“Almost as soon as this story was everywhere, it was nowhere — but it just stayed with me,” Isha Sesay, journalist and author, tells What We Seee. In her new book, Beneath the Tamarind Tree, Sesay is telling the story of the Chibok girls, the 219 schoolgirls kidnapped by Boko Haram. The story made headlines in 2014 but, five years on, 112 girls are still missing — and the world has forgotten.
“That’s where we are in terms of consuming news right now, which, in the U.S., is so focused on Trump,” Sesay explains. “CNN did such a good job when the story broke and I’m incredibly proud of the work we did to shine a light and draw attention when the girls were first taken. But the way that we’re consuming news now, we have these fractured attention spans. There are still over 100 sets of parents left without their children — these parents are shattered. With this book, I needed one place to bring it all together. I needed a place to really shed light onto a lot that isn’t known about how this played out, about what actually happened when the girls went missing, and about what’s still happening. ”
Sesay is uniquely placed to tell this story. At the time, she traveled to Nigeria when the news broke and, more than any other journalist, was on the front line and formed a relationship with the girls who were released. Sesay led the CNN team that won a 2014 Peabody Award for the coverage of this story and she received a Gracie Award for Outstanding Anchor for her personal work.
Now, she’s telling the story in unprecedented depth, from the failings of the Nigerian government to the individual stories of the girls, and, crucially, why this story has been forgotten on the global stage.
We Didn’t Do Right By Them
“The Chibok girls” are who made headlines. A group — an entity, homogenous and anonymous. And while they were a group, while there were hundreds of girls kidnapped, Sesay has picked up on the inadequacy of how these girls were portrayed in the media. She points to this as part of the reason our attention spans were so short, that our connection to them was so fleeting.
“We still have them as outlines of characters — outlines of girls,” she explains. “There were a lot of children taken, you can’t tell the story of everyone — I understand that. But we should be able to understand the lives they had, the dreams they had. We need to humanize them and show that they’re not that different from girls in any other part of the world. They had loving families, favourite toys, brothers and sisters, visions for their future. We didn’t do right by them in that sense. If we don’t humanize them it’s hard for people to value them.”
To these end, Sesay dives deep into some of the girls’ individual stories — namely Priscilla, Saa, and Dorcas. It’s the first time that a fleshed-out portrayal — a human portrayal — of these girls has been brought into the mainstream. These details, this humanity, is not just imperative in terms of storytelling, but it also speaks to a larger problem of how Africa, African news, and African people are covered in the west.
The Normalizing Of Trauma
Sesay is not just telling these incredible stories in Beneath the Tamarind Tree — she’s asking the difficult questions. “What is it that makes America, in particular, look away?” she asks. “What makes Americans look away when significant events occur in Africa — why do we only give them the briefest attention?”
Nowhere is the issue more clear than with the Chibok girls. On April 14, 2014, 276 girls were swept up by Boko Haram. While 57 were able to escape, 219 were taken.
The response from the world was huge. One moment, the hashtag #BringBackOurGirls had taken over the internet — the next moment, the girls were forgotten. The number of people who know that not all of the girls have returned home — that over 112 are still missing — is startlingly low. But why?
“Part of it is an otherness issue,” Sesay explains. “An unconscious normalizing of trauma and trafficking. People just look at it as another bad thing that happened in Africa. They just park it away as that continent where bad things happen.”
With the Western ignorance of the culture, the achievements, the full and rich lives being lived in Africa, it’s easy to minimize — or even forget — the trauma that’s reported. When you only hear about the destitution or the tragedy of an area, it’s hard for any individual tragedy to stick out against that background. Our myopic, reductive, and often offensive view of what happens in Africa keeps us from appreciating the true cost of a story like this.
“There wasn’t a full enough sense of what was lost,” Sesay says. ”In terms of what these girls’ aspirations were, the ambitions that they had — there’s a sense that they were just going to get married anyway, that it didn’t make that much of a difference. Readers might not be conscious of thinking it, they might not be saying it, but it’s there.”
Not only is it there, but this unconscious bias also curtails our humanity. We don’t read into the details — we don’t appreciate that these were girls in their final year of high school. We don’t learn that the majority of the girls who have been released or escaped have returned to the classroom, despite what they’ve been through, and have hopes of getting to university.
“I don’t know if it’s underestimating Africans, if it’s underestimating girls,” Sesay says. “But this resilience, this ambition has all been lost.”
Hold Up A Mirror
This is why Beneath the Tamarind Tree is so important — because its impact is significant on both a micro and macro level. On the one hand, it speaks about the Chibok girls with more depth and candour than anyone else has before. On the other, it speaks to this larger issue of media coverage and how we interact with it.
Because while the media is being chocked by coverage of Trump, obsessions with Brexit, and more — we also let ourselves be lulled by the white noise. “I spoke to someone yesterday about the book, someone very informed who works in the news business, and his response was, ‘Oh yeah, what happened to them?’ Always — it’s always, ‘What happened to them? Aren’t they all back?’ They always think they’re all back.”
Her frustration is clear — and it’s shared by millions in the west who are infuriated by the media coverage of a few topics to the exclusion of all else.
“We should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time — we should be able to look beyond our own borders,” Sesay says. “As the media, we should be able to do that. Maybe the layman can’t dig out all of these stories — but as the media, it’s our job to give it to them so they don’t have to go digging. Instead, we’re focusing on low hanging fruit, we are focusing on the obvious. We know the playbook, we know the story, there’s no reason US media shouldn’t be able to break out of its current state to tell stories in Sudan, to tell stories in Nigeria, to tell them and stay with them — especially in stories like this where there are over a hundred girls still missing.”
In this sense, there’s a chance for the book to spark a level of self-interrogation in the west. If we all panicked, felt righteous, and spoke out when 219 girls went missing, why don’t we care that over 100 girls are still missing? This book forces us to come to terms with our own attention spans — whether we’re in the media, journalists, or just informed citizens.
“This story will hopefully, as we talk about it more, hold up a mirror — help us scrutinize ourselves and scrutinize our focus on this administration and I hope that there will be conversations had about the news we consume, the stories we consume, the news agendas being set,” Sesay says.
And, of course, more than anything, she wants to tell their stories — and for readers to hear them.
“These women were victimized, but they were not victims — they were survivors,” she says. “In their captivity, there were so many acts of defiance — they didn’t just roll over, they didn’t just surrender. There were acts of defiance, there were lines drawn, they challenged their captors. Nobody knows that — nobody would even imagine these girls were capable of that. I hope for the everyday reader that this book can broaden their understanding of Africa and African girls and their world. I want to show that African girls have this rich inner world like other children — I hope that they’ll re-assess their vision of Africans and their potential. And I hope that they’ll take this new sense of connectedness forward as they read news about the continent.”