Four months after Boko Haram shocked the world by kidnapping more than 200 students, a small group of schoolgirls who narrowly escaped from the Islamist extremists were facing a new dilemma: Should they go back to school?
It was an agonizing decision for the girls from Chibok and their nervous parents, who were afraid of another horrifying attack if they let their daughters go to school again.
Some parents refused. But today, 21 of the escapees from Nigeria’s most notorious kidnapping are at an elite private school in the city of Yola, studying for careers as doctors, teachers and engineers.
The American University of Nigeria’s scholarships allowed the Chibok students to enter a preparatory program for entrance exams at its campus in Yola, about 300 kilometres south of Chibok.
More than nine months after the kidnapping, most of the Chibok girls are still so traumatized by their close escape from Boko Haram that they refuse to talk about it. But in conversation, they are surprisingly cheerful. They talk of their hopes and dreams, revealing remarkable courage and determination. They talk of their ambition to become physicians and engineers, so they can return to build hospitals for their impoverished communities.
“To save lives – that’s the most important thing,” says Yana, one of the Chibok students.
“There are people who need medical care and can’t afford it. There’s no means of transport. If you don’t have a motorcycle, you can die.”
Like the other students, 19-year-old Yana doesn’t want her full name to be published, to avoid pressure from the glare of world attention.
Instead she prefers to talk about the joys of education, and all the advantages that she never had before: a science laboratory, microscopes, computers and a school full of mentors and professors.
It was a Canadian professor at the university, Jessica Boyd, who introduced the Chibok girls to microscopes for the first time. “It’s amazing to see invisible things,” Yana marvels.
On the night of April 14 last year, Yana and the other schoolgirls were asleep at their boarding school in Chibok when they were woken by the noise of movement in the school.
A group of armed men, posing as soldiers, told the students to go outside into waiting trucks, so they could be “rescued.”
Some of the schoolgirls noticed oddities in the gunmen’s appearance.
They wore no shoes, and had scarfs wrapped around their heads.
“They told the girls to get into their vehicles,” one student recalled in a university videotape.
“Miraculously I escaped. I didn’t follow them. I jumped through the window and ran and kept running. I went into the bush, and that’s how I escaped.”
One of the escapees was the sister of an American University security guard named Godiya.
A few months after the kidnapping, Godiya timidly asked the university officials if they could help her sister.
The students weren’t getting any education in Chibok, where schools were closed and families were constantly in danger of another Boko Haram attack.
University president Margee Ensign promised to help, and Godiya went back to Chibok to find girls who were willing to accept scholarships.
Travelling on a motorcycle through heavy rains and even over a deadly cobra, she went from family to family and compiled a list of students.
In late August, Ms. Ensign decided to travel toward Chibok to pick up the first group of students in a nearby village, accompanied by the university’s security director, Lionel Rawlins, a former U.S. Marine.
It was an audacious mission: a journey to the edge of Boko Haram territory.
The university’s armed security guards refused to go with them.
To make it even more dangerous, their two buses were carrying the logo of the American University of Nigeria – a provocation to Boko Haram, whose very name (“Western education is forbidden”) signals its hatred of everything the university stands for.
Ms. Ensign and Mr. Rawlins covered up the biggest of the logos on their buses, drove north for hundreds of kilometres and eventually reached the village where the girls were staying.
One of the fathers told them of his fears for the children. “We have brought you only a few of the girls, as a test, to see how it is,” he told the university officials.
The experiment seems to have succeeded.
Ms. Boyd, a professor from Halifax who chairs the university’s natural and environmental sciences program, has been astonished by the resilience of the Chibok students.
“They’ve been through hell and back, and they must feel terrible for their friends who haven’t come back, and yet they are still upbeat,” she said.
“They’ve been given a chance, and they’re not going to waste it.
“They’re going to take what they’re learning and take it back to their villages for future generations.
“I have a lot of hope for the future of Nigeria after meeting these ladies.”
Like most young Nigerian women, the Chibok students are acutely aware of the social pressure to get married at a young age – which could make it impossible for them to pursue their education.
When they met Ms. Boyd, they asked her if she was married. When she told them that she was unmarried, they burst into applause and cheered.
Unlike many wealthier students, the Chibok students have little sense of entitlement. When the university president asked them whether she could bring them back anything from the United States during the December holidays, they asked for only one thing: dictionaries for their studies.Report Typo/Error