My friend forwarded me the security advisory, which began, “There have been three kidnap incidents in Ikoyi in the last five days.” I read this while sipping my morning coffee, a knot hardening in my chest.
My husband and I moved to Nigeria with our three young children in 2011. We live in Ikoyi.
I skimmed through the rest of the message, gnawing on my thumbnail. It provided practical tips on staying safe, such as varying your routine, avoiding fuel stops on isolated roadways, and bringing braiders to your home instead of leaving your child at a salon for hours.
The email ended with a warning: “If you live in an area with high kidnap rates, there is always a possibility that you could already be a target, or that you or your family members are being developed as targets.”
Our sweet children could be targets? I slumped over on the sofa and decided to lie there until I died.
My husband, John, called me from work an hour later. Death was taking longer than planned, so I answered the phone. “Did you hear about the kidnappings?” he asked. “I must have gotten that email from a dozen people.”
“Those poor families,” I said. “Do you think we’re safe here?”
“Our risk is low. These are almost always inside jobs and I trust the people who work for us.”
“Isn’t that what everyone says?” I asked.
I stared at the photo of our kids on the end table as John explained that most countries have had periods in their history when kidnapping is common. “It happens in Russia and Colombia. It happens in any place where there’s income inequality and lack of opportunity. In Brazil in the ‘80’s, plastic surgeons perfected an ear replacement technique because victim’s ears were sent along with the ransom note.”
If John was trying to comfort me with facial mutilation stories, it had the opposite effect.
When it was time to pick up the children from school, I roused myself from the sofa. After bolting the front door, I climbed into the back of the SUV and buckled my seat belt. Our driver, Sunday, locked the car doors. We circled inside the electrified walls of the compound, waiting for the blue-uniformed security guards to open the gate.
The children were sitting in their classrooms, all body parts accounted for. I hugged them and felt the knot in my chest loosen.
At home, the kids snacked on watermelon slices. They began doing their homework at the dining table while I had my cooking lesson.
Taiwo comes over once a week to teach me how to prepare my husband’s favorite dishes. She has spent twenty years working as a chef and instructor to ex-pat and wealthy Nigerian families. Over the last few months, we have become friendly. We chat about our children, about her church, and about the meaning of Yoruba names. She is proud that her oldest daughter is the first in their family to attend university.
I began washing bitter leaf in a bleach bath in the sink. Taiwo struck a match and lit the stove. She squeezed palm oil into a pot. As it sizzled, she sliced a plantain.
She told me how easy it had been to find transportation to my house and thanked Jesus. It is rainy season here and she arrived just before the skies opened up.
I mentioned the recent kidnappings as I stirred the greens through the water. “Isn’t it terrible?” I said, submerging a leaf.
Taiwo told me a story about a mother and daughter she knew from Church who were kidnapped in Benin City. She said the women were held for two weeks before being released. “These were good, God-fearing boys,” she said of the kidnappers. “They graduated from university but couldn’t find jobs. Their families needed them to pay school fees for their junior siblings.”
I pulled the stopper from the sink and watched the water gurgle down the drain.
“When educated Nigerians can’t get jobs,” she said, scraping the pot with a spoon, “it’s fair for them to turn to kidnapping. The wealthy have more than they need.”
The children’s laughter echoed into the kitchen. I stared at Taiwo, my mouth hanging open.
I mumbled something about misdirected governmental spending but Taiwo interrupted, offering rapid instructions on preparing stew.
In the evening, I sat in the dark living room, left with more questions than answers. I wondered if others felt like Taiwo did. Would the people we know in this country sympathize if our children were kidnapped? Or would they think it was a fair price to pay for the opportunities we have had?
Days have passed but my thoughts remained on Taiwo. How could a morally upright woman come to the conclusion that kidnapping is a justified commercial enterprise? I can’t relate but I have never been pessimistic about my children’s future. I don’t know how it feels to live without the expectation that my kids will prosper.