Moving Forward: Peju Alatise on Art, Nigeria, and Responsibility #BringBackOurGirls Thursday 17 July, 2014


The story makes the headlines; the people pay attention-they tweet and share and spread the hashtags. Interest wanes, attention’s diverted. The story dies out. But it doesn’t. To the people involved, it doesn’t. On April 15th of this year, Boko Haram, an alleged* terrorist organization in northern Nigeria, kidnapped 230 girls from the Chibok Government Secondary […]


The story makes the headlines; the people pay attention-they tweet and share and spread the hashtags. Interest wanes, attention’s diverted. The story dies out. But it doesn’t. To the people involved, it doesn’t.

On April 15th of this year, Boko Haram, an alleged* terrorist organization in northern Nigeria, kidnapped 230 girls from the Chibok Government Secondary School. The Nigerian government’s response has been criticized as half-hearted and slow. A worldwide media explosion ensued, demanding the girls be brought back. On all social media platforms a campaign emerged titled #BringBackOurGirls. Pictures of hundreds of political and pop culture figures, including Michelle Obama, holding handwritten signs reading, #BringBackOurGirls, spread through social media like wild fire. Katie Couric conducted her video report. Nicholas Kristof wrote his oped. The story became an echo. The people moved on. It’s been 94 days, and the girls are still missing. We are grateful for informative sites like fighting to keep the story alive. Experts like Dambisa Moyo also call us to question what it means that something so tragic could happen in a country in which the United States has such vested economic and political interests in “Morally, What Does the US Stand for?“.

. . .



Peju Alatise

In this feature, we spoke to Peju Alatise, a long-time friend of Live Unchained, artist, activist, and native Nigerian, about her thoughts on the kidnappings, the current political situation in Nigeria, and of course, all the art that inevitably emerges from the rifts between human cruelty and greatness.

Peju is a living example of the truism: “there’s nowhere to go, but forward.” Along with creating magnificent art, exhibited and acclaimed worldwide, Peju is one of those tenacious humans, dedicated to making a difference, a glorious difference. Her art is honest and addresses head on important issues like oppression and corruption that often go ignored. For instance, she’s currently working on mentoring girls aged 7 to 17 in Nigeria, who’ve suffered through some form of child abuse, and now are creating a multimedia exhibition of their stories, tentatively titled, “The Flying Girls.” It’s an endeavor aimed to draw attention to a large swath of society-its beating heart-largely neglected in “big man” politics as usual. However, Peju’s honesty doesn’t only reveal problems in Nigeria, or Africa as a whole; it also shows us that art and purpose and lovely humans with incredible imaginations still thrive in that supposedly tattered Africa with no end to tragedy.

Africa is not bleak, helpless or infantile. We often forget that, like everywhere else, it encompasses the full spectrum of human possibilities, the evil, but also the jarringly beautiful. Peju both reminds us of this and shows us, through her willingness to confront the ugliness and simultaneously feed and be fed by the infinite and varied triumphs-often forgotten by Africans themselves.

The girls are missing, but we’re here, and that has to amount to something.

Can you tell me more about your own work mentoring young girls? 7 to 17 years old, that is a special age group.**

The Flying Girls (which is a temporary working title for this project), deals with issues concerning child abuse, specifically the girl child in my home country, Nigeria. The issue of addressing child abuse is a global issue of international relevance, and using personal encounters and manifestations of this abuse from a Nigerian perspective is my approach to creating awareness both locally (as desperately needed) and globally (for the sake of international intervention). My project involves interactions with girls between the ages of 7 and 17 in Nigeria, allowing them to express their opinion and understanding of what it means to dream of an ideal possible future if their lives are not interrupted by the government’s lack of corrective policies and exclusion from security and social welfare with no consideration to protect them from abuse. The ages 7 to 17 are very special; they are the most formative yet exploited years of a girl’s life here, when she needs the most security. The project involves an art exhibition of mixed media installations and paintings, a catalogue book of artworks, illustrations and stories told from young girls affected by these issues and  a 15-minute documentary film.  I will be documenting, photographing and painting portraits of these young girls from all over my country.

The situation with the Boko Haram had gotten some attention in the United States. The media was almost apologetic about it at one point. But, that didn’t last long. And, it’s hard to trust the free news sources we have access to. Have you seen this article about the women who protested? What did you think of this?


boko haram female fighters armed ii
I cannot verify the authenticity of this particular article or pictures. I cannot say that Nigerians a well-informed about the situation of the missing girls. It is an advancement for Nigerians themselves to tell their own stories to the world, and social media as a tool is of the greatest advantage; but, there is no filtering method of information that is sent out; I tend to take it with a pinch of salt. If indeed women in Borno have formed a group to protect their communities from Boko-Haram’s attack (of which I wish they honestly do), I would wonder where they get their rifles from (as shown in the pictures) because not even the Nigerian army within that district is equipped enough to fight Boko Haram.

How do Nigerians perceive the current situation with the kidnappings? What’s the general state of gender politics in Nigeria and how would you want them to change?

There was a video I saw of the protest of #BringBackOurGirls in Lagos and it was of a man driving to work who stops to speak to one of the protesters, he said “I want you to know that I 100% support what you are doing, Boko Haram is bad and I feel for those lost girls and the government is just doing nothing but I need to get to work. I don’t have the time for this kind of thing. I have to feed my own girls. I wish this protest is not in my way.” Is it fair for me to say the disposition of the average Nigerians is like that of the man driving to work? I say that those who protest and whose voices are heard via social media are a very tiny minority.

This is a country where senators vote to include in the country’s constitution that “a girl has become of age once she is married.” A clause that allows for underage marriages! In the f**king constitution?! Girls have been kidnapped, very many, many months before the incident of the Chibok girls. If kidnapping of girls was not lucrative the terrorists would not think of kidnaping as many as 200 at once. Nothing was said, nothing was done; they are girls and they come from low-income families.

How do I want them to change? I would have responded with education. Once when a statement like ‘Educate our girls’ was an inspiring one, seems dreadful in many places as schools have become one of the most unsafe places for a girl. The killings by boko haram of students include both male and female children, so sometimes I wonder about the gender politics in this situation. I am not optimistic of change. In this case the Nigerian government should assume all responsibility of dealing with this situation but the government treats it more like a political smear, political party propaganda and rivalry/opposition. I have little faith in Nigerian government/politicians.


Could you say more to what it means to have an international spotlight for the wrong reasons?

Hardly does Africa as a continent attract international spotlight for the ‘right’ reasons. Nigeria, the country I live in, I am most critical of. I look forward to seeing young people taking initiatives to being productive and bringing some positivity to their environment. These young people hardly make the news.

I don’t think that the international image of Nigeria reported by the international journalists is any more a propaganda than the lack of inspirational material and a support structure for broadcasting of such material by local media. I get very irritated when I hear many Africans complain about the ‘war torn’, ‘hunger and disease ridden children’, ‘corruption in high places’, etc. images of the continent purported by the west. I have a beautifully talented film maker friend who says international organizations will not sponsor a film about culturally relevant and positive themes but would rather award films about the dark, miserable or violent crimes and social abnormalities.

I say the problem is not what the international organizations want to sponsor, the problem is the local organizations and government choose not to sponsor local filmmakers especially when funds are available. For example, visual arts in Nigeria is not underfunded, it is NOT funded!

I was at an artist residency outside of my country and at the residency we had many nationalities. Every night we had dinner together and we told stories about our background, country and people and I had a lot of stories to tell. After many nights together, the Canadian artist said to me, “Peju, every night you tell stories, crazy stories, sometimes I laugh, sometimes I am in shock but I give you this challenge tomorrow night tell us one positive story about your country.” I realized every time I talked about my country I had little good to say and I felt shame. What was more shameful was I had to think too hard to near impossible to tell a happy story with a happy ending about Nigeria. This spotlight for all the wrong reasons is spotlight and light is a good thing; it helps people see more clearly. Boko Haram is a problem and they should be exposed for whatever reasons, whichever way.

What role do you think foreign interests play in addressing human rights violations?

Nigeria is a country with approximately 170 million people with 500 languages many of which are as different from the other as English is from Chinese. Other than the country’s greatest wealth in human resources, there is the mineral resources and this is where the foreign interest lies, only in the latter, very little interest in the former.  Foreign interest will not jeopardize the acquisition of  the mineral resources. Those countries that have vested interest in Nigeria’s mineral resources are careful not to interfere with domestic issues of the country.  For example, when Kenya considered signing the anti-gay laws, the western countries threatened to withhold foreign aid which will have some negative impact on Kenya’s economy. The day after the anti-gay law was passed in Nigeria, I heard on the radio an announcement made by a representative of a ‘western ambassador’ saying, they will continue to support Nigeria with hundreds of millions of naira in aid. They will not rock the boat!

But, in as much as it is easy to accuse western governments of the deplorable state of many African countries, and I speak of my own opinion with regards to my country, our leaders have to learn what leadership means, they have to be held accountable for the failed state of their countries.

*We use alleged not to make light of the crime(s) perpetrated by Boko Haram or in any way redeem them, but to point out the complexity often obscured by terms such as “terrorist” that paint black and white pictures of a world that is almost always grey. We all exist in a context and to rob or be robbed of it is to reduce our collective humanity.

**Questions have been edited for clarity.

Written by Kathryn Buford and Nesrien Hamid
Photo Credits: and Peju Alatise

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  • Siv says:

    Reply-To: Reimagining Cordoba Date: Tue, 15 Jan 2013 00:18:11 +0000 To: Julie Harbin Subject: [New post] Christian Post: Christians, Muslims Unite to Fight Terror Group Boko Haram in Nigeria christophercameronsmith posetd: Christians, Muslims Unite to Fight Terror Group Boko Haram in Nigeria. Here’s something you won’t see reported by the American media. Christians forming a chain around Muslims to protect them while praying. Muslims have also been going to Chr

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