Once upon two remarkable women

Over the course of two days (16 & 17th July 2019) I had the privilege of meeting two of the most incredible human beings one can ever meet on the planet. As many of you reading this are aware I have been leading a project looking at internally displaced peoples in Northeast Nigeria. The project is titled “picking up the pieces: social capital, human capital and coping strategies of households displaced by Boko Haram insurgency in Northeast Nigeria”. The project seeks to interrogate the traditional model of humanitarian intervention and how better long term outcomes can be achieved by designing “interventions” around the agency of displaced peoples. In our workshop we decided it was important that representatives of the affected households are active participants in the workshop, including what we call the co-creation sessions. This approach is refreshingly and powerfully illuminating. These men and women did not hold back, and it was a teachable moment and humbling experience for the rest of us.

The two women I am writing about today epitomise the incredible resilience of the human spirit. Unbent, unbroken, they have shouldered on in the midst of the most dangerous, most challenging of conditions.

The older woman I shall call Mama J. When her town was overrun by the Boko Haram insurgents, she fled with her husband and three children to another village where there was an IDP camp. There, her husband and two children were welcomed, but she was refused entry? Why, because she had a 31-year old son with both learning and physical disability. She was practically given the choice of leaving her son behind if she was to be admitted to the camp. She refused. She decided that it was better for her to die than leave her son out there to rot. She decided to go back to her town that was overrun by the insurgents. She therefore made the journey back, walking over the next two days, practically carrying her son along. When she got back to town she found that the security forces had taken control and a new camp had been set up. But there again she was refused help. Unbroken, she started to run a vegetable business, with a 500 naira given to her by a soldier. This was in 2017. Today, she is no longer selling in measures but in big sacks. She has been able to out together a whole spectrum of vegetable combinations, and has become one of the key sellers in the community. She now makes up to 3,000 naira a day. When we asked her how she managed to succeed and expand her business within such a short period of time. She answered that she was able to put together a unique combination that no one else was offering in the community. You can only begin to grasp the awesomeness of her business acumen when you realise that this woman has never had a single day of formal education. She understands the idea of unique selling point in such a deeply practical and effective way, more than management and entrepreneurship scholars can theorise. When asked what’s kept her going against the odds, her response was brilliantly casual: “I have no choice but to find a way…”

The next story is equally humbling. I was going on about Mama J and got carried away a bit, forgetting that there is another woman, younger, that we have also invited along to the workshop. Let’s call her Lady H. She sat quietly, unflustered, as I stood there singing the praises of her counterpart from Maiduguri. Colleagues reminded me that we need to hear her story too. Of course, she duly obliged in what became a truly remarkable, inspiring story of doggedness and unrelenting hope and ambition against the odds.

Lady H lost her husband, father and one son to the insurgents in one fell swoop. The sheer trauma of the losses in such tragic circumstances can only be imagined. Yet this woman was determined to move on with her life. She managed to escape with her three other children. She ended up in an IDP camp. There, she began to rebuild her life, block by block. Having lost her entire restaurant business to the insurgency. She volunteered for an NGO in the camp for several weeks, earning about 10,000 naira (£23) in the process. With this 10,000 Naira she set up a business that includes trading in agricultural produce. For good measure, she set up a support unit for other women in the camp to learn a trade/vocational skills and begin to earn a living for themselves. Crucially, she is especially passionate about the education of children, about which she has been leading advocacy efforts to raise standards of teaching in the camp schools. She laments that children sometime leave school by 10am, and many of them can not write their own names. Today, while she remained in the camp, she has managed to raise enough income to send her two younger children to a private school far away from the camp, and the oldest is studying law in a higher education institution. Not bad at all for a widow who lost half of her family in very tragic circumstances.

One final comment about these two remarkable women: their infectious, unrehearsed cheerfulness is in and of itself a transforming experience. They are clearly not satisfied about their conditions, and they spoke openly and forcefully about it. But they would also not be denied the liberty to be joyful, to be grateful about little opportunities they have had to begin to rebuild their lives. Their story is powerful in more ways than one. Among others, it points to a new, and more effective pathway to engage with humanitarian action. Affected people are of course desperate. Yet they are not without agency to turn things around, rebuild their lives and recover their livelihoods.

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