The Gathering Storm
They were the golden boys of Maiduguri. Good kids from good families. University students with hopes of changing the world. And then they were gone. One by one or with their friends, they dropped out of school, abandoned their studies in economics, science, engineering, or tore up their diplomas. They left behind their homes and families to follow a young man named Muhammad Ali and to preach his vision of true Islam from village to village. Read more
A metal box, holding the fancy silver halters befitting the horses of a village chief, landed with a rude clank in the back of the old pickup.
So, it’s come to this, Hamsatu sighed, watching as the last of her family’s belongings was loaded in for relocation to a smaller residence down the road from the main compound in Konduga, where she’d lived for nearly two decades with her ever-growing family and a sizable retinue of villagers in service to its chief, her husband. The locals called that central compound “the palace,” even though, with its free-roaming livestock and clusters of buildings made mainly of mud, it was hardly the stuff of fairy tales.
Hamsatu thought back to the beginning of her life there, when word came to their home in the city that her husband’s father, a village chief, had died, and that role was now his to fill. She wasn’t at all happy with the turn of events. It had been hard enough to make peace with her decision to return to her troubled marriage, let alone face the prospect of moving her children — a fourth now on the way — to an isolated enclave some 25 kilometers southeast of Maiduguri.
In Konduga, life hadn’t changed all that much in the centuries since the sultans. To get by, most of the men there prayed to Allah that their hardscrabble family farms would produce enough to feed their many wives and children until the next rainy season.
Hamsatu hated the idea of moving there, but trusting in Allah, made up her mind to do everything she could to make the best of it. And now, looking back, she was glad she did. Glad for all she accomplished during those years. Early on, as the chief’s wife, she’d managed to continue her education by commuting to the city to earn a master’s degree. She even had a book published based on her thesis, which led to a promotion to head the community school, which led to contacts with other working women in Maiduguri who shared a passion for making life better — not just for themselves and their children, but also for all those who hadn’t been blessed with the same opportunities.
As the back of the flatbed truck continued to be filled, Hamsatu watched the movers heave and hoist. And in memory, saw again scenes from the past 17 years.
Hamsatu hears the celebration before she’s officially part of it: the rhythmic pounding of gambas, the trill of the wooden flutes, the jubilant shouts of the crowd keeping pace with her husband — their new chief — as he rides on horseback to the gate of the family home. Tradition dictated that she wait there to welcome him after the turbanning ceremony that established him as the leader of Konduga. The white robes of his office flutter in the wind. His head, crowned with a brimless red hat — the mark of royalty — is swathed in the turban he received that morning in the ceremony officiated by the Emir in front of the palace. In one hand, her husband holds a long red spear, another mark of authority. He punches the air with it as the procession he’s riding in arrives at his house. And the crowd’s cheers reach a crescendo as he leans down to transfer the spear — as tradition dictates — to his wife. Accepting it and all that it signifies, Hamsatu holds it high above her head, allowing the joyful noise of the day to quiet her misgivings about the family’s new life in Konduga.
“Come, join me,” Hamsatu says, gesturing to the ground in front of her mat. The woman tentatively approaching her had been told by others in the village that the new chief’s wife is different — very different — from previous women in that role. Hamsatu, they say, doesn’t lounge inside all day, ensconced in flowing robes, waiting for supplicants to make their way through guards and protocols to bow and address her.
Instead, she comes out on her veranda to sit and chat with those seeking guidance from the chief’s wife on how to get along with the co-wives in their households, or what to do about a lazy son, a recalcitrant daughter, an overbearing mother-in-law.
“I’m so happy to see you,” Hamsatu continues. “Please, be seated.”
The woman eases herself down, and with her legs tucked beneath her, bows deeply before sitting face-to-face with the Number One Woman in the world of her village.
“Now, tell me, dear, how is your family? I hope things are well with you and your people?” Hamsatu says, offering a straw plate piled with kola nuts to further put the woman at ease. Then she leans in and listens. Listens in a way that seeks not just to hear, but to understand what’s it like to be this woman. What it’s like to live hand to mouth, as so many in the village do; to dream sometimes of a better life, but to wake up too many mornings hungry.
Why not? Hamsuta thinks, when the idea comes to her to form an association of women workers. In an earlier role as secretary of the Association of Women Civil Servants in Maiduguri she’d seen the impact an activist organization like that had on the lives of people there.
Why not here in the village? the chief’s wife thinks.
So, she heads out to talk with women where they work about her idea, and in the process, connect the mostly-Muslim community with those of the Christian faith in a common cause. The group starts out as a simple support system aiding local families — with food, necessities, and small gifts — when they’re bereaved or yet another baby arrives. But as the women’s trust in each other grows, so does the scope of the group’s purpose and outreach.
Under Hamsatu’s leadership, they band together to run a cooperative farm with a mango garden attached, given to the group by the local government. With the money they earn from it, they fund more projects. By also tapping into several government-sponsored programs, they’re able to provide needed capital to reactivate local poultry farms and start groundnut oil-extraction businesses. And thanks to a grant for a ready supply of clay, the women skilled in making pots are able to craft and sell their creations all year, even when seasonal downpours turn the land beneath their feet into a slippery sludge.
Hamsatu overhears a servant telling the chief about a strange young woman sitting motionless under a tree near the village school.
“She just stares into a bowl she holds in her lap. Doesn’t say anything to anyone,” the young man reports.
“How long has she been there?”
“Nearly a week, sir.”
As the chief ponders what to do, Hamsatu jumps in.
“Bring her to me.”
“What are you saying?” Hamsatu’s husband says.
“Bring her to the compound. We can at least give her a place to stay for a while,” Hamsatu answers, remembering the Prophet’s words, “Whosoever alleviates the lot of a needy person, Allah will alleviate his lot in this world and the next.”
Hamsatu meets with the woman later that day. Their conversation, such as it is, yields little more than her name: Ya Jalo. Hamsatu believes that if there is a cure for the confusion and fear she sees in Ya Jalo’s eyes, it can only come through kindness.
And it does. At first, most of the villagers want nothing to do with Ya Jalo, fearing that the fact that she’s mentally challenged has something to do with the devil. But over time, after seeing the chief’s wife — of all people — working with her in the compound’s kitchen, stirring pots, chopping onions, they’re willing to do the same, and more. In fact, a young man, one of the chief’s own guards, eventually comes to love Ya Jalo enough to ask for her hand in marriage.
Hamsatu remembers others, too, who came to the compound through all sorts of circumstances, and ended up becoming part of the family: A bright-eyed girl whose parents disowned her when she spoke up and said she wanted to accept the admission into college she’d earned, instead of going through with the wedding and the celebration her parents had already bought a goat for. Three boys from a wine-making tribe that lived on the farthest fringes of Konduga — young men who were drawn to convert to Islam by the preaching of the Islamic scholars and imams from nearby Maiduguri. And more. Many more. Outsiders — outcasts, even — whom Hamsatu embraced and aided. In a word, loved.
So much has happened here, she thought, as the tailgate of the pickup, slamming shut, brought her back to the moment at hand: the imminent move precipitated by a power grab that saw her ailing husband marginalized as a community leader. The ouster was a tale of backbiting and betrayal, masterminded by a man, a distant relative, her husband had always treated like a son. Nothing about it felt right. Still, Hamsatu couldn’t help but be grateful for the deep joy she had come to know in Konduga, through 17 years of service to the people there, and Allah’s plan.
The Power of Persistence
Early every workday at the offices of the State Primary Education Board in Maiduguri, the tattered old men arrived. Some settled in on a couch in the hallway, muttering to each other — their thin shoulders sagging, their gray heads bowed. Others sat in the shade near the building’s carport — their hands, upturned and idle, resting on their knees. Every now and then, a passerby would be moved to drop a cash note or two — unsolicited — into their palms.
It was easy to mistake them for beggars, but on her first day in her job as Director of School Services, Hamsatu learned that these old men were retired teachers who used to work in the primary schools in Borno State. For 35 years, they’d taught their community’s children how to read and write, add and subtract. Encouraged them to do their best. Prepared them, as much as possible, for success in secondary school and later life.
Many of those teachers now made their way around town on rusty bikes — their only means of transportation. And they’d gamely wave to any former student honking a “hello” from a shiny new sedan.
Not only were such luxuries out of reach for the retired educators, so were many of life’s necessities. As primary school teachers, they didn’t receive a pension. After their mandatory retirement at age 65, their income disappeared.
Civil servants and teachers working in secondary education, on the other hand, were assured of a lump-sum gratuity and a monthly pension from the state; and the federal government funded the retirement checks of educators at the college level. But teachers in the state’s primary schools were employees of their local governments, none of which had found a way to provide for them in their retirement. All they were likely to receive at the end of their decades of service was a “thank you” and a “goodbye.”
“You mean to tell me they get nothing in their old age? Nothing? That these public servants are allowed to go to their graves destitute?!” Hamsatu asked her colleagues that first day on the job. Their nods were confirmed by the conversations she soon had with the old men themselves. Some had taken up their usual posts that day with new hope that this new director could somehow help. Typically, they came to the Education Board more in resignation and solidarity than expectation. It was, at least, someplace to go.
Solving this pension problem wasn’t one of the duties of her new position. But even though she didn’t have that mandate, Hamsatu decided to take it on anyway. As a former secondary-school teacher, she wouldn’t gain anything from it, yet to her, the issue was personal. In between her other responsibilities, she began studying the matter and looked to the southern region of Nigeria for possible solutions. She knew that secular education there was highly valued. And she learned through calls, conversations, and dogged research, that it was also well funded, including pensions for teachers — even those at the primary level. Hamsatu viewed that as nothing less than society’s moral obligation to those who educate its children. The “why” of it all. And now she was determined to find a “how.”
With a small bundle of file folders clutched to her chest, she headed up the stairs to present her boss with the pension findings she’d gathered in her first months on the job.
“Yes, I know it’s a problem, Hajja,” he agreed. “But realistically, there’s not much we can do. This department is only allotted funds to pay the salaries of active teachers. Without due process, nothing more can be done. I’m sorry, but this is a job for the legislature, not us.”
Hamsatu sat with that for a minute.
“Well, what if I were to write a memo from the Board that would bring it to the legislature’s attention?” she said. “It could get things started, couldn’t it? What do you say?”
With a world-weary sigh and a wry chuckle, the veteran administrator answered, “Sure, why not? Go ahead. Can’t hurt to try.”
And that was all Hamsatu needed.
That night, Hamsatu sat on the floor, hunched over a spiral notebook. Pen in hand, she worked, crafting the memo that would not only bring the pension problem to the attention of members of the Assembly, but also outline in clear detail how it could be solved. Drawing on her research in those file folders, she offered specifics on everything from government avenues for funding to plans for implementation.
The light overhead flickered, but didn’t go out, as it often did. She’d prepared for a probable power outage by making sure she had a flashlight nearby. She would finish this tonight, she vowed, no matter what. With the floor around her littered with first, second, and fifth drafts, she finally fell asleep, just as the neighborhood’s guinea fowl were waking up in the baobob trees.
Late in the afternoon the next day, Hamsatu was still waiting for her assistant to format the final draft on the office’s computer, when her boss peeked in to say, “Have a good evening, Hajja. See you tomorrow.” She’d hoped to have the memo finished before he left, but now he was out the door.
No matter. As soon as it landed on her desk, she tucked it into a presentation folder and dashed out to the parking lot. Instead of going home, she drove to her boss’s house for the first time, surprising him while he relaxed, sitting with friends on a rug on his porch.
She apologized for the interruption and quickly got to the point of her visit: his signature on her memo, so she’d be authorized to take it to the House of the Assembly.
They both knew that with an election just days away, things at that governing body were uncertain. Soon outsiders might be in, and current insiders, out.
After taking a few moments to review the two-page document, he looked up.
“Well done, Hajja,” he said, signing his name. “I hope it passes.”
Next stop: the offices of the legislature, a few minutes away. It was after hours, but Hamsatu took a chance that the Speaker of the House would still be on site. He, too, had once been a teacher and they had known each other in their earlier careers. As Speaker, it would be his job to present the memo to the Assembly and shepherd it to a vote.
When she arrived at that government building, only one car remained in the lot. And next to its open door, stood the Speaker. Just as he was about to duck into the seat next to his driver, she hailed him.
“Hajiya?” he answered.
Once again, to the surprise of an official, Hamsatu stepped up to explain the reason for her visit and give him the memo to read. He teased her about the timing of it being politically motivated. But as ex-teachers, they both understood that this was an issue above politics.
“No guarantees, especially with the election coming up. But I’ll see what I can do,” he promised.
Distracted by the upheaval that often accompanies an election, no one in the government bothered to keep Hamsatu informed about the status of the bill. It was doubtful, too, that many of the legislators — hurrying to clear their desks — realized its full significance or far-reaching impact.
If and when it did pass, the new governor would have to sign it and then funding would also need his approval. With the advent of a new administration, Hamsatu realized that the issue might not come to his attention for a long time. Given the way the system works sometimes, she worried it could languish in the shuffle of the transition, or even get lost.
Weeks passed, then months, with no further word from sources governmental or media-related. And the tattered old men — and women, too — continued to gather at her workplace. They didn’t know about the memo or the bill. Hamsatu, aware of the uncertainties inherent in the process, hadn’t said anything about it. False hope, she knew, dies hardest of all.
I’ve got to find out what’s going on with that memo, whatever it takes, she decided at her desk one morning. Clearing her calendar and grabbing her car keys, she headed out the office door.
First stop, the Assembly, where she was told the bill had been passed and sent on to the Government House, a compound that contained the state offices, as well as the Governor’s living quarters. There she learned that it had been given a file number and forwarded to the Ministry of Justice, an indication that the new Governor had signed it.
Staying on the trail, file number in hand, Hamsatu headed for the Ministry of Justice, where she charmed a government worker into helping her locate the file.
“This is as good a place as any to start,” he said, flipping the pages of a large hard-cover notebook that tracked the movement of documents through the Ministry. It led them both to a closet filled with stacks of numbered folders — piled high in no apparent order. Together they settled in to sift through those files. One by one.
“Found it!” Hamsatu exclaimed hours later. And sure enough, there it was — the Governor’s signature in red at the bottom of the bill. The staid halls echoed with her whoops of joy.
But there was more to be done. The Solicitor General now needed to move it forward, the Ministry worker told her. Together they took the signed bill to his office, so a letter could be drafted informing the Ministry of Local Government Affairs that a bill enabling pensions and gratuities for their primary school teachers had been passed.
All well and good, except for the fact that for the money to flow, the Governor would now have to officially OK the dispersal of funds. A necessary formality.
Hamsatu checked every week with the Accounts Payable department to see if the money had been deposited for dispersal. Week after week, the funds weren’t there. The Commissioner of Local Government, she learned, was still waiting for the governor’s approval.
To Hamsatu, there seemed to be no end to the bureaucratic labyrinth. Even within her own workplace — the Education Board — key positions, including that of her former boss, were now filled by members of the opposition party, complicating matters even more. Still, determined to see this pension issue through, she decided the newly appointed Accountant General, a woman who was also the new governor’s sister-in-law, might be just the person to help make his final approval of the funding happen. Once again, Hamsatu grabbed her car keys and headed out the office door.
Greeting the Accountant General at her desk, Hamsatu offered congratulations on the election. Then smoothly segued into sharing her realization that every new administration, of course, is eager to prove to the electorate they’re able to get things done. Big things. Like the pension bill for primary school teachers that simply needed one final signature for its funding to flow.
“Once it’s implemented, it will not only boost His Excellency’s image, it’ll make life better for thousands of retired teachers in the primary system! The people who teach our children. Yours and mine. Believe you me, those public servants will thank our new governor. And with your kind assistance right now, Dear Madam, so will I.” Hamsatu smiled, raised her eyebrows, and waited.
“OK. Consider it done,” the Accountant General said. And within days, at last, it was.
A large public event marked the announcement of the new pension plan for primary teachers. On a decorated platform on the grounds of the State Primary Education Board, politicians made speech after speech, congratulating themselves and each other on this “significant achievement.” The role of the Director of School Services in making it happen went unacknowledged, then and after.
That afternoon Hamsatu Allamin was just another person in the audience. Standing with the happy throng of new pensioners and their families, she remembered the saying she’d heard so often: “Teachers find their reward in heaven.” Through the steps she had taken to get the bill passed and implemented, she had done what she could to change that adage a bit. And it was in the faces of the crowd that day that Hamsatu found her own reward.
Section title photo: Nigerian children at play (Wikipedia)
Sitting sideways on the crossbar of the bike, Hamsatu gripped the center of the handlebars as her father, pedaling hard, navigated the winding, narrow roads of Maiduguri. They were on their way to Gamboru Jr. Primary School where Hamsatu would begin her education.
The morning sun, shining through the feathery leaves of the neighborhood’s many neem trees, cast dappled shadows on the hard-packed route. Looking down, Hamsatu saw the steady rise and fall of her father’s black boot — part of his uniform as an inspector at the local slaughterhouse. She smiled at the sight of her own small feet, dangling in red rubber sandals, bought especially for this day. Read more
Michele Obama didn’t know Hamsatu Allamin. Neither did Malala Yousafzai, Amy Poehler, Justin Timberlake, and scores of other celebrities. But because of a press conference Hamsatu, a human rights activist, spearheaded in her home city of Maiduguri, Nigeria, in April of 2014, those celebrities and millions of people all over the world came to know of the abduction by the insurgent group, Boko Haram, of 200+ girls from a boarding school in Chibok, a village in Borno State. And thousands subsequently took to social media to demand the girls be returned to their homes.
Word of their kidnapping had reached Hamsatu the morning after it happened through a phone call from an associate who lived in Chibok. The Nigerian government’s initial response to the incident ranged from obfuscation to denial. Rumors replaced information. Hearsay doubled as news.
A full four days after the girls were taken in the middle of the night from their dormitory, little was officially reported on the incident and nothing was known about their whereabouts. Those whose daughters had disappeared wondered why their country’s security forces hadn’t been able to quickly find hundreds of teenage girls, a cadre of insurgents, and a convoy of vehicles in the expanse around Chibok — a lonely landscape dotted with thorny bushes and scattered trees.
Against the backdrop of virtual silence on the matter, Hamsatu contacted a colleague in Maiduguri’s civil society — Professor Hauwa Abdu Biu — to help coordinate a press conference to draw attention to what had happened in Chibok. The two hoped that the publicity would create international pressure on the government to do more to find the girls and to dialogue with the insurgents to end the rampant violence that threatened the future of their country.
That was the plan that brought together 18 women leaders from Borno State to stand in solidarity before members of the media and listen as one of their own, Professor Biu, read the statement she and Hamsatu had worked on together:
Women Peace and Security network under the leadership of the Borno outreach of BAOBAB for Women Human Rights and other concerned women in Borno State wish to condemn the abduction of female students of GGSS Chibok as well as other females from Dikwa and other parts of the North Eastern States by suspected members of Jamaatul ahlil sunna Lidaawati wal Jihad. Such acts are inhuman and capable of affecting the efforts of enhancing girl child education and development in the state and the country at large.
This idea of invading schools and causing havoc on the lives of future leaders, particularly future mothers of Nigeria, is a way of violating international humanitarian law. Women in Borno State condemn in its totality such acts of violence as attacks on schools deny children their rights to learn in a safe environment there by jeopardizing their future.
We also condemn all other attacks in the form of bomb blasts and serial killings all over the country in its entirety and commiserate with the families of all those that lost their lives during the unfortunate incidences. While calling on the sect members to please release all those in their custody without harming them, and as a matter of urgency lay down their arms and embrace dialogue, we wish to assure them of our motherly support towards rehabilitating them when the need arises.
While commending the efforts of both Federal, Borno State government and other security personnel as well as the Borno youth volunteers toward addressing the current insurgency attacks in the state, and bearing in mind the attacks on schools, we wish to appeal for the provision of adequate security to all schools so as to have safe learning environment to enable building a promising future for the country.
National and international media outlets picked up the story, and the Nigeria Stability and Reconciliation Programme, the British-sponsored nongovernmental organization Hamsatu worked for, helped spread the word, as well. Before long, people all over the globe — from those in the upper echelons of power to those with family and friends on Facebook and Twitter — took up the cry of the mothers and fathers of Chibok: Bring back our girls.
Hamsatu’s connection with that story and others involving Boko Haram started long before that hashtag trended. The path to her advocacy began decades earlier, the day her father announced she would go to school … .
Narrative title photo: “Bring Back Our Girls” mural in West Vale, England (Photo by Tim Green on flickr )
Section title photo: Michelle Obama holding a sign for #BringBackOurGirls (Wikipedia)
Auntie Boko Haram
Hamsatu looked around the rented meeting room in Lagos where a small group had come together in secret to explore the possibility of ending the ever-escalating violence in Borno State. In addition to Hamsatu, the gathering included a barrister, a pastor, an imam, a journalist, and an official representative from an international faith foundation, not to mention 12 members of Boko Haram, who had traveled there from their hiding places in the bush, their bus tickets and lodging in Lagos funded by the foundation. Read more
“Good morning, Sue,” Hamsatu says, shuffling into my San Diego kitchen the day after the 2016 presidential election. Read more
The following is an edited compilation of questions and answers between Woman PeaceMaker Hamsatu Allamin and her peace writer, Sue Diaz, during the 2016 residency.
Hamsatu, help us understand the roots of the current conflict by explaining the British colonial policies in northern Nigeria.
Before the partition of Africa by the European colonialists, Africa was made up of nation states. Some are Islamic caliphates, like my own area, which is the Kanem-Borno Kingdom, which was the gateway of Islam to northern Nigeria until the Europeans came mainly for slave trade. Then later, they found other economic benefit. Hence the scramble for Africa. They partitioned the continent into countries — like the current geographical division you are seeing. Read more