“Kidnapped Redemption,” with Phyllis Sortor ‘64
Amanda Stubbert: Welcome to the SPU Voices podcast, where we tell personal stories with universal impact. I’m your host, Amanda Stubbert, and today we sat down with Phyllis Sortor, who served as a missionary with the Free Methodist World Missions in Nigeria, working for 10 years when she was kidnapped by a terrorist group hoping to end her work with the Fulani and indigenous nomadic people. A new feature-length film has recently been released documenting her kidnapping and time in Nigeria. She immediately returned and built Schools for Africa, an organization providing schools, primary healthcare, grazing reserves, and water and grass restoration for the Fulani people. And she is Seattle Pacific University’s 2023 Alumna of the Year. Phyllis, thank you so much for joining us today.
Phyllis Sortor: Thank you. Thank you. It’s a great pleasure.
Amanda: And we’re so blessed — because of the award and you’re going to be our speaker at Undergraduate Commencement — that we are not doing this over Zoom, intercontinentally. You are here with us on campus, and we’re so glad to have you.
Phyllis: Thank you so much for inviting me. I’m really honored and blessed by your invitation.
Amanda: Well, when we first sent you the letter that said, “Would you like to be our 2023 Alumna of the Year?,” you said, “Oh my goodness,” because your father had also been an Alum of the Year. Can you tell us about your father and his work?
Phyllis: My father was a great man. He was a missionary statesman. Never wavered from the right or to the left. He was a gifted photographer. He was a devoted father and husband to my mom. Honestly speaking, he worked for 43 years in Africa. I think it was about 40 years in Mozambique, where I was born and raised, and then the other three years he was the actual mission supervisor, director of all of the missions south of the Sahara Desert. He was a great man. He became a pilot at the age of 60 and it was Seattle First Free Methodist Church that raised money and bought him a Cessna two-seater plane first, and then a four-seater plane, which he used with mom to fly all over Africa. You know, he took care of it himself. He was the pilot, the mechanic, the engineer.Never had any accidents. Just a wonderful man.
And honestly, it’s because of him that I am in Africa today. It’s because of him and the example that he set, you know? Some people say I’m following in his footsteps, and that may be true, but I will never, ever be able to fill his shoes. They are just too big. But he’s set such a beautiful example and I’m really thankful. I was here as a student when my dad received that Alumna, Alumni? Alumna.
Amanda: Alumna is female, so he would have been the Alumnus of the Year.
Phyllis: Alumnus of the Year. So you’ll have to do some editing there. (laughs)
Amanda: (laughs) People get that confused. That’s why we just say alum.
Phyllis: That’s true.
Amanda: And then it’s just a shorthand for everybody.
Phyllis: Right, yeah.
Amanda: So as a student, seeing your father receive that award, what did that feel like?
Phyllis: It felt wonderful. I was so proud of him, so proud of him and my mom. Yeah. They’re wonderful people.
Amanda: You know, I can understand looking up to a great man who is your father and saying, “I will never fill his shoes.” But I can guarantee there are people listening to this right now saying, “Boy.” They want to follow in your footsteps but would never fill your shoes.
Phyllis: Well, you know, God shapes us, each one of us individually, for the purpose that He has for us. Not everybody has my purpose. Not everyone has yours.
Phyllis: And so what we have to do is, as we grow in the Lord, we have to seek what is God’s purpose for me? My individual purpose in life? We can’t be somebody else. I can’t be you. You can’t be me. But all together, we work together to make things happen for the Kingdom of God.
Amanda: Amen. Amen.
Amanda: One of my favorite quotes of all time is Margaret Mead, a famous anthropologist, and she said, “You are totally and completely unique, just like everyone else.”
Phyllis: That’s exactly right.
Phyllis: I like that.
Amanda: I feel like that’s something I could ponder every day and get something out of it, and when you really understand that, I think it helps you step into your own specific, unique calling.
Phyllis: Exactly. That’s right.
Amanda: But you also are aware that everyone else is trying to do the same thing.
Phyllis: Yes. That’s right. That’s right. Thank God for that.
Amanda: Yeah, so speaking of unique ways of growing up and being equipped for things, let’s talk about your childhood in Mozambique
Phyllis: Yeah, okay.
Amanda: Growing up overseas as a white person, what was that like?
Phyllis: Well, I didn’t know any other way, of course. You know, I was born in Maputo, the capital city of Mozambique. Apparently mom was on the only bed in the delivery room, but there were two African women on either side of her also delivering on the floor. (laughs)
Amanda: Oh my goodness. (laughs)
Phyllis: I can’t imagine. But so, yeah, I grew up on this remote mission station. No other white children. And it didn’t matter. I mean, I didn’t notice the difference between white and Black. My nanny was a Black woman. Mom and Dad both were teaching at the Bible school there in Inhamachafo. Inhamachafo was the name of our mission station. I spent my babyhood on the back of my nanny, Amelia, and grew up with the children in the neighborhood, who were Black children. You know, sat around their fire, ate with them, played with them. We studied under Calvert School, which was a correspondence course. My sisters and I, we would hurry up and do our schoolwork in the morning as fast as we could so we could get back outside and play.
It was under Portuguese rule in those days. I grew up in colonial Africa. Mozambique was a Portuguese colony, and there were very strict rules that were imposed on anybody working in that country. It was a very terrible time. My parents were not allowed to have any person with Black skin enter their house unless they were a servant. So I couldn’t have my friends come into my room and play with me. I could go to their place, but they couldn’t come to mine. And it disturbed me, even as a child. And there were other terrible things that happened. I remember my father just weeping when people were taken by force to work in gangs on the roads or in the coal mines or in the gold mines. Never paid, just beaten and forced to work. Dad would go down to the Portuguese administration office and beg for them to be released. You know, he did that over and over again. It was very painful for my parents. I remember, too, you know, if a white colonial master passed by on the road, every African person was forced to kneel down and bow to them. Those things weren’t right.
“Mozambique was a Portuguese colony, and there were very strict rules that were imposed on anybody working in that country. It was a very terrible time. My parents were not allowed to have any person with Black skin enter their house unless they were a servant. So I couldn’t have my friends come into my room and play with me. I could go to their place, but they couldn’t come to mine. And it disturbed me, even as a child.”
Amanda: Most of us only see those things on TV and in movies. And you think, “Praise God we lived in new times.”
Phyllis: Yeah. But we lived through them.
Amanda: Yeah. It just is not that long ago, is what I’m trying to say.
Amanda: And it’s not that far away.
Phyllis: Right, that’s true.
Amanda: We tend to think of it as long ago and far away, and it’s just not at all.
Phyllis: Right. But besides that, it was a wonderful childhood, you know? Just filled with all kinds of adventures. We had hippopotamus and crocodiles in the lake right in front of our house. We had no restrictions. My sisters and I, we went wherever we wanted to go and played and climbed trees and ate coconuts and just had all kinds of animals as pets: deer, monkeys. Whatever we found, we could bring it home. It was a great childhood.
My mom and dad gave us a choice when we were ready for high school, to either stay in Africa but we’d have to go to a boarding school, or go back to the States. My sisters chose to come back, and I chose to stay. So already I was really attached to my country, which was Africa. I went to boarding school in Zimbabwe and graduated from there and then came to Seattle Pacific direct. I was 16 years old when I got here.
Amanda: And so did you always know, even when you were in school here, that you were going to go back?
Phyllis: No, I really didn’t. I didn’t know that at that time. What happened was the Mozambique history, there was 500 years of colonial rule over Mozambique. At the end of the 500 years, there was a big rebellion and Mozambique became independent. But then a war broke out between the two parties in Mozambique, the Frelimo and the Renamo. That was a 16-year war. When that war ended, my parents were still alive and I had graduated from Seattle Pacific and I was teaching school. I remember the day that my father called me and he said, “The war has ended. You want to go back? Let’s go back on a sentimental journey back to Africa.” And of course I was so excited.
So myself and my husband, Jim, and our youngest daughter, Fiona, we all went. We went with my parents on a sentimental journey back to Africa. We didn’t expect to be able to get up to our mission station because the war had just ended and it was very dangerous. But we were met at the airport by some of my dad’s former students with an old pickup and some jerry cans of petrol in the back, and they said, “We’re going to Inhamachafo. We’re going home.” And so we did.
We drove and drove and drove, and we got to this deserted mission station. We thought it was deserted. We got there at night. You know, it was about 9 o’clock at night. The pickup drove around to the back door, to our kitchen door, and there was a light in the window. Somebody opened the door and came out, and it was Reverend Zacarias Xavane, the director of the Bible school, and we learned that that school had stayed open for the 16 years of war.
Phyllis: And there were graduates. There were new churches planted. There were missionaries sent out. The work that my father and mother had done had not been wasted, had not been in vain. Rather, it had been supported and continued with great fruit. Jim and I were so touched by that, and my parents, of course, were so touched by it. It was at that time that, after looking at the mission station and seeing the terrible condition that the school was in, no roof, everything caved in. The student housing was defunct. Our own house was just broken down. Jim and I said to ourselves, “Let’s put together a mission team and come back.” So we did. About a year or two later, we came back with 23 of us, and we rebuilt that whole mission station. And it was then that God said, “You can do this. You can do it. I want you to come back and do it again.” And so my husband agreed and we went to Free Methodist World Missions and applied, and we were accepted, and that started our whole mission career at that point.
Amanda: Wow. Wow, and I know we could spend hours, I’m sure
Phyllis: I know, I know, I know.
Amanda: I’m sure. Days, really, talking about all your time there and all your accomplishments. But let’s skip ahead a little bit and talk about when you first met the Fulani people.
Phyllis: Oh boy. (laughs) Well, see, as a missionary under Free Methodist World Missions, I was sent to the southern part of Nigeria to direct a school that Vickie and Mike Reynen had built in Akwa Ibom State. So I was the director of this big school called Hope Academy, and the people in Akwa Ibom are quite different. You know, they’re their own tribe. I never, ever even heard the word “Fulani.” I wasn’t aware that there were such people.
This one day, I was in a little village called Ekparakwa and I was buying paint for the school. I was driving my school bus, you know, and I went there and all of a sudden there was all this commotion and people shouting, and so I was with another Free Methodist pastor and we stood there, and all of a sudden into this village came this huge herd of cows, white cows with humps on their back. But following the cows were these tall, beautiful people. Stately. The men had tattoos. They were holding their grazing sticks or herding sticks over their shoulders. The women were carrying pots on their heads. The women had beautiful veils. Their hair was done in a very different way. They just were completely different and unique from the tribes that I’d been working with.
So I turned to the Free Methodist pastor who was standing by me, and I said, “Wow, who are those beautiful people?” And he replied. He said, “Forget about them.” He said, “Those are the Fulani. They come from the north and they bring their cows down here and they disturb us. They enter our farms. They let their cows eat our crops. They live in the bush with their animals. They’re dirty. They’re dangerous. They don’t speak our language, and they’re Muslim. Whatever you do,” he said to me, “stay away from the Fulani.” And God just hit my heart with a mighty thump, and reminded me, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only-begotten Son, that whosoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” And God truly introduced me, at that moment, to the people for whom He had sent me to Nigeria. I knew it without a doubt. I knew it. And so I began to pray that God would give me a chance to meet them.
And I did that, and about two weeks later, I was back in that little town in a little shop and these two young Fulani girls came in. They couldn’t speak the language. They were pointing at some empty paint tins in the corner, and the shopkeeper was angry and she chased them out. I quickly followed them, and I went up to them. They were scared of me. You know, I was the only white person that they’d ever seen in their lives. But I just was really gentle with them and I smiled and I kind of reached out and touched their hair and touched their earring, and they reached out and touched mine, and we began to connect. And then two young Fulani boys came up, and they could speak a little bit of broken English, and so we greeted each other. And my mind is rushing like, “How can I do this? I want to know where they live.” So I said to them that I had a school bus and I was getting ready to drive back down to Akwa Ibom, and would they like to come with me? I could drop them off at their house. And so they were very happy and they jumped in the van, and they pointed the direction to where the road went into their camp. So I dropped them off there.
When I was standing there saying goodbye, I said, “Is there any way I could come and visit you tomorrow in your camp?” They said, “Yes, yes, yes!” (laughs) So the following day, I got ahold of that same pastor who had told me to stay away from the Fulani, because he had a motorcycle. And I said that I needed him to take me and to visit the Fulani. Of course, he was not happy, but he did. He took me in there. I didn’t even know what a Fulani camp looked like. I didn’t know what to look for. But finally, along this path, we came to a place where there was some grass. They were just, like, mounds. They weren’t really huts. They didn’t have a wall and a roof. They were just grass mounds.
And we drove into that village, that compound, and the women and children, when they saw me, they ran into the bush and hid. (laughs)
Amanda: Oh, sad.
Phyllis: But out of one of the huts came this old Fulani woman with her arms outstretched, and she just came to me and she hugged me, and she said, “Sanu, sanu,” which means, “Welcome, welcome.” And she was the matriarch of this clan. Her eldest son was the chief, but he was not around. But the two young boys who I had met previously, they were there and they came and they said to me, “No one in our family knows how to read or write. Is there any way that you could help us with school?” You know. So that was the first inkling I had of something that I could do for them, you know?
Phyllis: Anyway, a few days later, I was driving down that same road and a man on a motorcycle in front of me flagged me down. I pulled over and stopped and he came over and he was a Fulani man, a grown man, but he couldn’t speak any English. But he told me that he was the one from that bush, so I knew that he was the chief and that he had heard that I was visiting them. So he showed up at school the following day with an interpreter, another Fulani man who spoke English. And he said to me these words that kicked off our 20 years of work together. He said, “My grandfather cheated my father. He gave him cows. He bought wives for him. But he never sent him to school. And my father cheated me. He gave me cows and wives, but never sent me to school.” He said, “I don’t want to cheat my children. Please open a school for our children.” And so together, we’ve been working for 20 years and we now have 19 schools for Fulani children all over the country of Nigeria.
“And he said to me these words that kicked off our 20 years of work together. He said, ‘My grandfather cheated my father. He gave him cows. He bought wives for him. But he never sent him to school. And my father cheated me. He gave me cows and wives, but never sent me to school.’ He said, ‘I don’t want to cheat my children. Please open a school for our children.’ And so together, we’ve been working for 20 years and we now have 19 schools for Fulani children all over the country of Nigeria. “
Phyllis: And many requests for more schools. Many. You know, UNICEF put out a report last year that there’s 20 million children in Nigeria who are out of school, who are supposed to be in school. And so we can’t ignore these requests for more schools. We’re doing our best. We’ve got many wonderful supporters here in America who are helping, and we’ve got great supervisors over there who are working, so God is really favoring our work, and I just thank God. Thank God. The Fulani are wonderful people. They are. There’s different kinds of Fulani. There’s town Fulani, there’s settled Fulani, and then there’s bush Fulani. The most people we work with are the bush Fulani, so we go to where they live. And by now, you know, this has been many years that we’ve been working together. The Fulani all know about us, and they like us because we’re helping them. And so they don’t mind inviting us into the bush to open schools, and that’s what’s happening. We’re opening more and more schools at their request.
Amanda: I don’t even know what to say.
Amanda: When you have someone who has created so much change for so many people, because it’s not one child learns English, one child learns to read. It’s an entire generational family, right?
Phyllis: It’s true.
Amanda: It’s like it becomes the whole community gets lifted up and is given more opportunity.
Amanda: And part of the trouble, as I understand it, was the nomadic nature of the history of the Fulani.
Amanda: And so you ended up working for land rights as well
Phyllis: Yes, grazing reserves.
Amanda: Grazing reserves.
Phyllis: Right. And most states have put aside land for grazing reserves, but they haven’t managed the reserves properly. I had not had any control over these grazing reserves until when I went back after the kidnapping. When I went back, the federal government of Nigeria said, “Now we know you’re serious about working with the Fulani,” and they gave me three state grazing reserves to start with. And so what we did was we set up rotational grazing. It’s a holistic method of grazing. You know, the Fulani, being nomadic, have for generations had the freedom of taking their cows wherever they wanted to throughout the country. But that was before. That was in the day of their great grandfather or their grandfather. But now, Nigeria has grown so much. They have cities and towns and highways. You know, you’ll drive through the City of Abuja and there’ll be a huge herd of cows going right down the freeway, and that does not work.
And so, you know, we have trained the Fulani to rotate the grazing on an enclosed grazing reserve, which means you separate the land into paddocks, and all the cows are joined together on one paddock at a time. And depending on how much food there is in that particular pantry or paddock, then that’s how many days the cows would stay there. And then they all move together to the second paddock and to the third. So by the time they come around to the first one, the grass has grown back because the cows themselves, like farm machinery, have watered and fertilized the paddocks, you see?
Phyllis: It’s a great system. It’s really working for the Fulani.
Amanda: And stops that culture of generations of, “We hate the Fulani because we don’t want them to come in and eat our crops.”
Amanda: It sort of stops that cultural divide as well.
Phyllis: Right. That’s true. And the schools are the key to bringing people together. You know, when we do go out into the bush and open a school, we specifically let the Fulani know that it’s for them, but we also invite any other tribal children who are in the neighborhood. So we want all of the kids, the community children, the farmers’ children, and the Fulani children to be together in school. And that’s what we have. And we celebrate their differences. We have days that are called cultural days, you know, where each, for example, in one of our schools in Ogun State, we have Tiv children, we have Yoruba children, and Fulani children, and Hausa children. Four different tribes. And so we invite each tribe to come and show us what’s so special and beautiful about them. The parents come and even the chiefs, you know, or anybody else comes. There’s this wonderful feeling of celebration, rather than, “Ew, you are Tiv? I don’t like you.” No. It’s not like that. It’s, “You’re Tiv. You’re beautiful. I love what you’re doing. I’m Hausa. I’m Yoruba. I’m Fulani.”
And the children sit in school together, side by side. They’re doing math together. They’re doing science together. They’re eating lunch together. They’re playing soccer together. And they’re growing up together as friends, not enemies. And so schools are the key to having peace in Nigeria. They really are.
Amanda: Well, in the world, right? I mean, I think we all know prejudice is learned behavior.
Amanda: And if you grow up with other people groups and people that are vastly different than you, and instead of being scared of that, you realize, “Oh, they’re just different than I am and that’s okay,” that’s how we get better.
Phyllis: Right, absolutely.
Amanda: That’s how the world grows. It’s such important work, and yet not everyone… Any time you make change, good or bad, even if it’s fantastic, big change, someone’s going to be upset about it.
Phyllis: That’s true.
Amanda: Yes. And someone was upset that you were doing this work.
Amanda: And I know you’ve talked about it many times, so I almost want to say I’m sorry to ask you about this traumatic time.
Phyllis: No, it’s okay.
Amanda: But I know you’ve told this story so many times. So there were those who did not want this work to continue.
Amanda: So let’s talk about that day when you were kidnapped.
Phyllis: Well, it’s one particular man. He’s an extremist, terrorist, a Hausa man. He didn’t want this Christian school for Fulani children that was in the little town of Emiworo. Mogodi, the first Fulani man that I met, who I’m working with, he was being celebrated by everyone. I think there was some jealousy also. But this Hausa extremist decided that he didn’t want the Fulani to be educated. He wanted to stop any kind of promotion of their tribe, and so he actually hired some people. I found this out later, but he hired these. It wasn’t this man and others who decided to kidnap me. They were being paid by this boss. I had no clue about this, you know, for how many years I’d been working. My husband, Jim, had died in 2008, so I was alone over there. But no fear. I would drive hundreds of miles by myself. Never had any problem at all, never.
So this particular day, I was really happy because we had gone to the government and they had given us 900 acres to put a grazing reserve very close to this new school. And I was standing in front of the Free Methodist Church in this school compound. We have a very big compound there. It’s a secondary school and a primary school and a big Free Methodist Church. So I was with the pastor, Reverend Jacob Ahiaba and his wife, Janet, and we were talking and were so excited because we had all this land that we were going to do rotational grazing for our Fulani. And suddenly, there were gunshots. Pow, pow, pow, pow! And these people dressed in black with masks came rushing into our compound. It was like it couldn’t be happening. It was so weird, you know? We were just stunned. And they came running up to us and they came running right to me and grabbed me in both arms and began to haul me across the compound. I just, I was literally speechless because I was so shocked and surprised. This one kidnapper, he slapped me across the face, and he said, “Today is the day you die.” And they went over to the compound wall, which was about four feet high, threw me over the wall, and began dragging me behind the school up into the bush. So… (laughs)
Amanda: When you have a moment like that, I mean, I assume you cry out to God, but you can’t even get that far, right? You’re in so much shock you can’t even get…
Phyllis: At that point, I was just shocked, yeah. I was just speechless. I had never dreamed in a million years about kidnapping. In fact, up to that point, really, kidnapping was not rampant in the country like it is now. It’s like a hundred times worse now than it was then.
So yeah, so we were stumbling up the hill and they were pulling me, you know, and suddenly the guy on my right looked down and he noticed that one of my clogs had fallen off somewhere. So he stopped and took off one of his shoes and put it on my foot. And at that moment, I looked at him and I said, “Thank you.” And I said, “What’s your name?” And you know, we had never had any teaching or training on what to do if kidnapped. But it was God just gave me what to say. So I smiled at him and I said, “What’s your name?” And he said, “My name is Ismaila.” And I said, “My name is Reverend Phyllis. I’m happy to meet you.” Can you believe that we would be doing that out in the bush like that? (laughs)
Phyllis: But it happened. And something happened between us. I think he saw me differently at that moment.
Amanda: Saw you as a person.
Phyllis: A person. And that same kind of connection continued, even to that particular evening, that first evening. He came over and we were in a ravine. They had thrown me into a ravine, and they were hiding somewhere. I actually tried to escape that night because I couldn’t see them. They were hiding behind trees and I stood up and I started walking down toward the right where I knew we had come from that direction. But almost immediately, they showed up.
Anyway, he came over and stood over me, and I said, “So Ismaila, what’s happening? What are you going to do?” And he said, “I’m supposed to kill you.” I said, “Okay.” I said, “Do you have a family, Ismaila?” He said yes, he had a wife and children. And I said, “Only one wife?” And he laughed. He said, “One wife is all I can handle.” (laughs)
Phyllis: And I said, “What about your mom? Do you have a mom? Is your mom still alive?” He said, “Yes, my mom is still alive.” And I said, “I bet she’s about my age, isn’t she?” And he looked at me and said, “Yes, I think my mother’s about your age.” And I said, “Ismaila, would you be happy if somebody kidnapped your mother and somebody killed your mother? Would you be happy?” He said, “No, I wouldn’t be happy.” And then he kind of drew himself up and he said, “I promise you I will not touch you and I will not allow my men to touch you.” And from that moment on, he started to call me Mom. And he did, he turned out to be a protector for all of the nearly two weeks that we were together in the bush. The other men were hardened criminals. They would just as soon have killed me as look at me, but Ismaila stood between them and me. At night when we were sleeping out in the bush, he always positioned himself and made the other men stay on the other side of him, and nobody ever touched me. Nobody ever hurt me, you know? And at the end of the day, he took me out and released me. After a ransom was paid, of course
Amanda: Right. And the ransom, that was not an easy thing to do.
Phyllis: For my family, I know it wasn’t.
Phyllis: In fact, it was kind of against the law to pay ransom. Definitely from the Nigerian side, because the officials there did not want to encourage kidnapping. So if, you know, all this huge amount of money came into the bank and it was known by the officials, they would confiscate that money. So the money had to come in little drips and drabs, you know, little by little by little until there was enough for the bad guy to be satisfied and to accept it.
Amanda: Yeah. The whole concept of we do not negotiate with terrorists, that makes all the sense in the world until it’s someone you know.
Phyllis: That’s true.
Amanda: Until there’s a real person, and then you’re like, “We will do whatever it takes.”
Phyllis: That’s true.
Amanda: Right? And so, just like everything else, with God in control, with a lot of people speaking into it, eventually enough money came in that they let you go.
Phyllis: Yes, that’s right.
Amanda: I’ve seen the movie. I’ve heard your story. We’ve talked before. I can’t even ask this question without getting teared up, because the day that you were released, how the rest of that day plays out is such a God story
Phyllis: I know.
Amanda: Can you tell the story of the day that they let you go?
Phyllis: Sure. Sure. Well, as you said, it took a long time for the money to come in and for the… They called this man the oga. That means the boss. So it took a long time for the oga to accept the amount of ransom, but I remember the day that Ismaila came running down the hill. I was kept in kind of a hole that they had carved out of thorn bushes. I was kept in there and there was a little path. Ismaila came running down and told me the oga had accepted the ransom. And so I thought for sure that they would take me with them and exchange me for the money, but that didn’t happen. They just left me there and Snake, this really scary guy and his men, went to collect the ransom. But when they got to the place where the ransom was going to be given to them, the hostage negotiator told Ismaila to tell them the whole thing was off because the men delivering the ransom money to the kidnappers, they didn’t know that area and it was dark and the hostage negotiator was afraid that somebody could get hurt. So he called it off and said, “Let’s do it in the daylight tomorrow.”
So Snake and his guys, they came back. It was about midnight when they showed up, and they were so angry because they had trekked all night long to get to that place and then to come back with no money in their hand. So they came rushing down the hill and Ismaila was nowhere in sight and I was just terrified, you know, of what they were going to do. Snake was yelling, “We’re going to kill you! We’re going to cut you in pieces. We can get more money from the witch doctor for your pieces than we can from your family in America.” But suddenly Ismaila showed up and he stood between me and them and protected me.
So the following day, Clement and Pastor Chukwuma took the money again and went to a different spot that had been arranged for the exchange. This was in the daylight and it wasn’t too far away from where we were. And that exchange worked out. I remember I was down in the hole and Ismaila came running down the trail and he was saying, “Praise God! Praise God!” (laughs) “We’ve got the money. We’ve got the money.” And so I was so happy, you know. I was sure that now they were going to let me go. But they didn’t. They left me down there, Ismaila and Snake, and I heard many different voices. Many people had gathered under that tree up there at the top of the hill. You know, it was hours. Hours and hours went by, and my imagination started to say, “What’s to stop them from reselling me? They’ve got $25,000. They could take me now and sell me back to the witch doctor,” who wanted to buy me very seriously.
It was about six hours later, and I got to the point where God just gave me peace. He really did. It’s like He took away my fear and anxiety, and I just sat down on this rock down there and I said, “God, it’s okay. Whatever happens, I don’t mind. Just whatever happens.” And He just, it was the Holy Spirit. He just calmed my heart. And just a few minutes later, Ismaila came running down the hill, grabbed me by the arm, and he said, “Let’s go.” And we didn’t go up the hill to the tree. We went through the bush sideways and stumbled through the bush. Came across the motorcycle, the driver, and got on the motorbike, and he drove me out of the bush, across this big river to the other side, right up to the outskirts of an unfinished housing development, right up to that point where the street began. This was the bush. And so he told me, “Get off the bike,” and I got off. I heard another motorcycle in the distance, and I said, “Ismaila, you need to go. You need to go,” because I was so worried that something would happen to them. I didn’t want anyone to get hurt. And he said, “It’s okay, Mommy. It’s okay.” And he reached in his pocket and he took out 1000 naira, which is not all that much, a little over a dollar. (laughs) But he said, “Use this to get a ride and go back to your home.” And then he turned around and left. That was the last I saw of him.
So there I stood, you know. It was getting toward evening and I knew basically where I was because I knew this unfinished place, and I knew that there was a main road somewhere down here that went back to the school. But I didn’t know how to get there and I was feeing really weak, you know, because I hadn’t eaten for days. Once in a while they would give me a piece of bread or a little bowl of rice, but I literally had not eaten. And you know what? God just kept me strong and healthy in spite of it. Do you know, I came out with no mosquito bites, no bug bites, no internal problems. Everything was good. God just took care of me.
“I knew that there was a main road somewhere down here that went back to the school. But I didn’t know how to get there and I was feeing really weak, you know, because I hadn’t eaten for days. Once in a while they would give me a piece of bread or a little bowl of rice, but I literally had not eaten. And you know what? God just kept me strong and healthy in spite of it. Do you know, I came out with no mosquito bites, no bug bites, no internal problems. Everything was good. God just took care of me.”
So there I was standing and I thought, “Okay, I’ll just start walking, see what happens.” I started walking down the road, and in the distance I saw a man coming toward me. He had two little children on either side, and he was pushing a wheelbarrow with some jerry cans, and I thought, “Wow, he must be a family man. He won’t hurt me.” And so I went up to him and I said, “Good evening.” He said, “Good evening.” I said, “Please, can you help me? I need to find my way to the main road.” And he just looked at me and looked at me. (laughs) His eyes were getting big and wide and he reached out his hand and he shook my hand, and he said, “Congratulations, congratulations! I recognize you. We’ve been praying for you at my church. Thank you, thank you, thank you, God.” He said, “Come with me. I’m going to help you. I’ll take you to our church and call the pastor.” And so that’s what he did, you know? He took me by the arm and we walked just a very short ways, about two blocks, and there was a little church, Redeemed Christian Church of God.
Of course, it was night, so it was locked up, so he went and he showed me a little place on the veranda where I could sit down and wait. He said, “You wait right here. I’m going to call the pastor.” And so I sat down on the veranda, and after he had left, all of a sudden, it just hit me. I just couldn’t believe this. The man’s name was Brother Moses, and he was an usher at this little church. The first person that I would meet after living in the bush for two weeks with criminals would be a little Christian man named Brother Moses, who took me to his church and went to call the pastor for help. And I just burst into tears. You know, I had not cried once, because around these men you don’t want to show weakness, so I had never cried in the bush. But boy, I started howling like a baby. It was just joy.
Phyllis: And it was amazement and it was appreciation to God for what He had done. He kept me all the way through that terrible time and He saved me by bringing this sweet little Christian man (laughs) to rescue me at the last moment. So I just wept. And then afterwards, the pastor came. The word got out immediately that I was there. So many people came, church members, and they were singing and dancing and hugging me and holding me. They took me across the street to one church member’s house. They wanted to give me a bath. (laughs)
Phyllis: I’m sure I needed it. It had been two weeks, you know. But I said, “No, I just really want to go home. Just let me go home.” And they said, “Okay, don’t worry. We’re going to arrange it.” They said, “Can you have a cup of tea?” And I said, “Yes, I would love a cup of tea.” So they brought a cup of tea and I drank that. And then I hadn’t known, but one of the church members was a policewoman, and so she, unbeknownst to me, had called her police chief, and they came in a pickup and they were parked outside, but they just waited until they felt like I’d had my tea and relaxed enough, you know. And then they… Okay, I was continuing to ask for a car to take me home, and they were continuing to say, “Wait, we’re trying to arrange it.” So finally, they opened the door and took me outside, and there was this white police pickup with two policemen, and they came over and shook my hand and congratulated me and put me in the backseat and we drove away.
And we drove right by my house, my school. I said, “I want to stop here. I want to stop here.” They said, “No, we can’t do that. We need to take you in to Lokoja to the police station.” And so we drove into Lokoja, which is the capital city of Kogi State. We drove down the street. We got to a little junction and just before we were turning left to go to the police station, this big van came and turned into the police station. And the driver of the bus said, “Wow, look at that. That’s your American ambassador.” I said, “What? What’s he doing here?” Because I didn’t even have a clue.
Amanda: You didn’t know that half the world was looking for you and praying for you.
Phyllis: I didn’t know anybody was looking for me, because I had never had any – well, the hostage negotiator did call me from time to time, but I didn’t know the extent of the search that had been going on. And so I said to him, “What a coincidence that the American ambassador would be here.” (laughs)
Phyllis: So then he drove me into the police station, and I got out and there was Mike and Vickie Reynen, missionaries. The FBI was there. American ambassador was there, and many people from the embassy were there, and police, and they were just all welcoming me back. It was incredible.
Phyllis: It was really incredible.
Amanda: I feel like I’m skipping over so many miraculous stories. I hope everyone goes out and watches the film about your story. But I feel like we would be remiss if we didn’t end the interview with the redeemed part of the kidnapped. I think people could think, just hearing what they’ve heard you say, that the redeemed is the fact that you were safe and unharmed. But to me, that is not the end of the story. Even as I’m asking this question, Phyllis held up a picture. Tell me about who is in that picture and why he is the redeemed part of this story.
Phyllis: This is one of my kidnappers, and his name is Joseph. What happened was almost immediately after I got back to Nigeria back in 2015, I began looking for my kidnappers, for Ismaila and for this other kidnapper whose name is, I called him Gas Mask Guy because he wore a gas mask almost all the way through our relationship. And so I got the help of this policeman named Inspector John and he went to four of the five prisons in Kogi State, looking to see if any one of them had been arrested, but he couldn’t find anyone. I myself put radio announcements in the two states that the kidnappers came from. Gas Mask Guy told me he came from Gombe, and Ismaila told me he came from another state. I can’t remember the name of it now. So I put radio announcements, not saying names but saying that this was Mommy and I was looking for Ismaila and I was looking for a man who wore a gas mask, not to hurt them, not to harm them, but I just wanted to see them. But nobody ever responded. I’m sure that they thought it was a trap, that I was trying to trap them.
Phyllis: So anyway, about two years ago, Inspector John called me again and he said that there was a fifth prison in Kogi State and that there were two convicted kidnappers in that prison, and would I like to go and see if maybe it was Ismaila and Gas Mask Guy. So I said, “Yes, of course.” So we went to the prison and the police officer brought in these two men, and it wasn’t Ismaila or Gas Mask Guy, but they were two convicted kidnappers and they were made to sit down on the floor in front of us and they talked about what happened. The one whose name is Jimoh, he never admitted to being a part of the crime. But this man, Joseph, said that he had provided the vehicle that Ismaila used to follow me and kidnap me on that day.
So we talked a lot and I told them that two of my kidnappers had been really kind to me and I wanted to pay back to them for their kindness, but I had not been able to find them, so the Lord really put it on my heart to pay forward that same kindness to them if they wanted my help. And they were both so happy, you know. I said, “Well, if you give me your family’s phone numbers, I’ll contact them and I’ll see what I can do to help them.” So they did that. So we prayed together and then we left. I contacted Joseph’s family and Jimoh’s family and they were so happy. We went to visit them. I took food supplies to the family. Jimoh’s father had died. His mother was very elderly, and Jimoh was her only son, so she wept bitterly during that time that her only son was in prison. You know, who was going to help her? I said, “We’ll help you. We’ll do everything we can to help you.”
And Joseph was married, had two beautiful children, and his wife, it was the same thing. In fact, I have a video of our first visit with her. She was weeping and said she’d been praying that God would send her someone to help her. And I said, “Well, God has answered your prayer because I’m here and I’m going to help you.” And so we helped them with food, supplies, and I paid these children’s school fees, because she had no money to pay their school fees.
So that went on for a while. And then, to my big surprise, this year, February, both men were released after eight years of incarceration, because it’s been eight years since I was kidnapped. They were arrested right in that same area where the kidnapping took place. So along with several Free Methodist pastors, I went to visit them in their family homes. We went to Jimoh’s house first. He looked so good, so different from when he was in prison. Had a nice, fresh ironed shirt, and I just went up and hugged him, you know, and he hugged me back. I just said, “Congratulations!” He was so happy, you know. And his mother, of course, was beaming from ear to ear. He was a Muslim man, Jimoh was, and since we met, he’s moved into another state, so I really don’t have contact with him. But our Free Methodist pastor, John Raji, has his phone number. So they stay in contact. If there’s anything that they need that we can do to help, then we’re willing to do that.
But Joseph is a Christian, and so, you know, Reverend Nelson Reed, who is on our Schools for Africa board, was holding a discipleship training for Free Methodist pastors. This was in May, this very month of May, and Joseph and his wife live 10 minutes from the Hope Academy campus where I was kidnapped, 10 minutes away. Because he gave a testimony that he had become a Christian and was a pastor in the prison, I thought, “Why don’t we invite him to come to the discipleship training?” (laughs) So we did, and so he came. He came for the three days of discipleship training, and then the fourth day was Sunday and we were going to have a big worship service in the Hope Academy church, that same compound from which I was kidnapped, right? So Joseph and Hannah and their children came to church. We sat together in church. We worshipped together. We took communion together. And it just, it was like my cup was running over. (laughs) Imagine. Just imagine. God brought us full circle from this place where he had kidnapped me, you know, amid terror and chaos and gunshots and pain and just a horrible, horrible day to this day eight years later when we’re sitting in church together, worshiping the Lord together, taking communion together. It was just, I mean, only God can bring about that kind of miracle. It’s a miracle.
Amanda: It’s a miracle.
Phyllis: It’s a miracle.
Amanda: Every single step of your story, I feel like illustrates love will always win over hate.
Phyllis: That’s true.
Amanda: And you can never stamp out hate with more hate.
Phyllis: That’s right.
Amanda: The only way is to wash it out with love.
Phyllis: That’s right.
Amanda: It’s every step of your story. It’s not that you have to read the whole story to get to that at the end, and yet, like you said, the whole, full circle is just miraculous.
Phyllis: Well, God told us, you know. Jesus told the teachers of the law, what are the greatest commandments? The greatest commandment is love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength. And the second is like unto the first. Love your neighbor as yourself.
Amanda: And who is your neighbor? That’s the real question, right? And who is your neighbor?
Phyllis: Anybody. Everybody is our neighbor, you know?
Amanda: Yeah, yeah.
Phyllis: Hating him and trying to destroy his family, what good would that do? I would live with that burden and he would live with that burden. But there’s no burden. There’s no pain. There’s just joy, you know? Unbelievable joy and redemption all the way through. Yeah.
Amanda: Amen. Well, I hope everyone who hears this reads more about you and your story, looks into Schools for Africa and becomes a part of that work there, and watches the movie of your story. I’m so excited to hear your answer to our famous last question that we ask all of our guests here. If you could have everyone in Seattle do one thing tomorrow that would change the world, make the world a better place, what’s that one thing you would have us all do?
Phyllis: I guess what I just said. Love your neighbor as yourself. That would change everything. That would change everything.
Amanda: Amen. I have nothing else to say but yes and amen.
Phyllis: (laughs) Thank you.
Amanda: Phyllis, thank you so much for joining us today.
Phyllis: Thank you.
Amanda: We will put in the description a link to watch your film.
Phyllis: Thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.
Amanda: Bless you in all the work that you do.
Phyllis: Amen. Amen.