Borno state indigenes?
I think the impact is on our economy, our education, our mental health, our hospitals and everything that has been taken away. It is a slow but steady recovery of what we know. Even our freedom is restricted, so it has affected every aspect of our lives. We cannot sugar coat that. But the state government is one thing we are happy about, as well as the federal government, which has made it a top priority to tackle the insurgency. In the last two years, we have seen many changes. That is why we are incredibly happy with Buhari in that respect. We are freer now, as he is winning the war against the insurgency. As it is something we never predicted because it was unprecedented, I would say that the state government is overwhelmed. However, it is wonderful that they have admitted they need all hands on deck. The international community has helped. When we visit the ministries, they say, “we have never experienced this, but you have worldwide experience. Tell us what you have seen that has worked in other cities, and we can work together knowing our people and what we feel is culturally sensitive”. So we have been in collaboration with the state government, the federal government and the international community to make sure that we tackle post-insurgency issues.
Did you suffer any personal loss or tragedy?
I think the most personal for me was my mother’s best friend who was shot in the kitchen. To see my mother go through the mourning and grief was personally very painful for me. In the north, we see more people dying because of all the things they lost, rather than from the killings. It takes its toll; many lose their businesses and develop high blood pressure. My uncle died because he gained high blood pressure. People think that it is only the guns that kill, but it is the problems from losing everything after you are displaced that mostly kill. I don’t think I have to experience personal loss before I can be affected by it. The fact that the whole town is not what one knew as a child can definitely affect a lot. Whenever I come to Lagos, I am so sad because here you can be as free as you want to be.
What’s next for Fati Abubakar?
I want visual storytelling to continue so I am pushing for teaching. I am happy that many young girls in the community have shown interest in photography. Parents are now accepting that photography is something a female can do, and that it is a lucrative profession, which they want their daughters to embrace. Therefore, I am pushing hard for more people to come in and teach young women and men to pick up the camera and tell their stories themselves. One day, Aljazeera or CNN may leave, but we have to tell the world what is happening in Borno – that post-insurgency, the people are moving on. They are relevant.
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