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In 2015, Ngarannam, in Borno, was destroyed by Boko Haram. Its surviving community is among the 1.8 million people who have been internally displaced by the terrorist insurgency across the northeast Nigerian state. In recent years, the Borno government decided to close all of its internally displaced persons camps, a move that has caused as much concern (many fear that IDPs will be left to fend for themselves) as it has signalled a transition to a more peaceful time. To fast-track the rebuilding of communities razed by Boko Haram, include the new Ngarannam settlement, the state has collaborated with the United Nations Development Programme for the masterplanning of these resettlements, as well as the organization of social infrastructure, from providing residents with business and agriculture grants to ensuring their access to education and health care.

Designed by Tosin Oshinowo of Lagos-based cmDesign Atelier, the Ngarannam settlement consists of 564 homes (with 240 to come) arranged in a gated grid, as well as a school for children, a marketplace for locals to sell their wares, healthcare facilities, a police headquarters and other much-needed security structures — all serving 3,000 people, who were able to watch the buildings go up from their nearby IDP camp. In this interview, we chat with Oshinowo and the UNDP’s Nigeria resident representative, Mohamed Yahya, about how the project came to be, what drove its design and how the community is adjusting.

How did the Ngarannam settlement come about?

Mohamed Yahya

To give you some background, the northeastern part of Nigeria has experienced over 12 years of an ISIS-type terrorist insurgency. They go to places that have seen deprivation; they don’t go to places where there is a high level of education or opportunities. So what do we do more than a decade after? What lessons have we learned in engaging and pushing back the growth of violent extremism around the world? The UNDP’s perspective is that the root cause is lack of opportunities and development — failure of development — and the solutions will also be found in bringing about development, basic services, security, sense of dignity to people, education, health, et cetera. So out of that concept, we started small in a few very volatile areas that have been impacted, like Ngarannam, which was completely devastated. Then the idea was, can we do three things: Can we bring about security? Can we bring livelihood and basic services back? And can we give people an opportunity to contribute to how their communities are built?

The essential part of stabilization is to bring the state back, the government back, through security services, especially civilian policing, but also through health education and other non-military things. We included the community in reimagining their own town. And this is the role Tosin played — an important role engaging with the community. Because we wanted to do something different here: not only to rebuild and give people opportunity to start their life but to give them dignity.

The homes of the Ngarannam settlement are arranged in a grid. Each home is fronted with an anteroom building that protects women’s privacy. Photo by Tolulope Sanusi
Tosin Oshinowo

When I was brought in, in November 2020, I had never been to the northeastern parts of Nigeria in my life. It was an adventure. You tell anyone in Lagos you’re going to the North East, they look at you like, Are you okay? But this is really important work; it really is an opportunity to impact the whole community. So I went up and I met a lot of different people: government stakeholders and the commissioner for housing, obviously the UNDP team that I would be working with, and the community. I also met a local curator who was quite instrumental in helping me to understand the Kanuri Islamic culture and why it was important to really think about how to appropriately plan spaces for their programmatic life. I also visited existing buildings — including traditional buildings. I am Nigerian, but not of the north. So this was a culture I really needed to understand.

A woman stands in front of her home in Ngarannam settlement
Photo by Tolulope Sanusi

What was the first meeting with the community like?


That initial meeting was actually in school. There was a lot of hustling to get the classroom open and to put the air conditioning on. And I said, No, no, no, there’s no need for us to go into a classroom that needs to be prepped and cleaned and air-conditioned; let’s sit under the tree. And so we sat there. And that was also my first understanding that they’ve actually got a really beautiful climate here. And if we design appropriately, it could be a very comfortable place to live. Also, in that process of meeting with them, I learned that, culturally, men and women do not sit together. So you first meet with the men, and then you meet with the women. The husbands would be more concerned with, Will I have grazing land? The women were concerned about spaces to sell their wares and about spaces for their children to play safely.

I also asked them, What colour would you like your buildings? One of the school buildings has a brown colour that is used for a lot of government projects; it’s an easy, standard mix that you can get from most paint manufacturers. But because I had been around the area, and I had seen that the traditional buildings are very close to this colour, which is the natural colour of the soil, I realized that this was an important point to note — that they were looking more for nostalgia. And so it became very clear to me that we will be producing contemporary buildings, but as much as possible we had to try and put elements of culture, elements of the familiar.

What are the buildings in the Ngarannam settlement made of?


Time and cost were big constraints. At one point, I wanted to use earth logs — but that wasn’t going to work; it would have taken too long and the people needed to move quickly. So we used a very standard construction of sandcrete blocks. They’re made from a sand and cement mix and are hollow in the middle — it’s standard Global South construction. Most people know how to do that kind of construction; it’s easily locally available. We had a variety of contractors to speed the construction, and they were all given the same drawings; that way, we could control at least the design elements. For the ceilings, we used willow reed, a long grass that, when dried and cut in half, can be woven together. In terms of construction methodology, we were very particular to ensure proper ventilation: A simple process of doing a gable roof and having a set of ventilation holes on either side makes a really comfortable space in the interior. So we’re really thinking about how people live. It’s very hot in the afternoon here, so a canopy cover had a very important role, particularly for the marketplace and even in the dwelling units to create external shaded areas.

The marketplace at the Ngarannam settlement
The marketplace features awning systems the provide shade. Photo by Tolulope Sanusi

Tell me about the murals that adorn the exterior of the public buildings in the Ngarannam settlement.


This was the most exciting part. I’m so obsessed with these Bama caps, which I’d seen before but I didn’t realize they’re actually from this region of Nigeria. This type of headwear is actually sewn locally by women from this particular community and each one takes about three to four weeks; they are so beautiful, and they’re all different, like fingerprints. And so we created this series of murals that will be in the clinic and the school, and we have a little kind of iconography above the residential buildings. These were done by a local contractor–artist based on a series of design iterations that I had developed from patterning that I had seen on different caps. This is very much synonymous with their culture, but to take them from the scale of a cap and put them on a building has a completely different kind of referencing. For kids in this environment, many of whom have grown up in a camp, it reorientates their understanding of who they are, their culture and the possibilities of prosperity and of being in a stable environment.

Cattle are seen in this aerial shot of the Ngarannam settlement
The provision of ample land for cattle grazing was important to the men returning to the Ngarannam settlement. Photo by Niyi Fagbemi

My next questions are about security and opportunity. Architecturally, the homes are arranged in a sort of walled grouping with a smaller building at the entrance to each house. Is that structure for security?


Actually, no. It’s cultural — and it’s really fascinating. It’s a reception dwelling where male visitors who are not local to that family are received, because women are not in the line of sight of the general community. So that building is the threshold between public and private; there are no sightlines from that building into the compound. We just replicated in a more angular format what the layout of a traditional building would be. In the traditional version, you would add structures as you needed — and if there was no need for that building, you could take the bricks and re-use them in another location within that compound.

We’ve also been specific here that the land allocation within the compound is larger than what has been provided in other projects, so that they do have space to add structures. They may not necessarily add in sandcrete blocks; they have a lot of traditional materials, like raffia, that they can use. We’ve given them enough space to be able to adapt as their needs grow.

The school of the Ngarannam settlement
The schools feature the most elaborate mural work based on the traditional Bama caps of Nigeria. Photo by Tolulope Sanusi

Mohamed, how will the UNDP be involved in the ongoing security of the area, and also its prosperity? Beyond providing microfinance and other kinds of social infrastructure, how embedded will the UNDP continue to be?


We have built it, but we’re behind the scenes. It’s important that the community see the government running it, and not us, so they are more sympathetic with them than with the fanatics. We did the trenching security features and the streetlights, we built a police barrack and a police station, we built watchtowers so if [insurgents] are coming, you can see them. Then, also, the trenches help in making sure that they don’t come with pickups and overwhelm the town. And then we created a local-level security coordination committee that brings the community, the police and the army to work together. We put a lot of resources into livelihood — shops, cash transfer, livestock, et cetera — and we built teachers’ accommodation.

This entire program is based on what we call mutual accountability. We do our part and the government does their part. But we are present, so if we get complaints that the government has not done their part, then it’s our job to put the pressure on. And it’s been working perfectly fine with government, and local authorities coming back.

Tosin, the new village of the Ngarannam settlement, including the security structures and the residents’ quarters, are partly run on solar power. Were you involved in that at the design stage?


When we started the project, the plan initially wasn’t to provide power. We did design a latrine system, since the community is not familiar with using WCs. There are two water boreholes that have been provided, which also have piped water fetching points at each street. So you don’t have to go all the way to the centre of the master plan layout to fetch water. In terms of electricity, the teachers’ quarters and the police quarters already have power from solar.

We’ve wired the houses for solar panels, and as more funding comes on board for the project, that can be added for the houses. So we’ve already made that provision for a plug-and-play system.

Inside, the schools are vibrant and well ventilated. Photo by Niyi Fagbemi

Since the project’s been completed, have you gone back to see how people are doing?


We send up our team twice a week to check on how people are settling. So far, so good. We haven’t had any complaints; we haven’t had any security incidents. We haven’t defeated the insurgency, obviously, and we’re always concerned about security. So we added some features. And we keep visiting. And sometimes there’s technical problems here and there. But, overall, communities are well settled, and no issues so far.

The UNDP’s Mohamed Yahya believes the girls and women of Ngarannam settlement will prosper safely in their new village. Photo by Niyi Fagbemi

The women and girls, especially. Do you have a sense of how safe they feel? And how hopeful they are?


Yes, they are hopeful. But, also, living in a better condition, having your own home, having access to school, restarting your life is also a challenge. The challenges are around lost skills — suddenly, you have to go back and reacquire the skills that may not have been transferred over 10 years. And people are concerned about security. We will do everything possible in making sure that we, through government, provide what they asked for to make them feel comfortable. The first few weeks, people have been nervous, you know, living suddenly in your own home and you’re not in an IDP camp. That took some time, and now those issues are not as much of a concern.

A Nigeria Settlement Represents A New Way Forward

Designed by Nigerian architect Tosin Oshinowo, the Ngarannam settlement in Borno allows 3,000 internally displaced persons to return home.

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