Playing for peace in Nigeria

Girls participating in a skipping rope race.

Last month, International Alert, UNICEF and Herwa Community Initiative, organised a series of sporting activities for hundreds of girls and boys living in four of the largest displacement camps in northeast Nigeria.

The activities, ranging from football matches to athletics, provided a safe environment for the children to play together, and helped support their psychological welfare and foster a sense of community in the camp setting.

Boys in a ‘fair play’ handshake before a football match.

Since 2014, the escalation of insurgency by Jamāʻat Ahl as-Sunnah lid-daʻwa wal-Jihād (commonly known as Boko Haram) has led to an increase in the number of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in the northeast to almost 2 million. According to UNICEF, more than half of them are children.

Children and young people are especially vulnerable in such circumstances, as it exposes them to violence and uproots them at a time when their lives most need stability. For displaced children, sport and other group activities can therefore play a healing role, bringing in a sense of normality and helping address issues such as trauma, isolation and lack of purpose. In the case of children born of sexual violence by Boko Haram, life in the displacement camps after captivity is particularly challenging, as they are stigmatised as having ‘bad blood’ according to the joint report by International Alert and UNICEF.

This is why Alert and its partners decided to hold these games as part of their ongoing project to support victims of Boko Haram. The games, which included football matches and skipping rope, basket and sack races, drew in many participants.

Celebration after victory.

The impact of these activities can best be seen in the pictures, which show the children smiling and celebrating their wins, and even more children turning up in huge numbers to watch the games and cheer on their favourite team.

As a volunteer sports coach from one camp told us:

“You have put smiles on the faces of these children once again. We appreciate what the project is doing for the camp. As you can see, no child is keeping to his or herself; they have forgotten their ordeals.”

Among the participants were several girls who experienced sexual violence at the hands of Boko Haram. Sadly, these girls are often viewed with mistrust by their own communities. The activities therefore not only helped support their healing process, but gave them a chance to interact with others without fear of stigma.

Girls participating in a basket race.

Aisha, a female sports coach, said:

“This sports initiative has changed the lives of girls in the camp, especially for those who experienced sexual violence at the hands of Boko Haram. Hopefully, this has opened up avenues for integrating these girls back into their communities.”

Abubakar, another facilitator, echoed these words:

“It’s the girls that baffle me, because most of them have been introverts and have refused to associate themselves with other girls before this match. But, now every girl is laughing.”

It was clear that differences separating most of the children on account of background or place of origin were soon broken down. Ibrahim, a 57-year-old community member, said:

“This has brought unity among the youths in the camp. Look at them: they act like they already know each other, despite the fact that we are all from different areas of the northeast.”

The games also drew in adults, reinforcing an overall sense of community in the camps. Elderly people and even security personnel at the gates joined in the fun.

As Gana Ali, a volunteer football coach, told us:

“Now we know that we are part of society. This sporting activity has reduced the level of our negative thinking about what happened to us as a result of the insurgency. We now feel as if we are back home, in Bama.”

A total of 1,072 boys and 432 girls took part in these activities. Hundreds more children and adults also attended the games as supporters.

More such initiatives have been requested, especially by the displaced persons themselves, including table tennis, volleyball and athletics, as well as inter-camp matches to further create friendships and reduce tensions.