The blood of my Nigerian grandmother doesn’t just run through my veins, it’s a life force catapulting me through periods I never thought I would survive – law school, the Iraq War, breast cancer.
She taught me I could learn anything, with enough persistence and faith.
Nigerian women have a robust history of powerful determination and passionate civic involvement. Their role in unequivocally demanding help for the 276 girls grotesquely abducted from a Northern boarding school in mid-April is no different.
I am a child of this complicated country, as my beloved father is Nigerian and my extraordinary mother enjoys an Irish lineage. My family is part of roughly 40% of the population that is Christian, mostly in the south and east. I spent my high school sophomore year at an all-girls boarding school in northern Nigeria, which largely represents the 50% Muslim population. My school was not far from where the girls were heinously snatched. It’s even possible some of them are daughters of my classmates.
Nigeria’s women pushed right through accusations that the atrocity in Chibok was a hoax, after naysayers apparently grew suspicious after it was revealed that some of the women, protesting the government’s lack of action, were not mothers of the missing girls.
But true to a dogged nature, it turned out that many of the actual mothers planted themselves at home just in case their daughters returned, but they did not want to miss gathering in force to bring attention to their plight, so they sent friends or family.
The actions by the clearly terrified mothers personify the heart of Nigerian culture – love of family and hope. The mistrust of reports that the girls had been attacked and hauled away to be sold into slavery expresses a liberal dose of suspicion woven into the fabric of the community.
The two are united by trials of living in a developing country where the government is not always reliable, the economy unpredictable, credible information often scarce and resources even scarcer. Nigerians are creative in reconciling multiple needs at once, especially mothers who have children to care for.
They persevere. The pictures of such unimaginable grief and fear are painful to witness, but their stories have been effective. The press has widely reported that the pressure by the women triggered the global condemnation of what many saw as a slow-moving Nigerian government that was slow to respond to the kidnapping.
The mothers forced the government’s hands. Protests launched international exposure, a Twitter campaign #BringBackOurGirls, and ultimately promised help from the United States and others.
This is a feat. Nigeria is a messy place, with three dominate ethnic groups: Igbos, Yorubas and Hausas. There are at least 250 additional groups (reported numbers vary considerably) who speak additional languages and practice indigenous religions.
I am not sugar-coating the current escalation of ethnic violence. It is real. The legacy of violence and massive disruption continues, but it is in the context of things I am describing that I see rarely explained.
In this nation of cultures within cultures, men tend to be in charge. But particularly in the east and south, where there are fewer conservative Muslims, many women play substantive roles in government, business and the civic community.
Take my grandmother. She was appointed to a chief’s council by the governor of the state she lived in, and it was a role with influence. She wasn’t the only woman. There are many influential civic, business, legal, educational women’s organizations that only grow larger in the impact on day to day life.
Nigeria is slowly closing the gap between men and women in education, economics, politics and health, according to the World Economic Forum’s Global Gender Gap Index. It shows a women meeting 64% of the goals men make, while in the U.S. the difference is 73%.
There’s also historical precedent of matriarchs leading the charge. When the stakes were high, in 1929, 10,000 women took on British colonialists.
It was called the Woman’s War. Three older women preaching non-violence led a protest against tax rates because they claimed families were being destroyed. They used weapons of dance and song. Clashes left at least 50 people dead, but in the end local officials lost jobs and the rules were changed.
The stakes are tremendously high now. There are at least 276 girls’ lives at risk.
I learned a long time ago from my grandmother what it means to never give in to the impossible.
We are seeing this played out today. The mothers of the abducted girls are doing everything in their power to bring their children home.
And that’s one thing all Nigerian women share – the drive to never give up.
Adaora Udoji is Interim President of News Deeply, a tech-driven digital media company focused on complex global issues in the public interest, the flagship vertical is www.Syriadeeply.org. She’s a lawyer and an award-winning broadcast journalist, previously serving as co-host of The Takeaway with John Hockenberry, as a foreign correspondent based in London for ABC News and a correspondent at CNN. “Adaora” is Nigerian, meaning daughter of all.