It was the hottest part of a typical day in a small village just outside Abuja when her husband got the call they had been praying for.
As I watched Rebecca uncontrollably drop to her knees in the middle of a dusty, dirt road, it took me a moment to comprehend what was happening. Overwhelmed with emotion and a growing mountain of red sand on her clothes, she was uttering incomprehensible words in the Hausa language that chorused to the heavens like a prayer.
“Sister, what is it? Are you alright?” I asked in a rather panicked tone, as I endeavored to lift her from under the weight of emotion.
Her body was unyielding, as tears streamed from her sunken eyes onto the dirt road.
“They say Sarah don come out. My pikin (child) don come out!” she replied, in pidgin English.
I knew the name Sarah well. It was one that regularly featured in my prayers over the last year since I met Rebecca and her husband, Samuel. They had graciously agreed to be featured in a photo essay I composed to raise awareness about the second year anniversary of the Boko Haram kidnapping of 276 girls from their school dormitory in Chibok, Nigeria on April 14, 2014. Sarah, Rebecca’s oldest daughter, was one of the girls kidnapped and until May 6, 2017, no one was aware of her whereabouts. Now, for the first time in over three years, there was news.
Or so it seemed.
News from the Chairman of the Chibok Association that Sarah was one of the eighty-two Chibok Girls released following three years in captivity and extensive negotiations between the Nigerian government and Boko Haram propelled immense joy in our souls, as I lifted Rebecca off the dirt road. Her clothes were covered in brick orange sand, as her dust covered hands wiped the tears from her eyes. This was indeed an answer to prayer, after surviving three years of grueling emotions that viciously oscillated between hope and hopelessness. Yes, there had been days when Rebecca so desperately longed for her daughter that she had been unable to sleep, eat or even speak. Indeed, the ongoing stress was palpable in her voice when we would speak on the phone and it was visibly evident on her, as she had lost considerable weight since the last time she welcomed me into her pain.
With a soft song of praise on her lips, Rebecca and I walked up the steep dirt path to her humble uncompleted home, following which she broke the news to other members of her family. Intense emotion once again filled the air, as the sound of jubilee forced the boredom of the routine of another day from the space. I hugged strangers I had never met, rejoicing over a lost child that had now been found. I nudged Rebecca, she smiled and we posed for a picture. It was the very first time, since I have known her, that I had ever seen her smile. That moment was truly priceless.
Because we had grown close over the last year, we talked about what she would do when she laid eyes on her daughter, who by now was a young woman who had likely lost her innocence to the terrorists. What if she had been raped and returned a mother herself? What if she had converted from Christianity to Islam? What if? No matter her state, Rebecca reassured me, Sarah would be embraced, carried on her back like a baby, and welcomed home. As I got up to leave, I urged her to celebrate the good news with her family that evening. We bought items for a meal.
As an organizer for #BringBackOurGirls, the global movement demanding the rescue and rehabilitation of the Chibok Girls, as they became known, the news that 82 of our girls had been rescued from the grips of the world’s deadliest terror group served as further validation that our collective efforts had not been in vain. We were overjoyed and grateful to the Nigerian government and celebrated the news at Unity Fountain in Abuja, the location where members of the movement have consistently met daily since April 30, 2014.
The news that Rebecca’s daughter was included in the group of rescued girls further escalated our joy because Rebecca and her husband were one of three families that we had all grown close to over the course of our advocacy. In fact, Rebecca’s face had almost become representative of all of the Chibok mothers and the #BringBackOurGirls movement, as she has been courageously unrelenting in her demand to the Nigerian government for the return of all the Chibok Girls.
The week that followed was fraught with heights of unparalleled emotion for Rebecca and her family. Further confirmation the next day from the Chibok Association served, initially, to quench her lingering doubts that the news may have been too good to be true. When I called a day or two after to ask how she was doing, she told me that herself and her husband had endeavored to see the released Chibok Girls, who were now in Abuja, and although reassured, had been turned away. It was evident to me that the paralyzing grip of doubt was beginning to set in. The disappointment of the past was surreptitiously endeavoring to rob her hope.
“I need to see her with my own eyes,” Rebecca told me. Again, I reassured her that proper verification had likely taken place. After all, why would the Chairman of the Chibok Association, who had direct access to all the rescued girls, call if freedom had not come knocking on Sarah’s door? It would’ve made no sense. Certainly, three years into the abduction, Nigeria had garnered a fool-proof verification process that could easily match rescued girls to their family members. Right?
As news of the Nigerian government’s plans to bring the rest of the Chibok parents to Abuja circled the local news, Rebecca was still struggling to summon up the courage to hope again. When I called her on May 19th, the day before the 82 sets of parents were rumored to be reunited with their daughters, she sounded despondent, informing me that she still had not been called to confirm the reunion location or time. Almost simultaneously, a journalist friend of mine sent me a text message, informing me that he had spoken to the Chairman of the Chibok Association and that Sarah was not, after all, included on the list of rescued girls. I refused to entertain the possibility. Certainly, he was mistaken. The optimist in me continued to hope and so, I did not call Rebecca.
On the afternoon of May 20th, photographs and short video clips of the Chibok families being reunited with their daughters overwhelmed social media and media news outlets. I frantically looked through them, excited for those families but desperately hoping to catch a glimpse of Rebecca carrying her beloved Sarah on her back, as she had intended. There were none. I continued to search and reached out to my fellow #BringBackOurGirls activists in Abuja to ask if they had heard any news. First Professor Emman and then Aisha confirmed my worst fears: a mistake had been made- Sarah had not been rescued.
A wave of sadness that forced me to tears was quickly replaced with frustration and anger, as I attempted to process my emotions. My thoughts immediately found their way to Rebecca and her family and when I looked at my phone, I saw that she had attempted to reach me. When I finally summoned up the courage, I called her.
She answered but her immediate silence carried the palpable weight of immense pain and sadness. Although I could not see her, I imagined that her eyes were blood shot red.
“Sister,” I uttered in almost a whisper. “I heard.”
After what seemed like a lifetime, she finally spoke through what I knew were the familiar tears that poured from her face two weeks ago onto that dirt road in her village. She explained that her husband had received a call that morning from the same Chairman. The Association had made a mistake and Sarah was not coming home. That was it. No apology. No explanation. The conversation took a minute and lacked the sensitization that should have accompanied the agony that her family had endured for three years. For hours, she told me, neither herself or her husband could speak. She could not eat. Instead, she cried. And cried. And cried. The pain was agonizing…debilitating, she said. She repeated what she had often told me: living with this pain was hell on earth and but for the grace of God, she too may have succumbed to the fate of 19 other parents of the Chibok Girls who have died, most as a result of stress related illnesses following the April 14, 2014 abduction. Through her tears, I heard her concede that it would have been easier if she knew that her daughter was in heaven.
I held the space for her and simply listened because I had no words. As a mother, I knew that I would have been insane by now, knowing that my daughter was in the hands of terrorists who decapitate men without a second thought, rape women into motherhood and strap bombs to the bodies of seven-year-old girls to be detonated in public markets.
I don’t recall what I told Rebecca that day, other than the fact that I loved her. As I got off the phone, I was even more determined to continue to demand for the return of her daughter and the remaining 112 Chibok Girls in captivity. But for now, as a native Nigerian, I was frustrated and angry. And I had questions.
Yes, Nigeria is a beautiful country. It is where I consider home and the place that I have committed my life to better through Pathfinders Justice Initiative, an international NGO that I founded to eradicate sex trafficking from our reputation. However, it is a country of great complexity and one that is rife with contradictions. It is a country with tremendous potential but one that is crippled by corruption. Our recycled, benevolent dictators have repeatedly prioritized the wealth of a few over the welfare of the masses who have come to tolerate mediocrity so long as its rotting fruit fill their empty stomachs. Bloodshed is a way of life and so many of us have become so desensitized to death and dying that the news of repeated Boko Haram attacks in the North-East rarely raise an eyebrow. We are deeply divided along tribal and religious lines, often apathetic, content with shrugging our shoulders as if to say “such is life.” In some ways, we have also made peace with the fact that the ongoing billion-dollar war against Boko Haram continues because war generates money at the expense of human life. Nigeria is a country where, as my friend Professor Emman Shehu once told me, one’s notion of truth oscillates and is often determined by personal interests.
Yet, the optimist in me believes that there can be change. However, that change can only come if we, as the masses, demand the Nigeria that we want. It can only come if we ask questions and demand answers to questions like, “how is it that Nigeria so easily botched the situation last week that resulted in Rebecca’s crippling pain?” What kind of validation process was utilized (or not) that resulted in the mistake? Is anyone being penalized for what could easily have literally broken Rebecca’s heart? What is the arduous road ahead for the 106 Chibok Girls who have been rescued but yet remain in government detention, unable to freely communicate with their families? Why is government transparency and accountability still so difficult to obtain?
Ultimately, there is a further cost to the Boko Haram insurgency that we often do not hear of or ascribe enough dignity to. It is the unrecoverable cost that lies in the sunken faces and hearts of the family members of the Chibok Girls like Rebecca’s. It is the cost that has proliferated malnourished, broken souls in 2.5 million internally displaced persons (IDP) in Nigeria, many of which are women and girls who are being raped and sexually exploited by government officials in IDP camps. It is the cost that exalts corruption and intentionally erodes humanity. Nigeria owes its people a debt that it can never repay.
As an advocate for women and girls, my life’s work and calling demands that I ask the tough questions and be unafraid of the consequences. It is what my beloved late father, Archbishop Benson Idahosa, would have done. It is what my heart compels me to do. And so, for Rebecca and 112 other Chibok mothers whose hearts remain in the hands of terrorists, we cannot, we must not, relent. The grave cost of enduring hope demands that Nigeria must Bring Back Our Girls -- all of them—because the cost of doing nothing is insurmountably high.