When Rebecca Ishaku was a young girl in Chibok, her favorite game was called saraya : You had to play it with a group of other children, and as everyone sang, you gathered together and tossed one person high in the air, catching her as she came back down to the ground. Another of her favorite games was bulubu , where you attached a string to an object to throw it as far as you could. She relished the act of release, freedom from all restraints, and then the fall to safety.
Rebecca liked to wear her hair in a tumble of tiny braids, usually under a head scarf made of a bright ankara fabric, sometimes decorated with hearts and polka dots, that matched her dress or skirt and blouse. She was slender, shy but luminous, with high cheekbones and a disarming smile. When I first met her in 2015, she was nineteen and her voice barely went higher than a whisper; later it began to rise and boom with the energy of a teenage girl who had a lot to say, and not many people to say it to.
Rebecca was the third youngest of eleven siblings, four sisters and seven brothers. They shared everything among them. They even took in her four cousins after Rebecca's uncle died. Some slept on mattresses, others on sheets on the floor. They invented games, sang and danced to drums they played, helped each other with homework — especially math times tables — and prayed together.
Her mother, Saratu, and her father, Ishaku, both worked as farmers, and they grew enough food for the family to live on, but not much more than that. Her community was intimately connected. If a family didn't have enough food, their neighbors would help them until the next harvest brought more to eat. All the children ran in and out of everyone's homes in Chibok, and all the parents knew the other parents. Even before she started school, Rebecca wanted to help the people in her area, to become someone of importance. But the rule in Chibok was that you couldn't enter school until you stood taller than the height of a man's arm when he stuck it straight out. So she didn't start school until she was ten.
Maybe because she had entered school later than her classmates, she seemed a little young for her age, the dreamy, innocent one content to gather her best friends Comfort and Sarah in the shade of a tree, and tell them stories as they made up their own world.
On the morning of April 14, 2014, Rebecca woke up at six. She went to the showers, dressed, walked to the common hall for breakfast, and then to her art class to take her final exam.
Later that afternoon, some girls settled into their desks to study, and Rebecca went to pray with the Fellowship of Christian Students. On the way back to the dorm with her friend Saraye, the girls took turns quizzing each other for their government exam. That evening, she slid into her bed with her government book in her hands. In her half-asleep haze, she could hear her roommates laughing at the sight of her clutching the textbook as she slept.
She dreamed that she was in a car with one of her brothers, and they were driving on a bad road through the bush. Rebecca shouted in her sleep. Her roommates leaned into her bed, grabbing her and asking what happened. Before she could answer, they heard more shouts from outside. Rebecca looked out the window. There were dozens of men, young, rough in appearance, wild-eyed. They were wearing military uniforms, but as they came closer, she saw them carrying heavy weapons. They didn't look like normal soldiers.