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Meet the Nigerian-Canadian Woman Who’s Protesting Against Boko Haram

We interviewed Sonia Aimluwu, a Nigerian woman whose group, African Women Acting, has helped keep the news media focused on Boko Haram's kidnappings of more than 200 Nigerian schoolgirls.

As most of Planet Earth is by now well aware, in the early hours of April 14, more than 200 schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria, were abducted by a terrorist organization known as Boko Haram, which is based in the country's volatile northeast. On Tuesday,

the Nigerian military announced they know where the girls are

 but are worried about rushing in to get them for fear of violence. We also know that

Canadian Special Forces are on the ground in Nigeria


, but their operations there remain a mystery. Naturally, Nigerians and the world at large can't help wondering what will happen next.

The #BringBackOurGirls social media campaign went viral soon after the news first broke a few weeks ago, with the likes of Michelle Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Malala Yousafzai—a Pakistani student who had survived being shot in the head after attending school—along with a slew of Hollywood's glitterati joining forces to advocate for the cause. The campaign has helped garner worldwide attention for the problem but has yet to produce any real results—and there is real fear that North America’s short attention span might let the issue fall out of the headlines before the girls are returned.

Sonia Oduwa Aimiuwu is a Nigerian woman who moved to Canada from Italy three years ago and created African Women Acting—AWA—an organization of women who use art to promote free speech and political change. Most of Aimiuwu's family still live in Nigeria amid the current chaos. Sonia and the AWA have been working to spread awareness about what is happening to help keep up the momentum of the campaign.

I reached out to her to talk about her efforts in Canada and what she believes people in North America might do to help. Here is an edited version of our interview.

VICE: Can you tell me about your organization?
Sonia Aimiuwu: African Women Acting is geared towards promoting African women’s issues and African cultural heritage through African women artists or artists with African expression in the area of music, theatre, dance, and spoken word. There are about 50 women who work with us in Toronto, and it is an international organization, as we have branches in Italy and Portugal.


You've been protesting to raise awareness about Boko Haram in Nigeria. How exactly have you been going about that?
We believe what is happening in Nigeria is such a terrible human rights violation, and it is totally wrong to have any group be denied education. We have come together to help, we believe we must stand as women with one voice to say no to such barbaric acts, to put an end to Boko Haram, and to make sure the girls get back to their home. We are doing this by protesting, taking part in rallies, and similar events to come together as a strong voice. We are together as African women to raise awareness about what is happening there, and to spread the idea that it is an issue of human rights. We stand together to help with any type of barbaric act, even with things that have happened in China and other parts of the world. The idea is to protect human right—we must act.

You were rallying in Hamilton, Ontario, on Saturday—how did that go?
The rally was organized by Halima Hatimy, with other young African women in Hamilton. They had requested for my support and it went very well. I was impressed by the representation of the politicians and young African women. We chanted, sang, danced, and played music calling to bring back our girls. Also on Sunday during the 45th anniversary of the African Canadian Heritage Association (ACHA), the youth at ACHA who were presenting a theatrical piece that I directed dedicated some moment for Bring Back Our Girls. These girls are between the ages of 12 and 16, and they are touched by this barbaric act.


You were born in Nigeria; do you still have family there?
Yes, I still have family there. Everybody is there, it is my native home and I dream to go back there. I would like to return in the future and to help the young people in Nigeria through my music and theatre work. I feel like I have been violated as well—and whether I am there or not—I must act. I know how beautiful it is to live in Nigeria, and because of things like this, it is now a terrible place to live because we are all scared. It is destroying the economic, cultural, every other part of the country. You can not go there without wondering if your human rights are going to be violated, so that is why we must act as women from here in Canada to stop this.

Is must be scary knowing that your relatives are so close to what is happening.
Yes, it is. Most of my brothers and sisters live in Abuja, which is the capital city of Nigeria, and it has been facing a lot of bombing. Every time I hear something happening I’m calling Nigeria, and every time I receive a call with a Nigerian number I am scared and so worried about what is going to happen. Sometimes they call just to keep you updated, but recently I had my niece call and tell me, “Oh, aunty, did you know I was close to the venue where it happened?” It’s shocking and scary that anything can happen.

When you talk to your family, what do they tell you about what’s happening in Nigeria right now?
We just keep hearing more stories about girls being kidnapped, and we don’t know what is happening. We have no real news about the girls who were taken. My family and friends are so close to this and it is terrifying. We know that some girls have escaped, but a few have been reported dead and some were bitten in the forest by snakes. That is why we started to rally here to create more awareness because we could not believe what was going on. And thank God more people are now aware of what is happening. We need to keep doing this. We are going to continue to rally in business conferences, on the streets, and political conferences.   Sonia in action, photo via AWA


Do you believe that Canadians and the West fully understand what is happening there?
I think it is such a big problem that it is difficult for everybody to understand, we know a bit better as Africans and as Nigerians, but we still know we can’t do anything. Right now it feels like a country without a leader, and you ask—how does this happen? Why is this happening? Is it for political interests? And so even though we are there and we have family there, we don’t really know what is going on? We want to know so many things.

That sounds unbelievably frustrating. What are some of the other major difficulties that Nigerians are facing right now?
Well, for now we are just trying to take action and to make the president and the government intervene and do something. But that is difficult, because it is hard to know what is going on and there are so many people that are worried there will be more damage created in the country if there are protests and anger. And there are others who are worried about the weakness of the president. All the information about the young girls is like a puzzle that never ends and you begin to ask: Is this a political meaning? We know that Boko Haram is behind this, we know that he has been helped by al Qaeda, and we believe there must be interference somewhere, because otherwise this wouldn’t happen in such a country. We have so much military across the country and they aren’t helping, so this leads to many questions with no answers. Also we want all the countries who have agreed to help, including Canada, to participate with their action of interference unconditionally to fix the human rights violations. But really the biggest thing is that we are all confused. Even with all the leaders of the different countries who are there, trying to help, still nothing is happening, still the girls are not being returned.

What do you believe, aside from government power, Canadians or anyone in North America can do to help the situation?
You need to report on it; you need to talk about it. In Nigeria the media are too scared to talk about it. A journalist like you needs to speak up and we want you to encourage the Nigerian journalists to speak up, because right now they are so scared for their lives and they don’t speak on this matter. Some believe this is a scam created by Boko Haram to destabilize the country because of the coming presidential election in Nigeria next year. It is a true puzzle. And we want Canadians and everyone to help us demand that the Nigerian government should act to get these girls back and that all the leaders from various countries who are there to act should do it unconditionally.

So you believe media is likely the most effective way we can provide help at this time?
Yes, exactly, and we want the media here to encourage a loud voice there. The news that comes from Nigeria is very static, and we don’t get the real news often. When the BBC started covering the issue, we started to hear what was going on, but otherwise we wouldn’t know a lot. There are viable journalists there, some of whom I personally know, but nobody is picking up to talk about this. They are scared for their lives. They could be murdered.

Do you believe that the girls will be returned and that Boko Haram will be defeated?
We do not know what to believe, but we truly hope that the girls are brought back home to their parents and not being used as slaves.

Follow Angela Hennessy on Twitter.