The Igbo people of Nigeria have a saying, "One cannot hear a child's cry and say one is busy."

On the night of April 14, a radical Muslim group, Boko Haram, kidnapped 300 teenage girls from their secondary school in the remote town of Chibok in northeastern Nigeria.

When this kind of thing happens in Africa, we Americans tend to shrug it off. "They are so different from us," we think, "and so far away." Many Americans believe all Muslims are members of extreme groups such as Boko Haram and al-Qaida. We are wrong.

I worked in West Africa for five years, with the Peace Corps in Liberia and Save the Children in Burkina Faso, where I lived in a Muslim village on the edge of the Sahara. The people of Dori belong to the Fulani tribe, all Muslims, and are among the best and kindest people I have ever known.

In 1982, I spent three weeks in Nigeria doing family planning training with a team of Nigerian women from the Ministry of Health. These were strong, intelligent women with a wonderful sense of hospitality and humor. In Nigeria, women run the farmers' markets and have a great deal of economic power in the family. So, I was not surprised when the mothers of the kidnapped girls organized thousands of demonstrators in Nigeria to protest their government's inaction, and launched a worldwide campaign to support the rescue of their daughters.


Yes, Africa has more than its share of civil wars, child soldiers and ethnic cleansing caused by failed governments and prolonged by world indifference. Nigeria is a complex and troubled country. Overpopulation (174 million people in a country roughly the size of Texas) and endemic government corruption worsened by international oil companies has lead to economic inequality and violent tribal and religious strife.

But they are people who, like us, cherish their children, regardless of tribe, religion or economic status. They want their girls to be freed, to return to their families, to fall in love, to marry if they choose, to raise a family, run their markets and their small businesses, contribute to their economy and their culture, to dance and sing, to laugh and live a long life.

Their children are our children, and we cannot say we are busy.

Susan Corbett is a Boulder resident and author of "In the Belly of the Elephant: A Memoir of Africa."