Throughout the month of October, Nigeria has been in a state of unrest. Tens of thousands of Nigerians have taken to the streets to protest against the devastating corruption and violence brought on by SARS, or the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, which is a government police unit that was started in 1984 in an effort to combat a rise in violent crimes throughout the country. SARS has been responsible for rape, torture, and executions, and none of the police officers involved have ever been prosecuted. The recent protests began after a video surfaced on October 3rd showing the unjust killing of a man by SARS officers in Ughelli. On October 20th, the protests in Nigeria became deadly. Soldiers and police fired on the crowds and killed at least 12 people according to Amnesty International. In the aftermath, many businesses and homes have been destroyed and physical injuries have been widespread.
Sarah Nsikak, founder of the New York-based label La Réunion, is stepping in to try and provide some help. The designer, who creates upcycled patchwork tent dresses inspired by untold African narratives, was born and raised in Oklahoma, but her family immigrated to the United States in the 1980s from Nigeria. Her mother still lives in Nigeria and in light of the crisis there, Nsikak has been anxiously talking to her every day on Whatsapp. Her mother is safe and has relocated to another city outside of Lagos. But Nsikak kept asking what she could do to help from so far away. Her mother kept replying: “We just need the government to listen to the cries of the youth.” Nsikak began thinking about her own childhood and upbringing, and she was reminded of the Nigerian Hausa Tribe poufs that decorated her home growing up. She decided to remake these poufs using upcycled fabrics and sell them for $450 with inserts, $400 without, donating 100% of the proceeds to Assata Collective, which is an organization that helps to protect and rehabilitate queer and trans people harmed by SARS.
“This is a problem that Nigeria has had for many, many years,” Nsikak explains. “And beyond the buzz of the moment, it’s a problem that may persist without some real intervention. The aftershock of 10/20 is something that many Nigerian families and small businesses will be recovering from for a long, long time.” Nsikak also emphasizes the importance of outside attention and aid: “This is one of the best ways that you can help if you’d like to contribute from afar, to spread the word that we need an end to SARS.”
Outside of the charitable aspect of Nsikak’s latest project, she took a deeply personal approach in an effort to honor her family and heritage. “The Hausa poufs are special to me because I remember being fascinated with them early on in my childhood,” she notes. “My mom came back from a certain trip home to Nigeria with these ornate, hand-appliqued leather cushions that complemented our home beautifully.” Growing up, Nsikak says, “I didn’t get much (or any) exposure to African art in my hometown, so it’s really special to me that my mom found ways to infuse the work of African artisans into my everyday life. It was one of the first connections that I felt to craftsmanship on a deeper level. My thoughts were: ‘someone from Nigeria, who most likely looks like me, was capable of this. I wonder what I’m capable of making?’” With her modernized patchwork Hausa poufs, Nsikak is helping to make a change, even from afar, which is what she believes the Nigerian people need more of. “It sounds simple, but it’s powerful,” she says. “The world joining in the message to end SARS will play a massive role in furthering the exasperated but hope-filled battle cry.”