Nigeria's Nansen award winner offers lifeline to widows of Boko Haram conflict

Mustapha's foundation helps women and children start over after tragedy.

Hamzatu Amodu Buba, 30, is a widow with four children. Her husband was killed by Boko Haram.
© UNHCR/Rahima Gambo

Hamzatu Amodu Buba was expecting her brother-in-law’s wedding to be a joyous occasion.

Instead, it almost ruined her life.

Insurgents from Boko Haram, who have brought turmoil to much of north-east Nigeria in recent years, had blocked the road between two villages. Her husband, Usman, a primary school teacher was pulled out of the car.

“They asked him for ID, but he did not have it… they just shot him dead. They took the car and drove off, leaving me and two wives of other brothers on the side of the road,” she said.

“It was baking hot, and we thought we might die.”

Hamzatu was four months pregnant. “It was baking hot, and we thought we might die. We were there for two hours with no water before a man on a motorcycle came by. He sped off to the next village and told them what had happened and they came and got us.”

That was four years ago. “June 6, 2013,” she said, recalling the day her life changed forever in an instant.

Alive, but now widowed with four children, soon to be five, Hamzatu had faced a bleak future. With little formal education and limited access to funds, widows in Nigeria can face extremely challenging situations if the main breadwinner is suddenly removed. Finding a lifeline can be all but impossible.

Hamzatu’s deceased husband’s relatives rallied around, but with their own families to take care of, there were limits to the support they could offer.

“Usman’s elder brother took care of me until I gave birth, but then he moved to Kano (capital of a neighbouring state), and we lost contact,” she recounted. “He moved ahead with his own life.”

Hamzatu at the entrance of her home in Maiduguri.   © UNHCR/Rahima Gambo

In time, Hamzatu made her way to Maiduguri, the capital of Borno State, where she had other relatives. Life was tough, but because her husband had been a state employee she initially received a small state pension. That dried up after six months.

“It is all about lifelines – finding hope again.”

Then, she heard through others in a similar situation of the Future Prowess Widows’ Cooperative Society, set up by Zannah Mustapha, the 2017 winner of UNHCR’s prestigious Nansen Refugee Award. The association groups widows together, offering them support collectively and individually to start their lives again.

“It was enough to find a place to live, and get started again,” she explained.

In an interview with UNHCR, Mustapha explained the motives behind the organization. “It is all about lifelines, that is what we aim to do – help people get a living again. Once they have that, they have hope again.”

Hamzata’s 10-year-old son, Aliyu Usman, was accepted at Mustapha’s primary school, which takes diplaced orphans and vulnerable children created by the insurgency that began in the early 2000s but exploded into major violence in 2009. Some 2.3 million people have been displaced and more than 20,000 killed.

Thanks to the cooperative, Hamzatu also managed to apply for a grant from the ICRC which she used to set up a small vegetable juice business. She also makes the traditional hats worn by men in northern Nigeria.

“Life is so much better. Life is still tough but I am hoping now to be able to save and in time afford my own shop where I can sell the products I make… Mustapha has helped is all so much, he is so good,” she said.

Mustapha will receive the award at a special ceremony in Geneva on Monday, October 2.