MAIDUGURI, NIGERIA - In a brand new, two-story building adjacent to a sluggish stream and low-cost housing units, dozens of women, all draped in brightly colored hijabs, listen to their teacher.
He speaks to them in a mix of Hausa and Kanuri, explaining to them how they can save money and pool it together to form a cooperative. For these women, this class is the answer to helping transform their lives.
Some of the women are wives of terrorists, members of the extremist group Boko Haram, which has ravaged northeastern Nigeria and the surrounding region since 2009. Most of the women are widows, struggling to provide for their children after their husbands were killed. Others say their husbands are in government custody.
All of them say they face stigma in their communities.
“People are afraid. Some people, because of who they think my husband was, they won’t even like to help me,” says Aisha Ali, a mother of eight children.
Seeking financial independence
Ali’s husband was killed by Nigerian security forces, and she wants to dissociate herself from Boko Haram. Like her classmates, she realizes that she needs to gain business skills because some in her neighborhood are too afraid to give her financial assistance.
Ali has been coming to the Future Prowess women’s skills training center to learn weaving. She sits, stringing thread around the needles of an old-fashioned loom. All of her financial hopes lie in mastering weaving.
“This training that I am receiving will help me and my children and, if possible, help me take them to school and end my suffering,” Ali tells VOA.
The Future Prowess Islamic Foundation School not only teaches business and artisanal skills to women, but a local nongovernmental organization also runs a school for some of their children.
“Some of them, their parents were killed in their presence,” says Suleiman Aliyu, the headmaster of the school. “First, at the beginning of any session before any enrollment we try to organize a trauma session for the new ones that will be enrolled plus their mothers.”
The school, which receives aid from donor agencies, operates on trust and confidentiality, so teachers do not disclose information about which students are the children of Boko Haram members. Students also are fed breakfast so they can concentrate in class.
The effects of Boko Haram’s insurgency are evident across the Borno State capital of Maiduguri, which is the birthplace of the group. Some schools are still undergoing renovation after attacks. Thousands of internally displaced persons are still in the camps dotting the city.
Since 2009, the Boko Haram insurgency has destroyed homes, crops and infrastructure, causing about $9 billion worth of damage in northern Nigeria, according to the World Bank and the federal government.
But the damage and trauma on the lives of people who call the region home cannot be quantified.
The women here are not aware of the extent of their husbands’ crimes or involvement with the sect.
Support program for the women
Back at the training center, widows of Boko Haram members work alongside widows of men who were killed by Boko Haram.
Initially, getting the women to sit together was a challenge. They were required to participate in a psycho-social support program to talk about the violence they experienced.
“So that they can mingle with each other. This is what happened, this is how it happened, and this is how you guys are to play with each other. This one is not the one that killed you, this one is not the one that killed,” Kamil Issa, the administration assistant for the Future Prowess training program for women, said, in describing the discussions the women underwent.
Hadiza Ali, whose Boko Haram husband died of a heart attack four years ago, is already seeing positive results after a short time attending the training sessions.
“Even right now, I’ve been making bags and I sold some four bags and six small purses so this will go a long way,’” Hazida Ali said.
She uses her feet to pump the pedal of a Singer sewing machine to carefully stitch a hemline. Next to her, other women focus on their work, but they still laugh and joke together.
It’s small steps, such as learning new skills, that the women hope will give them a fresh start, taking them away from a life of terror and violence, to a life of financial security and unity.