In pictures: Nigerian women use fashion to ease trauma of war | Nigeria News
In the flat, colorless landscape of the IDP camp – the miles of sand interrupted only by rows of identical tarpaulin tents and huts – a young woman sews a bright pink dress.
Seamstress Aisha Ismail is slender and shy. She is 28 years old but looks much younger. On her own, she takes care of her four children and two younger siblings – a common provision in camps in northeast Nigeria, where women and children make up 80 percent of the population. During the decade-long armed conflict between armed groups and the Nigerian military, nearly two million people were forced from their homes.
In Dalori camp in Maiduguri, where Aisha lives, the scenery is familiar: beyond the sandy lanes and rows of identical makeshift structures are hay fences, children playing with empty cans and plastic bottles , and stalls selling groceries (carefully rationed). The landscape is dominated by subdued shades of gray and yellow. To survive, women depend mainly on meager income from daily labor and humanitarian aid. After lockdown measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 strained the already fragile local economy, things got worse. Prices have gone up and spirits have plummeted.
In the Aisha sewing studio installed on the porch of her shelter, she works with determination through a pile of brightly colored fabrics. One of the most important Muslim holidays was approaching, and for local tailors it was the busiest time of the year. The young woman created elaborate dresses, including one in pink satin with white flowers. There was something innocent about it, like the dress materialized in a little girl’s fantasy world and landed in the middle of this camp in the middle of a deadly conflict.
Aisha’s creation, striking against its more austere surroundings, is not only the symbol of a life now far removed from its daily reality; it’s also a testament to the hidden sacrifices and unyielding will behind the elongated figures and frilly hems seen hanging in stores like hers.
A dress’s journey often begins with an invitation. “A woman usually receives an invitation to a wedding two months before the date,” says Hawa Bukar, another tailor living in Dalori camp. “Then every day she goes into the bush to collect and sell firewood. It’s hard work and it can be dangerous, but they keep going. Often, they manage to collect enough money and only buy the fabric one day before or on the wedding day. “
That’s when her customers appear on her doorstep, usually carrying a photo on their cell phone with whatever design they like. “Then I will rush to make the dress on time,” she said.
“Even though I see the dress will cost more than their budget, I’m still trying to make it,” Hawa sighs. “Most of the time, I sacrifice my own salary.”
Hawa’s father was a tailor and she received a sewing machine as part of her dowry. When his hometown of Bama in the Lake Chad region was attacked, the family fled. Their house and his sewing machine were destroyed by fire. When they arrived at the camp, Hawa borrowed sewing machines from other people whenever she could, to help her earn a living. Then she asked for a small grant from the Red Cross and bought her own. The machine has become a lifeline for the family who left everything behind.
It is a tradition to wear new clothes to attend a wedding. Many people in the camps cling to tradition, having lost everything: their villages, their familiar landscapes, the work they did and a world they knew how to navigate. But for many women, there is more to a new dress than respect for tradition. Their elaborate outfits help them rise above their circumstances; help them forget the poverty, hunger, and the rows of identical shelters that are now their only home. Putting on a new dress to go to a wedding can also prove to themselves and everyone how far they’ve come – that they are still in control of their own lives, no matter what the cost.
In her home in Bakassi camp in Maiduguri, Aishatu Mohammed, 38, a widow and mother of 10, teaches her teenage daughter to sew. “She has to learn to do things to be independent,” Aishatu said softly. Sunlight pierces the holes in the tarp ceiling above their heads, as the two women, mother and daughter, sit barefoot on the plastic rug, repositioning and cutting a piece of bright purple fabric. It is the middle of the Harmattan’s dry season and clouds of white dust hover above the scorched, bare earth.
Aishatu buried her husband after being killed in an attack on their village. Traditionally, burying the dead is a task that belongs exclusively to men; but without a man at that point, it fell on him. With her barely audible voice, Aishatu recounts how she then fled the village on foot with her children, past rotting corpses by the side of the road, and the sound of explosions. There are long silences between her words as she recalls the horrors of the journey.
After finishing speaking, Aishatu goes to fetch water from a nearby water point.. She wears a long fitted skirt, top and scarf, all made from the same bright yellow fabric. A long shawl of orange gauze is wrapped around her neck and floats behind her in the wind. On his head is a large plastic bucket filled with water; she wears it effortlessly, as if it weighs nothing at all.
Walking through the desolate sandy lanes that are filled with soaring dust, Aishatu almost lights up the drab surroundings with his presence. In her bright outfit, she looks out of place; but at the same time, it belongs. This landscape is part of its history; the story of a woman who lived through horrors and who triumphed. She is bigger than the camp, bigger than her situation. And everything about the way she looks and carries herself says it.