Photo © Reuters / Afolabi Sotunde

NIGERIA: Activism Is a Forever Job

In 2014, Bring Back Our Girls became a rallying cry. Years later, the message is as important as ever.

If we forget, then society forgets and our government forgets.

"Will they listen? You think?" Maryam asked. "The presidency."

I bent over to tie my shoelaces. I had switched the low-top Converse I was wearing earlier with a pair of Adidas high-top sneakers. They felt firmer and the colors were a match for the occasion: black with red and white highlights.

"I think the question is..." I said as I stood up straight and adjusted the brim of my black tam hat over my twist-out hair, "will we let them forget?"

May 1st, 2014. Abuja, Nigeria

I looked at my friend Maryam, wearing a red hijab, and my Indian friend Lakshmi, visiting from Germany. The three of us were marching for women’s rights for the first time in our lives.

The previous month’s kidnapping of over 200 girls in Chibok, Nigeria touched us to the core. Boko Haram extremists kidnapped the girls from their boarding school, taking them away in trucks to the Sambisa forest. This sparked an international outpouring with the message and hashtag #BringBackOurGirls. We felt we had to join the Bring Back Our Girls march.

Each of us had our own stories of deprivation and persecution based on our femininity. By marching, we hoped to connect more deeply with each other as friends with similar experiences across different nationalities and religions. We hoped marching would connect us with women and girl children globally and with the Chibok girls and their grieving parents.

Lakshmi had a plane scheduled to return her home in two days time, and I wanted to send her back to her family in one piece. I too would be leaving after the event—if I made it out alive.

Anything could go wrong. This was a period of heightened insecurity in Nigeria. Bombs would often go off split seconds apart. Blasts occurred every month, sometimes many times in a single month. Decapitated bodies were almost a daily scene.

Boko Haram terrorists often dressed like average citizens, blending in with unsuspecting crowds to carry out their monstrous acts. Therefore, the advice was always to stay away from crowds. But here we were, going to join an activist group. We were conspicuously dressed in red, the color of the campaign, and we were speaking directly against what Boko Haram stood for. We were nervous, knowing our actions would invoke the rage of the terrorists.

Still, we marched.

I can still recall the overflow of emotions as we arrived at the waiting grounds and first saw the crowd, which was bigger than we expected. I climbed a tree about 20 feet above the ground to see the end of the crowd. It looked to me like there must be over 600 marchers in attendance—an impressive number given how many people stayed indoors out of fear of reprisal from the terrorists.

The atmosphere was solemn and mournful. We gave money to a woman holding out her hat asking for contributions for the cause. We then made ourselves useful, grabbing buckets to join her in collecting funds for the Bring Back Our Girls Campaign.

As the march began, it was all we could do to keep our tears from falling. Our thundering feet determinedly traced a path to the presidential residence at Aso Rock. A few people spoke in hushed tones about the progress of the march, but most marchers spoke silently through the signs they held up. Some people wore gags to demonstrate their resolve not to say anything inciting. Others, like my friends and I, were effortlessly speechless.

Meeting resistance

We had anticipated retaliation by Boko Haram, but one thing we did not think to take into consideration was the police.

The police confronted us dressed in riot gear, showing their readiness to push us back violently. When pro-government thugs emerged, chanting political slogans and pelting marchers, the police did nothing to defend us. We raised our placards and banners as shields.

We felt misunderstood. How could our message be so despised? It was appalling that anyone would ignore the humanitarian catastrophe at hand, repress the Bring Back Our Girls Campaign, and persecute the campaigners.

Through it all, however, the crowd remained calm, focused, and non-violent. Women leaders began to read their speeches over microphones, despite the disenfranchising attitude of the police. We could no longer hold back our tears.

A powerful, unifying spirit gripped the marchers at the moment the speeches began. Strangers locked eyes, hugged each other, and wept freely. Over 200 girls were kidnapped, hungry, afraid, confused, enslaved, raped, tortured, some sold for pennies, some martyred. We were and we are their only hope.

From a march to a movement

After the march we gathered in Maryam’s room, physically exhausted but grateful to be alive. Maryam’s question resurfaced as we talked into the night.

Would the presidency listen? Would they acknowledge our march and the growing outcry on the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag? How was it, we wondered, that the international community displayed more zeal and solidarity than our own community? And could our leaders awaken from their bureaucracy and flamboyant excesses and disgraceful complacency to draw compassion from their human instincts?

It came down to us, this growing movement, to form a phalanx to make things happen.

I reminded my friends that the police resistance was obviously only the beginning of the opposition our movement would have to overcome before we see the Chibok girls rescued and value duly placed on the rights of the girl child.

The government and their supporters, as well as some sections of the media that were pro-government, accused the Bring Back Our Girls movement of renting a crowd for the march in opposition to the ruling elite. If that were true, the movement would have disintegrated after the ruling and incumbent party at the time had been toppled in the elections. But it didn’t.

We are in the third year since the events in Chibok shook the world. A few of the girls have been rescued and returned to their parents. Many of us involved with the Bring Back Our Girls movement feel crushed in our spirits because this did not happen sooner or in larger numbers.

Damage has already been done. It is discouraging to see the number of people participating in sit-ins fluctuate or to see the #BringBackOurGirls hashtag fade and flicker, to light up only on annual remembrances. However, we have to work to overcome this feeling every day until we save the very last of the girls. The campaign is still on.

I believe now as I believed then that the Bring Back Our Girls movement needs to meet the opposition’s fury and indifference with civility, discipline, and keen resolve. We can only maintain pressure on our leaders through strategic, creative civic education and action.

The call to advocate for human rights is a call to a forever job. It is a job that demands our commitment to the cause beyond clichéd poetry and the beams of the media spotlights. Indulgence in amnesia is not permissible, for we must not further afflict the afflicted.

If we forget, then society forgets and our government forgets. When the lights are out, when no one cares, we must still sit in solemn silence, ponder the lessons learned, and create new ways forward. We must engage our minds, engage our wallets, engage the grassroots, engage the afflicted, engage the officials, engage the enemy of the common good.

Change never did happen in a single day. Our job is to know that it may take weeks and months and years and decades, but to get up every day and do it anyway. The real test comes when it looks like we won't win. Will we keep trying? Will we keep sane and civil while we keep working to reason and to explain and to dialogue and to act?

I've signed up for the forever job. Have you?


STORY AWARDS

This story was published as part of the World Pulse Story Awards program. We believe everyone has a story to share, and that the world will be a better place when women are heard. Share your story with us, and you could be our next Featured Storyteller! Learn more.

How to Get Involved

Join QueenVirtuous in keeping the Bring Back Our Girls Campaign alive. From organizing a town hall meeting to leading a teach-in, here are some ideas for taking action.

Story Awards: Marching Onward Together 22Send Me Love

Comments

Thank you so much queenvictory because the recent silence over this #bringbackourgirls movement led many including me to believe that it is a resolved issue. Awareness of the fact that some young girls are still in that state of torture should cause us to react. Thanks for bringing back our awareness to this

Thanks Iyamail for taking the time to read my story. Indeed, many people think the girls are all back home. It is our responsibility here at the Movement to spread awareness about these girls until they are all rescued, all accounted for. It matters. Every life matters. We refuse to sweep the matter under the rug and resign to consoling the parents for their loss and finally leaving them to heal their own wounds. Thanks for your concern. Love you.

Hello Queen Virtuous, I am so impressed with your plea here in this letter. You describe the dilemma so well. That is step number one! As long as you see the problem, and want it changed, your future work will most likely change things. You can't do it yourself. I like that you partnered with you friends for the march. Keep working with friends for the changes to be made. Consider forming small groups to discuss these matters, and late include boys in discussion groups. The male attitudes must change too. You are on the right path!

Oh, WorldCare! First of all, thanks for your compliments and encouragement. You're right; I can't do it all by myself. I've been working on setting up another group. We will discuss what causes the neglect or abuse of the female and how to educate children and adults about the worth of the woman. We will also talk about how to continue spreading awareness about the missing girls and how the girls can be located and brought back home. It is crucial that we come up with ways to prevent such terrible things from happening again. I love what you said about involving boys as well. Such an excellent idea. Our group is made up mostly of women. Thinking about it now, that's rather lopsided. I will work on including more men and boys in the small groups. Honestly, we must re-programme the attitudes and behavior of the male. A thought-provoking point, WorldCare! Thank you so much.

My Dear Queen Virtous, how i admire you, you are a woman to look up to. The plight of the girls who were kidnapped by the Boko Haram has been in my soul and heart since it happened and how I wished i could rescue them and bring the weight of the world to see the plight of these girls.Their pain and suffering I felt as a woman and a grandmother and I pray that they and all the women in this world can come together and bring awareness to their abduction  and bring them home.With love and admiration for your continued work, Granny Margaret xxx

I am a Scottish woman and a proud Canadian living in Montreal and am excited to hear women's stories and their experiences from all over our globe. Thank you all for your bravery in sharing with us.

Granny Maggie (ok I love the rhyme in that), I must confess that your words melt me! They do! I began, last year, to organize another campaign whose purpose is to encourage the rescued girls to find strength and meaning in their experience and in their womanhood again, to rise from the ashes with a message of victory and hope. I was resisted much and accused of seeking to use the girls to spread a vicious propaganda against the government and so to gain popularity as an activist. I haven't given up, though the road is a rough one. It is my desire for these girls not to fade into oblivion, but for them to be given the tools that they need to shine a beacon of light for all girls as well as the other girls in captivity to see and (hopefully) emulate. Like I said, it's a forever job. There's a reason why some of us have been chosen to be in the "been there" gang. I'm not giving this up. Thank you for your love and admiration for me and my work. You don't know how many times I've read your comment, Grandma. I'll read it anytime I feel blue or whenever I need some affirmation. Love you dearly.

Dear Queen Virtuous,

Your story is a masterpiece in writing, in activism and inspiration all wrapped up in your report on news that many of us watch for, as it is our own grapevine that we depend on. Here's what I take away: The importance of not letting our Governments forget, the importance of global support, the importance of demonstrating, the importance of demonstrators' own sharing of stories, the courage it takes, the betrayal of our own Governments, the danger of police brutality, the unifying spirit of demonstrators, giving and making ourselves useful, and these quotes "it came down to us", "if we forget then society forgets and our government forgets" and your finale "I've signed up forever".

This is what our beloved World pulse is making possible. Sharing news between those who have signed up forever. So glad to meet you here. PS In replying if you click on the speech balloons, your response will send a message alert to your responder!

With love in sisterhood,

Tam

Tam, my love!

I am honored by the warmth of your presence here. And please, while I sincerely appreciate your love for my writing, I do not think that I write nearly as beautifully as you do. Having you share your takeaways from my story is like having my fire fanned, with billows of passion (not fury or hate).......with billows of passion, I say, passion for equality of rights rising to meet the adversary. I am glad to be sharing my stories as well as this lovely space right here with an incredible writer and sister like you, Tam. You inspire me. The solidarity of the international community has always been a source of comfort to the BBOG Movement. Thank you so much for signing up forever with me.

Dear Dear Queen Virtous, thank you for your response,keep me in your heart as I am sending you as much strength as I can so that you can continue your work. Today I am writing to the Canadian Government to remind them about " bring back our girls"and hope that someone will listen and act on their behalf, it is impossible for me to understand why so little has been done. With love and in solidarity x

I am a Scottish woman and a proud Canadian living in Montreal and am excited to hear women's stories and their experiences from all over our globe. Thank you all for your bravery in sharing with us.

My dear Grannie Maggie, you are always in my heart. And I will keep you in my heart. I promise. I pray someone does listen to you as you approach the Canadian government. You are very brave. The Chibok girls thank you. The BBOG Movement thanks you. I thank you. Thank you for sharing in our struggles. I love you very much, with all my heart.

Dear QueenVirtuous, Your work is inspiring and shines a bright light in grim situations! The whole world rallied behind Nigeria when the story first hit the news. Even in Uganda we prayed for the girls, we reached out in different ways to support the cause. It is brave people like you who mobilise and rally numbers in support for justice for our girls that cushion our fears with hope for the best. Your work is indeed not in vain! Well done!

LVB

Dear LillianVB,

It is as they say that family is not made up of blood ties alone but also of oneness in the spirit. You are family. You may not have been on the field with us in person, but you sure were through the vigil that you kept for us in your prayers. Let us continue the fight with boldness and unflinching determination. We will win.

Loads of love for you, my dear. Please continue to remember us in your prayers.

Dear QV!

Powerful piece!!!  Your last 2 paragraphs, thought provoking!

Thank you for staying in this forever fight and sparking a commitment to stay on for our girls even "when the light are out".  I thought we had momentum when 21 girls were released last October but nothing more was heard.

Some of us do feel defeated but your words "when it looks like we won't win, will we keep trying" are motivating enough and serve as a reminder to jump back in the ring without "indulging in amnesia".

Saw a recent call on Facebook by the BBOG campaign to create a video as the anniversary of the girls' kidnap draws near in April with the the hash tag #3years2long.   I hope we can remind the world again that out there somewhere are girls now possibly women whose lives will never be the same again and despite the silence especially from our government that there are still people like you out there who will never give up...for the sake of the parents and for the sake of the girls.

#Bringbackourgirls

Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!

Darling Bim,

Your words bring warmth to my heart. We at BBOG are doing all we can to keep the flame and passion burning for the girls. They are our own flesh and blood. It truly saddens me to see our government and media lapse into amnesia ever so easily. But the girls and their parents need us to speak up for them, and we must not fail them. You said, "......girls now possibly women....", which was what we were trying to avoid. Alas, we failed them! Still, we want them back, scars and all. Alive. We can't sweep this under the rug. Posterity will never forgive us, my dear. 3 years truly is unspeakably long! Stand with us.

Love ya!

Hello Queen Virtuous,

Thank you for sharing your story. I am inspired. I am familiar with BBOG and i commend all those involved in the campaign. It is not an easy task to fight to be a voice of the people.

You are doing a tremendous job. Keep up the good work.

Cheers,

 

Bridggyella

Darling Bridggyella,

It is no easy task at all, but many people need someone else to be their voice when they themselves are overwhelmed with fear and pain. When I think of the girls and where I've been myself, I just can't be silent.

Thank you for reading my story and for encouraging me in my work. Love ya!