In the Niger Delta, fashion helps women leave the fighting behind


PORT HARCOURT, Niger Delta, Nigeria — It wasn’t long ago when fighting consumed the swampy mangroves of the Niger Delta, the densely populated region where Nigeria’s crude oil — and vast wealth — originates

In the early 2000s, thousands of young self-proclaimed freedom fighters protested underdevelopment and disenfranchisement by stealing oil, destroying pipelines and kidnapping for ransom. To address grievances and demilitarize the region, the government granted an amnesty to the militants in 2009, promising them jobs and skills acquisition training.

Five years later, most are still struggling to build new lives for themselves, including an often overlooked segment of the conflict: women. Many Delta women either fought alongside male militants or served as their assistants, maids and cooks.

“They suffered a lot,” says Briggs Owonari, who works for Westlanto Commerce International, a company contracted by the Nigerian government to facilitate an amnesty rehabilitation program for women. “I don’t want to say they were coerced into joining the struggle, but it’s easy to convince someone to fight for their rights.”

Since 2010, 200 women have graduated from Westlanto’s program, earning vocational certificates in fashion design, beauty, and food service. Most of the women are illiterate or grade school dropouts, Owonari says, so the program offers additional tutoring in basic English and Math.

While the underlying development inequities that drove the Niger Delta conflict have yet to be allayed – raising the specter of a future flare-up — Owonari says the women in his program have turned a new page.

“They won’t go back to the creek once they’ve had more independence,” he says. “They won’t go back once they’ve had more freedom.”

Meet eight women who refuse to wallow in perils past. Meet eight women who have conquered the hardest part of progress — simply showing up and getting started.

Wealth Briggs, 30 

(Lauren Bohn/GroundTruth)

When Wealth was just 20 years old and “looking” for everything and nothing in particular, she met one of the Niger Delta’s most prominent fighters. She was inspired by his “passion for the fight.” She wanted to be as “strong” as him — to maybe even have followers of her own one day. More than anything else, she wanted a purpose.

“Life isn’t fair in the Niger Delta, and no one wanted to help us,” she says, taking a break from a dress she’s been working on for months. “So I joined the fight.”

She was the commander’s personal assistant for five years. She washed his clothes and cooked for his unit. He wasn’t just a commander in a fight that came to define her — he was a father to her.

But after he gave up his arms in 2009, she stopped talking to him.

She says she doesn’t know where he is or what he is up to. She says it’s better that way.

Before she joined the fight, she tried dipping her toes into fashion design, but the closet thing she could find was selling bedsheets.

“I’m finally getting to be who I want to be in this program,” she says, her measuring tape proudly cascading down her chest like a string of pearls. “I’m finally seeing a path … I’m finally seeing a beginning.”

Anita Bena Ebi, 24

(Lauren Bohn/The GroundTruth Project)

In a large sweltering room of women sewing and shouting, singing and dancing, Anita keeps to herself. She’s always been the ”softest” of the bunch, says Sime Jumbo, the women’s design instructor.

Anita doesn’t talk much, and when she does, everyone leans in, struggling to hear sparse words whispered.

She leaves her 7-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter with a hodgepodge of relatives when she comes to design school every day. Not every woman has that luxury, says Jumbo. And many have been forced to quit the program to take care of their children.

Unlike some of the women who hid their fighting from their relatives for fear of shame or alienation, Anita says her family was also involved in the struggle. In fact, they pulled her in. At the time, she was a hairdresser, but she wasn’t making much money. The allure of more money alongside the thrill of adventure crept up on her. Sure, she’d drop off a bag at an undisclosed outpost. Sure, she’d pick up a “few things” for “the commander.”

Before she knew it, she soon became immersed in the high-octane world of transporting weapons.

She doesn’t regret those days. She says the fighting helped Nigerians of the Delta.

“It made the government hear our voice,” she says, her forehead shining with sweat, drying in translucent streaks down her cheekbones. “It made the government hear the voice of the people.”

Anita spends most of her time designing gowns. She hopes to own a shop one day and dreams of sending her two children to university.

She says she’ll never go back to fighting, but the future of the country remains grim.

“Everyone is still scared of everyone,” she says. She chooses a zipper for the pink dress she’s sewing and anchors her morning’s work on a lopsided mannequin. “Everyone is still scared.”

Bunmi Festus, 28 

(Lauren Bohn/The GroundTruth Project)

When Bunmi was little, she recalls sitting on the edge of the creek, legs dangled and hopes elevated. She had big dreams.

She wanted to become a teacher, maybe even a doctor. Instead, she had a child at the age of 17 and struggled to find the most menial of jobs.

“The government always employs people who they know,” she says, the room’s humidity hanging on her like a flak jacket. “The country is not a meritocracy…it’s corrupt, it’s hard.”

Through a friend, she met a commander for one of the insurgency’s largest militias. She became his cook and did “different jobs” for the fighting unit. At first, the work was exciting. But she soon felt dependent upon the commander who forced her to live with him in the barracks.

She was only making around $120 a month, barely enough to care for her two children. Her family urged her to come home. But it took her a while, she says, to realize she was being used. The fog of war had lifted and she wanted a way out.

Still, when the commander was killed in fighting, she mourned. She still thinks about him from time to time.

“It’s in the past now,” she says, struggling to make eye contact when talking about him.

When she heard about the fashion program, Bumi immediately signed up.

“I always wanted to use my hands,” she says, measuring the length of a bright teal fabric. “I’ve always wanted to build something.”

In the barracks, she lived with 50 women who became her sisters. Not all of them have decided to move on, she says. She’s tried to convince them to enroll in an Amnesty program, to turn the page on their pasts. But not all of them are ready for change.

“If you’re ready to learn and really want change,” she says, “You can make it. But if you’re not ready, you’re not ready.”

Patience “Mama” Clifford, 28  

Patience Clifford has no regrets about the Niger Delta struggle. For her, years of fighting between her people and the government were necessary. And she is fiercely proud of her region.

“We, the Niger Delta people … we realized we have resources that we are not benefitting from,” she says boldly. “So we had to fight for it. We became freedom fighters.”

She says she was fed up with oppressive poverty that had choked the region, all while oil companies were making record-breaking profits off her neighborhood’s oil. It angered her. It tormented her. When she joined one of the guerrilla camps, she believed she was doing the right thing. She stayed there for three years, with about 100 other young women, cooking, tending to the grounds and performing other domestic, menial tasks.

When asked if she helped to carry or clean the guns, she hesitates.

“Is that necessary to know?” she asks.

Five years after the amnesty was brokered, Patience says she is living a better life.

Five of her male relatives died in the struggle. She says everything she does is in memory of those who died during the uprising. And though she wishes they were alive to take part in the amnesty today, she is thankful for the sacrifices they made.

“Before the amnesty, poverty was real,” she explains. “The amnesty program is all about giving a second chance to the less privileged. When we say amnesty, it’s about helping us to be better people.”

Gift Frederick, 23 

(Lauren Bohn/The GroundTruth Project)

“My people were struggling so we had to fight for our rights,” Gift says with a hint of a smile, sly but innocent.

Her eyes are wide, always curiously looking around. In her hands is a book that she can barely read. Gift did not go far in school and she speaks nervously, conscious of her poor speech.

In the winding creeks of the Niger Delta, she learned how to catch fish. In the rowdy markets of her village, she learned how to sell the fish. But the small cash she earned was too little to survive off of, so she decided to join the struggle. Her brothers were already fighting alongside their impoverished friends, so Gift began cooking and washing clothes in one of the guerrilla camps.

But that’s all behind her, she says. She saves most of the 21,000 Naira ($125) she earns every month from the amnesty program. Eventually, she wants to put a payment down for an apartment she will share with her one-year-old daughter.

“One day I will open a place for sewing wedding gowns,” she says.

She blushes when asked about her own wedding gown, looking down at her fingers and shaking her head. She says marriage is a long way off because she comes from a poor background. That’s why she’s determined to become a certified tailor, she says, and make her family proud.

Roseline Dimkpa, 26 

(Lauren Bohn/The GroundTruth Project)

Roseline, vivacious and sassy, refuses to talk about her past. She doesn’t ever talk about it, she says.

“Ask her to sing or dance,” her colleague Florence suggests, breaking a heavy silence that has gathered over them. Few want to open those pages. There’s too much pain, Wealth says.

Roseline doesn’t need a prompt to dance. She soon leans into a group of her colleagues and they all gather around for a quick two-minute shake. They laugh and throw their heads back, lost in a late morning impromptu celebration of nothing specifically, but rather everything.

“One day,” Roseline says, pointing to a group of the women, “I’ll make enough money to buy all of them houses.”

Florence chuckles, “You’ll have to make the governor’s wife a lot of dresses.”

“Or I’ll be the governor,” Roseline declares. She holds a serious, heavy stare for a few moments until finally breaking out into laughter, and soon, another dance.

Kala Kpala, 28 

(Lauren Bohn/The GroundTruth Project)

Kala always laughs. And it’s a laugh that’s contagious, full-bodied and child-like. From her corner of the sewing room, she can command ten women to break out in boisterous uproar. One of her colleagues, Justina, jokes that one day she’ll laugh too hard and she’ll sew her finger into one of the children’s dresses she’s been working on for months. The mood in the room is bright but fragile, as though at any moment the surface could break, revealing a scarred foundation.

Like most of the women, Kala hopes to own her own clothing store. She wants to sell bridal gowns and “fun, short dresses,” but her portfolio from the program consists mainly of children’s clothes.

“Children are so innocent,” she says, putting the finishing touches on a dress for a little girl. “You can always make them laugh. And they can make themselves laugh.”

Her favorite part of the program, she says, has been finding people to laugh with, finding “sisters who want to have fun,” she says. “We haven’t always been able to just have fun.”

Eucharia Chukwu, 32 

(Lauren Bohn/The GroundTruth Project)

Eucharia didn’t always like skirts and dresses. When she was little, she says she only wore pants, refusing to get dressed up for church — a huge sartorial parade of color and individuality in Nigeria.

It wasn’t until she joined the program that she started to enjoy fashion.

“When you get dressed up, you can pretend to be someone else,” she says, wiping away a thick coat of dust that had darkened the edge of her white sewing machine. “You can wear something new and forget the old.”