Letting go

Trauma healing helps Nigerians address the pain and loss Boko Haram brought to their region

Cradling a faded school picture of her daughter, Kolo Adamu sits on the front porch of the Church of the Brethren meetinghouse in Chibok, Nigeria. She recalls the months after the teen was abducted by Boko Haram, an Islamist extremist group known for its brutality.

“At first I cannot do anything,” Adamu remembers. She could only agonize, moment by moment, over what might have been happening to her daughter. “When I ate, I wondered if my daughter was eating or not. I was thinking maybe she is not alive.”

Naomi Adamu was among more than 200 girls who were kidnapped in 2014 from the Government Secondary School Chibok. Many, including Naomi, grew up attending congregations of Ekklesiyar Yan’uwa a Nigeria (EYN), the Church of the Brethren in Nigeria. 

Every Wednesday morning, Adamu joined other mothers gathered at a church to pray. 

Kolo Adamu. 

Yet she couldn’t find the motivation to work in the fields or to care for her other six children the way she did before. Because of the emotional distress Adamu and her husband endured, they ultimately separated.

At times, Adamu says, she considered killing herself. “I will go to the well and drop myself inside.”

Adamu is far from alone in dealing with trauma inflicted by Boko Haram, which intensified its attacks in northern Nigeria in 2013 and 2014. According to Zakariya Amos, assistant general secretary of EYN, as of May 2017, 700,000 of the 1 million people who attend the denomination’s churches had been displaced by the group’s violence. 

Boko Haram took over the town of Mubi, where EYN’s headquarters is located, in October 2014. EYN leaders and other residents ran for the bush through gunfire, stepping over dead bodies and getting separated from family members in the chaos to get to a safer place.

Early in 2015, after regrouping about 370 miles southwest in Jos, where MCC’s office is located, EYN leaders participated in a trauma healing workshop sponsored by MCC.

“If not for the healing, I would have gone mad.”

— Kolo Adamu

Then, MCC sent a team of EYN members to Rwanda to learn about Healing and Reconciling Our Communities (HROC), a communal trauma healing program created after the Rwandan genocide. That team returned to Nigeria, set up a system to train workshop facilitators and started to offer workshops that continue to be supported by MCC and others, including the Church of the Brethren in the U.S.

Gabriel Vanco attended one of the early workshops, even though he was in the process of organizing a violent reprisal against his Muslim neighbors. 

Gabriel Vanco was preparing a reprisal attack against Muslims in his hometown of Uba when he attended an MCC-sponsored trauma healing workshop where he was convicted to forgive his Muslim neighbors. 

Boko Haram forced Vanco and his family from their home in Uba during the same 2014 offensive that emptied Mubi. He lost friends, relatives and property, and he and his friends were bitter that some of their Muslim friends and neighbors never left. “They didn’t run, so it gave us the belief they supported Boko Haram,” Vanco says.

The first day of the trauma healing workshop, Vanco learned about what trauma is, its causes and symptoms — anger, depression, anxiety, sickness, isolation, regret, fear and guilt. He began to feel uneasy about his plan.

On the second day, he listened to others in the training share what they went through. 

“This person, his father was slaughtered in his presence. His wife and children were taken to Sambisa Forest (site of Boko Haram’s headquarters), but he still has the mind to say, ‘Yes, I want to bring this pain to Christ.’  What about me? I have no reason to keep these things in my heart.”

That was the moment of change, Vanco says, because people who had suffered greatly were ready to forgive.

Forgiveness is a topic that EYN leaders added to the HROC curriculum to fit with the denomination’s teachings. It’s one way that people can move on with their lives.

“Forgiveness is a choice. Nobody told me to,” Vanco says. “It comes from the heart. If I don’t . . . it’s a burden on myself alone. They (Boko Haram and their supporters) can go ahead, do whatever they want to do. It is me that is carrying the burden.”

In 2015, Adamu attended a workshop at her church and still holds onto a message from it. “‘All things, leave to God. He is the creator. He knows everything about what he created.’ From there, I just left everything to God. If not God, nobody could do it.”

Coming to this place of healing took time, more than two years, she acknowledges, but she is grateful to the workshop for helping her to let go and to forgive. “If not for the healing,” Adamu says, “I would have gone mad.”

Her energy began to return after the workshop so that she could care for her family. She began to volunteer at church and started eating regularly, bathing and dressing well, she says. 

In May 2017, Boko Haram released Adamu’s daughter, Naomi, along with 80 other girls; yet, even as this issue went to press, 100 of the Chibok girls were still missing.

For Vanco, moving on meant convincing the other youth that revenge was not the best way to respond. 

They resisted his message at first, but eventually he and his pastor were able to persuade most of them to let go of the plan. 

Vanco went on to become one of 130 community-based facilitators of HROC workshops that have been attended by more than 1,000 people. He also became one of 149 listening companions, people who are trained to listen deeply in individual sessions to those who have been traumatized. 

“Most of us who passed through the insurgency period never had time or even someone to listen to our stories,” Vanco says. “When you decide to just listen to someone’s story, I think it will go a long way in helping the person heal.”