Everyone seems to have forgotten the Chibok girls who were kidnapped from their school in May 2014. President Muhammadu Buhari, who campaigned for election as a former military strongman with the know-how to rescue the girls, has been in office since May and says very little about them now.
The Bring Back Our Girls campaign group that tried to keep the girls in the public consciousness has also been silent in recent times.
This article, originally published in the Guardian, shows and African-American billionaire, Robert Smith, stepping up to the plate. He puts the Nigerian government and other wealthy Nigerians to shame.
‘These girls matter’: US tycoon helping Chibok pupils back into the classroom
Inaction and fading global interest in plight of those who escaped Boko Haram spurred Robert F Smith to support local efforts with offer to pay for schooling
Nigeria marks 500 days since the kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls
Tuesday 17 November 2015
America’s richest black man found himself losing sleep this year over a problem that had nothing to do with running a business worth billions of dollars.
Robert Smith was used to powering through life’s hurdles, both personal and political. But he couldn’t shake off what he had heard on the radio one May morning. A newsreader was debating the fate of the dozens of girls who escaped when the Islamist militants Boko Haram snatched 276 female pupils from their dormitories in north-eastern Nigeria’s Chibok.
“I was driving two of my own children to school, and it just hit [me] as a parent,” he said. “And then the scale of [Chibok]. Even if it was just two or three, it’s a tragedy, but 300?”
Fifty of the girls had escaped but, traumatised and ostracised, they had then been largely left to their own devices, bar a handful sought out by aid workers.
It was not just the sight of two of Smith’s own children giggling on the back seat that gave the news a raw edge. Like the Chibok students who had dared go to school – putting them among just 29% of girls in northern Nigeria to make it past primary school – Smith, a product of the newly desegregated schools of Colorado, understood the struggle to complete education in defiance of society’s expectations.
The more the atrocities in north-eastern Nigeria piled up and then quickly faded from the international spotlight, the more it bothered him.
“We’ve got the Black Lives Matter campaign going on [in the US] at the moment, and these girls matter too. Their lives matter not just because of the events that happened, but just because their lives matter,” he said.
And so he began thinking about how he could help the girls 6,000 miles away.
Traumatised and often ostracised
Margee Ensign roamed around her cobbled courtyard trying to find a clear signal under the desert sky of north-eastern Nigeria’s Yola state. Even then, she wasn’t sure she was hearing clearly.
“I immediately thought of Publisher’s Sweepstakes,” the popular US lottery show that many believe is a scam.
As director of the American University of Nigeria, Ensign and her colleagues journeyed down dirt tracks in the heart of Boko Haram’s territory to Chibok this year to offer the escaped girls scholarships – often having to spend days persuading traumatised families to put their children back in education.
Now a voice on the other end of the line was offering to pay for the school fees and expenses of all 21 girls. “He said, I’ll cover their expenses for as long as they needed it. And then – it was just incredible – he basically said, see if you can find the rest of the [escaped] girls, and we’ll help them too,” said Ensign, whose team this summer found and began caring for a further three escapers.
Community spirit has periodically spun a safety net for devastated north-eastern towns and villages in the face of often soporific official responses. The violence has continued despite the incoming government pledging to eradicate the insurgency by next month.
“We are working tirelessly around the clock … to rout out terrorists in all known camps and enclaves before the end of the year,” said a military spokesman, Sani Usman.
In two years, violence from Boko Haram has displaced about 2.5 million people in the Lake Chad region – approximately four times the number of refugees and migrants crossing the Mediterranean this year. While the latter’s plight has prompted frequent summits, changes in government policies and an outpouring of donations that has included offers from an Egyptian billionaire to buy two islands for those streaming to Europe, in Nigeria picking up the pieces has largely fallen to a handful of dogged local activists.
In Yola, where some of the Chibok girls have found a new home, local imams and priests feed up to 350,000 displaced people daily as those fleeing the violence have outnumbered the city’s own inhabitants. Much has depended on the goodwill of donations, oftenfrom local people who themselves are struggling to make ends meet in Nigeria’s poorest region, workers on the ground say.
Smith, who grew up in a tightly knit community that rallied together after an uncle was killed in a racist attack, said those values resonated with him.
“If [what happened in Chibok] had happened to me, I’d have lost my faith in people. I hope the girls see there’s a kindness in the human spirit. There are people out there who want to help them become the people they want to be,” said Smith, who also runs a foundation for disadvantaged schoolchildren.
One young student recently told him at a dinner in their honour that it was the first time someone had followed his progress at school. It’s a sentiment echoed by classmates on the other side of the world.
“Since I came to this school … I have full confidence now that I can express myself everywhere I go,” said Mary, an escaper who had never seen a computer before leaving Chibok. “I never thought for once in my life that I will be in this kind of environment. I feel much better because of the love and care shown by everyone.”
Her friend Rachel, a classmate who also recalled the dingy schoolrooms in Chibok, was quiet for a long time before answering. Finally, she spoke quietly. “I don’t know what to say and how to express my feeling to those people who are sponsoring me. I pray God will bless them and their families.”