Women and the Global Imagination: Our Imaginary Sisters and Daughters

by Viola Allo

Filed under: Blog, Women and the Global Imagination |

This post is part of an ongoing series of blog posts on the theme of Women and the Global Imagination. In our Winter 2014 issue Alicia Ostriker curated a poetry portfolio on this theme, and we were so struck by its contents that we wanted to keep the dialog surronding this theme going on our blog. Viola Allo's essay considers the power of a global imagination, our collective ability to better care for women, to build a world where women and girls matter. We hope her words resonate with you.

The Chibok Girls as Our Imaginary Sisters and Daughters

On the night of April 14th of 2014, a government boarding school in the town of Chibok in northeastern Nigeria was attacked by members of the Islamic fundamentalist (terrorist) group Boko Haram.

The school, an all-girl boarding school, had been vacated because of other Boko Haram attacks on schools in Borno State, a state in Nigeria whose towns and villages are routinely attacked by Boko Haram. The girls were senior students, and they had returned to school temporarily to take their exams. The girls were between the age of 16 and 18, young women about to achieve the culmination of years of secondary schooling. But their studies–and their futures–were violently halted.

Almost 300 girls, taken in one night. Some were able to escape. But over 200 girls remained unaccounted for. As if they vanished into thin air. No one knew (or was brave enough to say) where the girls were. But someone must have known where they were. Right?

How could so many girls just disappear? And for a group that large, why so hard to find them? They were taken in trucks. The trucks were seen entering Chibok. Someone must have seen the trucks leave. Someone must have seen something.

One had to imagine that Nigeria is so vast a place that so many young women could be easily hidden and live for months on end without the possibility of being found.

But couldn’t something be done? Why couldn’t someone go after those terrorists and get those girls back? Could the terrain be that rugged, that intimidating, that inaccessible? And could the terrorists be that powerful, that numerous, that invincible?

Then one had to imagine that maybe–just maybe–the terrorists were that strong, that careful and crafty, that resourceful, and that capable of mysteriously making grown women disappear without killing those women outright.

Soon after the Chibok kidnappings, a Boko Haram leader informed the world that the girls were being sold as slaves and being married off, after being forced to convert to Islam. And so the collective of kidnapped women was being broken up, being dissolved, becoming impossible to locate and reassemble. And all the while, more girls were being kidnapped and appropriated for the terrorists’ maniacal horror machine.

One had to feel the helplessness of it all. Could the Nigerian armed forces have been so weak and incapacitated in some way that they couldn’t rescue those vulnerable and defenseless students, their own country’s young female citizens? One had to imagine this powerlessness of the Nigeria’s leaders and its military.

What happened to the international offers of help, galvanized by Obiageli Ezekwesili and her promotion of the massive social media movement called #BringBackOurGirls, as well as the many marches orchestrated in Nigeria and across the globe?

The hashtag #BringBackOurGirls catapulted the Chibok girls not only into our minds, our imaginations, but also into our hearts, our homes, our fears. These girls became a symbol of how women enter the global imagination–our collective awareness or consciousness of the lives (and immeasurable value) of women. The movement marked by #BringBackOurGirls highlighted that what happens to women and girls matters to so many of us, and revealed that we can relate to women everywhere when we think of them as kin, as beloved members of our own families.

The Chibok girls were not just any girls. They were not nameless and faceless strangers. They were “our” girls. They could have been our sisters, our daughters, our very own children. They were our family. Our loved ones. And we all wanted them back. And we kept asking for them. We asked and asked, until we got tired of waiting, got tired of receiving no good news, or got overwhelmed by other bad news flooding the media–news like Gaza being bombed, or Syria with the garish atrocities there, or the growing scourge called Isis. Soon, it seemed, the girls were forgotten.

It’s almost been a year since the girls were kidnapped and they still have not been rescued, been brought home, or been able to escape and free themselves. Well, one has to now imagine that those girls are gone for good, are never coming home, will never be free again.

It’s easy to give up and sink into utter hopelessness. Especially in light of the more recent Boko Haram attacks in Nigeria and in neighboring Cameroon. And because Boko Haram has been bold in Cameroon, venturing into my home country to unleash its cruelty there, I am often gripped with panic, worried that they might one day reach my own cherished homeland and hometown in southern Cameroon.

But I cannot allow myself to lose hope. It’s too dark of a place to journey to. And I do go to that very dark place sometimes. I go there because I can imagine the Chibok girls. I can see them so clearly in my mind’s eye.

I once was a girl in Cameroon. I was a girl at a boarding school. An all-girl school. I know what that world of scholarship is like, how vulnerable it is to be so exposed and unprepared. And how painful it is to come so close to a dream of academic self-realization after many gruelling years of schooling and have that dream be so ruthlessly disrupted and viciously destroyed. How devastating this is to families who work hard, barely scraping by, to send their children to school and support them through the boarding school system. Many families’ hopes and dreams of a bright future vanished with those girls.

I can imagine that loss. I can imagine, too, the loss of one’s family, one’s home, one’s life. The horror to know one might never go home again and see one’s parents or siblings. There is the despair felt by the families whose daughters and sisters and nieces were taken from them. The layered and multiplied losses and heartbreak that weigh on families with parents who have died from the grief of losing a child.

I can imagine all of this. However, I try my best to pull together my shattered hopes for the Chibok girls. And I take some comfort in the fact that, for however long we can remember those girls, we can keep them alive in our imaginations. And I draw a great deal of comfort from the show of support and solidarity by people around the world, who accepted these girls into their hearts. Who agreed that these young African women– these Nigerian girls, these children of Nigeria and of Africa–were so much more than mere strangers to us. They were ours. They are ours. The are and will always be our girls. And as long as we claim them–love them in our own ways, even if only in our thoughts and imaginations–we will continue to miss them, wait for them, search for them, hope for them, remember them, and stand for a world where women and girls always matter to us.

Viola Allo is a Cameroonian-born poet and essayist based in the United States. Raised in Cameroon by her Cameroonian father and American mother, she migrated to America at nineteen. She holds a BA and MA in psychology and anthropology, respectively, from the Universities of California (Davis) and Michigan (Ann Arbor). Her poems and essays have been published in the American River Review. In 2010, she received an Albert and Elaine Borchard Foundation fellowship to attend the UC Davis Tomales Bay Workshops. Allo was short-listed for the Brunel University African Poetry Prize in 2013 and again in 2014. Her first chapbook of poems, Bird From Africa, is included in the Eight New-Generation African Poets chapbook box set published in 2015 by Akashic Books and the African Poetry Book Fund. Viola resides in California and writes at her blog, Letters to Cameroon. Connect with her on Twitter @ViolaAllo.