I often hear about how thousands, even millions, of people have been displaced in Nigeria. The numbers, however, are usually rough estimates that are disputed by various stakeholders. Here is my idea for how to determine, as accurately as possible, how many people have been killed, how many are genuinely missing, as well as where exactly the survivors are and even what mischief they get up to on the weekends.

How do you solve a problem?

It is well known that Internally Displaced People (IDPs) are not all concentrated in the camps provided. Some live with relatives, others have been taken in by complete strangers, and still others have been resettled by religious institutions. That’s what makes the job of determining how many people have been killed, how many displaced, where those are currently located, and how they are rebuilding their lives so challenging. As well, we don’t have much in the way of reliable census data, making it a doubly difficult task. For these reasons, I believe it would be much more efficient to gather this data by having each community give accounts of where its members are.

Thus, we should break the problem down into sufficiently manageable parts. In this case, I would divide it by the number of villages involved. This is because larger towns have more robust communication lines set up between its members, making it somewhat easier. Villages, on other hand, can be remote, without formal structures in place, and woefully lacking in technology.

My idea is to use the power of women to determine these numbers. Here are my reasons why:

1. To begin with, women are better able to organize themselves in times of crises than men. Though they may bicker during peace (don’t we all), when there is an emergency, they are better able to work for the common good, despite whatever differences may exist, without coming to blows. This is a major reason why aid stations in Nigeria have been known to distribute food only to women and children, asking the men to stay home and allow the women bring it to them. It’s not just because we’re sexist.

2. Women also tend to share news to each other much more efficiently than men do. The technical term would be decentralized structures of information dissemination, but colloquially, it’s called gossip. Regardless, the benefit here is that most of them already have direct links to each other, facilitating the passage of information through tried and tested nodal networks. Women, especially older women in a rural setting, make it their business to know each and everyone within the community. Men are less likely to do so, possibly fearing that they may intrude on another’s space (us being territorial animals and all), but women tend to not have that fear and are often the first to welcome (read: interrogate) a newcomer.

3. Most women are simply more sensitive to people around them than men are. During times of crisis a man’s natural instinct may be to protect his own, which is great, but leads to a kind of tunnel vision. There is a wonderful story about how Mother Teresa heard about a family with 8 children who hadn’t eaten in days. She took some rice to them. The woman of the house divided the rice in two and took one batch out of the house to a neighbor. As it turns out, the neighboring family was just as hungry. Mother Theresa said that what impressed her most was that, despite her own suffering, this woman was sensitive enough to remember that her neighbors were also going through the same thing, a rare trait.

It may be tempting to scoff at the idea of using gossip lines for serious work, but the idea is not unprecedented. There is a communication protocol in computer networking known as gossip protocol, relying on much the same methods of passing information as human gossip does. It is known in some circles also as epidemic protocol because gossip spreads information in a manner similar to the spread of a biological virus which, as we know all too well, is very efficient. Gossip protocols are particularly useful for searching within a network of unknown size, where the computers are linked to one another and where each machine is running a small agent program that implements a gossip protocol. Exactly…

How It Would Work

So we have established that we need the women to bail us out. But how would it work? Why, technology of course. We do this by distributing mobile phones to select women from every village. The amount of aid money available will determine just how many phones we can distribute, but at the bare minimum, there would need to be two phones for every village. These would be handed to 2 women, whom I shall henceforth refer to as the president and the secretary (just don’t call them that in front of the other women).
The president would be an elderly woman, likely a grandmother, who would be in charge. This is because, if other grandmothers are anything like the ones I have known, they will have a list in their heads of every person who has lived in the village over the past few decades. Also, in anticipation of both difficulties and difficult people, grandmothers tend to command a level of respect that few others can match. They are experienced at settling disputes, capable of calling both men and women to order, and are particularly favored by the younger generations. Thus they possess unparalleled access and negotiating power.
The secretary would be younger, but old enough to command respect among the majority of people. The choice of secretary is critical because she should be able to read, write, plan, organise and manage teams.

And so the first step would be to sit them both down and have them draw up a list, as comprehensive as possible, of everyone who was living in the village in the days and weeks before they were forced to flee. There may be some gaps in this list, but those will be filled over time. It is important that the secretary record these details in the same way that we would expect her to once out in the field. This will act as a test phase for us to see if there are any tweaks that need to be made to the system, and will also allow her to become familiar with using the phone for this purpose.

At the same time, we might need to provide them with some basic training on how to use the features on the phone which matter the most. For the president, we will likely just need to focus on teaching her to make and receive phone calls. Even if she is not literate, it hardly matters. I know some grandmothers who are unable to read or write, but once I saved my number on their phones, they peered at it for a minute until they had memorized the combination of shapes, and have been calling me ever since, without needing to ask anyone for help. The secretary, of course, will need to be able to utilize text messaging so that, when out of network coverage, she can write the messages and press send, then find a way to get the phone to an area with network coverage, in which case most phones will automatically send the message. We will also need to teach the secretary how to use a feature like an Internet-based messaging platform (such as WhatsApp or WeChat, but preferably Telegram). This is necessary for transferring pictures and files. I lean toward Telegram as my app of choice here not just because of its ease of use and lightweight design but also because, while the other platforms are more famous, most do not currently have the capability of sending document files, but Telegram does. This is useful because we would like the secretary to compile the list of names and send to us, but it is difficult to do so in a message. Much easier to open a word processing app, type it all in, and send that file in a message. Pictures will only need to be tagged/captioned with names, which we can then cross-reference on our end. It also provides for better data integrity, such that we can check pictures (and their nametags) alongside the list to see if there are any discrepancies which may have passed the secretary by and then call her attention to it.
Finally, we could put the presidents and secretaries of each village in touch with those of other villages, preferably those closer by geography. They are likely to have overlapping records as well as people from one village who escaped to the next. In so doing, they can help us check further afield for people from their village who may have ended up with those of a different village. Thus, while the secretary focuses most of her energies on writing down the names and details of everyone there (as well as taking their picture, for good measure), the president can be in contact with her opposite number in a different relief camp or village and get details on newcomers as well as some who may have arrived there from different places than the majority.
I also think that we can sweeten the deal a little bit. This could be by providing them with basic medicines for distribution or by enabling them to coordinate or conduct classes where they teach vocational skills or otherwise to other women. This helps to make them a central hub where other women come to get what they need for their family.

Anyway, our job will not be all done and dusted just by enabling the women to do a great chunk of it. As some IDPs fled to larger cities like Maiduguri and Yola, we would need to meet with them, source phone numbers they can be contacted on (or distribute phones to them as well) and put them in touch with those in the camps and those who have returned to their lands. Thus we will have created a wider network which we can tap into for even more data on where everyone is and what state they are in.

And, as the territories which fell to Boko Haram begin to revert back to national control, some of the people who were displaced have begun to return to their homes, even before it is completely safe to do so. A lot of Nigerians are willing to put their lives at risk and be the first to begin rebuilding. Incredibly, most do not even expect any support from the government, probably because they are used to being ignored by it. You will find that they return to their land and begin rebuilding with the help of their neighbors and whatever aid organisations manage to make it to them. But whether any outsiders come to help or not, they will do it themselves, simply because it is their home. Anyway, as the first waves of people go back into these areas, before the flood of the majority returns, I think it is imperative that they go back there with mobile phones. Even though network service is currently disrupted and not likely to be set up soon enough, the ability to take pictures will be one that will benefit them greatly. First of all, recording the damage done is essential to understanding the scale of it. Second, logging (through pictures and videos) the reconstruction efforts is a better way to receive some aid in that area than simply asking for it. But mainly we want them to continue keeping in touch with us and the other women who are part of this project.

Device Matters

A word on the technology to be distributed. We will definitely need to distribute mobile phones. Nothing expensive, just basic phones which have call functionality, text messaging, internet access, a camera for taking pictures, and are not overly sensitive to the odd fall or dunking in water. The camera is necessary so that, when recording who is where, they can take a passport picture of the person and send to us. Internet capability is also necessary, as that goes hand in hand with what we need the camera for. Dual SIM capability would also be very good to have, because of how unreliable networks can be. GPS should be in-built and enabled so that all pictures taken with the phone are tagged with location, and we can keep track of the where the devices are, as may become necessary at some point.
The choice of touchscreen vs. physical keyboard is one that most of us have already decided for ourselves on a personal level long ago, but should, in this case, be determined by how responsive the users would be to them. Each type has its benefits which ought not to be lightly overlooked. For instance, it is much easier to type long lists with a physical keyboard (obviously). But when it comes to manipulating a device, especially when the user may not be so familiar with it or may be unable to read so well for whatever reason, one should not discount the power of visuals. We instantly recognize app icons, hardly realizing that we have stopped reading their names anymore.
While I would like to see the mobile phones have push-to-talk features in order to save up on call charges when in range of each other, it may be a tad extreme to expect people to learn to use a different application when making and receiving calls is so simple. However, such a feature is probably not as necessary as, for instance, ruggedness.
It may be advisable to have one model phone for the presidents (with less features) and a second model for the secretaries. However, they would both need to at least use the same operating system so that anyone who has learned to use one can use the other. Iconic casing (possibly a big logo stuck on the back and a bright, unconventional colour) is also worth thinking about so that the devices are immediately recognizable for what they are. This will help to deter things like theft, because there’s little point in stealing a phone so unique that you cannot use in public and will likely have difficulty selling.
The mobile phones would need to have those basic features, as well as being sturdy enough to take punishment and still function. After a quick search of phone reviews, I would think something like the Kyocera Verve might work.
Electricity is always a problem in Nigeria, even more so in areas that have been as good as destroyed by fighting. Rather than trying to rely on generators and the like, there are other ways that a mobile phone can be charged that do not require expensive recurrent expenditure. Solar chargers are one. There are also devices which can generate power by winding up, rather like how the wind-up radio revolutionized the world. They also come in rugged versions which are waterproof, dust-proof and shock-proof too.

Finally, one should also consider what these tasks will achieve on a personal level. Simply having something to do, and being partly in charge of their own destinies even in this little way, will likely give the women involved a sense of empowerment. By taking charge, making a difference and being part of something bigger than their individual selves, they will be better able to find their sense of self-worth, rather than sitting passively by and waiting to become victims of the abuse that is not uncommon in camps.

There are many methods of gathering data, and many methods of empowering women in conflict situations. My belief is that bridging both objectives is possible and probably more cost efficient. The old saying about teaching a man to fish applies to women too, and it rings true because involving people in the building of their own lives makes it their own. Especially considering that we would not be asking them to do much more than what they already do so well.