Merlene Davis: Nigerian UK students want more attention on kidnapped schoolgirls

Herald-Leader columnistMay 17, 2014 

#BringBackOurGirls, the international plea on social media for the return of more than 200 kidnapped Nigerian schoolgirls, has become a rallying cry for millions of people worldwide.

But to Aisha Nwandu, it is personal.

Nwandu grew up in northeastern Nigeria near the city of Chibok, the same city where members of the Boko Haram kidnapped the Muslim and Christian girls in April from the Government Girls Secondary School.

"It directly affects me because I am from the north and my family is there right now," Nwandu said as she stood in Triangle Park on Wednesday urging those in the cars that sped by to support the still-missing girls.

"It could have been my cousins if it had happened at a different school," she said. "It could have been my villagers."

The kidnappings were personal to Tiwaladeoluwa Adekunle, as well.

"I was horrified, really, because I belong to that same age group," she said. Nwandu and Adekunle are students at the University of Kentucky now, but grew up in different regions of Nigeria.

Although similar abductions have occurred in the past year, Chibok's was the largest.

"Two hundred is unusual," Nwandu said. "But ever since the start of the terrorists four years ago, everybody expects them to do bad things. But no one thought they would break into schools and do that."

Boko Haram, which loosely means "Western education is sin," doesn't think women should be educated. By abducting the schoolgirls, they hope to scare the girls away from the classroom. The Islamic terrorists have also attacked and killed boys and teachers at secular schools and a college as well.

School attendance is down in the north, so the tactics may be working.

"There is no motivation to go to school," said Ibitola Asaolu, a former UK graduate student who's working at UK. "There is no security."

The terrorist acts don't stop at educational institutions.

"The Boko Haram has been doing a lot of damages, a lot of bomb blasts," Asaolu said. "They've killed so many people.

"For the people back home, it is nothing new," she said. "They get used to something bad coming up all the time. This militant group has been wreaking a lot of havoc in different parts of the country. Thank God for the international organizations stepping in."

Asaolu, who hopes to earn a doctorate in public health, return to Nigeria and start a non-government organization (NGO) to empower women and children, said while Nigeria is very diverse, the northern region is more agricultural, less prosperous, with fewer avenues to educational opportunities. That region has also become a fertile recruiting ground for Boko Haram.

"I think poverty has something to do with it," she said. "But it is not just poverty. It is everything that comes with poverty, such as illiteracy. They might believe what a fanatic leader tells them instead of what really ought to be."

Adekunle agreed.

"The people recruited are brain-washed," Adekunle said, adding that the Boko Haram twist the Islamic faith to suit its agenda. "Pray for them," she said.

Muslims and Christians in the north and the south have condemned the terrorism.

"We are connected," Asaolu said. "There are many Nigerians in the diaspora who are protesting this. We need to start seeing the big picture. Nigerians need to come up with more ways to challenge the government and ask questions."

The Nigerian government has been roundly criticized for its slow reaction to the kidnappings. Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan didn't acknowledge the abductions for three weeks, igniting protests in the capital city Abuja.

"There were protests in the past when people were kidnapped before," Adekunle said. "There was outrage. But, after a while, people forget about it and accept it as reality. They get angry and it sort of fades out.

"The government was waiting for it to fade out (this time), but it got bigger and bigger," she said.

Nwandu thinks the interest in the kidnapping is good for not only the girls, but also for Nigeria.

"The more this goes public the more it helps," she said. "I am really proud of those Nigerians. Nobody should be scared anymore. We need to talk and handle this. This is our future."

Nwandu wants the girls' safe return and she wants her country back the way it was.

"It is a disappointment that a place that was peaceful is having so much trouble now," she said. "When I was younger I would watch as (terrorist acts) happened to other nations. I didn't know it would reach this level at home."

All three women plan to return to Nigeria eventually to help their country heal and prosper.

"I really don't see myself being here while my country is suffering," Adekunle said. "I couldn't feel satisfied in life."

Meanwhile, they want all of us to join their fellow countrymen in holding the Nigerian government accountable for the girls' safety.

"If Boko Haram was to win, God forbid, it would not only hurt women, but it would also hurt every fabric of our society," Asaolu said. "We depend on each other. We won't realize how interdependent we are until the fabric breaks apart."

She would like to see Islamic leaders more vocal in their condemnation of Boko Haram and more Christian leaders working with Muslims to bring peace to her weary country.

And all three of the women want us and the rest of the international community to continue to stoke that fire.

Merlene Davis: (859) 231-3218. Email: Twitter: @reportmerle. Blog:

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