From New Zealand to Nigeria: making meaning of the Bring Back the Girls campaign

June 2014


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From New Zealand to Nigeria: making meaning of the Bring Back the Girls campaign.

Concern and sadness spreads across the twenty-two faces in front of me. We are in Auckland, at an all girls’ high school. My Year 9 and Year 11 students are trying to make sense of the news reports and videos coming out of Nigeria. They hold with heaviness how much they have in common with the 276 girls who were kidnapped three and a half weeks ago by those determined to uproot and destroy what the girls wearing uniforms of black watch tartan know they can take for granted: the promise of a Western education.

To think that in some parts of the world girls and boys are not encouraged, inspired and challenged to think critically and compassionately, and not given permission to cultivate a personal voice, eludes my girls. “I don’t get it,” one girl says. “Why are they so afraid of girls going to school?” Another adds, “Seriously, what is so dangerous about getting an education?”

So with maps and photographs and videos in hand, we spend an English lesson interrogating the value of an education –and, by extension, its danger. We reach no conclusions. Instead, we build intricate anthills with our questions that burrow into new questions.

By the end, the girls look at me with despairing eyes –like I’m their teacher, like I should make sense of this for them, like I should know. I notice my temptation to whip out answers, to smooth out their frowns and fears with aphorisms of hope.

I don’t want to stay with the questions either. I also grasp for anchors of certainty: unshakably moral good guys and devilish evil ones, neat timelines that explain the past and accurate maps that point the way forward. Staying with the questions feels hard – sometimes too hard – taking more compassion than I want to have, and more courage than I believe I ever could.

Wonderfully, it does not prove hard to traverse the space between the imagined landscapes of our studied literature – be it Alan Paton’s Cry, the Beloved Country, Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran or a unit on deconstructing gender representations in the media – and real political and social terrain. Together, we look at the worlds we dream of and those we find around us. We talk about literature as a tabernacle of faith, a coded map that needs courage and a willingness not to know.

The girls ask a thousand questions and debate, discuss and collate a legal team’s worth of advice that they would personally like to deliver to Nigerian President Goodluck Jonathan. Then we pause and offer a minute of silence: some offer hope to the girls, some peace to their families, some simply hold gratitude for all that they, in that moment, suddenly realize that they have.

When we are done, they are desperate for something that they can do. It is not enough for them to know about what is happening in the world. They need some way to respond. They need some way to not feel helpless in the face of something so dauntingly amorphous.

If the girls who have been taken have lost their voices for now, these girls in front of me want to ensure that the voices of girls everywhere –in Auckland, New Zealand no less than anywhere else – ignite the darkness of forced silence with the match of poetry, with the light of a young girl’s voice.


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