During the early part of 2016, Nelly Ating had a severe cough, swollen feet and suffered from frequent fainting episodes.
The photojournalist told CNN she was “waiting to die,” during those painful months as she went from one doctor to the next, desperately seeking a diagnosis for the mystery illness.
“One doctor treated me for whooping cough, another said I had typhoid. For six months nobody knew what was wrong. I was depressed and in so much pain, at some point, I gave up and was waiting to die,” she told CNN.
Ating had spent the months before her illness documenting stories of those who lost their homes after attacks by the terrorist group, Boko Haram, which has waged a brutal 10-year war in north-east Nigeria.
Ating who lived in Adamawa, one of the worst-affected areas of the conflict, would later discover that she had contracted tuberculosis (TB) while working closely with survivors in the Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) camps, where diseases and illnesses are rife.
TB is a a highly contagious bacterial infection that affects the lungs, bones and sometimes nervous system.
“A doctor in Lagos diagnosed me and told me that my case was critical. She prescribed drugs for me and I had to be quarantined for about three weeks too,” she said.
Ating, now 30, started telling stories of Boko Haram survivors in 2014 when she joined the Adamawa Peacemakers Initiative (API), a not for profit established by the American University of Nigeria (AUN) in 2012, that offers training and support to young people at risk of being recruited by Boko Haram.
A year after graduating with a degree in print journalism from AUN, Ating joined the API team as an intern. “I joined them at the time Boko Haram became very intense. They were working to promote peace in the state,” she said.
“They used football to pass the message of peace and love to young northeasterners. They wanted to keep them engaged, outside terrorism through sports,” she added.
In the thick of the crisis, Ating and the API team were among the first responders to displaced persons that had settled in Yola, the capital city of Adamawa.
In between violent attacks in Adamawa, Ating visited IDP camps and sick bays determined to capture the stories of those affected by the crisis using pictures and text.
But an encounter with a mother who was forced to feed her baby dirty water and raw corn made an impact on Ating and she decided to do more than just tell stories.
“I met this woman that had just escaped Boko Haram in Mubi and was hiding out at a church. She had a nine month old baby that looked so traumatized. She had walked with the child from Adamawa to Cameroon for days to get to safety,” Ating said.
“Just thinking about the baby and all of the trauma she experienced scared me. I started to think about what to do with my photos, I didn’t just want to share pictures, I wanted to make a difference for people like this woman,” she added.
According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, the Boko Haram conflict has displaced more than 500,000 people in neighboring countries like Chad, Niger, and Cameroon, and about two million Nigerians.
Ating began crowdsourcing money for survivors of Boko Haram on social media. By gathering monetary donations from strangers and friends on Instagram and Facebook, she was able to provide healthy meals, shelter and sometimes jobs for displaced persons.
She currently pays tuition for children orphaned by the insurgents and has lost count of how many children she has put in school.
“Sometimes I crowdfund for their fees and other times I pay out of my own pocket,” she told CNN.
According to UNICEF, Nigeria has 10.5 million out of school children, the highest number in the world. Many of them are not in school due to the insurgency and Ating hopes to change the numbers in her own little way.
“I think about the kids whose future have been stolen by Boko Haram, and I become worried, ‘what are we doing about it?’” she said.
Ating is currently working on a new book which is centered around the first responders to the humanitarian crisis.
According to her, living with and talking to survivors over the past years has helped her curate stories of those who responded to Boko Haram attacks first in Adamawa state.
“You know the government was not the first to respond to the crisis in Yola, Adamawa. It was religious houses and the civic society that came together to offer assistance to survivors.”
“I think it’s important to tell their stories,” she said.