The project “Education is Forbidden” came out of my need to understand what it means to be a student living in the midst of the Boko Haram conflict in northeastern Nigeria.

Boko Haram, which loosely translates to “Western Education is Forbidden,” began as an insurgency in 2009 with the aim of creating an Islamic state purged of all Western influence—especially secular education.

The insurgents have directly targeted schools, universities, teachers and students. Thousands of students have been abducted, displaced and killed by the group. Schools are supposed to be neutral safe spaces where knowledge is transferred to students, and yet in Nigeria today, entering their walls means entering places of uncertainty and fear.

As I began the work, I found there was a schism between the representation of students in the media and the reality of their aspirations, memories, and fears. To that end, I used illustrations from Nigerian schoolbooks and snippets of other media imagery in order to create a more abstract portrait of these students. I was thus able to touch on themes of transience, memory, history and trauma throughout this series.

Statistics and reports alone cannot convey the anxiety and vulnerability of a student who feels unsafe. A violently pockmarked blackboard exposed over a portrait of a schoolgirl can only begin to communicate the lingering trauma and infrastructural decay evoked by the conflict.

—Rahima Gambo

Editors’ Note: This project was recognized by the jury of the LensCulture Emerging Talent Awards 2016—don’t miss the work from all 50 of these outstanding, international talents!

For more information about this series, please visit its dedicated website.

If you’d like to see more projects on this and similar topics, we’d recommend the following articles: Malaiku, a series on the Nigerian schoolgirls who managed to escape from Boko Haram and their subsequent return to everyday life; Glenna Gordon’s project on the clothing, items, and notes left behind by those who weren’t as lucky; and School Portrait Rwanda, a hopeful look at education in Rwanda more than two decades after the horrific genocide.