As a member of Oxfam’s emergency response staff, I often live in one location but work in another. Sometimes it’s because I am working across several different sites and live somewhere convenient for them all, and sometimes it’s because it’s not safe to live in the place that I work.
For the last six months, I have been living in a town called Biu, in Southern Borno, North Eastern Nigeria. I have been working in Damboa, a town two hours’ drive away from Biu, that was attacked and nearly destroyed by Boko Haram two years ago.
People started returning to Damboa around a year ago, but in the last six months the town’s population has grown rapidly. Some have returned to their own homes after fleeing from the Boko Haram attack; others are renting or squatting in empty houses. The rest –now nearly 15,000 people in Damboa alone – are living in camps with nothing and nowhere else to go.
When Oxfam first started working in Damboa it was not considered safe enough for Oxfam staff to move there and stay overnight. Things have improved a lot in Damboa over the last four months and soon our team will move there, but until then, we drive to and from Damboa every day.
The two hour drive is both beautiful and sad. Arid bush land stretches out for miles either side of the road, punctuated by small villages, herds of long horned cattle driven by Fulani herdsmen, and incredible birds in every colour. Giant baobab trees stretch up into the sky, laden with dust from the Harmattan winds. Occasionally you see a Lawan or Bulema – the traditional leader of a village or town – riding his horse through the bush, his billowing traditional robes making him a striking sight.
As we get closer to Damboa, there are abandoned villages, the earth around them scorched as the Nigerian military burn away the bush to gain better visibility in case of possible Boko Haram attacks. In some of the houses you can still see the cooking and water pots left behind by those who have fled; in some of the buildings you can still see the bullet marks of recent conflict.
We pass through military checkpoints. At first, these were a little scary – in all of my security training I’ve been taught that checkpoints are where so many things can go wrong – but now the soldiers know Oxfam and they understand what we do, so they wave us through with a thumbs up, or sometimes stop up to have a chat, their AK47s slung over their shoulders.
When we reach Damboa, the town is bustling. Previously home to 50,000 people, it has almost doubled in size. Since I started working here, I’ve already seen big changes that mean life is slowly getting better: the roads are busier, shops are reopening and rebuilding, and small recreational spaces – like pool tables, music stores and football pitches – are cropping up. Despite their circumstances, people are warm and welcoming.
The limited time we have in Damboa each day is spent building toilets, constructing water pipelines, training water committees and distributing soap, laundry powder, blankets and other items to people who have just arrived and have nothing. We have to work as quickly and effectively as we can before getting back in the car for another two hour journey back to Biu.
Read more about me and my job here