Nigerian women’s choir defies Boko Haram

The Nigerian girl’s choir in the semi-savannah landscape of the Mandara Mountains, which divide northern Nigeria and northern Cameroon. Minawao refugee camp, Far North region, Cameroon, November 2013. Photo by Misha Hussain

The sublime harmonies of the Nigerian girl’s choir in the Minawao refugee camp echoed out across the dusty Mandara Mountains, a desolate area in the Far North region of Cameroon. The girls had fled brutal violence across the border in northern Nigeria, where Islamists want to apply Sharia. Just months later, insurgents abducted some 300 girls and threatened to sell them in a move that shocked the world.

The choir was hardly Ladysmith Black Mambazo, but the raw tones belted out alongside rhythms, beat out on plastic and tin containers, were amongst the sweetest sounds I’ve ever heard. For some of the girls, these were a memento of the lives they left behind and a constant reminder of who they are and where they came from. For others, the melody was homage to hope that one day they’ll be able to go home.

For me, the notes were the faintest of cultural war cries; every crotchet and quaver held in its arms what journalists, aid workers, policy makers and the general public ought to be fighting for tooth and nail – freedom. These were the very sounds that Islamists all around the world have been trying to muffle. Their actions have led harmonious societies to find cultural barriers that only serve to weaken their communities.

The division was clear to see in the Minawao refugee camp. Religious affinities, strengthened through mutual distrust and sometimes hatred, had set Christians and Muslims apart. Minawao was a bleak glimpse of the future, if northern Nigeria is forgotten. For now, the sound of the girl’s choir carries the hope that this once peaceful community can live again in harmony.

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