Ruth McDowell – Malaiku

Hannah, 15 years Boko Haram stormed into my house on the night of the 28th of September 2013. I was in a deep sleep, they asked my sister, mother and I to come outside. My father was not around at the time. They asked our names and upon hearing our Christian names they decided to take me away. I am the daughter of a pastor, and at the time I was only 14 years old. When I left the house with them, they burnt a church and then journeyed for two days to reach their camp in the Gwoza hills, it was a long and difficult journey. Once I reached the camp I was forced to join Islam, given a new name and they married to one man. I managed to escape one night with two other girls. I am still struggling with the memories but I am trying to focus and to continue with school and become a business woman.

Ruth McDowall


I am openly embraced by three young ladies running up to me greeting me as Aunty Ruth. During five years living in northern Nigeria, I have seen many haunted faces, but these girls look different, haunted and also broken. I wanted to photograph them looking like the strong resilient survivors they are, but as they sat slumped in their chairs, I had the heart breaking realization that at such a young age these beautiful young people have lost their innocence and experienced the worst of humanity They are just a few of the many youth that have been abducted by the Islamic extremist group Boko Haram. Boko Haram has been rapidly increasing attacks in Northern Nigeria. Sadly young girls and boys have now become a target. Girls are used for tactical reasons and a form of punishment to them and their communities. And hundreds of young boys have been taken to use as fighters, and indoctrinate them in Boko Haram ideologies. Up to 500 girls have been abducted since as far back 2009 from the north-eastern Borno and Yobe states.

Boys and girls have been abducted while, travelling on the roads, attending school, working on farms, and from their homes during attacks on villages. They are put through psychological abuse, forced labour, forced marriage, forced to convert to Islam, and become victims of sexual violence and rape. Boko Haram are taking young people on operations and teaching them to carry ammunitions and eventually to kill. A recent development is young girls being sent out as suicide bombers. There are now reports coming out from escaped abductees that the Chibok girls still in captivity are now notorious fighters Some have been fortunate to escape however many still remain captive. The Chibok attack on April 14, 2014 was the largest case of abductions, with 276 girls taken, 57 managed to escape. It brought the attention of the world on Nigeria, and to the atrocities carried out by Boko Haram.

Escapees of the Chibok attack have received some counseling and educational scholarships however there remains a serious lack of support for girls and boys abducted before and after Chibok. They urgently need post trauma counseling as they struggle with the memories, and many no longer attend school fearing they will be kidnapped again. Many of the girls that escaped are now stigmatized, and often relocate to new towns as they ostracized by their neighbors. It is not uncommon for abuses against children and youth to go unprosecuted in Nigeria. A code of silence prevents justice taking place, robbing them of their rights as the victim. More often than not youth bare the brunt of conflict.




Ruth McDowall is a New Zealand born photographer, She studied fine arts at Elam art school Auckland, New Zealand. In 2008 she travelled to northern Nigeria, creating a project teaching street kids photography. Her documentary photography started from these initial years immersed in the city of Jos. She has now lived in Africa for 7 years. In 2015 she received a Photo Reporter Grant to complete a project about youth that escaped abduction by Boko Haram in Nigeria. This project was selected as Times best 10 photo essay of the month, a finalist in Lensculture visual story telling awards 2015 and featured on New Yorker Photo Booth and National Geographic Proof. Some of her clients include Time, Newsweek, Telegraph, Elle, The Guardian, Le Telegrame, IO Donna, and Jeune Afrique, Heinrich Boll Foundation, Al Jazeera magazine, Buzfeed, Glamour,UNESCO, Action Aid and UNICEF. Realizing the limits of photography she also continues her work with street youth in Nigeria.


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Ruth McDowall

3 Responses to “Ruth McDowell – Malaiku”

  • I wasn’t as taken by this until reading the intro.
    It’s dark, stark and striking.
    The profile orientation of the portraits has a nice, unique effect.
    I feel for the humanity so much less fortunate than me.

    Ruth, I hope your efforts help and make our world a better place.

  • It’s great to try to shed light on such a tragedy, and I’m guessing no faces are shown due to fear of repercussions, but still, I don’t think the faceless victims strategy works. More I fear it may perpetuate the faceless victims problem. Better, I’d think, to go the more traditional route and put a face on the tragedy so that people can better identify with the victims. Not easy, I know, and maybe not even possible.

  • I think it’s a fantastically sensitive project. I don’t find the hidden faces produce a ‘faceless victim’ narrative at all. What I do see is a symbolic image of the introspection and insecurity that follows a devastating event. We close in on ourselves and hide away, gnawed at by fear and shame, trying to come to terms.

    I want to comfort the subjects. To have them turn toward me. To say “It’s ok…”, the words you reach for when it’s not. To offer a gentle touch. I can’t, but there is such gentleness in the light that it’s almost kind. It’s a kind of hope.

    Really beautiful, sensitive work. Thank you.

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