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.
Her debut book Beneath the Tamarind Tree is described as "the first definitive" account of the girl's experiences under Boko Haram, offering firsthand accounts from the very night that they were taken, to the response from affected families, forced to find ways to cope with the absence of their sisters and daughters. It underlines the strength demanded of the young girls in order to survive; while Sesay's own commentary tackles the unfit response from both international organizations and the Nigerian government in fighting the threat of Boko Haram and protecting the lives of everyday Nigerian citizens. Beneath the Tamarind Tree is a sobering reminder that the crisis isn't over, even if the social media outcry is.
OkayAfrica spoke with the journalist and author ahead of the release of her book. Read on for our conversation.
Cover of 'Beneath the Tamarind Tree'
You've been following the story for so long as a journalist. When did you know that it was the right time to write a book about it?
I've been on this story for a long time and getting to the point of writing the book was the combination of having continuous conversations with people in the Chibok community, and the activists involved in it who were entertaining a growing sense of frustration at the silence and that the world had moved on. This was around the second anniversary in 2016 when they released the proof of life video. I just got to the point where I said to myself, "you can't just let this community and our children be forgotten." I thought maybe doing a TV piece wouldn't allow me the length of breadth of being able to go deep into this, and that a book would be the right way to highlight as many voices and perspectives It was kind of always there bubbling, I kept wanting to do more, and with the constraints of TV, I thought a book was the way to go.
This is the first account of what actually happens to the girls during their years in captivity. What type of responsibilities you felt when telling the girls stories to the world?
A lot of people are committed to this story, and I want to give them full credit. A lot have given snapshots of what happened, but nobody has been able to pull together a full picture. And also, let me say— to quote Chimamanda [Adichie]—"there isn't one story." There were close to 300 girls taken (276 to be exact) and each girl had a different experience. So I don't want to claim that this book captures every girl's experience. It captures the experiences of some: Dorcas, Priscilla, and Maryam. I wanted to make sure somebody could provide a fuller context of what, at least some of them experienced, and by extension give a broader picture of what everyone went through to various degrees.
I say this in the book, I think that [a violation of] trust is committed against black and brown women who are easily overlooked and forgotten. People move past them. This is about righting that wrong and really providing a full context of what these girls endured, what they overcame. I didn't want to get upset with the way people are so keen to portray Africa and Africans at their very worst instead of with dignity. I wanted to present, a full complex picture. I didn't want to luxuriate in that kind of awfulness. The awfulness, yes it happened and I wanted to tell that story, but for me it was also just as important to show how much they progressed. Those are the things that were on my mind as I wrote the story: to write with a sense of love for them. And try and help people understand that these girls matter.
Image courtesy of Isha Sesay.
This is the type of story that some might be hesitant or even scared to pursue. Did you experience any of this hesitation when you were first starting off, and if so how did you eventually get past that?
I will be honest there was. I think some of it was fear, it was fear that maybe I wouldn't have the discipline to sit down and get it all done while working with CNN and running a charity. Then there were concerns about the actual story, getting the information, and being able to connect with the girls and find them first and foremost. But I built enough relationships with the Chibok community and activists, as well as those committed to the story, that I felt pretty confident that I would be able to find some of these girls and young women—as they are now to be accurate—and get them to share their stories.
Was I scared of the Nigerian government, which is the most obvious source of tension? I wasn't scared, I wasn't nervous.
I mean, it comes with the territory when you're writing things that people don't want told. I was prepared for possible tension which has manifested, but I think more than anything, I felt compelled to write this book. It felt like a calling, like I was meant to write it. I sold the book in 2016, the day I was going to begin writing, was the day my mom had a stroke. I ended up taking so many months off to be in Nigeria, came back to L.A. and was really overwhelmed by the clock ticking for my deadline to submit the book. People kept telling me to put this on hold. [They were like] why don't you not do this? Why don't you just, just let it go? But I couldn't. It was the hardest thing I've ever done: finishing this book while having a sick parent and juggling a job and everything else. But, that's why I say that I feel like it's a little beyond me. It was just a calling—I had to write this.
What was the most eye-opening experience that you had during that time?
It was just to see various points and the effect it had on them. I met them like three days after they were released in 2016. What I was shocked about then, was just how shell shocked they looked, and how thin they were. I was very upset by that, just because even without knowing the details of what they'd been through, they physically bore the marks of their captivity. I was upset and I felt bad about us being present as the media and with cameras and everything.
What shocked me when I saw them in December when I went to start the journey with them was just how [it seemed] that they had been reborn, almost. They were just joyful and they had put on weight, and when I showed up they hugged me. The love and the openness—in that moment you knew their strengths, and their beauty was just overwhelming.
It was just a short period of time to see that change, and every time I see them I'm just, again, struck by their bonds to each other. One of the things that really struck me when we were traveling is that the baby Amos (I write about him in the book) you couldn't really tell who his mother was because all of them cared for the baby. So the baby's just being passed around. They've got such a deep bond. When you see them together they've got the same love with them—they really renew one's faith in humanity if you will.
Isha in Mararaba Mubi recording for CNN report (c) Adam Dobby
What do you want readers to learn about the girls?
That they're survivors, that they overcame. That they are strong and beautiful and are not broken. I think that so often the narrative around African women is one of brokenness, without a full sense of our hopefulness for the future or a sense of our own power and strength. I want people to see that in these young women. I also don't want to minimize or diminish there's still issues of PTSD to overcome and there is still trauma that they're working through. I also want them to know that [the girls] are whole and their sense of self is intact and they look forward to the future.
And I think it's a lesson to all of us about being able to overcome We're stronger than we know. Sometimes we're stronger than we even want to have to be. These girls are testament to that. Testaments to our strength, grace, and hopefulness about the future, because these girls will go on to be change makers. They are inspiring people, and I hope they are remembered as such.
In 2019 what is the responsibility of the international community, and the Nigerian government, in helping further rehabilitate the girls and ensure that something like this doesn't happen again?
Though, the international community seems privately comfortable and capable of overlooking sovereignty—the Nigerian government is obviously a sovereign nation and it will accept the help that it chooses to accept. I hope that the international community would continue to put pressure on the Nigerian government to accept help. If this is really a case of intelligence, then they need intelligence assets, to support the efforts to find these girls, if it's the case that they need more help in terms of negotiators, that can all be acquired by working together as an international collation. The release of the first 21 girls, and then the 82 after that was done with the support of the swift.
I think there's a lot of partnerships that need to be strengthened to ensure that kids can continue to go to school, and in particular women and girls. I always say that it's very hard for you to be a parent in places like North Eastern Nigeria and send your girls to school, especially in areas where religious or cultural norms create a sort of resistance to educating girls. It's hard to say "overcome that, send your girls to school" when these girls are still missing. It's a hollow, hollow cry. You're [telling people] to send their girls to school, that they'll be safe, but there's still 112 left that haven't come back, that we just ignored.
The Nigerian government to do the work to create safe spaces—and it's not just Nigeria—where women and girls, and young men, can continue to pursue an education, because without education, these places are not going to move forward.