She was the last Chibok girl to escape Boko Haram captivity in 2014; now the first to graduate with a degree in accounting from the American University of Nigeria, Yola, Adamawa State.
Of all the Chibok girls who remained in Nigeria, Mary Katambi is the only one who stayed the course, graduating from university on Saturday 10th July 2021.
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Mary was one of the 276 Chibok girls kidnapped by the Boko Haram terror group in 2014. Her graduation not only defies the group’s extremist ideology, but her triumph also gives hope to millions of young women in Nigeria’s North East, bearing the brunt of Boko Haram’s deadly onslaught for over 12 years.
In that space of time over 2.2 million people have been displaced, over 100,000 killed and about 300,000 have fled the conflict, living as refugees in neighbouring Cameroon and Niger Republic.
On April 13, 2014, Mary bade her mother, Saratu, farewell as she prepared to return to Government Girls Secondary School, Chibok, 21km away from her village, Makalama.
As Saratu hugged her daughter she felt a chill course down her spine. Perhaps a bad omen, but she did not want to alarm her young 16-year-old only child. Mary was eager to return to school to be with her best friend Amina.
Saratu was a farmer, she planted maize, millet, beans, and seasonal vegetables. At the crack of dawn, when Saratu prepared breakfast, Mary always feigned sleep. She would only drag herself out of bed by 7 am to sweep the floors and do her favourite chore, taking care of the family’s goats and cows.
Her father, Katambi, was hardly ever around. He was a fishmonger plying his trade on the banks of Lake Chad.
During Boko Haram’s reign of terror, the group burnt down her village, killed her favourite uncle Bitrus and her neighbour Bello.
When Mary returned to school that Sunday in 2014, she met her best friend Amina and other girls in the school’s courtyard. They had dinner and talked about their plans for life after secondary school.
Helter-skelter, gunshots and mayhem
A loud bang pierced the night as the girls slept. Then another, and another. It was soon clear something was wrong.
The school authorities had told the girls not to be frightened of gunshots. Traditional hunters hired to protect them from Boko Haram often shot at wild animals at night.
Just as they decided to go back to bed, about 30 men dashed into their dormitory and rounded the girls up. The air was thick with the stench of body odour, and the acrid smoke of gun powder.
The bearded men had unkempt hair. Their uniforms were filthy, soiled with brown patches. Their shoes were dusty and worn out. Some wore turbans, many of them were so young. Mary believes some were about 18 years old.
They spoke Kanuri which some girls understood and translated. At first, they said, “We are soldiers here to protect you from Boko Haram”. When they gathered all the girls they started to shoot in the air. “Then they said they were Boko Haram and we all, started screaming,” said Mary.
“They took us to the school’s common area and made us sit on the bare floor. They brought clothes out from the room and told us to pick clothes. Some of the Muslim girls didn’t have their hijab, others were half-dressed some didn’t have shoes.
“Then they set the school on fire. They asked us to move. We didn’t know where we were going. We just followed the instructions because if we tried to run they would definitely kill us. We were so afraid. They were carrying big guns, the kinds that soldiers use. After walking for about 40 minutes we arrived at a deserted farm. We sat under a big tree,” she said.
Then about 14 trucks and cars drove in. They forced the girls into the trucks. “I and Amina held hands tightly, we refused to enter the trucks. We kept moving to the back of the queue.
“When the trucks filled up, the remaining of us walked for about 30 minutes until we reached another small village. Then they said we must all squeeze into the trucks no matter how tight it was. So I and Amina entered the boot of a dark-coloured Hilux.”
Crouching in the forest
It was between 11 and 12 midnight when the girls were led through a bush path. Mary was so terrified. She kept thinking of her mother. The news of her abduction would surely break her heart.
“We travelled the whole night and arrived at the last destination around 1 to 2 pm. It is a very big forest with very big trees. I have never seen those kinds of trees in my life. We were all thirsty and hungry. Some girls asked them for water. They gave out biscuits they had looted from shops in Chibok. But I and Amina refused to eat it.”
As they sat huddled in groups Mary began plotting her escape. She approached different girls who were all too scared.
“They ordered the big girls to cook. They shared the food on trays. It was a mix of rice, spaghetti and macaroni all cooked together. I didn’t eat it because I was scared they would poison me.
“About seven or eight girls from my village gathered while the other girls were cooking. We agreed to find a way to escape. Amina escaped before me. I was paired with Ruth Ishaku. She was so scared. I kept telling her we should escape but she kept saying we should wait a bit. I couldn’t wait any longer.
“As I was searching for a way to escape I saw Deborah. We tried to sneak into the bushes, pretending as if we wanted to pee. One Boko Haram man saw her and ordered her to fetch him water for his ablution. Then they noticed that some girls had escaped and they started arguing about who should trail the girls into the bushes. While they were arguing, we escaped; this was about 3 pm.”
Mary and Deborah had been walking for hours. Just as they were about to give in to exhaustion they saw a fire flickering in a hut. A Fulani woman and her children were inside the hut. She gave them some water to drink and directions to safety.
After walking for many more hours they reached a village. There they met the Lawal (village head). Deborah had N5,000, her pocket money for school which they used to hire motorcycles to take them home.
“We rode on a motorcycle for hours but by around 9 pm the motorcyclist got scared and abandoned us in the forest. He had already gotten the N5,000 so he left us in the forest.
“We kept walking until we found another Fulani hut. Even though they could not speak Hausa, they gave us a place to sleep and promised to direct us on the road home in the morning.
“They gave us masa for breakfast. Then they showed us the path and advised us to hide if we heard any strange noise. We walked past about three deserted villages Boko Haram had destroyed.
“At the fourth village, we met some Kanuris who took us to a house where the people could speak our language, Kibaku, where we washed our uniforms and rested. The man of the house took us on his motorcycle to my uncle Ba-Lawan’s house in Chibok,” she said.
Mary’s dad had returned to Chibok as soon as he heard about the abduction. The news of the girls’ return spread like wildfire. It was bittersweet because so many others were still in captivity. When Mary’s father took her back home to Makalama, her mother, Saratu, broke down in tears of joy, thanking God for her safe return.
Back to school
“I came back from the farm one day and my dad said they received a phone call that President Jonathan wanted to meet the girls who had escaped. There were about 25 of us then. We travelled to Yola and then went by air to Abuja and were driven to Aso Rock.” Mary said.
On her way back to her village from Abuja, she saw some children in a school field playing football. For the first time in a long time, she remembered her childhood dream. She wanted to be as happy as those schoolchildren again. She prayed in her heart for a miracle.
One day, while she was at home, her father called and said they had received word from some private donors who wanted to offer the Chibok girls scholarship to study in Yola.
Meeting Baba B
The first day Mary arrived at the campus in Yola, she met Mr. Reginal T. Braggs, the Assistant Vice President of New Foundation School (NFS), a special continuing education programme designed for the Chibok girls to create an academic pathway to university.
As she talks about Mr. Braggs, Mary’s voice is filled with excitement. “We met him at the library. He was a tall, giant American with a warm personality. He said he would be in charge of us; we were all excited,” she said.
Mary quickly became a leader within the Chibok girls as she transitioned from NFS to university. She supported them in dealing with their mental health trauma from the kidnapping as well as their spiritual growth by leading the annual April 14th Remembrance Day. Mary was the first Chibok girl to receive a study abroad opportunity in Italy which occurred during the pandemic.
Sadly, Mr. Braggs lost his brother and returned home to America in 2019. He was offered a position as Director, Syracuse NY, Campus at the State University of New York, Oswego.
Mary’s survival embodies the antithesis of Boko Haram’s extremist ideology. She plans to serve in Nigeria’s National Youth Service Corps and then study for a master’s degree.
Through a harrowing kidnapping and escape, she never gave up hope. With every step, Mary defies Boko Haram and personifies the immortal words of Nelson Mandela “education is the most powerful weapon to change the world”.
Yuguda, a journalist, wrote from Yola, Adamawa State