April 14. 2015
A year ago tonight, hundreds of Nigerian girls went missing in the middle of the night, kidnapped by extremists to be sold as virgin brides. Many are now free and three are going to school here in Oregon, but 219 girls are still missing.
In the early 1980s, I fell in love with Nigeria, through the music of King Sunny Ade. His “juju” music, from the Yoruba tribe, hypnotized me and transported me to mythical Africa. I saw him first play at the Agora Ballroom in Atlanta in 1982 and was entranced by the colorful cothing of his band and their talking drums. But there was more to the “Giant of Africa,” than cool music. Unfortunately, now when you hear about Nigeria the only news is about Boko Haram and their abduction of young girls. Besides the fact that this is the country where Paul McCartney recorded Band on the Run, there is a rich gender history, of which #BringBackOurGirls is only one part.
Rooted in tribal groups, Nigeria has three large ethnic populations, the Hausa, Igbo, and Yaruba people. The Yaruba are the largest and have a long tradition of empowered women. In the pre-colonial era, land was communally owned and women had a central role in commerce. Women were a big part of long distance trade and many accumulated great wealth, rising in positions of power.
One of the things I’ve lectured about for decades is the way women lose power as they age in America. After 21, it’s all down hill, babe. Western African culture had the opposite take. It’s not about your looks, it’s about your wisdom. So older Nigerian women gained power as they aged. The matriarchal elements of tribal culture made girls and women valued as contributors to the whole.
What ruined this was the European colonizers who brought their heavy duty Church-backed patriarchal rule to Mother Africa. And the first thing the British did was establish an education system that invited the boys to school and sent the girls home. It’s an oversimplification to say that colonialism brought patriarchy to Africa, but the culture from the north dramatically altered the matriarchal and gender balanced relations of Nigeria.
After independence in 1960, the post-colonial education system raised the status of women. After a long period of military juntas, Nigeria saw a new era of democracy begin in 1999. But Nigeria is far from a human rights bastion. Child labor and the rape of inmates are common as is child marriage. Last year Nigeria past a law that allowed the government to sentence same-sex couples who marry to 14 years in prison and anybody who supports gay rights to 10 years in prison.
The rise of religious extremist gangs, like the Islamic Boko Haram, is the pressing threat to females in Nigeria, especially in the northeastern part of the country that they control. A year later their oppression of females goes unchecked. Amnesty International estimates that they have abducted at least 2000 girls and women. According to UNICEF, over 800,000 children have fled their homes because of the conflict between Boko Harum, government forces and civilian self-defense groups. The war against women rages on.
The gender issues that Nigeria is facing in 2015, females face in varying degrees all over the globe. For my and all our daughters, #BringBackOurGirls.