What’s Worse Than a Girl Being Kidnapped? Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani
WE were late getting to Chibok. Our driver was delayed. On the way to meet us, he explained, he had seen a mother carrying a sick child on her back and stopped to give them a lift to the hospital. By the time they arrived, the child had died.
Two years ago, more than 200 girls were kidnapped from the Government Girls Secondary School in Chibok by Boko Haram. A few dozen have since escaped, but a vast majority remain prisoners of the Islamist insurgents. A Nigerian nonprofit group, the Murtala Muhammed Foundation, had asked me to organize a team to interview the families of these girls, in order to create a book memorializing them. We spent a few days in Chibok, in September and October. I was prepared to hear many stories of anguish. What I was not prepared for was the realization that what had seemed, from the outside, like one of the greatest horrors to befall a people appeared from the inside as just another great misfortune in a land where tragedy is an everyday occurrence.
We spoke with the families of 201 of the 219 girls who are still missing. (Only a few actually lived in Chibok town; most lived in surrounding villages.) In addition to their daughters, many had lost at least one other child. Some had lost three, some had lost six, one woman had lost nine out of 12. “He had a fever” was the most common explanation for the death of an infant. For older children, we were often told, “He was bitten by a snake and died.” One mother told us how, a month after her daughter was kidnapped, another daughter died during childbirth. A few months later, yet another died from an unknown illness.
Many mothers had between seven and 12 children. The typical man with more than one wife had about 20 children. When you do not expect all your children to grow into adulthood, it makes sense to have as many as possible, whether or not you can afford to feed them or send them to school.
Girls in Chibok marry early. April and December are the seasons of weddings there, with marriage ceremonies taking place almost every day. One girl, Deborah, was married the weekend before she was abducted; she had returned to school because of her impending exams. Another girl, Mariam, was married a week earlier. Her husband had promised her parents that she could complete her secondary education, and so a few days after their big day, he saw his wife off to school.
The fact that these girls were getting an education at all was remarkable. One of the kidnapped was the only one of her 20 siblings to have attended formal school. “The rest attend Quranic school,” her mother said. When we visited, virtually all the government schools in the entire state of Borno, in northeast Nigeria, had been shut because of the threat of Boko Haram. Some reopened at the end of last year, but the one in Chibok remains closed. Even before the Islamist insurgency began, Unesco estimated that Nigeria had the highest number of out-of-school children in the world.
There was no electricity when I was there. Apart from some communal wells, the residents have no source of potable water. Following the kidnapping, the government drilled a borehole for the community, but it is out of use because the cost of running a generator to power it is too high. Many sons of the families we met had left home in search of work. “He is working as an okada rider in Lagos,” a number of parents said, referring to the motorcycle taxi drivers notorious for their daredevil attitudes and disregard of basic traffic rules.
The people of Chibok seem to lack many of the rights of citizens of Nigeria. They told me they had to get permission from the military personnel guarding their community before they could leave in a car. The military also seems to decide whether they entertain visitors from outside or not, and whether or not they speak to the news media. Yakubu Nkeki, the chairman of an activist group made up of parents of abducted girls from Chibok, was once dragged from his home into a military vehicle for organizing a media event, while his wife and children watched in tears. “They detained me from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.,” he told me.
As a result of this hostility, my team and I did not ask official permission to carry out our interviews. We worked in secret. I dressed in shabby, ankle-length clothes and a veil, then sneaked into Chibok town with a group of locals. One of the mothers, Yana Galang, kindly offered to let me stay in her house, and let me borrow some of her abducted daughter’s clothes. The pink caftan I selected was tight at the hips; otherwise, she was right about me and the missing Rifkatu being the same size.
But the soldiers’ antagonism toward journalists came second to their hatred of Bring Back Our Girls, a high-profile group that is demanding that the government find and free the kidnapped. After convincing a soldier at a Chibok checkpoint that we were not part of the group, he vented: “I so hate those Bring Back Our Girls people. I blame them for the girls being there till now. They turned it into a political thing. They are there in Abuja and Lagos while the parents are here suffering.”
It is easy to understand why the Nigerian government at first did nothing about the abduction. These are people in the forgotten backyard of the country. Organizations like Bring Back Our Girls did a lot of good by making people care about the girls’ plight. But I was struck by how little light has been shed on the many other problems of the community.
Chibok is a microcosm of the entire northeast of Nigeria. At 76.3 percent, that region has an astoundingly high poverty rate. At 109 deaths per 1,000 births, it has the highest infant mortality rate in the country. The literacy rate of men is 18.1 percent and that of women is 15.4 percent — again, by far the worst in the country.
Perhaps this is why, when asked what they missed about their daughters, many parents spoke of practical matters. “She worked very hard on the farm”; “I no longer have anyone to help me look after the younger ones.” But one mother, who was blind, told us that she also missed hearing her daughter sing.
Without a doubt, the abducted girls need to be rescued. But deliverance is equally needed for all the people of northeast Nigeria, a region where death has cast its long shadow.
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is the author of the novel “I Do Not Come to You by Chance.”
Culled from New York Times