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Radio Amina and Aisha’s Song are two documentary-style short films produced by Grain Media, a London-based production company, as part of the Girl Effect campaign, a movement that states that the 250 million adolescent girls who live poverty are the most powerful force for change on the planet. Following that theme, Radio Amina and Aisha’s Song focus on two young girls in Kano, the bustling metropolitan Northern Nigerian city. Both films give us glimpses into the lives of underprivileged girls living in the second largest city in Nigeria.
Radio Amina in itself is a passionate plea for an improvement in the education of girls and women in Nigeria by 12-year-old Amina Dibir, a street hawker of beauty products. The film is a visual delight, contrasting the grey and grim reality of Amina’s world with the colour, excitement and possibility of her imagination. While hawking wares, Amina imagines herself hosting her own radio show and using that as a means to speak out on the rights of girls and women in Nigeria. The radio is still one of the most popular means of media broadcast in Northern Nigeria, and is such an effective way for Amina to spread her message widely. On her radio show, Amina gets to say things that she may not say in real life.
I was initially skeptical before watching Radio Amina, worried that it would be like many other Western-produced works on Africa and African stories, which tend to be patronising and one-dimensional. Radio Amina manages to avoid that, and I believe it is due to Amina Dibir’s voice. We’re not watching someone else speaking for Amina or her experiences; rather, it’s as if Grain Media just provided the means and then let Amina take centre stage. Amina’s voice hosting her own radio show makes the effect of the short film even more powerful. You never forget that she is a 12-year-old child, filled with dreams and hopes that society may ignore. Most of the discussions on children on the Northern Nigerian streets I have come across, like this one, tend to focus on male children or the almajiri, with only a sentence or two to remind us that there are girls also working on the streets. Indeed, as Amina succinctly states, it does seem like girls are invisible.
There is a thread of hope to be seen in Radio Amina. Perhaps some will find it jarring when in the end we see Amina wearing a dirty pair of earmuffs and speaking into a hairbrush. However, I felt that the ending was somewhat positive, that the film itself exists suggests that Amina’s dreams have become real, at least partly. Even though she may not have her own radio show, her voice is heard in this short film.
Radio Amina’s sister film, Aisha’s Song is the life story of 18-year-old Aisha Sani Abdullahi, who narrates snippets of her life for the camera. If Radio Amina was vibrant and colourful, Aisha’s Song has a diverse medley of sounds, as the title suggests. The short film opens with an assortment of the different jingles of industrial Kano, from Aisha’s knitting machine, to men washing and beating clothes with a paddle, to the sounds of the market. Aisha lost her sight in one eye when she was 4 or 5 years old, and she started working on the street as a hawker when she was 9 years old, a life that she says was difficult.
Things changed for the better for Aisha when someone came to the islamiyya (the film translates this as mosque but it is more like a Quranic teaching school) she went to and asked the head imam to suggest some girls to be part of an empowerment program. Aisha was chosen and through that she learned how to knit. She now knits and teaches other young girls how to knit. The money that Aisha makes from doing this goes to putting her through school with dreams of being a lawyer so that she can defend the rights of women and girls.
Like Radio Amina, Aisha’s Song is optimistic; one of the last stills show Aisha smiling. This diverges from the trend of portraying African and/or Muslim girls narratives as woeful, helpless and. Both Radio Amina and Amina’s Song avoid falling into the “they are suffering but smiling” camp. Instead, from these films, however short they are, we get to see how complex these young girls are. Through the voices of both girls, the film aims to show policy makers that young girls can go one to achieve great things; they also act as an inspiration to other young Nigerian women like Amina and Aisha.
I wonder about the movies’ penetration in the Nigerian, and wider African media. Orlando von Einsiedel, one of the founders of Grain Media, says in this interview that the film was primarily made for a local audience in Nigeria and that local responses have been generally positive. I also noticed a few Nigerian parts as the ending credits rolled. Radio Amina is still been screened at international film festivals, including TIFF 2012 AND IDFA 2011, so perhaps it will come to a wider Nigerian audience after this run.
Another thing I have wondered is how much influence Amina and Aisha really had on the films about them and their lives. Considering that Grain Media worked with a local NGO on both films, and judging from how unstereotypical the films are, I am quite optimistic in this regard. Radio Amina and Aisha’s Song both bring a breath of fresh air in the portrayal of girls from Northern Nigeria, all while spreading the important message of girls’ empowerment told in the honest manner that children possess.