Traveler's Tales

This Is Not the Nigeria I Know

by Adaora Udoji

Photo: Department for International Development / Flickr

Nigerian-American Adaora Udoji is horrified by the recent schoolgirls kidnapping in Nigeria. She recalls an entirely different Nigeria that she grew up in.

NIGERIA – I was sitting quietly in my office doing some work and a question suddenly gripped me: What would it be like if someone at this exact moment stormed in, kidnapped me, burned down my house, and threatened to sell me into slavery? This for the so-called crime of being a female who is working or reading or using a computer.

The 276 girls ferociously abducted in Nigeria are heavy on my mind.

It's not lost on me that it could have been me. I attended an all-girls boarding high school my sophomore year in Northern Nigeria, not far from Chibok where the girls were taken. I know those girls figuratively. They probably look a lot like the mixed ethnicities of my classmates from all over the country. When I went to school, we fully expected to make it home that evening, which is exactly my experience today when I put my daughter on the bus every morning to a New York City suburban elementary school.

What's happened in Nigeria is outrageously incomprehensible. Simply shocking. Even for someone like me who spent years as a journalist covering monstrosities all over the world.

I try to stop myself from imagining the horrors they have experienced. I have no idea what has or has not happened. But I do know it is catastrophic for them, their families, and the nation. I alternate among terror for their safety, sheer rage it happened, and tremendous sadness.

This is not the Nigeria I know.

The abominable acts do not represent Nigeria or Nigerians any more than Timothy McVeigh represented America or Americans when he blew up the Oklahoma City Federal Building in 1995, killing 168 people and wounding hundreds.

As a Nigerian-American, I am heartbroken about the escalating ethnic violence and the many severe political, economic, corruption, and societal challenges the country faces. But this particular act of brutality is in a category by itself. No doubt I am personally touched by my lineage and my amazing five-year-old daughter who loves school. Mostly though, it is the singular viciousness of this assault upon vulnerable girls whose only alleged crime was trying to get an education.

The Nigeria from which I draw half my DNA and where I once lived has great difficulties, but it also has a tremendous passion for life, rich traditions, and an enormous respect for educating boys and girls. It is a colorful and dynamic country with great aspirations by the vast majority of hard-working, clever, and resilient people.

It is a nation where regardless of your ethnicity — whether among the three main ethnic groups: Igbos, Yoruba, Hausa-Fulani, or the more than 250 other groups — family is the most vital and cherished thread of the community. That was true for the matriarch of our family: my fiercely loyal, protective, and loving grandmother Mercy Adaora Udoji. She was a woman with a core strength that was palpable and tested when she was widowed young. She went on to become an incredibly successful businesswoman, an entrepreneur who built her own thriving businesses, who also sat on the boards of directors of corporations and was appointed a Chief to the Council of Chiefs by the governor of the state she lived in. A very strong woman who was respected by many, not unlike countless Nigerian women who are educated, encouraged, and achievers.

I hail from the Udoji family, Igbos of the southern region where, like 40 percent of the country's population, many are Christians. I attended high school in the north, in Bauchi, which is dominated by Muslims who represent roughly 50 percent.

In both places, the majority of people are concerned about many of the same things we worry about in my suburb or anywhere in the Uniter States or the world. It is a fact. I know this because I've seen it. I've witnessed these truths having lived or worked in Europe, Africa, Central Asia, the Persian Gulf, and the Middle East.

They care about their families, paying their bills, educating their children, getting a job, finding a doctor, finding a mate, gleeful about sharing stories and caring about what's happening in their community, their country, and the world.

In Nigeria, I have seen amazing acts of family sacrifice to put their daughters to school in the north. My best friend from my high school, Nene, lost her father when she was six years old, and her mother and aunt worked five jobs to pay for what they believed was one of the best schools in the region. It never dawned on the two women that Nene should not go to school. They are Muslim.

Often, it is more a question of being able to afford to go to school in a country where Unicef says the median income is about $1,431 a year. Education for the majority is a luxury.

I don't claim to have an answer for how to resolve this, what actions should be taken, or how to prevent something like this from happening again. I do know that while I can go back to work in my peaceful place, the girls cannot. At least not this minute.

I do know this atrocity is devastating. I hope the international community continues to condemn these acts and do all within international law to rescue these girls and disband the group apparently responsible, whose name I refuse to give ink to on my pages. I fervently hope that Nigerians will unite, step up, and increase again the pressure on the government to crack down hard. And I can pray, foremost for the girl's safe rescue.

But I also pray for Nigeria.


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This story originally appeared on The at Medium and is reprinted here with permission.

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