PROFILE-Nigeria journalist puts faces to girls kidnapped by Boko Haram

by Belinda Goldsmith | @BeeGoldsmith | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Tuesday, 18 November 2014 18:30 GMT

In Chibok, she found girls' deserted bedrooms still full of their clothes and books, and families mourning their lost children

LONDON, Nov 18 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - As a Nigerian growing up in the United States, Chika Oduah was always fascinated by her homeland and frustrated by the global indifference to the appalling treatment of women in many parts of West Africa.

Born in Nigeria but raised from the age of two in privileged circumstances in Atlanta, Georgia, Oduah could not wait to return to Africa and became a journalist so that she could find a way to highlight and advance women's rights there.

When some 270 Nigerian schoolgirls were kidnapped by Islamist rebels in April this year, Oduah, 28, was outraged by the initial lack of interest, so she drove for three days to the youngsters' village of Chibok to talk to their families.

Oduah was determined to put faces to the girls to make the world pay attention and to highlight their families' desperate efforts to find them.

The journey itself to Chibok, about 770 km (480 miles) northeast of the capital Abuja, was treacherous, on pot-holed and earth roads where Boko Haram militants were known to have kidnapped motorists.

But what she found at Chibok was heartbreaking - the girls' deserted bedrooms still full of their clothes and school books and their families in mourning for their lost children.

"I wanted to see what the girls were like ... if they had boyfriends, dreams," said Oduah, in London on Tuesday to receive the 2014 Trust Women Journalist Award, which recognises a journalist whose work has raised awareness of women's rights.

"Their poor families were trying so hard to cooperate with government institutions to find their girls, but nothing was really happening. They were trying to be positive but it was horrendous for them."

Oduah's stories about the girls received international attention, but the fate of the 270 girls and women aged from 13 to over 20 who were kidnapped by gunmen from their secondary school near the Cameroon border remains largely unknown, seven months later.

More than 50 have managed to escape but at least 200 remain in captivity, as do scores of girls kidnapped previously.

Oduah said it was important for the missing girls - and for other women's rights issues in Africa - to put a human face to the victims to get international attention.

"I tried to dignify the villagers involved. They all have lives, jobs, families, they are not just foreigners and Africans," she said.

"For too long African women have been treated as another race and one people can ignore. I want to report from the heart and really highlight these human stories."

Educated in the United States at the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in Chicago, Oduah is now based in Abuja after working at NBC and Al Jazeera, and reports on a range of subjects that highlight crucial issues facing women in West Africa.

These include female genital mutilation, forced marriage, domestic violence, the plight of albino women and food security.

Oduah is the first to agree that in Africa cultural change, particularly among women, is crucial if these problems are ever to be addressed effectively.

"Going back to Africa I had expected that all women would stand up for women's rights, but in reality in many cases it is the women who are practising and continuing the oppression of other women," she said.

"There is just such a long way to go in Africa for women."

(Reporting by Belinda Goldsmith, Editing by Tim Pearce)

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