In the mid-forties, my widowed Fulani grandmother raised my father and his four siblings in a small bungalow in Yola.
In the nineties, Yola would become the place I spent slow summers riding beat up bikes in our family compound.
Yola rarely made the news then, even as the capital of Adamawa state. The town was and in many ways still is, a constellation of half completed structures, never quite making the ideal shift towards urbanisation.
Cattle herds strolled unhurriedly across unfinished roads and on clear harmattan evenings, if you stood on higher ground, you could see untouched savannah rolling outwards behind clusters of corrugated iron roofing that marked the edge of the town.
I remember electricity blackouts that signalled story time, a chance to huddle wide-eyed, around flashlights to hear stories of spirits that stole your soul and lived in deformed trees.
The same kind of tree that Bashir looked at warily, one blindingly hot October afternoon in 2015, as we stood on the mosque grounds of his university campus in Yola town.
Around the tree were black stains, dried blood from a suicide blast that killed an estimated sixteen students the week before according to Adamawa state officials.
“When we stood up to pray, we heard the sound, then we saw people lying down, falling down, people’s legs, blood everywhere,” said Bashir recounting the nightmarish scene that unfolded on October 23, 2015.
He identified some of his course mates and a friend’s father among the mangled. He arrived late that day, so he was unharmed at the periphery of the blast. One of many that had lit up the region since the insurgent group, Boko Haram were evolving into newer, more brutal and random methods of killing.
Sitting on a makeshift bench of two horizontal concrete slabs outside his friend’s house, Bashir spoke about his life as a broody third year International Relations student at the Adamawa State Polytechnic.
He spoke about his past, Fatima his first love, and his present reality, a sore throat caused from the smoke that hung thick and black in the air, mixed with a fine spray of blood after the explosion.
A week after the bombing we went back to the site. The mosques courtyard was large enough to hold hundreds of worshippers.
In the middle of the yard was an ancient Baobab tree. Its grotesque trunk and twisted branches loomed skyward like a totem to the spirit world. Its few fragile leaves motionless in the heat.
As we both stood there looking at the tree, I had a strong sense that it had been uprooted from my memory of one of those Hausa folk stories I had heard many times as a child.
A couple of hundred people had stood for midday prayers around the shade of the tree. Now dark stains in the soil were the only evidence that a mass death had occurred there.
Bashir had escaped death and injury that day, but his wounds were not on his skin. I didn’t quite have a word for his wound and “trauma” somehow felt too dense, too clinical.
He gave the impression of a young man in purgatory, wandering in an in between state, one that bonded millions of students and non-students across Nigeria churned up and displaced by the insurgency.
The dead were at least acknowledged in vague casualty figures, he was not.
During the day, friends would fill his small smoky bedroom, spread on the carpet to watch Korean Telenovela’s and Hausa films, smoke cigarettes and drink the feeling of euphoria out of small bottles of cough syrup.
In the evenings, they would squeeze into a friend’s car, blaring pop tunes on their way to an outdoor restaurant where they would sit on plastic chairs and continue smoking.
Hours would pass where he was rarely alone and always in the state of forgetting. “Friends help me stop thinking,” said Bashir, "if I start thinking I’ll start going nowhere.”
Bashir had walked away from the blast unscathed. Apart from a dullness in his hearing, the world was more or less the same as it was before.
I couldn’t help but wonder how this event would shape the rest of his life and the lives of hundreds of students who had been attacked, abducted, killed by Boko Haram.
About the Project
"I began reporting and shooting for the "Education is Forbidden” Project in September 2015, with a curiosity to understand the experiences of students living at the front lines of the Boko Haram conflict in northeastern Nigeria.
With the support of a grant from the International Women’s Media Foundation, I travelled to schools and universities in Adamawa, Yobe and Borno state to see first-hand how students were attempting to complete their education despite the disruption of a seven-year conflict. I found stories that touched on transience, memory, history and trauma.
There was a schism in the way students were described in books and media and the current reality so I used illustrations from Nigerian school books and snippets of other media imagery to take a more abstract approach to the storytelling.
I interviewed numerous 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 of a student that feels unsafe.
A pock marked blackboard exposed over a portrait of a school girl, can begin to communicate a lingering trauma and infrastructural decay that began decades before, but is now destabilised by conflict."
- Rahima Gambo, October 2016