Before the Terror

We Built a School in Boko Haram’s Heartland

When Gerald and Lois Neher arrived in tiny Chibok, Nigeria, girls didn’t go to school. The couple’s work helped the first girls attend—50 years before terrorists abducted 270.

Gerald A. Neher

The very opposite of terrorists arrived in Chibok more than a half-century before the world came to know this remote Nigerian village as the place where maniacal members of Boko Haram kidnapped more than 270 girls and burned down their school.

While the terrorist group struck in recent days intending only evil, Gerald and Lois Neher of Kansas came to Chibok in 1954 with the purpose of doing as much good as they were able. They helped make it possible for girls to attend school there in the first place.

Only boys attended the village’s tony school when the Nehers first arrived.

“Girls didn’t go to school back at that time,” Lois says. “They don’t like to send the girls off to school. They want them to help carry in wood and bring in water.”

The Nehers helped expand the school with sun-baked mud bricks and grass roofing. The structure’s very size became an invitation for more children, and the first girls began to attend.

“That was the beginning for them,” Lois says. “The girls went to school more and more.”

Lois served as a teacher, which placed her below only a chief in the social hierarchy. She used a patch of painted concrete as a blackboard, the students doing their work as best they could without the most basic school supplies.

“We didn’t have much paper or anything like that,” Lois says. “You make do with what you have. If you don’t have paper, you use dirt. They learned to write in the dirt or in the sand with a stick.”

Back in America, keeping a youngster after class was considered punishment. Here it was a reward.

“They would thank you over and over because they were so anxious to learn,” Lois says. “Any way to get education is what they wanted.”

Gerald served as a teacher of another kind, instructing the farmers in the use of a plow and oxen where they had previously employed only short-handled hoes. A farmer who was previously able to plant and harvest 2 acres of peanuts or guinea corn or cotton was now able to do 20.

“I think it did change things for them,” Gerald says.

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As a result of these good works, Chibok gained local prominence.

“Because of the development of the school and agriculture and everything, Chibok became known as an outstanding village in the area,” Gerald says.

The Nehers had come to Nigeria to participate in the Church of the Brethren’s humanitarian program. The people running the program asked if they would go to Chibok.

“We didn’t know that nobody else would go there because it was the most remote place,” Lois recalls. “So we said, ‘Yeah, we’ll go anywhere.’”

Gerald adds, “We just went there by default.”

They were in their 20s when they arrived with their 8-month-old son. They discovered that Chibok had grown by some rock outcroppings at the edge of a broad savannah. A swampy area was nearby, and the village had gotten its name from the sound your feet make when you pull them out of the mud there.

“Chibok…chibok…chibok,” Gerald says.

Also nearby were the rugged Mandara Mountains, which are honeycombed with caves and extend into neighboring Cameroon, facilitating both hiding and escape. The mountains are one reason Chibok was the very last place in Nigeria to submit to British rule, a fact the Nehers found was a source of considerable local pride.

One king, or chief, once resided in the mountains and had a rock throne that his subjects were allowed to approach only by sitting down facing away from it and scooting in backward so they never looked at him. This king chose to disappear in the mountains permanently rather than cede to a colonial power.

“If a king cannot be a king like a king should be a king, there should be no king at all,” he declared, according to the Nehers’ fine book, Life Among the Chibok of Nigeria.

Those are the same mountains where Boko Haram is believed to have taken the kidnapped girls. The terrorists are described as Islamic extremists, but they hardly seem of the same faith as the handful of Muslims who were in Chibok during the four and a half years the Nehers were there.

Those Muslims were malams, or teachers, and sometimes would write phrases in Arabic that people would wrap in leather and wear as charms, perhaps for prosperity or to ward off harm. The Chibok people had no written language of their own.

The malams did not seek payment for their charms. These Muslims would cite an adage, “If someone gives you free medicine, it will be good, but if they want to sell it to you, it will not be good.”

At the time, the village also included a number of Christians, though most the villagers were animists, recognizing a single God they called Hyel yet believing all living things, including plants, possess individual spirits. People of every faith lived in harmony.

“When we were there, we had many friends who were Muslims,” Lois says. “It didn’t make any difference.”

Since the Nehers departed, the school got a corrugated iron roof and there is now a real road into the town. But however much life there has changed, some of the cultural dynamics the Nehers observed almost certainly persist and may well assist the kidnapped girls through their ordeal. There are particularly close bonds among peer groups in Chibok, and people of the same sex often hold hands as they walk through the village.

Girls further bond by playing a particular game that begins with one of them standing in the center of a group that claps and sings. The girl pitches herself backward and trusts the others to catch her before she hits the ground. Another girl then takes a turn, then another.

And children are trained to be brave. Adults sometimes spring from hiding to surprise them and then ask how they will react if they suddenly face danger in the bush.

Boko Haram presents a more diabolical danger than anybody could have imagined a half-century ago. The terrorists are possessed not by anything resembling true Islam but by what the people of Chibok would call “muta ndin nda,” an evil spirit.

Word of the atrocities committed by Boko Haram has reached the Nehers at their present home in Kansas.

“We’ve been hearing about all the strife and the horrible things,” Lois says.

Lois is now 85. Gerald is 83. They have not been in recent communication with anybody in the village where they landed by default 60 years ago.

“The people in Chibok are the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of the ones we knew,” Gerald says.

The village that had achieved local prominence more than five decades before with the help of the Nehers’ good works now became known to everyone as the result of Boko Haram’s evil.

The couple who had seen the first girls attend the village school now joined the whole world in hoping for the safe return of more than 200 kidnapped schoolgirls, who had been taken into those mountains that offer so many opportunities for hiding and escape.

“It was just an out-of-the-way village when we were there,” Gerald says.

And the Nehers know that finding the girls is likely to get hellishly more difficult this month, with the expected arrival of the rainy season. The area can get as much as 40 inches of rain and can become extremely difficult just to travel through, much less to search.

“It lasts six months,” Gerald notes.