LIFE

A re­porter’s Nige­rian note­book.

Elle (Canada) - - Front Page - By anna cunningham

The heart­break of reporting on Nigeria’s miss­ing girls.

By Anna Cunningham

freely ad­mit that I live a dou­ble life. I’m a for­eign cor­re­spon­dent, reporting from a de­vel­op­ing coun­try in West Africa, and a mother. Ev­ery day I try to strike a bal­ance be­tween the two—and it’s not al­ways easy. For most ex­pa­tri­ates who have chil­dren and live in La­gos (Nigeria’s largest city), it’s about try­ing to live as “nor­mal” a life as pos­si­ble de­spite daily power cuts, wa­ter short­ages and ever-present se­cu­rity con­cerns. For me, “nor­malcy” also means try­ing to shield my three-yearold daugh­ter from most of my work: con­flict, vi­o­lence and, most re­cently, in mid-April, the mass ab­duc­tion of more than 200 girls from their school in Chi­bok, a small town in north­east Nigeria, by Boko Haram Is­lamists. When I first heard about it, I wasn’t that sur­prised: Schools have been tar­geted fre­quently over the past five years, and kid­nap­pings for ran­som are de­press­ingly reg­u­lar. But I was shocked at the num­bers: 276 teenagers kid­napped, 57 re­port­edly es­cap­ing early on and more than 200 still be­ing held. The ab­duc­tion had taken the up­ris­ing be­tween Is­lamists and Nige­rian se­cu­rity forces to an­other level.

A week af­ter the group claimed re­spon­si­bil­ity for the kid­nap­pings—and just af­ter I’d put our daugh­ter to bed— my hus­band, who’s also a jour­nal­ist, said to me, “There’s an­other video.”

“What is it this time?” I asked.

“Boko Haram again. But it shows the school­girls,” he replied.

Min­utes ear­lier, our daugh­ter had asked whether to­mor­row was “a school day.” The con­trast couldn’t have been starker. That Sun­day night was rest­less as we waited for the next phone call to say that the video had been down­loaded and tran­scribed from Hausa and Ara­bic and was ready to file. The story broke on the news wires at about 9 a.m., just af­ter I got back from tak­ing my daugh­ter to school. There’s al­ways a skip in her step as she waves good­bye and joins her school friends. Al­though her preschool is an ex­cit­ing place to play and learn, I am also aware of just how frag­ile se­cu­rity is in Nigeria. The school is sur­rounded by high con­crete walls topped with ra­zor wire. Se­cu­rity cam­eras scan the perime­ter, and guards pa­trol the metal-gated en­trance. My hus­band and I sign our daugh­ter in and out. Most of her friends are dropped off and picked up by nan­nies in sleek SUVs with blacked­out win­dows. This is the priv­i­leged side of Nigeria.

On the way home, I’m al­ways re­minded of the re­al­ity for most people when I see a mother nurs­ing her baby at the side of the road, stir­ring a pot on a makeshift fire next to a mos­quito-rid­den open sewer. In the north, it’s dif­fer­ent still: Since the Boko Haram’s Is­lamist in­sur­gency be­gan in 2009, their at­tacks have de­stroyed any sem­blance of h

“They are our fu­ture,” said the fa­ther of one of the miss­ing girls, beg­ging for their safe re­turn.

func­tion­ing in­fra­struc­ture: Health-care fa­cil­i­ties and schools have been razed; doc­tors, teach­ers and or­di­nary civil­ians have fled for their lives or been killed. One new at­tack I re­ported on re­cently had eye­wit­nesses who claimed that chil­dren as young as my daugh­ter had been ab­ducted.

My daugh­ter tak­ing her first ed­u­ca­tional steps in Nigeria seems un­real un­der the cir­cum­stances. Yet on the daily school run, I see Nige­rian chil­dren hap­pily walk­ing, jump­ing and run­ning to class in their school uni­forms. Ed­u­ca­tion is taken se­ri­ously across Nigeria for boys and girls: In a coun­try where, ac­cord­ing to the World Bank, 84.5 per­cent of the pop­u­la­tion lives on less than US$2 a day, learn­ing is seen as a way out of poverty. “They are our fu­ture,” said the fa­ther of one of the miss­ing girls, beg­ging for their safe re­turn. So, I find it odd that the govern­ment re­sponded so slowly to the mass ab­duc­tion. If this were Canada or the United States, surely the prime min­is­ter or pres­i­dent would never be off the tele­vi­sion. But I’ve had to adapt to things be­ing done dif­fer­ently here. In the end, Pres­i­dent Good­luck Jonathan did com­ment—al­beit three weeks later. I’ve also had to sift through con­flict­ing claims and coun­ter­claims, try­ing to pick out nuggets of truth. It’s not al­ways so ap­par­ent.

A jour­nal­ist friend who has been here longer than I have de­scribes Nigeria as “the coun­try of no truth.” I am be­gin­ning to un­der­stand what he means. The sullen faces of the ab­ducted girls, dressed in Is­lamic head scarves and pro­fess­ing at gun­point their “will­ing” con­ver­sions to Is­lam, made for heart-rend­ing view­ing. Dur­ing a break be­tween live tele­vi­sion and ra­dio re­ports for the CBC, I went to col­lect my daugh­ter from school. Colourful pic­tures the chil­dren had painted were hang­ing on the class­room walls to dry, and the shelves were stuffed with books. The footage I’d just seen of Chi­bok showed a burned-out school. Win­dows were smashed, and bul­let holes dot­ted the walls.

What this har­row­ing story has taught me is the value of my own ed­u­ca­tion and how much we take for granted. My ca­reer has led me to work in Afghanistan, In­dia, France and now, since Fe­bru­ary, Nigeria. As a jour­nal­ist, I want ev­ery­one to know what’s go­ing on. What­ever the out­come for the kid­napped girls, their lives have been changed for­ever. All they wanted to do was learn. But as a mother, I don’t want my daugh­ter to have too much re­al­ity just yet. On the way home, she pointed to a round­about where pro­test­ers from the #bring­back­our­girls cam­paign have put up plac­ards—each one has a sil­hou­ette and a name. One day I’ll tell her the story about the girls who went to school and didn’t come home. n

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