When I learned last year that I would be going to northeastern Nigeria, I was more afraid of what my mother would say than I was of encountering Boko Haram militants.
I broke the news to her over the phone two weeks before I was to leave. I held my breath as I finished telling her about my plans. “You know how I feel about Nigeria,” she said, after a pause, with an exasperated sigh.
While I was growing up, my mother, Grace, rarely talked about her childhood in Nigeria. It’s only in the past few years that I have come to know how she feels about her birth country. She was born in Enugu, a city in the southeastern state of Anambra, to my Yoruba grandmother, Francisca, and my Ghanan grandfather, Fred, who worked in the British civil service. At age 14, my mother fled with her family to Ghana to escape the violence of Nigeria’s brutal Biafra civil conflict, which killed 1 million Nigerians in the late 1960s.
My mother met my father at college in Ghana, and eventually they immigrated to the United States, settling in Dallas. My siblings and I knew my mother’s life was roughly divided in two: “before the war” and “after the war.” But as I was working on a graduate school paper on the Biafra war four years ago, my mother opened up to me about the war. I called to tell her about my paper — and got a burst dam of painful memories in return.
She recalled food and water shortages. Classmates killed in bomb raids. The loyal dog they had to leave behind as the circle of violence tightened around Enugu. How for almost two years they bounced from town to town, living in abandoned homes. Finally, in 1968, my grandfather got the family out on a Red Cross evacuation flight to Accra, Ghana, where my grandmother and relatives still live.
“You know, Karen, we had such a nice life before the war. Grandpa J. was part of the colonial finance ministry, so he was respected. We were like, what you might say, middle class. We had just bought a new house and we were moving our things in, and then the war. . . .” Her voice trailed off. Then she got angry.
“Everything was taken from us. We had to run and only take what we could carry. We had to run to forest areas to hide from shellings. . . . Some people had no food, eating lizards in the bushes!” Later she told me that she sobbed uncontrollably the evening after we talked.
She has never gone back, which may be why I viewed my first trip to Nigeria as a chance for a redemption of sorts. As soon as I landed in Abuja, the capital city, I felt as though I was meeting a grandparent for the first time. The humidity of the air and the smell of the earth reminded me of my trips to visit relatives in Ghana. I was thrilled to finally set foot in my mother’s birthplace, yet I couldn’t help but feel a sense of sadness and resentment — that Nigeria was the grandparent who had failed to protect my mother.
The next day, I flew to Yola, capital of the northeastern Adamawa state. Over several days, I saw the catastrophic toll that the conflict with Boko Haram had taken in the northeast, particularly on women and children. As of April, about 2 million people had been displaced within Nigeria, mostly from Borno, Yobe and Adamawa states. I spent hours at two food distribution sites organized by the American University of Nigeria in Yola, where thousands, mostly women, stood in lines to receive parcels of maize, rice and cooking oil. I spoke to women whose husbands had been killed and whose houses and farms had been destroyed. Despite Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari’s declaration of a “technical victory” over the group, more than 1,000 Nigerians have been killed by Boko Haram since his inauguration last year.
My mother, a lifelong book lover, has always said that the most painful part of moving from place to place during the war was that she could not go to school. I saw for myself the devastating toll that Boko Haram has taken on education — the schools riddled with bullet holes, some even burned to the ground. According to Human Rights Watch, more than 910 schools have been destroyed. It is estimated that more than 950,000 school-age children have fled the violence, leaving them with little or no access to education. The assault on education in Nigeria’s already poor northeastern region will dampen development there for generations.
Perhaps selfishly, I wish I could tie this story up with a neat little bow, and happily report that, as a result of my trip, my mother is planning to return to Nigeria. She doesn’t think she ever will. “What home would I return to?” she asked me. “I’ve learned that my home is wherever my family is.”
I’ll always feel like I met my mother and grandmother in those groups of displaced women and children in Yola. On this Mother’s Day, I am eternally grateful to my mother for sharing her history with me, despite the pain. “War is in me. It’s a part of my makeup,” my mother likes to say. It’s a part of mine, too.
Karen Attiah is The Washington Post’s Deputy Digital Opinions Editor. [myad]