Nelly Ating is a development coordinator, gender activist, journalist, and photographer working in Yola, Nigeria. We met with Nelly to talk about her work with internally displaced people in Northern Nigeria (survivors of violence, or people who fled their homes in anticipation of Boko Haram attacks), why she’s not a fan of the #BringBackOurGirls movement, as well as her personal writing, and her travels.
ABR: Please tell us about your work with internally displaced people (IDPs) and how that came about.
ATING: I work with the American University of Nigeria, Yola as a writer. The university identifies itself as a development university and partners with local organizations to identify vulnerable youth in Yola who need support. One of those local organizations is the Adamawa Peace Initiative–an NGO that aims to maintain peace and create new avenues for sustainable development in the state.
In March 2014, the group decided to aid IDPs who were camping at the Emir’s palace in Mubi. I was just an intern then, but I heard stories of victims of the insurgency, and I wanted to see firsthand. Luckily, I was assigned to cover that story. It became a routine, I was always assigned to cover stories about IDPs, and also help distribute food to them. The University fed more than 270,000 internally displaced persons who lived in and out of that camp in 2014 alone.
ABR: Where are some of the IDPs from and how is the program helping reintegrate them into society?
ATING: Some of the IDPs are from Borno, Yobe, Michika, Madagali, Hong and other neighboring local governments. Some fled from Cameroon as well. The Adamawa Peace Initiative established a farming system to reintegrate the IDPs community. The first group of IDPs who benefited from that project, are now members of Bole Community where the university is located.
ABR: What are some misconceptions about IDPs both in terms of media portrayal and what other people understand about them? What are the things you’d like people to know instead?
ATING: The media portrays IDPs as illiterate and incapacitated. But it may shock you to know that among these IDPs we have teachers, head masters, local government workers, village heads and so on. These people are picking up their lives notwithstanding the violence they’ve survived, they are creating small businesses to keep them going. Others are farming, and some volunteered to continue their professions in the refugee camps.
When the media comes here, they walk past all the educated IDPs, the ones who have set up shops, have become teachers and farmers…they go to the townships and look hard to take pictures of flies buzzing around hungry-looking people.
The conflict is not a religious fight, we have both Christians and Muslims living together in peace. The media attention is what this insurgency group [Boko Haram] feeds on, they need this publicity to instill fear in people.
ABR: Tell us a little about the escaped Chibok girls. Where are they now, what progress are they making?
ATING: Pure Joy! That is how I felt when I saw two of the girls who were very broken when we picked them up last year; enrolled in our Fall academic session as freshmen. I couldn’t help but hug them and whisper congratulations. They are really doing fine. They have been able to blend in the AUN community and continue their education.
ABR: You’re not a fan of the #BringBackOurGirls movement, can you tell us a little about why?
ATING: Whether we like it or not, our generation is changing gradually, women are beginning to challenge the status quo. A feminist friend of mine once said, “Women changed social science.” We can unchange all those ideologies that the female child is not as important as the male child. Education is for all.
But please tell that #BringBackOurGirls campaign group; they might be acting with the knowledge they have, but I still feel they act out of their own selfish interest. I haven’t seen them come to Yola to visit the escaped girls schooling in AUN. If you believe in fighting for education, first of all support what others are doing.
“Everyone talked about the #Bringbackourgirlscampaign, but what about the girls who escaped, did anyone come to see them, to support them?”
ABR: You’re a writer, photographer and traveler. Tell us about your relationship to those three professions, how do they help you understand the world?
ATING: I enjoy creative writing– I can be inspired from a picture of the cloud. As a traveler, I yearn to understand what other people think. African culture is really outstanding. There is more to see in the world and write about.
ABR: Who are your favorite African writers/artists who have influenced your work?
ATING: Chimamanda Adichie is a prolific writer who has influenced my work. Asa’s music is also an invigorating influence, it is truly African.
ABR: What has your role working with IDPs taught you?
ATING: That the only factor that holds us bound is our mind. If you choose to dwell on a situation or your condition it might kill you, but when you see your condition as just a momentary step down, you can excel. Those IDPs are the most resilient people I have ever met.
ABR: How can people get involved in terms of giving or volunteering?
ATING: Visit The American University of Nigeria website to support our work.
ABR: What are some upcoming projects you’re working on in terms of travel, development work or creative work?
ATING: South America is my next destination and recently I have been trying to blend creative writing with journalistic writing. I will be hosting a workshop very soon on that. I am also working on a documentary about child beggars in Yola.