The following is excerpted from an interview with Rebecca Dali made during last year’s Church of the Brethren Annual Conference in July 2015. It was shortly after she had been able to go back home to Michika for the first time since Boko Haram had taken over the area, and then had been forced back out by the Nigerian military. Dali heads up CCEPI, a humanitarian nonprofit serving widows, orphans, and others affected by violence. Now there is significantly less violence than last summer, but Dali’s comments give insight into the suffering of many in Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (EYN, the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria) and their Christian and Muslim neighbors. She shares about the spiritual foundations of her work, and helps explain how young Nigerian men are enticed into joining Boko Haram:
Newsline: What was it like to go back to your home and CCEPI’s office in Michika?
As I was going through the town there were some houses that Boko Haram destroyed, and I found the skeletons of some people in a house. For some, their homes became like graveyards for Boko Haram. One of my husband’s cousins, his house was full of graves, more than 20, and every grave had 5 or 6 people. It was really a horrible sight.
Our dog is very wild now because he has been eating dead bodies. I called the dog, he wouldn’t come. It was just horrible.
Some of the old people who refused to run away died in their homes of hunger. So I saw that too, and I was very, very angry.
Newsline: How do you deal with all of this?
I have attended several trauma healing seminars. My capacity has been improved, about how to absorb the shock. I have to grieve when there is something to grieve. I have to grieve, this is reality. But I cannot carry it with me. Afterward, I will pray and just let it go.
It is like taking care of the caregiver. I really gain my strength from the teachings [of the faith] and scripture, and how I will have boundaries. There are some imaginations that I will not go to. There are some times that I have to keep things to myself.
Newsline: Have you been putting your own life at risk by talking and meeting with victims?
I put my life at risk. Sometimes a woman will call me and tell me what is happening with her and there is no one near her, so I will just go.
There was one woman who was so pathetic. They killed her husband and her three sons–one was 22, one was 20, one was 18 years old. She was there alone and she was just lying in the blood. I had to take her to the bathroom, and bathe her, remove her dress. I had to call the police to come and attend to her. And they had to take the dead bodies to the mortuary. Even when I dressed her, she went back to the bodies and cried that they were still alive, so I had to attend to her again. Before people came I stayed there more than eight hours. If I did not go, I don’t know what would have happened to her.
Even some of my staff, they have their own stories. Some of their parents were killed, or their husband, so they are accustomed to doing all of this. They have the vision of saving people, and even taking risks.
Live your life in the hand of God. We love that verse: that he who saves his life, he will lose it, and he who loses his life helping someone, God will save it and help him or her.
Newsline: I am in awe of your strength to do this–your strength of character.
Hmm! It was built when I was small. We lived in a very hard time, in a leprosy colony. You know, when the whole community despises your parents, even as children we were also downgraded and downtrodden. We [children] didn’t have leprosy but in the community we were like outcasts.
But then my mother said, “Don’t allow yourself to be demoralized and humiliated. God made you in his own image.” So she told us even if the children say, “You so-and-so,” you say, “If my mother has leprosy that does not mean that God has deterred her. She is still loved by God.”
So she taught us to be very strong and not to allow anybody to condemn us. She said, “Just look to God. With God everything is possible.”
She has a cross and a verse that says, “Cast all your cares upon Jesus because he cares for you.” Early in the morning we would turn to the cross and pray and commit everything, and say, “Okay Jesus, you said to everybody that you are the one who will take care of us.”
From Jesus we gain our strength. We pray always, we read the Bible, and we commit ourselves to him. Even if you die now or tomorrow, if you die in Christ, then no problem. And if you die on the way of helping others, it is a rewarding death.
You know, 75 percent of my family, they are Muslims. I grew up among the Muslims. After returning back from the [leprosy] colony, my parents’ farm had been taken away. So we did not stay close to our village and my father bought another piece of land. At that time the government did this segregation of lepers, saying that leprosy will spread among the people–the law allowed it. So we stayed among the Muslims, and I know how to recite the creed, and learned a lot of things [about Islam]. So I am not afraid of them.
Newsline: Have you learned who the Boko Haram are? They are young men, usually.
Newsline: How do these young men become Boko Haram?
You know, they enter the community, we are living among them. Some are our relatives.
When the Boko Haram came, maybe two or three people would come as visitors from Maiduguri and sneak in and stay among the Muslims. And then they would start by giving loans to people, and gradually they would attract the youth.
They started by registration. If you want to enter this social group, register and you can get a loan. But then you have to pay back the loan within some certain period. If you can you will pay, if you don’t there is work for you. If you start the work, and you join in, you will take the money for free.
The poverty is too much. For some of the young people, if you give them N10,000 [the Naira is the Nigerian currency, currently N200 equals about $1] or N20,000 or even N100,000, it is a huge amount of money! Even if the parents say, “Don’t enter any group,” they will not listen because their parents don’t have this huge amount of money to give them.
In Michika, for example, Boko Haram knew that the people trade and know how to do a market. If you give a Michika man N50,000, after a year he can turn it into over N100,000. They are good businesspeople. So Boko Haram went there with a huge amount of money and started registering them, and giving loans. Some would get N500,000, some N1,000,000 loans. And one who was only driving a motorcycle, before you know it he will buy a used car, and then he will build a house.
Boko Haram will have a meetingplace and at 12 midnight everybody will meet, and they will distribute the guns. They will say, “Okay, for this loan we have given to you, you will work. Your work is to shoot, and if you shoot the gun then the war will start. If you do not participate, that is all.”
Boko Haram did this in several villages, living among people, distributing guns. Soon they announced that at a certain time, they would start the war. Everybody was in church and they heard guns shooting, and they discovered that their brothers were actually among the Boko Haram.
This is the way Boko Haram gets their members, through money, through gifts. They will start sometimes by giving employment to a lot of youths, this is how they draft young people.
And a huge membership is by kidnapping. They will go and surround a whole area, and they will get the young people, the girls. In their camps they will do all sorts of things to them, and then they [the girls] will come back as warriors and fight.
When I went back to my office in Michika, I saw a lot of dresses of young girls. I have a neighbor who did not run away and the Boko Haram did not kill him. He told me that Boko Haram used our office in Michika because we have a lot of chairs, mattresses for volunteers, foodstuffs, so it was a great place for them. He said they kidnapped a lot of girls and kept them in our office. He said they forced them to wear the hijab. That was why the dresses were still there. When I went and saw this, I really cried, I wept because of what my neighbor said.
Newsline: Where does the Boko Haram leadership get all this money?
We learned that the Arab countries helped them. And some of the Nigerian politicians, the Muslims, are funding them and giving them a lot of support. And if you are afraid that they will kill you….
Newsline: Do you have an idea of how many people CCEPI has aided?
Yes, 450,000 as of the time I left Nigeria. I think that while I have been here [in the United States for the EYN Women’s Fellowship Choir tour and Annual Conference] they have ministered to more than 10,000 people.
Newsline: Your staff must be incredible people.
They work day and night.
— CCEPI is one of the Nigerian nonprofit organizations receiving support from the Nigeria Crisis Response. Find out more at www.brethren.org/nigeriacrisis .