After graduating from the University of Maiduguri in 2003 with a degree in Public Administration, Christiana Stephen was posted to Bodinga in Sokoto for the mandatory-one-year National Youth Service Corps (NYSC) programme.
There, she began teaching the women something else she learned while in school – making beads, dresses and other small-time domestic craft.
‘My father was a lecturer and I had sewing machines in our garage where I learnt how to sew and eventually began teaching the children of other staff on campus. The few times I had gone to Lagos, I realized that there was serious value for these skills, but here in the North, we tend to look at it as just a hobby. So I took it seriously.”
A decade later, Christiana, then 33, began teaching in a more formal capacity at the newly established Centre for Entrepreneurship and Enterprise Development (CEED) at the University of Maiduguri. She was the first staff of its fashion design unit, a position she holds till date.
Around that time, Boko Haram the insurgents who had grown from one man (Mohammed Yusuf) and a few followers in 2009 to thousands of fighters in 2013, intensified attacks in Borno State. Christiana who had been born and bred in Maiduguri, was caught together with her immediate family, in the crossfire between them and the military – but they survived.
Her uncle and his teenage son were killed in Maiduguri one day when two of the insurgents pretending to be customers, knocked on the door of his wife’s shop. As soon as the older man opened, they proceeded to spray the house and everyone in it with bullets.
“His wife and their smallest child survived by lying under the bed. It was a very tough period for us all – at some point, I had to even stop going to work.”
Later that year, the local vigilante – the civilian JTF – spearheaded a massive defeat on Boko Haram and together with the army, drove the terrorists out of town. With the resulting peace came Internally Displaced People (IDPs) trooping from all corners of the state and even from the neighbouring Adamawa and Yobe states. The population of the capital swelled from two million people to slightly over three million of them; in the camps, host communities and even on the street.
And Christiana knew she had to act. Early in August after the end of the university’s activities in the 2015/2016 academic session, she began running a month-long vocational training course for some of the IDPs. The first batch – 15 people in all – was sourced from the youth fellowship at one of the local churches, Church of Christ in Nigeria.
From Monday through Friday every week, she teaches from 9am till 2pm, the art of making dresses, extracting coconut oil as well as shaping ribbons and other accessories. “They are so happy to learn and it is a joy to be able to empower them to stand on their own after this period.”
“Many of them had thriving businesses in their hometowns but the crisis made them lose everything. The other day, I asked them to share their stories but they were too traumatized to talk so I let them be.”
At the moment, all the funding for the programme comes from her own purse – not that Christiana is complaining. “There’s no support from anywhere and I hope that in time, the government can support those of us who want to help the IDPs stand on their own. I’m grateful to the DPO of the nearby police station who gave us two police officers for protection every day, at no cost at all. No cost.”
And she has plans to do more: “I’ve also thought of the civilian JTF, of integrating them into our trainings but they need therapy first. I got a psychologist from the university to speak to my students here. After that, we can start using local resources in our environment to create livelihoods – neem oil, sesame seeds.”
“But first, they have to go through therapy, they have seen so many things.”