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Saving victims of Nigeria’s Boko Haram with art

January 11, 2018
tags:#Kunle Adewale, #Tender Arts Nigeria, #Boko Haram, #Africa, #women's rights, #terrorism, #Nelson Mandela
by:Bob Koigi
In Nigeria - the bedrock of the Islamist group Boko Haram - every facet of the economy continues to reel under the insurgency that has lasted over 15 years. Statistics indicate that in the North East area, where the group is concentrated, the economic impact of the insurgency now stands at $9 billion.

Women, youth and children are the most affected with over 910 schools destroyed and 1500 forced to close between 2009 and 2015. 

Women on the other hand form the bulk of the over 1.8 million internally displaced persons (IDPs). The youth, desperate for jobs are easily being radicalized. One man however is reversing this sorry state of affairs.

Kunle Adewale, the Founder and Executive Director of Tender Arts Nigeria, is using art to heal victims of Boko Haram while giving those who have left the group hope, a stroke of a brush at a time. Over 10,000 victims have already benefitted from his project. He talked to FairPlanet about the motivation behind his campaign, the herculean task of transforming those already radicalised and the payoffs.

FairPlanet: How did you conceptualize using art to fight terrorism and how has been the journey?

I have always dreamt of working in refugee camps as an artist. Taking art to unknown places and interacting with children and youth who are victims of war or natural disaster. My journey into using art to counter-terrorism began in 2015 while I was in the United States of America. I had the privilege of being invited to The National Museum of Africa Art Smithsonian Institution,Washington D.C to discuss my artistic engagement in Africa with the Deputy Director Dr. Kreamer.

It was during the course of my presentation that she noted that I was already using art for healing. Through this means she linked me up with the International Coalition for the Eradication of Hunger and Abuse (ICEHA) an organization that was coming to Nigeria to launch the Healing Through Art for survivors of Boko haram in North East.

So the journey began in the United States while the execution of the project was launched in Adamawa Yola, Nigeria in September 2015. I had the privilege of meeting with the founder of ICEHA Ms Carolyn Ronis who was very inspired by my artworks and integrated me to her team of professionals where I served as the International Director for Healing Through Art.

How many people have benefitted from this art initiative and what are their traits?

Over 10,000 people have benefitted from Healing Through Art program consisting of children, youths, married men and women. These are people who are quite traumatized by the horrific experiences they have had with Boko Haram. Many of them have lost their loved ones, family members and community. They have inferiority complex, lack of confidence, fearful and very withdrawn.

Why did you pick art in your counter-terrorism campaign?

I believe art is a powerful tool to rehabilitate and reintegrate persons affected by terrorism. In the same vein I realized youth that are not positively engaged would become prey not only to terror but also to their local communities.  Under empowered youth are usually cannon fodders for terrorists and I believe art provides empowerment platform to inspire and shape positive attitudes.  

Working with the victims of violent extremism, what has that experience taught you?

Working with victims of violent extremism has taught me empathy, love and compassion for the vulnerable children, youth and women. It has also taught how to use art to create social inclusion for the marginalized and undeserved.

What memorable moment in the cause of your campaign stands out?

My moment with survivors of Boko Haram insurgency is a memorable one and leaving an indelible mark in my heart. I have learnt in giving love, I have received more love. In giving hope I have become more hopeful: This impact is a mutual exchange. Art has helped to break down walls and barriers created by terror, earn trust and build a good relationship with the Internally Displaced Persons in North-East Nigeria.

Tell us about the people you work within this programme. The victims. What is life like for them? How is their emotional disposition when you meet them and how is their journey to transformation?

I work with trained professionals to diagnose and identify children who suffer emotional and developmental disorders by providing therapeutic healing through art and counselling during monthly event. Through ongoing observation and formal assessment, the program identifies children needing treatment of severe Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), symptoms of emotional trauma and delayed cognitive development due the acts of terror inflicted by Boko Haram.

Healing Through Art leads survivors towards the specific message of imagining positive, productive future for themselves; moving beyond a diagnosis of emotional issues towards treatment; children learn techniques and various forms of art by professional artists, and they have the support of professional therapists and trained volunteers as they explore their future potential, and HTA creates a community-wide network of support designed to tackle the complex social problems that exacerbate emotional distress. We also work with internally displaced persons regardless of their religion

What is the most important thing about what you do?

The engine that oils my resolve to heal victims of Boko Haram is passion. Working in very life-threatening and difficult circumstances can be very challenging, but I have not given up in the pursuit of my life purpose in making life better for others through what I do.

How effective is this initiative in ensuring victims or converts don’t go back to these militia groups?

The war against violent extremism is not a solo duty but a collective effort. Healing Through Art is just a fragment of the whole rehabilitation axis for Internally displaced persons. Collaboration with other organization has really helped in ensuring that converts do not retreat to extremism. We partner with other organizations that specialize in the providing, education, entrepreneurship and skill acquisition programs for the youths and women.

The youth are the most vulnerable to radicalisation due to lack of jobs, and because they are easily swayed. As a young person who has worked with them what is your prescription in taming their radicalisation?

Just like the Nelson Mandela has said “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” So my recommendation is education and empowerment for the youth. The government should provide more jobs for the youth and create more skill development centres where entrepreneurship can be taught.  I believe if this is done adequately, radicalisation among our youth will be greatly reduced.  There is also serious corruption in government where state funds meant for community development are being embezzled by elected officials. If we can get our acts right and dedicate public funds to their intended purpose, then the youth would find purpose and a source of livelihood which would curtail radicalisation.

Having interacted with victims or converts of violent extremism in Nigeria, one of the most affected countries, do you think Africa and the world can win the war on terror?

Terror is man-made and there are people in power and organizations profiting from it. Terror is about the powerful oppressing the weak, the rich oppressing the poor, the privileged afflicting the vulnerable. Nothing is impossible, if terror is man-made, it can be controlled and conquered but this would take time and goodwill. To be honest with you, terror cannot end, it can only be controlled.

You are a Mandela Washington fellow, one of the organizations celebrating ordinary people doing extraordinary things. What does that prestigious honour mean to you in your fight against violent extremism?

Being a Mandela Washington Fellow is a privilege that has given me the opportunity to collaborate with local and international organizations in countering violent extremism. We are all stakeholders in waging war against terror, whether you are an artist, a doctor, a teacher, an entrepreneur or a politician. Collaboration is a powerful tool to break the cycle of terror. Leadership is about influence and making use of a given responsibility to make a positive difference. That difference begins right from a locality and then we come together as a nation and one world. I am honoured to be a change-maker in my little space in Nigeria.   

Article written by:
Bob Koigi
Bob Koigi
Author, Contributing Editor
Embed from Getty Images
Women, youth and children are the most affected with over 910 schools destroyed and 1500 forced to close between 2009 and 2015.
Embed from Getty Images
Kunle Adewale, the Founder and Executive Director of Tender Arts Nigeria, is using art to heal victims of Boko Haram while giving those who have left the group hope, a stroke of a brush at a time.
Embed from Getty Images
Taking art to unknown places and interacting with children and youth who are victims of war or natural disaster.
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