Paint parties support mental health in northeast Nigeria
With support from UNICEF and the Norwegian Government, a teenager is deploying art therapy to help vulnerable children in north-east Nigeria cope with the scars of conflict.
A tall, lanky teenager stands in the middle of a temporary learning space inside the Hajj Camp in Maiduguri, north-east Nigeria. She looks around the room. About 100 conflict-affected children sit on a mat, painting on pre-drawn canvasses. Stroke after stroke, the children accomplish their task with water colours and petite brushes. Still watching, the teenager – Adama Amal Mohammed – moves from one child to another to provide support.
“The children are expressing their feelings,’’ said Adama who is fondly called Amal.
“If I were to ask them to tell me their stories, they could be reluctant. But they can draw or paint their emotions. Art is a therapy for anyone but even more important to help conflict-affected children deal with trauma,’’ she said.
No doubt, Adama knows the therapeutic value of art. Like the children, the 18-year-old’s painting journey started when she was much younger. Born in 2004, Adama was five years when conflict broke out in Maiduguri, north-east Nigeria. Thirteen years after, more than 300,000 children have been killed directly or indirectly through malnutrition. Thousands of other children have been displaced and left in need of mental health support.
As an introvert, Adama says drawing and painting helped her cope with trauma at the height of the conflict.
“Schools were closed on many occasions when I was in primary school. There were days when we would be on the way to school and gunshots would start. We were terrified that something bad could happen. My siblings and I had to relocate to our aunt’s house near our school.
“We had to be separated from our parents so that we could attend school. That helped but did not stop the gunshots and bombings. Many times, we would be in class and the gunshots would start. Children living nearby would hurry home while others would have to stay put in school. I experienced all these as a child and it has helped me to understand and empathise with the children,’’ said Adama.
From a personal coping therapy, Adama’s talent has grown into a purpose. In partnership with the Borno State Government and UNICEF, the teenager is helping vulnerable children at the camp cope with the traumatic experiences of conflict. Over 5,000 of the 14,000 population at the camp are children. While many of the children live in the shelters with their parents, a large number are unaccompanied or have been orphaned by the conflict.
Art-based activities are proven to help conflict-affected children deal with anger management, anxiety, feelings of helplessness and other traumatic effects of conflict. The paint sessions are helping the children to express a range of emotions towards improving their mental health.
For a start, about 150 children at the camp are enrolled for a thrice-weekly paint parties funded by the Norwegian Government. To support the children, Adama leverages a mix of imaginative drawing sessions and other sessions with reference pictures painted on pre-drawn canvasses.
Adama credits Mohammed Bulama, her secondary school art teacher and her mom for supporting her talent.
“For me, success would be when the children start to paint positive expressions. I want to see them happier and I want them to have a change in their orientations. I plan to host more painting sessions to support them and reach more children,’’ she said.