Journey to the North

By Binfa Kelvin Gono

Binfa Kelvin Gono

Binfa Kelvin Gono

"Congratulations guys, we are going to Maiduguri! So Binfa and Yusuf, I hope you are ready.” These were the words of Dr. Cynthia Ticao the Performance and Project Director at Gede Foundation. After months of hard work, careful planning and negotiations, it was finally time to depart for Maiduguri to help identify Mental Health and Psychosocial Support Needs of Internally Displaced Person’s (IDPs). We were very excited about this project because of its potential at meeting and bringing help to displaced persons in Nigeria. 

After intensive training by Dr. Bonnie Kaiser, the day came for our departure. I can remember how emotional we became as staff came down stairs to bid us farewell. Within hours we were at the airport and boarded the plane to Maiduguri. Just like proud soldiers on a rescue mission, but this time around on a mission to represent the integrity and humanitarian ethics of GEDE Foundation in Maiduguri. I promised myself that I was going to enjoy every bit of my journey and my work in Maiduguri. I watched from the skies as I wondered how Maiduguri will look. How are the displaced persons coping? Will our work be a success or failure?  As I pondered on this, the pilot interrupted my thoughts with an announcement. “Please kindly put on your seat belt as we approach Maiduguri and will be due for landing in 15 minutes.” At that point the excitement within me turned into dread; will we be safe? What if something bad happens? As the thoughts began to trouble me I quickly shifted my eyes to the windows and watched the beautiful landscape of Maiduguri. I watched with keen interest and amazement. Within a few minutes, we landed at Maiduguri International Airport. 

The airport was old with a lot of military presence. The weather was uncomfortably hot but the smiles of the people were charming and heart warming. As we left the airport and drove towards the heart of Maiduguri town, I started having a contrasted view about the Maiduguri we see on the news and the Maiduguri I was seeing on ground. The city had beautiful street lights like the ones found in Paris streets. The road sides were beautifully inter locked as if seeing naked sand was a crime. Business activities looked normal just like any other city I have been to in Northern Nigeria. I could not hold back my curiosity as I kept on asking the driver questions upon questions as they run through my mind.

The following day we had series of meetings and trainings with our partner organization (Catholic Relief Services - CRS). By the third day we were due to go on our first side visit to the communities. As we drove off the city, we started seeing visible signs of the insurgency. Armoured tanks by major junctions, beggars littered every where, people were generally looking shabby than usual while thatched huts were all scattered along the road as we journeyed. I enquired about the thatched huts and was told that those were shelters for the displaced persons. How can someone live in that? I protested as if it was their fault. They looked at me with such eyes that seemed to say “you never see anything” connoting you are yet to see worst. By the time we were at the third community my eyes had seen enough of the discomfort and sufferings. 

Oh poor and wretched people, with a rich mother like Nigeria you are living in rags and calling dried grasses home. Young men were seating idle under the shade of trees with nothing productive to do. Elders looked with such curiosity and I guess wondered what we might have brought to support their plight. Children were looking at us like some radiant stars from the skies. Other children queued up under the hot sun as they waited turns to fetch water. I almost broke into tears as a young boy grab my hands to say hi. I quickly knelt to ask him his name, “Mohammed” he said, with a big beautiful smile. I looked into his cute eyes and was about to ask him how he was doing when he asked, “uncle can I say ABCD”? “Why not?” I responded. “A, B, C, D, ……..Z”, he missed some of the letters but did not care as long as I was listening to him. Other children quickly came around to say hi and recite English alphabets. My heart melted with such joy at the motivation of the children to learn. There is hope at last, I confessed within me.

With the site visits over, the team was eager for their work. Our first day at the field was a distressing one. Here we were eye ball to eye ball, feet to feet and hands to hands talking to the IDPs. Their stories were emotionally overwhelming. They lost love ones, properties, animals etc. Men and women broke down with tears as they shared their experiences. One of the participants noted, “we have been assisted with food but nobody has come to ask us these questions you are asking us.” During psychological debriefing of the research team, it was evident that the experience was hard on us all. I remember one of the research assistants asking me a question, “Mr Binfa, how are we supposed to listen to these people and can’t do anything to help.” It was a feeling of helplessness at the magnitude of stress and distress the IDPs pass through every single day for over three years. 

For the 7weeks we spent with the IDPs, we heard horrible stories, emotionally overwhelming stories, stories that can make a person sick for several weeks. How they are coping with these experiences is a miracle (hopefully the outcome of the research will help us better understand this).  However, mentally some of them are breaking down, attributing everything to God and showing signs of helplessness. For how long will they keep holding on, only time can tell! But one thing is certain, they need help and they need the help now.