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Cover of Isha Sesay's 'Beneath the Tamarind Tree'

'Beneath the Tamarind Tree'—an Excerpt From Isha Sesay's Book About Remembering the Chibok Girls

Read an exclusive excerpt from the Sierra Leonean reporter's new book, which offers firsthand accounts of what happened to the girls while in Boko Haram captivity in an attempt to make the world remember.

Below is an excerpt from the seventh chapter in Sierra-Leonean journalist and author Isha Sesay's new book, "Beneath the Tamarind Tree," the "first definitive account" of what took place on the ground following the abduction of 276 schoolgirls by Boko Haram in 2014.

Continue on to read more, and revisit our interview with the reporter about why it's important for the world to remember the girls' stories, here.

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"We should burn these girls!"

"No, let's take them with us!"

"Why not leave them here?"

The men were still arguing, dozens of them trading verbal blows while Saa and the other horrified girls looked on. None of the men seemed particularly troubled by the fact that the lives of almost three hundred schoolgirls hung in the balance. Amid all the yelling, the girls had been divided into groups. Each batch would burn in a different room in the school buildings that were aflame just a few feet away. Tensions were escalating when a slim man with outsize eyes suddenly appeared. Saa had never seen him before. Like many of the insurgents, he too looked young and was just as scruffy. But when he spoke, tempers seemed to cool for a moment.

"Ah! What are you trying to do?"

"We wanted to burn them!"

"Why not take them with us, since we have an empty vehicle?"

His suggestion triggered a fresh round of quarreling. The same positions were expressed, and the newcomer continued to calmly repeat his idea of taking the girls with them, till he finally got his way. The girls later discovered his name was Mallam Abba. He was a commander.

"Follow us!" the men shouted.

None of it made any sense to Saa. Why? To where? As the insurgents shuffled her out of the compound, she felt as if her whole life were on fire. All Saa could see was the ominous orange glow of flames consuming every one of her school buildings. With every step, the fears within her grew. She struggled to make sense of the competing thoughts throbbing in her head. This isn't supposed to be happening. The insurgents had asked about the boys and the brick-making machine; they'd systematically emptied the school store, carrying bag after bag of foodstuffs and loading all of it into the huge waiting truck. With everything now packed away, Saa had thought the insurgents would simply let the girls go home. After all, that's what had happened during their previous attacks on schools—they'd always let the schoolgirls go, after handing out a warning to abandon their education and strict instructions to get married. Saa had simply expected the same thing to happen once more, not this.

She scanned the crowd of faces surrounding her; the creased brows and startled expressions of the others made it clear that everyone was equally confused. Whatever the turmoil they were feeling, they kept it to themselves. No one said a word. Saa fell into a sort of orderly scrum with the men corralling and motioning her forward with their guns, each weapon held high and pointed straight at the girls.

Saa and Blessing moved in unison, along with the hundreds of others, snaking along in the dark through the open compound gate, past the small guard post usually occupied by Mr. Jida, which now sat empty. Yelling came from nearby Chibok town. Saa could smell burning, then heard the sound of gunshots and people running. It was bedlam.

Just beyond the compound walls sat a crowd of bushes. As she and the men moved out into the open, Saa felt their thorns spring forward, eager to pull at her clothing and scratch and pierce her body. Careful not to yell out in pain, she tried to keep her clothes beyond the reach of the grasping thicket with no time to pause and examine what might be broken skin.

Saa retreated into herself and turned to the faith that had anchored her entire life. Lord, am I going to die tonight, or will I survive? Desperate to live, unspoken prayers filled her mind and she pleaded, repeatedly, God save me.

She was still praying as they walked down the dirt path away from the flaming school. The shabby-looking men with their wild eyes gave no explanation or directions. They simply motioned with their heads and the sweep of their rifles, making it clear to keep moving. As the reality began to sink in, Saa felt her chest tightening. Her heart was going to beat its way out of her body. But she couldn't allow herself to cry or make any sound. Any kind of display would make her a target, and who knew what these men might do?

The insurgents walked alongside, behind, and in front of her; they were everywhere. Every time Saa looked around, their menacing forms filled her view. Initially, all the girls were steered away from the main road and onto a rambling path overgrown with bushes; the detour was likely made in an attempt to avoid detection.

Parents lining up for reunion with daughters (c) Adam Dobby


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This excerpt was published with permission from the author. 'Beneath the Tamarind Tree' is available now.

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Adamawa State Governor Bindow and the 21 freed girls (c) Adam Dobby

Isha Sesay’s Bold New Book Forces Us to Remember the Chibok Girls, Even If Social Media Has Forgotten

In 'Beneath the Tamarind Tree' the Sierra-Leonean author offers "the first definitive account" of what took place on the ground following the girls' abduction.

Five years ago, 276 schoolgirls were abducted from their school in northern Nigeria by a group of Boko Haram militants. A global outcry ensued with social media and the international press proclaiming their devotion to the missing girls. #BringBackOurGirls became the digital rallying cry for the movement. Even the most famous of public figures—the likes of then First Lady Michelle Obama—stood behind it. This level of attention was unique, and frankly rare for a tragedy occurring in Africa, and it seemed that the help of the entire world was exactly what was needed to topple the threat of growing extremism in Northern Nigeria, and bring the girls home safely.

Then, the world moved on—with the exception of a few. Sierra Leonean-born journalist Isha Sesay, the host of CNN Africa at the time, was one of the foremost voices covering the events taking place in Chibok, following and reporting on every painstaking detail about the girls and their possible whereabouts, even earning the network a Peabody Award in 2014 for her coverage. Her commitment to their story didn't wane—even when it was clear that the news cycle had moved on. For Sesay, the threat of erasure was further motivation to continue following the girls' story. As new developments occurred, beginning in 2016, Sesay hit the ground. She traveled to Chibok and followed those who'd been freed, while continuing to advocate for the immediate release of the 112 girls who are still missing.

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Photo by Maxine l. Moore

Bassey Ikpi’s Literary Debut on Her Mental Health Journey Is a Call for People To See Themselves, and Others, With Genuine Empathy

We speak with the Nigerian-American writer and ex-poet about her book that challenges us to rethink mental health challenges.

Bassey Ikpi is the Nigerian-American writer whose debut book of essays is the epitome of vulnerability and honesty around the mental health conversation.

In I'm Telling The Truth, But I'm Lying, which has already landed a spot on The New York Times' Best Sellers list, we follow Ikpi as she takes readers on an exploration of her life from her formative years in Nigeria, moving to Oklahoma as a pre-teen, being a black woman, a poet, a mother and her multitude of identities through the lens of one living with the eventual diagnosis of bipolar II and anxiety.

Her name may ring a bell for those familiar with HBO's Def Poetry Jam—Ikpi made her mark with several appearances on the show and her way with prose and words still hold true with this book of essays. Pulling the reader into a gentle tide of her consciousness, truths and lies, Ikpi shakes our preconceived notions of how the mind works and what "normal" even means.

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OkayAfrica's 100 Women
Image courtesy of Upile Chisala.

100 Women: Upile Chisala Is the Malawian Writer Offering Black Women Solace Through Poetry

For the first feature in our OkayAfrica 100 Women series, we speak with Malawian poet Upile Chisala about the healing power of her words and her commitment to championing African women's narratives.

"African women own the best stories," the 23 year-old Malawian poet Upile Chisala tells me, when asked why she intentionally and uncompromisingly writes for other black women.

There's absolutely no argument to be had there. Especially when you read either of her self-published works Soft Magic and Nectar—or that of the countless African woman writers before her who've documented our existences with care.

The words of Chisala's most recent offering, Nectar are comforting in a way that I'm certain only another young, black woman writer's words could be—like, "darling, don't fold too much for people. It could break you." Upon reading them, I felt pity, sadness even, for those who may never be able to connect with a piece of literature on a level as visceral as what I experienced with Nectar.

For African women, storytelling is a lifeline, a treasured source of guidance, knowledge, healing and sisterhood that arises from the uninhibited expression of our shared experiences. It's in women like Chisala, who possess this audacious command over our stories, that one can readily recognize her own power, her own "soft magic." Her voice encourages internal confrontation to take place. And there, grappling with the pain, love, anxiety, optimism, anger, elation and generational trauma that has struck many of our lives, an unexpected strength is discovered. Upile braves all of these subjects for her readers, with pithy yet compassionate reassurances that serve as remedies each time they're revisited.

In conversation with the poet, she shares her journey to becoming a writer, the ways in which her Malawian upbringing shaped her storytelling, how she is learning to accept the gravity of her words, and why, she too, is in love with the writings of African women.

Image courtesy of Upile Chisala.

Is there a specific event that occurred in your life that led you to start writing poetry?

When I was younger I struggled with the fact that I'd only ever be able to experience life as this one character, Upile. To satiate this need to live life as someone else I gave all my dolls these elaborate life stories.

Eventually, I started writing these stories down and forcing everyone around me to read them. I remember my father pointing out that he'd never read a story about me and that he'd really like to. That became my struggle—writing about myself or people who looked like me. When I moved from Malawi to New Mexico for college at 17, I quickly grew tired of all the ignorant questions and assumptions [about me]. So, I decided I'd finally take on the challenge of telling my story my way. There, I found poetry and prose, and these two loves have carried my story since.

Why is it so important for you to write poems specifically for black women?

The lessons in self-hate that target black girls are ongoing, overwhelming, overt and subtle. I always want my writing to be a place where black girls and black womxn feel safe and celebrated.

When I decided to start unpacking all the self-hate I'd been handed throughout my life it was writing by black womxn where I found refuge and love. Black womxn have always lifted me. Writing about them and for them is important to me because it's my little way of lifting them as well.

Your poems are like therapy. I hear the word "healing" used a lot when describing your work. Do you think of them in that way when you're creating them?

It's never not surprising to me when someone says my work helped them. I have always thought of my writing as healing—for myself that is. I am trying to shake this habit of underestimating my impact. In the meantime, though, every message I receive appreciating my work gives me this joy and that never gets less exciting. I don't know how many times I've opened my inbox and wept. People share so much of their lives with me and I'm humbled by it and softer because of it.

Image courtesy of Upile Chisala.

Are there any particular authors whose works have had this same therapeutic effect on you?

I read Ntozake Shange's work and weep, every time. Yrsa-Daley-Ward's work makes me ugly-cry and I always come out the other side of her book Bone feeling new. I deeply love Sandra Cisneros, Q. Gibson, Mary Oliver, Koleka Putuma, and Sharon Olds. There are so many more names and so few names for the gifts their writing has given me.

Where do you find the inspiration to constantly mold and shape words into poems that hold so much meaning?

Sometimes I go months without writing. I struggle with being intentional about my craft and sticking to a routine. It's not a kind thing to do to myself. Writing has always been therapeutic for me so if I am not writing I am bottling things up until eventually I sit down at my computer and pour. What I write is what I find from just living in this black body and all the intersections of my existence. While writing Soft Magic I was going through a period of self-discovery and so the poems came as they came. And as I wrote Nectar I was looking backwards at my upbringing in Malawi and making meaning of its impact on my present. Inspiration is all around us, I just have to work on being more disciplined about making use of it.

It's clear that you also have a real appreciation for visual aesthetics. I love going through your Instagram account and taking in the color and looks. Where do writing, visual art and style intersect for you?

A short while ago I started calling myself a storyteller rather than a writer or a poet because I think it's more fitting. Photos can carry so many stories at once and mean different things to different people. Every time I am involved in creating an image I hope to honor the girls who look like me—the darker skinned, the curly haired, the fuller lipped, the thicker "thighed" and wider "hipped." For me, it's bigger than just putting on a fancy dress and smiling wide for the camera. It's about seeing myself as beautiful and celebrated and creating images that I wish I'd seen as a child. In this way, through photography I tell a story and my dream is that the right people don't just see me in those pictures but they see themselves.

Image courtesy of Upile Chisala.

What role does sisterhood play in your life and work?

I have so many sisters beyond my three immediate ones. Womxn are the lights of my life. I depend on womxn both in my life and in my work and have had the privilege of seeing how far-reaching true sisterhood can be. More womxn than men buy my books and invite me to read and endorse my work just because. Womxn keep me sane and keep a roof over my head.

If you absolutely had to pick, which of your poems is your favorite?

Easy.

"There is danger in letting people misname you.

If you are a fire, do not answer when they call you a spark."

(Nectar, page 2)

How does your Malawian heritage impact your work?

I always carry bits of my "Malawianness" into my writing. For many years Malawi was the only home I knew and so when I want to write about familiar things I unpack my memories from growing up in Zomba, to the weekends spent in Blantyre, and to my visits to my village in Likoma. I also find that being Malawian has in the past impacted what I write about negatively. I have this fear of writing about sex or sexuality or mental illness or dysfunction in the family because of that Malawian heritage and the taboo surrounding these themes. But I am working on it. I am working on being comfortable with making people uncomfortable.

What was the process of self-publishing your work?

I used Amazon's Createspace platform to self-publish. All the technical bits were straightforward, it was the writing and editing that hurt. In my mother's apartment in Baltimore, I wrote and edited both books myself, hence all the grammatical errors. I probably would have benefited from the pressure and support of a publishing house but doing it on my own has been an experience I needed. I have had to forego my shyness to sell my work to people wherever I go. I have had to be my biggest fan.

How did you come up with the titles of your books, Soft Magic and Nectar?

The title Soft Magic came to me when I was depressed and looking for little bits of joy. I would ride the train in Baltimore and just watch people perform sweet acts like smiling at each other or holding the door for strangers. 'Soft magic' is those subtle instances of joy that make life and living beautiful. When I was thinking about my journey and how I wanted to use my growth to help others the title Nectar came to me. Nectar is important for bees in the process of making honey and for me nectar refers to that essential part in our journeys to blooming. I stick with the gardening theme throughout the book and my only hope is that it's not cheesy.

Why do you think the art of writing is such a powerful tool for African women?

African womxn own the best stories and we are far from monolithic; writing gives us a chance to share them on our terms. The exclusive nature of the publishing industry and academia and the film industry make it hard for us to be visible but we're here and every day we are kicking down doors and demanding to be counted in. I also think the celebrating should start at home and we don't have to wait on the West for validation.

I am so in love with the writing of African womxn, we all need more of it in our lives.

Image courtesy of Upile Chisala.

Upile breaks down two of her poems for us:

Pray for the creatives whose vulnerability amuses us,

whose pain reminds us of our own,

who had to feel something again and again for our sake.

"Often we romanticize sad poetry and prose. We repost it and leaves comments like "I can relate" or "I feel this". But we forget that a lot of writers write from real experiences and have to capitalize off of their hurt. They make their pain look pretty and we have something to use as a screensaver. I wrote this as a reminder to check up on your creatives."

Darling,

Have you ever not pulled things from the wreckage?

Who left the healing up to you?

The mending?

The restoring?

The making things whole again?

Are you tired?

Do your arms hurt?

Who offers you honey when you need it?

Who lets you rest?

(Nectar, page 9)

"I am convinced that worry has sent so many of the womxn in my family to early graves. This poem was for them. I wish they'd gotten more rest whilst they were living. They were always healing others and taking on burdens even as their backs weakened. I think worry weighs heavily on the body. In my grandmother's last years she used two walking sticks. In her illness she was still worrying about other people. Often women carry the brunt of it, they carry their share and our shares and then some."

Follow Upile Chisala on Instagram and Twitter. You can keep up with her new releases and purchase her previous works via her website. She is currently writing a collection of poems tentatively titled "Homeward," and is the co-founder of a craft making company called Khaya Means Home.

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This article appears as part of OkayAfrica's 100 Women 2018—a project highlighting the impactful work done by African women across the globe. Throughout March, we will be publishing a series of profiles, videos, interviews and feature stories on these inspirational women.

Click here to see the entire list of 2018 honorees.

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