Threatened by Boko Haram, Cameroon woman finds refuge in Minnesota

Martine Tchitchihe at the Mississippi headwaters.
Martine Tchitchihe at the Mississippi headwaters on October, 2014. Martine Tchitchihe says she was attacked for pursuing an education by the militant group Boko Haram last year in her native Cameroon.
Courtesy Heather Buesseler

Martine Tchitchihe chose school over marriage. For that, she says she was beaten and threatened by the African terror group Boko Haram.

The Cameroon native came to the United States a month ago as part of a short teaching-exchange stint in Fergus Falls, Minnesota. She's seeking asylum here now and plans to help run a scholarship program for girls in her home country.

In the safety of the U.S., Tchitchihe's been able to tell her harrowing — and inspiring — story.

She grew up in a poor rural village in northern Cameroon, where many girls were married off even before high school. She's spent much of the last year running from brutal militants who assaulted her for being educated and unmarried.

"The first thing your mom tells you is that marriage is the most important thing," Tchitchihe said in an interview. "I wasn't conventional at all. I was the type of girl who was always in the library trying to read something. Through my readings, that's how I got my view of the world."

Martine Tchitchihe
Tchitchihe, 29, arrived in Minnesota last year for a guest-teaching fellowship in Fergus Falls.
Laura Yuen / MPR News

The woman who pored over French novels as a little girl is now 29 and holds two master's degrees.

Tchitchihe never thought her pursuit of an education would make her a target for violence. Then, one evening last year, she said about a dozen men attacked her as she walked home from class at Cameroon's University of Maroua.

They identified themselves as a branch of Boko Haram, the Islamic extremist group that kidnapped hundreds of Nigerian school girls earlier this year.

"They beat me. They spit on me. They peed on me. They asked me to stop my studies," she said, recalling their words: "'It's a shame that a girl who's 28 years old is not married.'"

Tchitchihe thought she would die that night.

She survived. But even as her mother helped nurse her to health, Tchitchihe said her mother was deeply ashamed by the attack because it again drew attention to the fact that her daughter was nearly 30 and still not married.

"It is tradition that built how she is, and I don't want to be like her. I want to be who I am now. I know that if one day I have a kid, it will not be the same thing I teach her. I mean, I love my mom. She is kind of my hero. But we have our differences."

Despite the beating, Tchitchihe continued going to school and never reported the attack to law enforcement.

She graduated with honors two months later. But after a year, Cameroonian police asked her to help identify her attackers. Shortly after that meeting, she says her nightmare began again, with a series of threats from anonymous callers.

Some of her closest friends were American volunteers who witnessed the harassment. Brian Dunn, a former Peace Corps volunteer from Michigan, said he heard the voice mail messages and read the texts Tchitchihe received.

"They just kept saying they knew they could find her, they were looking for her, and that they were going to kill her," Dunn said.

Dunn and several other Peace Corps volunteers helped Tchitchihe go into hiding.

Shortly after, a small Minnesota nonprofit called Opportunity Africa selected Tchitchihe to be its first guest teacher in Fergus Falls. The group is now raising money to offer her a stipend to help run the program. Any additional money would go to expanded scholarships for more young women who face barriers to a classroom, let alone a career.

Tchitchihe and attorneys on Skype call
Martine Tchitchihe, center, and Minneapolis attorneys Willow Anderson and Jack Rice share a laugh while calling a friend overseas via Skype.
Laura Yuen / MPR News

Tchitchihe remains in Minnesota on a work visa and has until April to file for permanent asylum. She's met with pro bono lawyers about the case, and the process could take years. There's also no guarantee that the government will grant her asylum, said her attorney, Willow Anderson.

Opportunity Africa founder Heather Buesseler likens Tchitchihe to Malala Yousafzai, the Nobel Peace Prize winner who was shot by the Taliban for her efforts to promote the education of girls in Pakistan.

"Martine is the Malala Yousafzai of Cameroon," said Buesseler, whose studies abroad as a Macalester College student led her to launch the nonprofit.

"She has sacrificed everything in the pursuit of her education and desire to transform the social norms that hold girls back," Buesseler said. She should be an inspiration to young women in Cameroon and the world over."

Tchitchihe said she wants to dedicate her life to helping those girls, "to open them to the world, to tell them, 'You are human beings. You can dream big.'"

She said she sees herself going back to Cameroon, if and when it's ever safe to return.

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