The story played out at the edge of American consciousness: On April 14, 2014, the radical Islamic terrorist group Boko Haram invaded and torched a Nigerian boarding school in the town of Chibok, took 276 schoolgirls captive, and transported them to the Sambisa Forest.
Fifty-seven escaped immediately following the raid. After more than two years and a worldwide #BringBackOurGirls pressure campaign, the government secured the release, in two groups, of another 103 girls. The survivors are receiving counseling, education and other services in a special program at the American University of Nigeria. An upbeat “60 Minutes” segment in February showed them in brightly colored outfits, pursuing their studies and singing Christian praise songs.
In “Beneath the Tamarind Tree,” the award-winning CNN journalist Isha Sesay offers the most intimate portrait yet of what happened to the Chibok girls between abduction and rescue. She interweaves their story with her own, as an intrepid reporter with roots in neighboring Sierra Leone, determined to publicize the girls’ plight.
One link between the narratives is the conviction that education can transform women’s lives. Another is a belief in the power of religious faith. An amalgam of Islam and Christianity, Sesay’s faith helps ground her in times of crisis. For the Chibok schoolgirls, faith was an aid (though perhaps also an impediment) to survival. Most of the abductees were Christian, and many – far from all – resisted intense pressure to convert to Islam and marry their captors in exchange for better treatment.
Also important to Sesay is the idea of voice: who is able to speak, who is heard. Sesay herself was a child of relative privilege. Her father died unexpectedly at 40, when she was 12. But her mother, an academic, eventually became a government minister, presidential candidate, and vice presidential nominee in her native Sierra Leone. Educated at the University of Cambridge, Sesay is self-confident enough to tout what she calls her “pointed and unflinching questioning” of Nigerian officials.
By contrast, she notes, the Chibok girls – more than 100 of whom remain missing – mostly hailed from poor farm families in a remote region of Nigeria with little political clout. It took a global campaign to spur the government to action in their case, she argues.
The book’s most gripping sections relate the hardships the girls endured. Through the accounts of the rebellious Priscilla and others, Sesay takes us on their journey into the forest, to the giant tamarind tree that served for months as an imperfect shelter from the elements.
Unlike other media reports, “Beneath the Tamarind Tree” doesn’t address the issue of rape and sexual assault – except indirectly, in the mention of forced marriages. But the considerable hardships Sesay does detail include the discomfort of sleeping in the forest, bouts of starvation, painful beatings, the terror of government bombings, and the ever-present fear of being murdered by Boko Haram.
Sesay rounds out her tale with the experiences of a Nigerian Muslim woman, Aisha Yesufu, who devotes herself to the girls’ release, and of a mother, Esther, in terrible mourning for her missing daughter, Dorcas.
After covering the abductions on her show, “CNN NewsCenter with Isha Sesay,” Sesay says that the search for the missing girls “dominated my life.” But she struggled for air time as the US media world was consumed by the 2016 presidential campaign. In October 2016, she reported from the ground on the release of the first 21 girls. Two months later, she made the agonizing decision to leave the bedside of her mother – comatose after a stroke – to cover the girls’ Christmas homecoming.
Sesay’s own odyssey, though somewhat self-congratulatory, is also riveting – a primer on the hazards and challenges of reporting in a country embroiled in insurrection, with a government suspicious of aggressive media coverage.
The writing in “Beneath the Tamarind Tree” occasionally veers toward the melodramatic. But Sesay has done yeoman work in earning the trust of the girls, enabling her to recount their experiences with rare empathy. As international reporting declines and America looks inward, she is at pains to tell us why we do so at our peril.
“I’m not asking you to care about the girls simply out of tenderhearted humanitarianism,” she writes. Boko Haram, now split into two factions, remains dangerous, she says, and Nigeria is an important American trading partner and ally in the fight against terrorism.
“If you view what happened to these girls through the lens of national security, you’ll see inherent in this tale the potential threat to you, your loved ones, and the global strategic interests of the United States,” Sesay writes. Still, for many readers, the heart-wrenching human drama will matter more.
Beneath the Tamarind Tree:
A Story of Courage, Family,
and the Lost Schoolgirls of Boko Haram
By Isha Sesay
Dey Street, 400 pages, $27
Julia M. Klein, a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia, has been a two-time finalist for the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing. Follow her on Twitter @JuliaMKlein.