The Photographer Documenting Schoolgirls In Northern Nigeria
Rahima Gambo wanted to depict Nigerian schoolgirls in a more realistic and nuanced way than Western presentations of the Chibok schoolgirls, who were kidnapped by Boko Haram in 2014. Now she's been nominated for a prestigious photography prize.
All photos by Rahima Gambo
The image of the Chibok schoolgirls—sat cross-legged in black and grey chadors with the Boko Haram flag behind them—made headlines around the world. Kidnapped from their school in northeastern Nigeria on the evening of April 14, 2014, only 57 of the 276 girls taken that night managed to escape over the following months.
Despite the high profile Bring Back Our Girls campaign, backed by Michelle Obama and Angelina Jolie, over a hundred Chibok schoolgirls remain missing. They are victims of Boko Haram’s campaign of terror against schools and colleges in northern Nigeria. The terror group is opposed to Western, non-Sharia education, and its name loosely translates to "Western Education is Forbidden" in Arabic.
Photographer Rahima Gambo didn't want the Boko Haram photograph of the Chibok schoolgirls to be the only image people thought of when they imagined Nigerian schoolgirls. In 2014, when Gambo returned to her home in Abuja after studying abroad, international media coverage of the Chibok schoolgirls was at its height.
“It was all over the news,” Gambo recalls, explaining that much of her family lives in northeastern Nigeria. “For me, coming from that area, I was just really interested in how students on a more general level were experiencing the conflict. I wanted to pull away from the sensational news stories, to look at the situation in a more reflective and balanced way.”
Gambo asked herself: “What is it like for the students who are still going to school? Especially students in schools that have already been attacked by Boko Haram? How are they experiencing things?”
To answer that question, Gambo began visiting the Shehu Sanda Kyarimi Government Secondary School in Maiduguri, which was attacked by Boko Haram gunmen in 2013. After briefly closing down for security reasons, the school reopened in 2015, but students are ever-cognisant of the continued risk that the terrorists will return.
“You enter some of these schools and they’re completely neglected; they’re falling apart; they’re not functioning as they should be. You go into a classroom and there are no chairs or desks,” Gambo remembers of her time in the school. “There’s something really disturbing about an institution that's not functioning like it should be. It reminded me of a dystopia.”
Gambo wanted her photography to interrogate the idea of a school as not just “an innocent space, but one that is charged with meaning.”
In particular, Gambo wanted to center the voices and experiences of the students within this context. Western media, she explains, tends to foreground coverage in the objectives of Boko Haram—not its victims. “There’s this story about Boko Haram and them attacking schools. But where’s the voice of the student in all of this?”
Her favorite image from the series, Gambo tells me, is an image of the schoolgirls crossing a river near the school. “For me, the image really resonates because it has these different meanings,” she explains. “There’s this idea of being a woman and being free in nature. But there’s also the specter of the Chibok girls hanging over the image. Where are the Chibok girls now? Are they lost in some forest somewhere?”
The image, Gambo explains, conjures myth and reality. “It took me to this space that was somewhere between fairy tale and folklore. Those are the kind of images I love; the ones you have to decode for yourself.”
Education is Forbidden by Rahima Gambo is being exhibited in London as part of the Africa MediaWorks Photography Prize.