Salma: Behind-the Scenes of a Nigerian Documentary

48 Hours With Salma

That’s how long the filmmaking mentee-mentor duo Aima Oj and Ike Nnaebue– spent with Salma last fall, and they haven’t stopped thinking about her since.

Words by Jenny Bertrand
Reading time: 6 minutes


Aima filming Salma Aima filming Salma

Aimalohi Ojeamiren, who goes by Aima Oj, has three documentaries to her name: After the Waters, No Way Home, and Salma. The young Nigerian filmmaker began her career in 2021, inspired by the documentaries she watched during the COVID-19 lockdowns.

“I started with a story that I was familiar with and that was personal to me,” Oj says about After the Waters, referring to the 2020 flood in her home neighbourhood of Giri in Abuja, the capital of Nigeria. Floods happen there most summers now, washing away people’s homes and livelihoods. The flooding is an effect of climate change. It is also one of the reasons Nigerians are leaving their country en masse, the focus of Oj’s second film.

“I made No Way Home as a tribute to everyone who has had to leave or would like to leave Nigeria in hopes of better opportunities,” says Oj. “I [wanted people to see] the anxiety, the pain of separation and the frustration that it takes to move.”

Close-up on Salma

Oj was no stranger to documenting people in crisis in Nigeria, but not as intimately or uniquely as she did in her third film, Salma. “I couldn’t sleep the night before I met Salma,” she says. She was too busy researching how to best capture the story of someone living with a disability. Because Salma can’t hear or speak.

Salma lives outside the city of Damaturu in northern Nigeria. She doesn’t know how old she is, but about seven years ago, she contracted measles. “That means she was most likely not immunized as a baby,” said Oj. “Her family didn’t have the resources.”

The illness claimed her twin sister’s life and affected Salma’s hearing and ability to speak. “It’s unfortunate, because I felt like it could have been avoided in the first place, but not everyone has the privilege [to be immunized] in Nigeria,” Oj said.

Meet Salma, an 11-year-old girl in Nigeria who lost her hearing when she was child and didn’t attend school until a teacher encouraged her parents to send her to deaf classes. This mini-doc about Salma is by Aimalohi Ojeamiren, one of the first participants in our Embedded Storytellers project (ESP) young filmmakers pilot project under the mentorship of Nigerian filmmaker Ike Nnaebue.

Framing the shot

“Normally, the interview with the subject makes up most of a documentary,” Oj explains. “And what they say drives the visuals while their voice plays behind.”

But Oj didn’t want anyone to do a voiceover for Salma, even though her research indicated that that would have been the way to go. Instead, she wanted to preserve the integrity of Salma’s reality.

Explains Oj: “I wanted it as organic as it comes. I didn’t want to distort or maneuver things to make it what it’s not.” So the team had to get creative in order to understand, let alone tell, Salma’s story.

A game of telephone

Despite Salma being deaf and nonverbal for seven years, no one in her family except her sister Hauwa can communicate with her. Hauwa helped interpret for the crew but couldn’t join the team for the whole two-day shoot.

“Salma can’t read or write yet, so that wasn’t an option,” says Oj. Around 10.5 million children in Nigeria are out of school – the highest rate in the world. Salma was kept from school for many years due to her disability until Lawan Mustapha, a teacher at a specialized school for children with hearing impairments, encouraged Salma’s father to let her enrol. Now, Mustapha is Salma’s teacher.

Mustapha only knows American Sign Language (ASL), not the local sign-language dialect. To teach the class, he partners with people who know both languages, like Almustapha Barma.

During filming, Barma and Mustapha partnered to interpret for the film crew, a four-step process: Salma would sign to Barma, who would sign to Mustapha, who would translate for Oj, and back again. Talk about persistence.

A girl is filmed by a woman using an iPhone.
“Documentaries can be quite labour- and cost-intensive, but you can make one with zero budget,” Oj said. Oj filmed Salma on an iPhone and got her friends to be her crew.
A girl in a blue hijab signs next to a woman filming using a phone on a tripod.
Salma’s sister Hauwa is the only other person in the family who has learned some of the local sign language to communicate.
A group photo of a family and a film crew in a yard in Nigeria
Oj and her film crew with Salma’s family.

The power of ethical storytelling

Throughout the project and while filming on site, Oj benefited from the support and guidance of her mentor, the acclaimed Nollywood filmmaker Ike Nnaebue.

When Plan International Canada approached Nnaebue with the idea of telling Salma’s story through a pilot project for young filmmakers as part of our Embedded Storytellers project, he signed on immediately – and recommended Oj without hesitation. The pair had only two days to complete the shoot. They made the most of them, despite the translation complications.

In addition to gaining a window into Salma’s world, Nnaebue and Oj quickly gained insight into her personality. “Salma has this can-do spirit,” says Nnaebue. “She is the kind of person who doesn’t let difficulties limit her.”

“She’s strong-willed,” adds Oj, who was taken by how Salma didn’t let anyone push her around – and what that means in a culture where respect for elders is paramount. “Even though Salma’s the youngest, she isn’t a pushover. Once, her sister tried to tell her to do something, and Salma just gave her sister a look like, ‘I’m not doing that.’”

The film also captures another crucial aspect of Salma’s story: the love of her father. Although he is unable to communicate with his daughter, his care and respect come through loud and clear.

Neither Nnaebue nor Oj expected that their two days with Salma would leave such a mark. “She has a beautiful soul, and it was a hard goodbye. I think everyone shed some tears in our last group hug,” says Oj. “I will never forget this experience. Thank you, Salma, for letting us into your life and touching us in a very special way,” Nnaebue concludes.


I love that Salma is well supported by her father. That’s rare coming from that area of the country. That type of family support is powerful.”– Nnaebue

Salma’s lasting impression

“Thanks to Plan International and the Embedded Storytellers project, I’ve witnessed first-hand the profound impact of education in conflict zones,” says Nnaebue.

He is referring to Educating Vulnerable and Hard-to-Reach Girls in Northeastern Nigeria, the four-year project sponsored by Plan Nigeria, Plan Canada and Global Affairs Canada that Salma participated in. This project helped 68,891 girls in northern Nigeria access education – among them, 12,033 girls living with disabilities, like Salma.

A man signs to a man standing across from him. A woman in between them films using a phone on a tripod.
Communication chain: Lawan Mustapha (right) signed to Almustapha Barma (left), who then signed to Salma to ask her questions for the documentary.

Movie-making mentorship

Aima Oj and her mentor, Nollywood filmmaker Ike Nnaebue, first met at StoryMi Academy through a mentorship program that connects seasoned multimedia storytellers with young and aspiring Nigerian ethical storytellers.

Oj was paired with Nnaebue, a director, screenwriter and producer whose latest doc, No U-Turn, delves into his journey of attempting to migrate from Nigeria 20 years ago. The film won a special mention at Berlinale 2022. Nnaebue is also the founder of Love Portion Creativehub, which makes safe spaces for African creatives to thrive. He is a true champion for African and ethical storytelling by Africans.

Nnaebue and Oj were the perfect team to showcase Salma’s story for Plan Canada’s Embedded Storytellers project. The project enables local expertise, perspectives and creativity to shine, and it’s one way we’re shifting power back to the people who experience these stories.

“Discovering Salma’s world has been an eye-opening journey,” says Nnaebue. “Her story isn’t just about overcoming barriers; it’s a powerful testament to our collective ability to create a more compassionate and beautiful world, one story at a time.”

Oj and Nnaebue helped us enter Salma’s world – a world full not of silence but of a strength of character that speaks volumes.

“I never imagined I could make a film about someone I can’t verbally communicate with,” says Oj.

But she did, and it was a highlight of her career.

Holding a lens up to the issue

Why go to such lengths to tell one person’s story? Because girls like Salma, who have been overlooked or left behind, deserve the spotlight.

More than 8.3 million people in northern Nigeria need support. It’s one of the world’s largest regions facing humanitarian crises, including widespread armed conflict, attacks on girls and schools, high rates of child and forced marriage, poverty, gender inequality and other challenges. More than 50% of girls there aren’t in school, and 95.5% of children living with a disability in Nigeria have no access to education.

A girl living with a disability in northern Nigeria is one of the most marginalized individuals in the world. Illness took away Salma’s hearing and her voice, and she was denied her right to learn and thrive for seven years because of it.

A screenshot from a video that shows a girl filming herself and her family of six in front of their home in Benin.

Learn more about our Embedded Storytellers project and how it puts local perspectives behind and in front of the camera.

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