KUNM

Who's The Woman With The Camera Chasing Smiles And Styles In Nigeria?

Oct 2, 2016
Originally published on October 5, 2016 8:41 am

She wants to take pictures of happiness.

That's one of the goals that Fati Abubakar set when she started her Instagram feed bitsofborno last year.

Borno is a state in the troubled northeast of Nigeria, where the extremist group Boko Haram began operating. The capital city, Maiduguri, birthplace of the insurgency, is where this 30-year-old nurse lives and works as a project manager for a malnutrition project as well as a documentary photographer.

Abubakar had been feeling frustrated that her home region is best known for its ties to Boko Haram. So in 2015, she decided to do something about it. She started taking pictures of the daily life that she says local and international media neglect as they focus on bomb blasts, suicide attacks, death and destruction — and the fallout from Boko Haram's violence.

She photographs and profiles random regular folk of all ages, from all walks of life, then pulls out her notebook to record their views, posting pictures and text online.

With her camera slung over her shoulder, she heads onto the streets of Maiduguri and beyond, her colorful long dress trailing in the dust. She'll squat and lean perilously close to railings to take a picture, with a three-foot drop into a trash dump just behind her. I interviewed Abubakar at work on the hoof, in a bustling roadside Maiduguri market. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Tell us about bitsofborno. Why that name?

I decided bitsofborno, because I'm showing bits and pieces of Borno state. I wanted [to] document everyday life — individuals living in the community and still thriving and having businesses.

I felt mainstream media hadn't focused on the rest of the population. It was just the internally displaced — and it was just mostly bomb blasts, death and destruction. And Boko Haram.

They have failed to see that there's life, even in adversity. And that is what my page tries to capture.

Which came first? Photography or bitsofborno?

I always had a fascination with cameras. I took classes, and I take photographs wherever I go. But after coming back to Borno in May 2015 from school, I wanted to use photography to highlight the issues in my community.

Who do you choose to take pictures of? I just saw you pursuing a gorgeously-dressed older man.

I really love cultural attire. I like when I see people who don't really conform with Western dressing. I like very traditional Borno state dressing — the babarigas as they call it. That's the flowing robe. And then the traditional Kanuri caps, the Borno caps that are well known now — embroidered, handmade, very intricate designs. They're very beautiful. When I see very traditional things, I try to stop people and I document them.

I try to persuade them sometimes. So that's why I was following [the older gentleman] around, but he seemed very unresponsive, so I move onto the next one.

You take a lot of photos of children.

I love children. They are very happy. Whatever is going on in town [they are] sometimes unaware of it.

Meaning?

In terms of the bomb blasts and devastation. Children might see it happening and, in the next one hour or two, they're fine, they're back to play.

So I like to see that transition. I like to document happiness, so I gravitate toward children. I look for a lot of happy stories because our image is very bad, so we would like to show that life still goes on.

And what about some of the sadder moments?

Positive is what I'm currently focusing on but I started with the good, the bad and the ugly. Constantly you get those stories of trauma and death. I still document those as well, because the stories have to be told.

What makes you happy? You're smiling.

Children make me happy. And I like markets. They are very vibrant and a sign that the city is still alive.

Tell us about the Borno you grew up in and the Borno you came back to in 2015 after studying for a master's degree in public health in Britain.

The Borno I grew up in — this city Maiduguri — was a quiet, peaceful town, a lovely, close-knit community, known for its diversity. We had people from all over Nigeria. It was the center of commerce, I would say, in the northeast. We [border] Cameroon and Chad and Niger. Maiduguri was known for its hospitality. We were famous for our hand-embroidered Borno caps, flamboyant weddings and our pride in our colorful tradition.

People were happy. We trusted our neighbors and it was very peaceful. Borno was called "home of peace."

But the Borno I came back to, I would say the whole community is devastated. The whole community looks traumatized. There were strangers everywhere, new faces from the villages. All the friends I had from my childhood had moved on. A lot has changed. Everyone told harrowing stories of loss. Despite all that, I sensed resilience. People were picking up the pieces of their lives and moving on, which is what I felt wasn't being showcased. The response to my pictures on Instagram, the fact that people were shocked there was still life here, was what made me decide to create a page specifically for Borno.

Why did you go abroad in 2013?

I had become depressed. I really wanted to change my environment and I really wanted to leave and learn more and educate myself, so that I could come back and give back to the community.

I felt that I needed to get away for a while and learn, get the knowledge that I felt would help me when I came back. I told my mother that I really want to go and try a master's. I really wanted to go into community health. So she said, why don't you go abroad, maybe it will do well for you?

How are you viewed here? Here you are, this slender young woman, Fati Abubakar, in a long orange and white print dress, with your head covered in a beautiful orange scarf – and carrying a camera. It's not an everyday sight, is it, in Borno?

No, it's a very unconventional, I would even say rebellious way of life, because that's not the traditional Kanuri [majority tribe of Borno state] woman everybody expects. Everybody wants you to be married, with children, living a very obedient wife lifestyle.

And if that is not what you are, I think this society kind of frowns upon you and they constantly remind you of the need to get married and have children and just follow the template that is laid out for you.

And may I ask: are you married and are you a mother?

I'm 30, single and have no children.

So would it be correct to say you're not conforming to your society's expectations?

You get the occasional look of disapproval. But as time goes on, people are seeing what the page is doing, the impact and how the images years from now will be invaluable to this state, they are becoming well aware that photography is an essential art form that we need to incorporate into our society.

And they no longer see gender — which I'm happy about. I would say [bitsofborno] is not only changing the narrative of our state, but it's also having this traditional town question the role of the woman.

You are daily documenting the life of Borno state.

Yes, I'm chronicling every bit and piece of Borno state as I can at the moment. Fifty years from now, people will wonder what happened during Boko Haram. I think it's imperative that we have those images to show those generations that this is what happened to your grandparents.


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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Let's head to Nigeria now, to Maiduguri in Borno State. It's the birthplace of the extremist group Boko Haram whose assaults, including mass kidnappings of young girls, have become well-known outside the country. But a local woman has become frustrated that that is all many people know about her home city, so she's decided to do something about it. Fati Abubakar is using Instagram to show what she sees when she makes her way around town. NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton went along.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: Maiduguri and Borno State get a bad rap, says Fati Abubakar.

FATI ABUBAKAR: I felt mainstream media hadn't focused on the rest of Borno State. It was just bomb blasts and death and destruction and Boko Haram.

QUIST-ARCTON: So the young nurse-come-aid worker turned documentary photographer has set out to try to change the established image of her home city and state using Instagram on a feed she calls bitsofborno.

ABUBAKAR: I decided bitsofborno because I am showing bits and pieces of Borno State because I wanted to document everyday life in Borno State. I feel it is essential. Fifty years from now, people will wonder what happened during Boko Haram.

QUIST-ARCTON: In busy downtown Maiduguri, Abubakar favors markets and other vibrant locations for her photography. She takes portraits, street portraits, of mostly strangers. Abubakar corners a passerby, an elderly man in a gorgeous long traditional robe with a flamboyant and garish flourish on the fabric. He's wearing a hat.

ABUBAKAR: I like very traditional Borno State dressing, which is the babarigas. That's the flowing robe. And the traditional Kanuri cap, the Borno caps - embroidered, handmade, very intricate designs. And they're very beautiful. So when I see very traditional things, I try to stop people and I document them.

QUIST-ARCTON: But the man is in a rush, so Abubakar accosts a young teen pushing an elongated cart with jerry cans filled with water.

ABUBAKAR: I kind of gravitate towards children, smiling faces. Yeah, I look for a lot of happy stories because our image is, you know, very bad, so we would like to show that life still goes on.

QUIST-ARCTON: Fati Abubakar is slender, slight and dainty with a tiny voice, and she's partial to long dresses in pretty colors. The day we meet her, she's in an orange and white print with a matching shawl over her head. When she wields her camera and starts shooting, the long dress trails in the dust as Abubakar squats and leans back dangerously close to a metal railing with a three-foot drop below to a dump filled with trash. She wants the best shot of a motorized tricycle driver she's about to interview. Once the photos are taken, out come the notebook and smartphone to record what her subject says. Fati Abubakar gets waves and warm salaams as local residents recognize and greet her. This photographer is not an everyday sight in Borno with her camera slung over her shoulder.

ABUBAKAR: No, it's a very unconventional, I would even say rebellious way of life because that's not the traditional Kanuri woman everybody expects. Everybody wants you to be married with children, living a very obedient wife lifestyle. But as time goes on, people are seeing how the images years from now will be invaluable to the state.

QUIST-ARCTON: And she's chronicling a city and state undergoing tremendous change.

ABUBAKAR: The Borno I grew up in was very peaceful. It was diverse. We had people from all over Nigeria. It was very peaceful. It was called the home of peace. But the Borno I came back to was just - the whole community appears traumatized. All the buildings that - in the villages like my grandfather's house, you know, where my mother grew up, everything has been destroyed.

QUIST-ARCTON: In attacks by Boko Haram, the extremist Nigerian terror network that has wreaked havoc in the region for seven years, killed 20,000 people and driven more than 2 and a half million from their homes. But Fati Abubakar remains hopeful and positive about her home state. She's about to embark on a photographic project on farming and agriculture, she says, and smiles in anticipation as she packs up her camera, lifts the hem of her dress out of the dust and walks on purposefully. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Maiduguri.

MARTIN: If you'd like to see Fati Abubakar's photos for yourself, just head to our website, npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.