When Grace Yakubu peered into the view finder of her first camera in 2012, she regarded it as the first step into her photography career. She did not know that it was also a step into filmmaking.
“As a young child, I was always fascinated by photographs and pictures in magazines,” she tells me over the phone in March. “I was always fascinated by how things were put together to get the picture that was taken. When I was around five or six, my father returned from an international travel and brought a camera. I was fascinated by how you could point a small machine like that somewhere and get that exact place captured.”
Before filmmaking and photography, Yakubu did not always know what she wanted to do. “I got married at a young age and was just lost in my husband’s world,” she tells me. “It was easy to just sit back and enjoy his provision.”
Yet she was one of those people who could not live through routine for a long time, and so she got a job when she was 31. It was as HR at a company. But soon she grew restless again. She was hungry for something that would set her soul in motion. That morning in 2012 that she bought her first camera, she started to devour YouTube tutorial videos on photography.
In 2015, she had the chance to go into TV production. She wanted to do a behind-the-scenes documentary on her photography. But the more she thought about it, the more she felt that it would be a waste of opportunity. “I thought, why just me? Who am I? Where did I come from?” she says.
She then planned to make it about five female photographers in Lagos. But even that decision did not survive ideation, because when she went deeper into its value and larger importance, it could not stand. “It just occurred to me, like, why Lagos?” she says.
She was from Kaduna, in the northern region of the country, and had grown up in Kano, a nearby state. “I mean, there are phenomenal northern women doing phenomenal things. And I just started thinking about my life growing up in Kano. I don’t remember people ever talking to me about my future. It was always about marriage—I know that’s not the same for some northerners but my immediate environment was about just that.”
So she decided she would do a documentary about northern Nigerian women. She had a thing she was looking for. She wanted to tell the stories of women who grew up in an environment similar to hers, under conditions like hers, and yet went ahead to become successful.
“And I am careful with the word ‘successful,’” she tells me. “Successful doesn’t just mean you are popular and famous and rich. Successful also means Maman Sani who stood by her son as he tried to recover from his drug addiction, and who, when he eventually died from the addiction, began to help other young persons get through their own addictions. Successful is Maman Elizabeth in Bauchi who didn’t have anything, but who, when her husband died, had to stand up and take care of her children, and who went ahead to become a graduate. Successful is the story of Aisha Augi who became a photographer early and at a time when it wasn’t cool to be a photographer as a northern woman. The story of Fati Abubakar, who is also a photographer, documenting the stories of ordinary Borno people in the midst of the Boko Haram fight.”
Three years later, Yakubu created Haske Matan Arewa, a documentary series that has now featured over 60 women, one woman per episode. Each season has 13 episodes and there have been four seasons. Yakubu wanted girls in the rural north to see and know that they are capable of greatness, and so all the interviews were conducted in Hausa language, the dominant language of her target audience. Haske also aired on Arewa24, the biggest Hausa-language TV channel in Nigeria. The series has since become a household name for many northerners. “It became so popular that we had big women—governors’ wives—calling in, asking to be on it,” she says.
On set, the first thing Yakubu does is pray. “As a producer and director, you could plan every single thing beforehand and still have certain things go wrong. You can never over-plan.” And then she tries to feel the atmosphere by interacting with her crew, getting re-acquainted with the story she’s there to breathe life into. Where is the story going? Where is it coming from?
“My desire to go into film really was just to broaden my medium of telling stories,” she tells me. “My passion for filmmaking is more in the storytelling than in the technicalities. It is about the story and how it’s told.”
Yakubu has been affected and inspired by all the women she has interviewed, but she is particularly touched by the story of Kyenpian Nyabam, a young lady in Jos who started an orphanage, despite meagre resources, to care for abandoned children with HIV. Nyabam started this in 2006, a time when stigmatization of HIV patients was the norm.
“When we did her episode, I always was in awe of her courage: the ability to know your purpose and stick to it however difficult it is is not glamorous or easy,” Yakubu says. “That episode changed me, it made me push harder at the things that I wanted to do, it made me appreciate my life better.”
Yakubu has people who influence her; she sees them as alternate family members. Maya Angelou is the origin of this family, her “grandmother.” It is her simplicity that Yakubu aspires to. “I am a very complicated person, I think,” she laughs. “So I strive for that simplicity.” She is inspired by Oprah Winfrey, her “mother.” “I find something supernatural about her ability to ask the right questions, connect to people, get people to open up.” She is also motivated by how Ava Duvernay’s work has social justice at its core, something that Yakubu herself is interested in introspecting, “like challenging social biases, prejudices, and the patriarchal system.” Duvernay, she laughs, is her “sister.”
Yakubu is currently producing her first film, Aljana, which translates to “female demon.” It is a Hausa story of how culture and religion punish children who do not fit into societal norms. “Stubborn children, medically challenged (autistic), artistic, creative, weird children,” she explains. “All these children, when not understood by, are punished by them.”
Haske is currently on break, to return by the end of the year. Yakubu hopes for more impact. “I wanted to celebrate our women, I wanted to change minds,” she says. “If a father changes his mind about not sending his daughter to school just by watching an episode of Haske, that makes my life.”
Edited by Otosirieze Obi-Young.