Telling this story is hard and will always be hard. But trust me, it ends well. By sharing, I hope to stir up courage in others to share theirs and find themselves again. I have heard many stories about the abduction of people in my country and have even commiserated with and actively advocated for the release of abductees. Little did I know that I was to experience it too.
An Ill-fated Day
About this time in 2017, I was busy with an assignment. Preparations were already underway for a women’s technology workshop that I was to host at the computer lab of the co-operative college campus. The workshop was about women in technology, accessing digital resources sites like Free Basics, and participating in women's social networking sites like World Pulse.
Only 20% of the students at the college are female, and there are no courses in technology. There is a bias against the advancement of women in technology in this community due to ignorance and poverty.
Nothing had been done to sensitize the indigenous people about the benefits of women in technology or empower those women who may have an interest in STEM literacy until I began visiting the college a few years back on invites to speak about writing.
Very early on the morning of this ill-fated day, I arrived at the venue of the workshop. The computer lab is at the far end of the campus premises, and there is an uncompleted fence surrounding the campus.
Eight young joined me there to sweep the lab and clean the chairs while I set up the projector. We were expecting about 20 more women.
They Barked My Name
A van pulled up. We had arranged with some tech guys from the college to provide technical support, so we thought it was their team who had just arrived.
The driver and one other guy told us that we couldn’t use the computer lab due to some electrical faults. They suggested we used the chapel instead and offered to set us up there quickly. We agreed.
We drove to the chapel area which is further back within the premises. There were thick shrubbery and trees in the backlands.
As we were offloading the tools from the back of the van, suddenly masked men descended on us and ordered us into the back of the black van while they gathered our belongings into a large rucksack.
They barked out my name and said, “We’ve been looking for you, Wonder Woman. We’re going to shut you up!”. Cold shivers ran down my spine. I knew this was about my advocacy campaigns for gender equality.
They bundled us into their black van.
Over Two Weeks In Captivity
I was able to help five girls escape. They got furious. I desperately begged them, again and again, to let the other girls go since it was me they wanted. They did let the other girls go, unharmed.
I couldn’t weep because I was in such shock, breathing so hard and so rapidly from fear. My mind was racing, and I was half dead just thinking what they were going to do to me.
I was held captive in a windowless empty room for over two weeks. The details are horrific. But not a tear could drop. Not until I came back home in Abuja with my family was I able to break down and weep. And even now, I still have nightmares, and I still break down and cry.
Free At Last
My captors had gotten a tip-off that soldiers were in the area looking for kidnappers. So they hurriedly bundled me into their minibus and drove out into the thick bushes again. They stopped somewhere, brought me out, made me lie down on the ground and pressed a gun into my mouth. I waited. Was it my end? Like this?
The leader barked a retreat. I was left there on the floor, and they drove off. I don’t know how long I lay there. The fear of being shot in the back of the head was indeed paralyzing.
After a while, I summoned the courage and got up. I walked for miles. The soldiers saw me first and put me in their vehicle while reassuring me that I was safe again.
I cannot adequately describe to you how abstract the condition of being “safe” feels after such an experience. I passed out.
Back home with my Aunt in the city under medical care, I kept to myself the details of what had happened from my visitors because I could see the excitement in the eyes of the girls whenever they visited and I didn’t want to quench it again. I needed closure, but the girls needed me that very instant. So I did my best to inject humor into our discussions.
The manhunt was not a rescue mission in search of me. No one had believed I was still out there, and out of fear, no one wanted to press the issue. No one wanted to risk a rescue mission because I was only visiting the area; I didn’t live there, and I wasn’t a native.
Over the following months, as I recovered, all the women involved in that technology workshop came to visit me and told me how my ordeal had stirred the entire community and neighboring communities as well into action. The kidnap had brought to their attention two main things namely, the bias against women in technology and the lack of adequate security in the region.
This development revived my enthusiasm. It hadn’t all been for nothing.
But the authorities called me a liar and an attention monger and told that it must have been an old lover of mine on a personal vendetta. They said my abduction had nothing to do with gender equality advocacies, and that I was paid to pull the stunt by the rival political party to make the government look bad. They wanted to hear the salacious details just to entertain themselves.
I was twice shocked.
Sunshine After The Rain
When I was a bit stronger, I tried to host the second session of that workshop with the girls in a hall used for wedding receptions. I provided ten laptops, Wi-Fi, a projector and some refreshments. I was afraid that nobody would want to associate with me because of what had happened, just like some of my close friends had done.
But there were almost 40 girls in attendance. They had so much fun. I promised them I would return to hold the last session of the workshop.
Tired and weak from the emotional and physical trauma, I went back home to my mother in Abuja to be alone for a while and to rest and recover some more, laying low as per counsel from experienced international women’s rights activists. I’m especially grateful to the women at World Pulse who empathized with me and consistently sent hugs and kisses in their emails to me.
Since I had missed an entire session in school due to injuries and dire financial straits, I had a lot of spare time on my hands to plan my next move. Soon I got back to work, square-faced, to channel my pain into positive energy and transmit change into the lives of these young women with whom I had already developed a bond.
Many months after that second session of the workshop, I traveled back to that community.
I held a series of meetings with community leaders and some retired soldiers. I carefully helped them understand the importance of affording girls and young women the opportunity to pursue STEM education and careers in the tech sector. I spoke about my dream of starting something with the girls for free (as an individual for now until I’ve registered my NGO) to close the gender wage gap and create more well-rounded females.
They were very receptive. Projects kicked off for the women of that community.
Currently, two 50-seater women empowerment centers are under construction close to the barracks. A retired soldier donated the land. Some good-natured community members and leaders, as well as the social elite, are among the volunteers. There have been donations of building materials, money, a free 24-seater bus, computers and other electronic tools among other things. The work is slow because volunteers are few and funds are short. However, even though the buildings are as yet incomplete, classes for women of all ages are held there strictly for women empowerment programs. Nobody cajoled the community volunteers into the building. It was their idea.
The only thing the authorities did in response to my abduction was to complete the fence surrounding the college campus.
Have you ever been abducted? If you’ve ever faced danger in your work with women, if you’ve ever felt lonely or felt like giving up, I know what how feels. Recovery isn’t easy, and your feelings are valid, but please don’t shrink. You’re not alone. You’re not a liar. You’re not a loser.
Take a break, unplug, and practice self-care. Above all, master the art of resilience and refuse to let whatever happened to you drown your voice.