A summer in Maiduguri
Memories of Boco Haram’s home base stir thought-provoking questions
By Joe Wills
In 1978, I spent part of my summer in Maiduguri, Nigeria, where my sister was teaching at the university there. It was considered then, and still is, one of the country’s worst places, and few Nigerians have any interest in going there. Almost no one in this country had likely heard of Maiduguri until earlier this year, when it was identified as the home base of Boco Haram, the horrific extremist group that has kidnapped scores of school girls and terrorized much of northern Nigeria.
Maiduguri lived up to its reputation that summer 36 years ago. The land was dry, flat and dusty, with the acrid smell of the encroaching Sahara in the air. Utilities went off and on for no apparent reason, leading my sister and others to always keep their bathtubs filled with emergency water. I don’t think I met anyone who had not contracted malaria, or assumed they had, at some point in their lives.
Yet the people of Maiduguri loved life and faced their travails with courage and humor. People danced all night at open-air music clubs, and happily dragged themselves to work or classes in the morning. Despite the specter of malaria, they refused to fear mosquitoes, and would turn up a house fan to gleefully watch “the muzzies,” as they called them, struggle to land on someone in a windstorm.
I know from my sister that some of the Boco Haram members today could be some of the Maiduguri students we met and enjoyed spending time with in 1978. I’ve looked at photos of Boco Haram fanatics—decked out in paramilitary garb, glowering at the camera—and tried to imagine them as the sweet souls we danced and laughed with on sweltering summer nights. I can’t picture it.
Yet this possibility, however remote, of having befriended one or more of these people, brings up a difficult truth. Even the most despised among us are not foreign to us. We call them animals, demonize them, and pursue them—and rightly so—for their terrible deeds. But we are not from different planets. Rage, cruelty, intoxication of power, moral certainty—we know these things in ourselves even if we don’t fall prey to them. Perhaps the more we ponder what we may have in common with terrorists, rather than assuming we could have nothing in common, the closer we would get in finding a way of stopping them.