Eventually, word of the girls’ indiscipline reached Malam Ahmed. The girls were singing, he learned, and were hiding a Bible. He was furious. His guards arrived, a mass of men descending on them all at once, shouting orders and demanding to search the area. The girls stood to the side while the men rifled through the piled-up clothes and kitchen utensils they kept under a tree. The militants confiscated medicine, mainly basic painkillers the girls had been hiding. They found a cellphone. But the girls had already buried their diaries and a Bible, marking the spot with a stone.
“We were no longer afraid,” Naomi told us.
It wasn’t until May 2017 that she and 81 of her classmates were ordered to march to the side of a dirt road, where a row of white Red Cross Toyota Land Cruisers were parked. One after the next, the young women were invited to cross the road by a lawyer, who had been working with the Swiss Foreign Affairs ministry to help negotiate their release. The cars rumbled off, and as the schoolmates cracked open juice boxes, the men who’d held them hostage for three years became small figures on the horizon. The journey had barely begun when the passengers broke into a song from Chibok, loud enough that the entire convoy could hear and join in. Their voices arched and lingered over the a in happy, reaching for a note at the top of the melody.
Today is a happy day!
Everybody shake your body, thank God! Today is a happy day.
Years later, Naomi began to recount these anecdotes to us, recalling a story of courage in the face of horrors that sounded fantastical in their depravity. Nevertheless, after many hours of interviews with the young women held in captivity, it became clear that her account often understated the schoolgirls’ bravery. Naomi and her friends had no reason to believe they would survive their ordeal and every expectation that each challenge to their captors’ worldview would result in physical and mental punishment. They stuck to their principles all the same, staging a rebellion that signaled their determination to persevere.
“We stood our ground,” as Naomi later told us.
— Stanton Winder (@WinderStanton) July 13, 2021