By Carl and Roxane Hill
On our recent trip to Nigeria to meet with and encourage the Disaster Team of Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (EYN, the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria), we took the opportunity to travel into unstable and potentially dangerous areas of the northeast.
In previous years, when we taught at EYN’s Kulp Bible College in Kwarhi, our movements were restricted and we did not venture off the main road between the cities of Mubi and Michika. Our plan for this excursion was to go where few, if any, Americans had been since the violent Boko Haram Islamist insurgency became really serious in October 2014, many people had been run out of their communities in the northeast, and the violence claimed many lives.
Despite the uncertainty of the situation we were ready to give it our best. We joined a group that included David Sollenberger, a Church of the Brethren videographer; EYN staff liaison Markus Gamache; Yuguda Mdurvwa, who heads up the EYN Disaster Team; and two others. We set off early in the morning, heading north along the main road that connects Yola in the south to Maiduguri in the north. We had no intention of going all the way to Maiduguri because just north of Michika was unsafe and declared a “no-go zone” by the Nigerian military. Even Markus Gamache said it was his first foray north of Kwarhi and the EYN Headquarters since the insurgency had claimed the territory for a time, before the Nigerian military drove Boko Haram back. But we did want to go as far as we could into the interior of the northeast.
As we drove north the harmattan was very heavy. Harmattan is dust that blows in from the Sahara Desert to the north, limits visibility, and casts an eerie veil over everything. At some points the mountains in the distance disappeared because of this blanket of dust.
Our first stop was the EYN #1 Church in Michika. As we drove into the walled-off compound we noticed immediately that there was nothing left but rubble from the large church that once stood there. Inside the compound, however, all sorts of activities were taking place. School was in session with more than 100 children attending classes under the trees. The women’s ministry was gathered, discussing important things regarding the church service of the day before. Men also were present, most either guarding the area or picking up trash and debris.
There to greet us was one of the women who traveled to the United States last summer as part of the EYN Women’s Fellowship Choir. Salamatu Billy, the pastor’s wife, welcomed us, a little surprised that we would travel so far north to come and see her. She gave us a brief tour of the compound and showed us where the congregation was meeting for services. Like many of the churches we were to see that day, Michika #1 Church had built a temporary worship center, covered with a tin roof, with enough plastic chairs to seat 800 to 1,000 worshipers. We noticed overflow seating had been set up, and we estimated that 70 percent of the former congregation was back and attending the weekly services.
This shocked us. After spending most of our time in the cities of Abuja and Jos during our most recent visits in Nigeria, we were most familiar with areas relatively untouched by Boko Haram violence, and thought that the northeast must be like a ghost town. As we traveled to various locales that day it became obvious that the people of the northeast are resilient and are not waiting on others to help them pick up the pieces. Many people have returned to their homes and communities and are trying to carry on where they left off many months ago.
After delivering our first gift of Bibles to EYN #1 Michika, we headed off to a community that we were told had been destroyed by Boko Haram last September. This community was like a suburb of Michika, located a little farther north of the downtown area. The community we were looking for was called Barkin Dlaka.
As we drove along the potholed road we did not notice the widespread damage we were expecting. We drove through Barkin Dlaka to the next little village, called Dlaka. When we arrived, we stopped close to a group of men who were gathered there. They were friendly enough and were puzzled by our appearance in their quiet community.
We began asking them about what had happened in their community the day Boko Haram raided their homes. The men walked us into the village to show us the house of one family who had been burnt out during the raid. In front of the house were the remains of an automobile that had been burned. The house itself had no roof and the interior was obviously in shambles. But next to the burned out house was a new temporary dwelling. The family had established a new home, although it was significantly smaller. The man who owned the house was not there. He was a teacher and was back at his teaching assignment.
The men began to tell us what happened. When Boko Haram came into the village–shooting, burning, and pillaging–the residents fled to the nearby mountain. They told us that the mountain served as their home for almost six months. They lived in caves and survived on just a few pieces of corn, and water that collected in the rocks. Some of the men ventured back into the village to collect food-stuffs during the night. Boko Haram patrols had to be avoided for these men to collect the little food they could scrounge, and then flee back to the mountain.
It seemed to us that this ordeal was very scary, but looking at these men a few months later it seemed as though they had recovered remarkably well.
Before we left Dlaka we found the EYN pastor. We had more Bibles and wanted to share them with this heroic community. As it turned out, this pastor had attended Kulp Bible College back in the early ’90s, and one of his lecturers was Galen Hackman. The Bibles we were delivering were purchased from monies donated by Ephrata (Pa.) Church of the Brethren in honor of Galen Hackman’s retirement from that church. What an amazing coincidence–or is it the hand of God touching all that we are involved in?
As we headed south to continue our journey, we did notice one change: there is less traffic and no motorcycles. Motorcycles have been banned in most towns in northern Nigeria. The reason is that Boko Haram raiders many times ride into towns on motorcycles. We also noticed many people in the downtown districts of Michika, Watu, and Buzza, but Markus Gamache told us that the businessmen and politicians have not returned to these areas yet. A few banks have reopened, and this is a sign that things are safer and returning to normal (if, in fact, that ever happens).
Our next stop was Lassa. In order to get there, we had to backtrack through Uba. Lassa was one of the original Church of the Brethren mission stations when the church had many missionaries working in Nigeria.
We wanted to travel to Lassa because one of our NGOs partners had opened a school there, and extensive damage to properties in the area had been reported. Many children in the surrounding area had not been in school for over a year. When we got to Lassa we found it was market day and no classes were being held because of the danger of many unknown people being in town to attend the market.
Roxane’s father, Ralph Royer, had spent considerable time in Lassa, both growing up there as the son of missionary parents, and serving in the mission himself as an adult. We saw the old mission houses and what remains of the former mission hospital where Roxane’s sister was born.
We viewed the EYN church in Lassa, whose pastor Luka Fabia was a colleague of ours from Kulp Bible College. Like the other churches we had seen, this church was destroyed when Boko Haram came through Lassa. The pastor told us the church burned for three days. Also like the other churches, the congregation has erected a temporary worship space complete with stage, microphones, speakers, and musical instruments like drums, guitars, and keyboard. Again, we were amazed at the resiliency of the people and their determination to honor God in everything they do. We also delivered Bibles to the Lassa church.
As we drove to the school housed in the old police barracks, only to discover that no classes were being held, we met a group of men and women who serve as guards for the town. These people are styled “the vigilantes.” In America the term vigilante is associated with people who want to take the law into their own hands. In Nigeria, the law (police and military) have deserted the community, and this group stepped in to try and maintain order and protect from further invasion by Boko Haram. They were all interested in showing us their guns–some looked so old that it would be a wonder if they fired at all. They were dressed in some type of uniform, although some of the uniforms were hard to make out. Knowing that their work could be very dangerous and that they seemed willing to lay their lives on the line, we prayed for this group. Rev. Yuguda and I prayed a dual prayer and asked God to protect these people and their town.
After the prayer the principal of the school arrived and gave us a tour, explaining how many children they were attempting to educate at this “learning center.”
The last stop on our trip into the northeast was Uba. While we were at Kulp Bible College a few years ago, we had the opportunity to preach at five different churches in Uba. At Uba EYN #1 Church we not only preached multiple times but Carl was given the honor of baptizing more than 20 young people, and on the same day dedicated more than 20 babies.
At Uba EYN #1, pastor Abdu Dzarma was still there. To say he was glad to see us again may be an understatement. Unfortunately, this church was like the rest–burned and reduced to rubble. Like the others, there was a temporary worship center set up and Pastor Dzarma reported they had more than 1,000 worshipers on Sunday. We gave him Bibles and wished him God’s blessings.
Then we visited Joshua Ishaya’s house to greet his parents. Joshua had been traveling with us the whole day and he wanted us to stop to say hello to his mother and father since we were in his hometown.
We returned to Kulp Bible College in Kwarhi, where we had spent the previous night. Our last event for the day was to take part in a distribution of supplies for the students. Students and staff were familiar with us because we had taught there not too many months ago. It was great to renew relationships, and speeches were made all around. Before dark set in, we had time to distribute some small supplies to the needy students who had made such an impression on us.
Missing from the roll call at Kulp Bible College were two students who lost their lives at the hands of Boko Haram. Ishaya Salhona and Yahi, a student from Chibok, were remembered with a time of silence–at the end of the day, a sobering reminder of the crisis that is still too much a part of northeast Nigeria.
— Carl and Roxane Hill are co-directors of the Nigeria Crisis Response, a joint effort of the Church of the Brethren with Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (EYN, the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria). For more information go to www.brethren.org/nigeriacrisis .