COLUMBIA — A group from two Missouri colleges is expected to return home Monday from Nigeria, where a recent series of violent incidents have left hundreds dead, according to some news reports.
The students are Mona-Lisa Banks and Grato Ndunguru, who attend Lincoln University in Jefferson City; and Jim Grindley and Victoria Mulugeta, who attend the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Also with the group is Shade Adisa, who is on the faculty at Lincoln. Ndunguru is a Columbia resident.
The group has been in the country since July 1 to conduct research on soil and water at Lake Chad Basin, in the northeast tip of the country. The Missourians have been part of a larger group that included Nigerians affiliated with a university and a guide.
Before most of the U.S. knew of the violence that had erupted in the country, Ndunguru sent a message to his sister, telling her and his wife not to worry and that he would be all right, said Ndunguru’s wife, Mary, on Tuesday.
Mary Ndunguru said she scrambled to find information about what was happening to her husband. She has stayed in contact through text messages and static-ridden phone calls on cell and Internet phones.
She said she received a text message from Grato at 9:35 a.m. Tuesday saying that the group was to receive a police transport from a hotel in Maiduguri, a city near the research site – where they have holed up since Monday – to Yola, on the country's central eastern border. From there, they were to fly to the capital, Abuja, which is in the center of the country and is the location of a U.S. embassy.
Agence-France Presse reported Tuesday that in Maiduguri, three days of fighting between militants and government forces have left 250 people dead.
In an e-mail to his wife on Monday, Ndunguru said that “the streets are all opened and business sectors are working,” but The New York Times reported that by Tuesday the local economy had shut down.
Mary Ndunguru said she was worried about her husband when she found out about his situation. But she said she has “seen God work miracles over and over again” for Grato.
“I know my husband, and he’s a survivor,” she said. “And God seems to shadow him, you know, protect him in everything he does.”
At about 5:30 p.m. Tuesday, Mary said, she received a phone call from her husband informing her that the group had arrived safely in Yola.
“There was a major difference in the atmosphere,” she said. “You could hear it in the background and in their voices.”
The U.S. State Department issued a travel advisory for Nigeria on July 17 stating that a loose alliance of militant groups has been attacking oil facilities in the country and has also clashed violently with government forces.
The advisory identifies several states in the southwest corner of the country as particularly dangerous, but in the days since, violence has become widespread throughout the country.
Since January 2008, more than 54 foreign national oil workers and business people have been kidnapped, the advisory states.
Foreign visitors to Nigeria, including Americans, have been victims of armed robbery along airport roads in the country, both during the day and at night, according to the advisory.
Foreign residents there have also experienced armed muggings, kidnappings, carjacking and armed break-ins.
Americans are not being specifically targeted in the violence, the advisory states.
Andy Laine, a spokesman for the State Department, said the U.S. embassy in Nigeria has been monitoring the situation and that it is offering guidance and assistance to Americans in the country.
“The State Department, Embassy, and Nigerian government are working to keep these Missourians from harm and transport them safely out of the danger zone,” stated Charles Chamberlayne, Sen. Kit Bond's press secretary, in an e-mail.
Reports by The Associated Press have indicated that a sect of militant Islamists is responsible for the most recent attacks. The New York Times reported that the attacks in Maiduguri — where Grato was holed up Monday — were caused by a group opposed to “western education.”
“Fortunately, locals did not know the team was from (a western) university,” said Robin Hubbard, who knows the Ndungurus.
Mary Ndurguru said she feels much better knowing that her husband is out of Maiduguri.
“After this last conversation,” she said, “I feel more confident that he’ll be OK.”