In Nigeria, documentary films spark social change

Why We Wrote This

After a mass eviction in one of Nigeria's biggest cities, the grass-roots art project Chicoco sprang to life to stop government-sponsored evictions and give communities a voice. 

Innocent Eteng
Prince Peter is one of 40 community volunteers in Port Harcourt, Nigeria, who is documenting and fighting forced evictions with art.

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Nigeria’s Niger Delta is rich with natural resources. But most of its residents live in 49 waterfront shack communities. In 2008, the local government announced that it was going to demolish them in order to expand a glittering business district. Within one week in August 2009, the community of Port Harcourt, on the Atlantic coast, had been reduced to rubble and 19,000 people rendered homeless. 

Filmmaker Michael Uwemedimo, who was working in the area, got a call from Amnesty International. Soon his footage of the aftermath was circling the globe. In 2010 Mr. Uwemedimo took his work to another level: He started the Collaborative Media Advocacy Platform to train local artists and activists in using cinema, radio, and music for social change. One outgrowth: the community art project Chicoco, named for the dark-brown mud of the Niger Delta. Today, the organization screens its own films about the communities – alongside global stories on evictions, housing rights, peaceful resistance, and inclusive development. 

Besides encouraging people in the settlements to think differently about themselves, CMAP’s projects work to change outside perceptions. “Chicoco has been a fantastic … tool for community mobilization,” says the director of a regional nonprofit. “Waterfront communities have been able to improve their lives,” he says, “and halted further efforts to demolish their communities.”

Every morning, as dawn breaks through the gritty black smog encasing Nigeria’s Port Harcourt, Prince Peter hangs a Lumix GH4 camera around his neck and walks out of his house in search of his next story.

If he is not filming acts of forced eviction in the city, he is chronicling life in one of its waterfront shantytowns for the documentaries he regularly produces.

“I see this [camera] as my eyeglass,” he says. “In the case of forced evictions, instantly, I must be there.”

Mr. Peter knows those stories intimately. After his own house and barbershop were demolished under the pretense of a sweeping “urban development plan” in 2009, he was homeless and unemployed for nearly a year. But now, he’s one of about 40 community volunteers documenting and fighting forced evictions with art. 

Founded in 1912 by British colonial administrators as the launching point for coal flotillas destined for Europe, Port Harcourt is a city of 3 million on the Atlantic coast in Nigeria’s oil-rich Niger Delta.

But despite the region’s rich natural resources, nearly half a million of its residents live in 49 waterfront shack communities, crammed with rickety zinc-roofed houses that have poor ventilation. 

Reduced to rubble

These settlements have long been an eyesore for the local government, which announced in 2008 that it was going to demolish them in order to expand its glittering business district into a Dubai-like ultramodern city. 

In August 2009, bulldozers flanked by armed soldiers arrived at the Njemanze waterfront, where Peter lived. Within a week, the entire community had been reduced to rubble. About 19,000 people were rendered homeless, and 12 protesters were shot by soldiers. 

At the time, documentary filmmaker Michael Uwemedimo was in town working on a film project, and he got a call from Amnesty International. They asked if he would visit the demolished community and film the violent eviction’s aftermath. 

Soon, his footage was circling the globe as part of Amnesty’s worldwide dignity campaign against forced displacements. But it also found an audience closer to home. 

In the weeks after the eviction, Mr. Uwemedimo, who is a dual citizen of Britain and Nigeria, began traveling to communities in the area with an inflatable screen to show them the scenes he had filmed in Njemanze. The reaction was powerful.

“Suddenly, they recognized themselves as recognized,” says Uwemedimo, a lecturer at the University of Roehampton in London. “They realized they could use this camera as an instrument to tell their story.”

With that in mind, in 2010 Uwemedimo started the Collaborative Media Advocacy Platform (CMAP), in part to train local artists and activists in using cinema, radio, and music for social change.

The group called their community art project Chicoco, after the dark-brown mud found around the Niger Delta’s mangroves and swamps. The name echoes the history of Port Harcourt’s waterfront shantytowns, which were built using the mud to reclaim swampland on the city’s peripheries.

Since then, volunteers have received a three-year training in journalism, technical maintenance, on-air operations, production skills, and audio engineering.

Today, the organization has its own mobile cinema, which tours waterfront neighborhoods each week, screening films about the communities alongside global stories on evictions, housing rights, peaceful resistance, and inclusive development.

Musicians trained by the group, meanwhile, produce songs in local pidgin tailored toward encouraging potential and actual victims to speak up. They perform each Sunday in the waterfront shack communities.

“The government and big people think whatever they say is what should stand in the country and state, but we use our songs to tell them, ‘We are not zombies,’ ” says Sira Dumedam, a Chicoco singer.

Besides encouraging people in the shack settlements to think differently about themselves, CMAP’s projects also try to change outside perceptions. Dramas on Chicoco Radio feature soap opera-like story lines that show shack dwellers as decent, hardworking people. The narratives also dramatize the grating effects of the constant police raids that many shack communities are subject to.

“Chicoco has been a fantastic and effective tool for community mobilization. Through it, waterfront communities have been able to improve their lives and halted further efforts to demolish their communities,” says Ken Henshaw, executive director of We the People: a Center for Social Studies and Development, a nonprofit working with marginalized communities in the Niger Delta. “Most importantly, Chicoco Radio has become a rallying point for information and engagement, providing a platform for people to strengthen community ties and resilience.”

No more government-sponsored evictions

Since 2009, there have been no further government-sponsored evictions in Port Harcourt, which some activists credit at least in part to Chicoco’s awareness-building art campaigns. But private land grabs and evictions have continued, and despite Chicoco’s success, the organization doesn’t have enough resources “to run training programs for all who would like to receive them,” says Ana Bonaldo, CMAP’s director of media programs, who quit as a BBC conflict correspondent and audio engineer to train Chicoco volunteers.

Still, for those involved, the program has been life-changing. 

“If we had a voice like Chicoco [in 2009], I think that the [Njemanze] demolition would not have come up,” says Peter.

• For more, visit www.cmapping.net.

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