It is almost 5pm on a weekday and as Fati Abubakar drives to one of the popular restaurants in town for lunch after a day of work with a visiting researcher to town, she fiddles with her phone.
“I’m sorry but I have to reply this email,” she apologizes. “Everybody wants to come into town and some people need my help navigating Maiduguri to get their stories so I’m getting many emails. I don’t always drive like this.”
Since being profiled in the New York Times last June, Ms. Abubakar has become something of a celebrity and the deserved multiple recognition for her documentary photography project, Bits of Borno has followed on CNN, Reuters, Voice of America, Marie Claire and more. At the military cantonment in the Pompomari area of town, she is easily recognizable. “Hajia Fatima, you are here again fa?” one soldier asks when she brings yet another journalist around.
The soft-spoken 30-year old was born and bred in the city and save for a spell in London for a postgraduate degree in Public Health, has lived there all her life. While in the United Kingdom, she nurtured her love for photography, bought herself a camera and a couple of lenses including a 50mm one which she cherishes for taking her famed portraits.
Before she left the city of her childhood, a group led by a dissident cleric, Mohammed Yusuf had sprung up and was fighting against the Nigerian state in a bid to establish its own caliphate. Eventually, the war killed thousands of people and left millions more displaced, effectively turning Borno state into the hotbed of insurgency. Its image and that of the entire North East region seemed irreparable.
Until Fati Abubakar returned.
Inspired by the world-famous ‘Humans of New York’ account on Instagram, she launched her own social media campaign to transform the outlook about her favourite city from that of a war-torn area to one of survival and restoration. Twitter, Facebook and Instagram became her favourite stomping grounds for posting photos of positivity from Borno. Her tools? Her camera and a square notebook.
“The focus has entirely been on the bomb blasts, the deaths and the displaced,” she said in a recent interview. “I wanted people to see [those] left behind.”
Social media has blossomed, with the Instagram account in particular reaching a followership just a few numbers shy of five thousand since the first post in September 2015. In terms of impact, she has been able to move a few mountains too; some of her followers…
Given the traditionally conservative Kanuri society in which she lives, Ms. Abubakar admits that she attracts attention from onlookers who are surprised to see an unmarried Muslim woman walk around town mostly alone. Throw in the fact that she is perhaps the only known female photojournalist around for miles and it is easy to see why she has become a walking sensation.
“Some of them are hesitant but many of the people are friendly”, she says over a meal of plantain [“I can eat plantain every day of the week”, she announces proudly] and kidney sauce at the restaurant, while sending overdue replies to an interview request from yet another foreign media. “They are happy to allow me shoot.”
And she has a special touch with children who pose happily for her. After speaking to a child with brightly coloured hair extensions in one of the camps for Internally Displaced People (IDPs) around town, the youngster runs off to call many like her who have similar hairdos to her.
“This is my favourite city,” she says softly, but there is yet protest in her words. “Only marriage or work can take me away from here.”