Book Review: BENEATH THE TAMARIND TREE, an account of 276 kidnapped girls

Sesay, Isha - Beneath the Tamarind Tree
Beneath the Tamarind Tree:
A Story of Courage, Family, and the Lost Schoolgirls of Boko Haram
Isha Sesay

On April 14, 2014, terrorists from the Islamic group Boko Haram invaded the small town of Chibok in northeastern Nigeria. There, they found 276 girls in the dorms at the Government Girls Secondary School who were inadequately guarded. Boko Haram spoke out against Western education, education for girls, and democracy, and the Chibok school wasn’t the first they’d targeted, but the poor students there were determined to climb out of the poverty of the region not just for themselves but for their families. Their very dreams made them enemies of the Islamic group.

During a multi-day trek, the militants led the girls, some on foot some on vehicles, through the Sambisa Forest. Some of the girls were able to escape by jumping out of the transport trucks while others bravely fled when they were supposed to be taking bathroom breaks. The rest were taken to a camp and left under a tamarind tree which would be their home for months.

Back in Chibok, families were beside themselves with grief, but didn’t have the resources or political savvy to pressure the government to engage in a search for the missing girls. Instead, president Goodluck Jonathan claimed the kidnapping was a hoax designed to damage his reelection campaign.

Ibrahim Abdullahi, a corporate lawyer, first used the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls, and Obiageli Ezekwesili, a former vice president of the World Bank for the Africa region, was the first to publicly proclaim the four words. The theme became popular on social media, and, for a time, national and international media were focused on the story. Isha Sesay, a CNN anchor and native of Sierra Leone was one of the first journalists to cover the event, and even when other journalists and networks lost interest in the girls, her attention never waned. She was on site when the first group of thirty-one girls was released (two years after their abduction), and she developed relationships with them as well as with the families of the missing girls.

In Beneath the Tamarind Tree, Sesay’s narrative centers on four of the kidnapped students, and she provides harrowing details from the confusion of the first moments Boko Haram stormed the compound to the fear of beatings and hunger, the bonds of friendship, and the solace of faith. She also recounts the Nigerian government’s sobering inaction, with President Jonathan and later administrations using the kidnapping as a political tool rather than trying to rescue the girls. Sesay also interjects her own experiences as a journalist covering the story and the pressures she was experiencing in her own life and from the network that made covering the story challenging.

I had some technical quibbles with the book: I thought there was some unnecessary repetition and I was less interested in Sesay’s personal narrative than that of the girls’, but I think this is an important account to read. We should be witness to what these girls experienced and how they have been shamefully used as pawns in a war between the Boko Haram and legitimate governments. Their story also underscores the importance of educating girls and giving them opportunities to thrive outside of communities where they have only a single option for their future. Even more critical is the fact that 112 girls are still unaccounted for. It’s unlikely that a group of 112 wealthy or Western girls would have been abandoned as these have seemingly been.

Thanks to NetGalley and HarperCollins for providing an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.

Book Review: MINUTES OF GLORY, a superlative short story collection set in Kenya

Thiong'o - Minutes of GloryMinutes of Glory
And Other Stories
Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o

Minutes of Glory and Other Stories represents a superlative collection of work by noted Kenyan author by Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o. The stories here represents divisions among communities that infect individuals and reduce them to their best–or worst–selves.

Some of these divisions affecting identity might occur in any group: power (vs. no power), infertility (vs. parenthood), wealth (vs. poverty). However, colonization introduced new fractures into society: educated (vs. uneducated), Christian (vs. “pagan”), cities (vs. villages), collaborators (vs. freedom fighters)–and seemed to heighten the existing dichotomies. Also running through the stories is the impact of the Mau Mau Emergency, a nationalist movement that advocated violent resistance to British rule.

Unlike many short story collections which can be uneven in quality, the stories in Minutes of Glory are equally powerful and unforgettable. The collection includes stories that have been published previously plus two that have never been published before in English. The stories are varied, some told in first person, most in third. Some are told from the perspective of women, and others from male narrators. Two even take British colonists’ points of view.

While plenty, even most of the stories, chart a route for acceptance and peace for the characters, I have to say my favorite are those where the external divisions create so much internal pressure that the characters succumb to their most monstrous impulses.

At times, particularly in the first two stories, I wasn’t sure that Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o, writing from the perspective of women, had fully captured a female voice, but it’s also possible that as a Westerner, I am not fully privy to the voice of a Kenyan woman.

Perhaps my biggest quibble–and it’s not that big really–is that several times the author repeats the same word in a single sentence or series of sentences in proximity. For example, one sentence used “sacred” three times. That could be an artifact of translation. Also, because I read an early copy, it’s possible that will corrected in the final version.

I had not known who Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o was, and the book caught my eye because of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s praise. I’m so glad that I read it. Minutes of Glory richly depicts a range of Kenyan society showing the impact of colonialism on the country. Arresting and thought-provoking, anyone who appreciates African literature should read this collection.

Thanks to NetGalley and The New Press for an advance reading copy in exchange for an honest review.