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