Amarachi Esowe fears for her sister’s well-being every day. She watches thousands of people flock to Twitter to raise awareness for the missing Nigerian girls kidnapped by Boko Haram. And she is grateful that neither her sister or niece are one of them.
Esowe is a Nigerian-born 28-year-old freelance artist now living in the Bronx, New York, and is among the scores of people speaking out against child trafficking in Nigeria. With her eldest sister and extended family still back in Nigeria, the looming threat of war and mass abductions fuels Esowe’s concerns over the state of her homeland. The recent kidnappings also serve as a wake-up call for its citizens and government.
"Watching my country in continuous religious and social war breaks my heart and spirit," Esowe tells Bustle. "But it's not the first time we've heard these stories and now the country should wake up."
"It definitely does affect us because I do have a niece there that's 13 now," Esowe explains. "My mom is constantly calling home to see if everything is okay and it’s worrisome because my sister still lives in neighborhood we grew up in that's predominantly Muslim ... For me personally, it rattles my mind and I always have to know what's going on."
Growing up in Jos, Nigeria, Esowe had a happy childhood, during which she participated in neighborhood gatherings, attended church services, and listened to the entertaining stories told by the village fortunetellers. Still, the climate in the region was anything but peaceful — starvation and famine plagued the area, as did a pattern of violence dating back to the 1960s following Nigeria's independence from British colonial rule. Her father, a member of the military during the Nigerian Civil War, told stories of the country’s government that were hardly out of fairy tales.
Though Boko Haram has been terrorizing the country for years, the recent kidnapping of nearly 300 schoolgirls has skyrocketed the group's notoriety in the international spotlight. The name Boko Haram, when loosely translated from local Hausa language, means "Western education is forbidden."
Esowe, who moved to the United States with her family at the age of seven, recalls attending elementary school near her village, which was predominantly Muslim. Though her family identified as Christian, she says they didn't face any significant harassment from Islamist activist groups, and her siblings even attended a Christian military school before their departure for America.
Flash forward nearly 20 years, and Boko Haram has abducted young girls from Christian schools and reportedly converted them to Islam. The region is no stranger to religious conflict, with northern Nigeria, home to a Muslim majority, clashing with Christians in the south. Groups like Boko Haram seek to rid Nigeria of Western influence, including those from overseas missionaries.
Though she left the country at a young age, Esowe knows that her situation could have turned out very differently had she stayed, especially since she is a gay woman from a country that now criminalizes homosexuality.
"I can only imagine that I'd be one of those persons sitting in a cell, facing that 14-year term," she says. "My heart sinks every time, and that guilt arises thinking about it. [I had to] be that person who'd move away to a section of the world that practices humanity and human rights, where I can be myself without much scrutiny or jail time because I choose to be open about my sexuality."
Though her family never experienced direct harm from Boko Haram while she lived in Nigeria, the modern-day danger in that same village prompts new worries and gives reason for Esowe's mother to resume her role as protector, even from thousands of miles away.
"It definitely does affect us because I do have a niece there that's 13 now," Esowe explains. "My mom is constantly calling home to see if everything is okay and it’s worrisome because my sister still lives in the neighborhood we grew up in that's predominantly Muslim ... For me personally, it rattles my mind and I always have to know what's going on."
For Esowe, her family being targeted for their Christianity is a concern, though it is a small factor out of many. Boko Haram has victimized many Muslim civilians and even Muslim clerics. Mainly, she says, the Nigerian government now has to change their approach to the terrors, including the murders of thousands of nationals.
Officials have faced significant backlash for their response (or lack thereof) to the ongoing crisis. Protesters are demanding increased transparency from officials and Western countries have stepped up to help in the rescue efforts, something that has frustrated Esowe and other Nigerian-born citizens.
"I feel as though it took people from other countries ... for the Nigerian government to wake up and stand up in defense of this issue," Esowe says. "There is a sense that there's a lack of enthusiasm [for] finding these missing persons."
But Nigeria won't just let anyone come in and help, she adds.
"They have that kind of mentality that they won't allow foreigners to come infiltrate their land, with the idea that it's 'our people and we can take care of ourselves.'" While the government should be able to take care of its own, Esowe explains, if Nigeria needs the help, they should swiftly take it.
The Nigerian government doesn't seem to agree. President Goodluck Jonathan didn't accept foreign assistance to rescue the missing girls until nearly a month after their disappearance, though the United Kingdom and United States say they were in touch "from day one."
So what can be done to counter groups like Boko Haram? Esowe says she believes Western involvement, if "smartly exercised," could make a difference when it comes to child trafficking in Nigeria.
"We need some way of altering how to protect our people," Esowe says. "Those in Nigeria who are fighting for these issues need as much help as possible to make a difference. As the saying goes, There's power in numbers, and there's safety in power. If positive power is exercised by the West to help aid Nigeria in these pure human rights issues, then I am for it."
Image: Amarachi Esowe