To Save Her Children, She Pretended To Be Crazy


At the height of its power, the militant group Boko Haram terrorized northeast Nigeria. It no longer holds territory, but the fallout from its eight-year insurgency lingers. More than two million people have been uprooted by the group's violence. As NPR's Ofeibea Quist-Arcton reports, some are returning home with harrowing tales of their ordeal.

OFEIBEA QUIST-ARCTON, BYLINE: This is the story of one woman's efforts to protect her family. She says her husband was killed by Boko Haram. Forty-seven-year-old Zainabu Hamayaji was caring for 10 children, her own as well as orphans she'd taken in when they got caught up in one of the terror networks deadly sprees in 2014 in the town of Madagali in the northeast.

ZAINABU HAMAYAJI: (Speaking Hausa).

QUIST-ARCTON: Boko Haram was seizing girls as brides and other children as supporters and fighters, Hamayaji says. So she decided she had to do something dramatic to save her family. So she pretended she'd lost her mind.

HAMAYAJI: (Speaking Hausa).

QUIST-ARCTON: I decided to strip off all my clothes and march around town naked to look like a mad woman, says Hamayaji. I unbraided my hair and smeared urine and feces in my hair and on my body. There were flies hovering everywhere, she says. And I would roll around in trash heaps so that Boko Haram would think I was mentally unstable.

HAMAYAJI: (Speaking Hausa).

QUIST-ARCTON: She says the insurgents returned time and again asking her children, is your mother all right? She seemed fine when we were here earlier. Hamayaji's children replied that she'd been mentally unstable for quite a while and frequently had to go to the psychiatric hospital.

HAMAYAJI: (Speaking Hausa).

QUIST-ARCTON: Hamayaji knew that insurgents had come into town looking for young girls to marry. She swore to herself she would not allow Boko Haram to take her 11-year-old daughter. So she says, I dug a ditch, first, within my compound and then a trench away from the house and put my daughter inside it with supplies of water and food and the Holy Quran. She cooked in that trench, she said. She prayed and did everything there. And she was frightened.

Hamayaji says, I swore to those fighters that I had no daughter. But they wouldn't believe me and kept beating me up and looking for her.

HAMAYAJI: (Speaking Hausa).

QUIST-ARCTON: Boko Haram has kidnapped thousands of women and girls as well as boys and men during its eight-year insurgency, including the mass abduction in 2014 of 276 Chibok schoolgirls. The group's leader bragged at the time that the girls would be converted to Islam and married off to his fighters. Hamayaji says the extremists returned every day to beat her up and to terrorize her family.

HAMAYAJI: (Speaking Hausa).

QUIST-ARCTON: She says Boko Haram eventually decided they didn't want the child of a mad woman and considered it bad luck to kill someone who was crazy. So she says they scrawled on a wall that nobody should attack her or her children, or they would be cursed.

HAMAYAJI: (Speaking Hausa).

QUIST-ARCTON: I went to those lengths to protect my family and to save my daughter from being abducted and married off to a Boko Haram fighter, says Hamayaji. Ultimately, the Nigerian military drove out the militants and liberated Madagali.

When the soldiers came to town, they asked, are you a Boko Haram wife? I said, no and insisted I was not and told them that the fighters wanted my daughter who was still hiding in the ditch. So we went together to the trench, and there she was. Hassana Isa - she's 14 now, says Hamayaji.

HAMAYAJI: (Speaking Hausa).

QUIST-ARCTON: Hamayaji left Madagali and returned to her hometown Gwoza 15 miles away. She and her children live there now in a camp for displaced people.

Asked whether she knew of other women who had taken similar extreme steps to shield their families, Hamayaji gave an unexpected yet matter-of-fact reply. Some women gave up their children because Boko Haram was handing out money at the time, she said. So for selfish reasons, some gave out their daughters. Others were forced to hand out a daughter because they didn't have any food, she added. They'd be given provisions in return or sometimes cash and properties from the towns and villages Boko Haram had seized.

Hamayaji says now under the military, liberated Gwoza is peaceful and secure. So she wants her children to go to school and get an education so they have a future, she says. But she has no money and has to beg to feed her family.

I hope the relief workers can help us, says Hamayaji. Ofeibea Quist-Arcton, NPR News, Gwoza.

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