Isha Sesay, Journalist and Author
In the early morning hours of April 14, 2014, a group of heavily armed terrorists stormed a high school dormitory in Northern Nigeria, in the sleeping village of Chibok, kidnapped 276 girls, and then set their school on fire. The terrified girls were forced into waiting vehicles and freight trucks, driven for hours by convoy into the massive Sambisa Forest, and hidden in the informal camps of their captors—the militant Boko Haram, a violent jihadist group—in the shadow of dense vegetation and trees. The girls didn’t come from wealthy families, but because they were girls and attending school, they were considered enemies of Boko Haram (the name in the Hausa language roughly translates to Western education is sin). These were bright students, honoring their parents, who sacrificed everything to invest in the future.
The disappearance sent shockwaves through their families—the girls were from Christian and Muslim homes—and neighboring communities. And yet, the largest mass-abduction in Africa’s recent history was virtually ignored by the national government; some even denied that any kidnapping had taken place. Oby Ezekwesili, a Nigerian presidential candidate and former minister of education, declared the Chibok abduction “a painful wrong,” for which the Nigerian government bore full responsibility; she challenged them to make it right. Civil rights activists banded together, called for international support, and began circulating the hashtag, #BringBackOurGirls. Shortly after, the First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama, posted a picture of herself on Twitter, holding a sheet of paper with #BringBackOurGirls written in simple black ink. Several celebrities in the US followed her lead, and it gained more than four million global shares over the next two weeks.
Enter Isha Sesay, CNN International correspondent, who arrived in the Nigerian capital of Lagos to cover the World Economic Forum (WEF Africa) almost three weeks after the Chibok girls had been kidnapped. Sesay was born in London, educated at the prestigious Trinity College of Cambridge, but spent much of her childhood in the West African country of Sierra Leone, the homeland of her parents. She had been following the Chibok abduction closely, but was in Lagos to cover WEF Africa from multiple angles. As soon as she arrived, Sesay noticed her presence was trending on Twitter—but not because of the economic forum.
“I could hardly keep up with the stream of messages,” Sesay says. “All [of the tweets] were essentially asking me the same questions: What is the government actually doing to find these girls? What really happened that night in Chibok? Why isn’t the government sharing information about its actual efforts to cover the girls?” People wanted answers, but the mainstream media and networks weren’t even asking the questions. Sesay could see, up close, an information blackout—a stream of misinformation given by the Nigerian government for self-protection—and proposed to discover the truth about what was really happening. She called her office in Atlanta, and asked them—a major news network that carefully planned her coverage of the WEF—to shift their focus away from the conference and toward the missing girls and their families. They agreed.
Sesay’s journey of finding the story amid shifting narratives takes place over a period of three years in her book, Beneath the Tamarind Tree (Harper Collins 2019). More than just the story of kidnap and captivity, Sesay’s focus is on the girls—their life before and after the traumatic event and how they continue to survive—and their families, who never lost hope for their return. While Sesay was covering the Chibok story, her own mother—a woman who fuels the passion behind the author—experiences a life-altering stroke, and Sesay examines the mother-daughter bond in even deeper ways. Themes of strength, endurance, faith, and connection are powerful throughout.
I met with Isha Sesay in a conference room at Antioch in June, after she presented an aptly named seminar: “The Story Keeps Changing: Writing a Narrative Amid Shifting News.” Sesay was relaxed and real, confessing how she’s always felt drawn to stories like this: “I am one of these people that is deeply troubled, sparked, [and] moved by inequity.” She spoke with genuine affection for the group she refers to as “her girls,” twenty-one girls from the Chibok school with whom she forged a close relationship. Sesay is passionate when she talks, erupting in bright laughter, speaking with firm conviction, and expressing compassion for the girls, and the inequity they’ve had to endure.
Janet Rodriguez: In the seminar, you said you wrote this book to make these girls real to the world and “examine their quiet lives.” Why was this your focus?
Isha Sesay: Because I think they had been done a disservice by being cardboard cut-outs until then. I say this all the time: The children in Africa are no different from children everywhere else; they have the same hopes and dreams, but what they lack is opportunity. I wanted to show our similarities. I wanted to show that we’re the same—the loss is the same. I’m acutely aware that people think to themselves, “Well, they were so poor anyway, they’re not missing anything. These girls, what were they going to achieve anyway? It’s not like they were going to achieve anything.” I know there’s that lingering sentiment in some quarters. I also know that there are sections of Nigeria that do not believe that any girls were taken. There are those deniers.
JR: There’s this whole issue with the government and shades of corruption, and there are still 112 girls missing?
IS: Still unaccounted for, yes. The correct term we use is to say these girls are unaccounted for. We know some of them have died. Boko Haram claimed that some have died in airstrikes, some died from snake bites, some died in childbirth. But my twenty-one girls said that nobody died while they were there.
“Because I think they had been done a disservice by being cardboard cut-outs until then. I say this all the time: The children in Africa are no different from children everywhere else; they have the same hopes and dreams, but what they lack is opportunity.”
JR: You said, “It’s murky,” when it comes to the girls’ recovery from captivity. Will we ever know why it took so long to recover the girls? Why some are still unaccounted for?
IS: No one will ever tell you the truth. Some of the people I interviewed for the book at the beginning have been exposed for taking money and then running off with that money. Who’s going to tell you the truth about that? When people are being implicated for embezzlement of ransom money for the girls? Who’s going to tell the truth? Who can you trust? My desire is to bring the girls’ personal [stories] to the light.
JR: You say that these girls were seen by the world as “a collective black mass” or “that group of Nigerian girls who were kidnapped by terrorists.” How do you hope to change that?
IS: I want to show the girls and their beauty and their everyday lives. I want people to understand the wrench and the hole in their parents’ lives. It’s not like these people had twelve children and then one went missing and they said, “Okay. Oh well, I’ve got another eleven.” These children were their everything. I won’t claim this quote because I didn’t come up with it, but Aisha Yesufu from [the non-profit organization] Bring Back Our Girls said to me on the phone a couple of days ago, “These parents don’t have stocks and bonds, they don’t have accounts. These girls are their investment, and by sending them to school they were going to be educated and be able to come back to their families and help them. They were the family’s investment.” This is very true, and people need to understand the hole they have left in their lives. People just think it’s a bunch of girls.
JR: This is sad, but true. I love how you tell the unique stories of these girls, but you say that Priscilla is the heart of the book. Why?
IS: Well, it’s partly because Priscilla takes us into a dimension of the story that is previously unknown. Even though, from Saa and Mary, we get details we never had before about the night and how it unfolded…. We knew that [Boko Haram] came into the school, but I don’t think we ever really understood how many men there were and how they surrounded the school. The girls didn’t understand how inundated they were until they said, “Let’s go,” and they suddenly realized they were under siege.
JR: Do you think it’s key to understand how different boarding schools are from Africa to the United States?
IS: Yes, in the US, people equate boarding schools with wealth. In Africa, a lot of those schools are in the center of neighboring villages, and kids come from surrounding areas. Here, if you send your child to a boarding school, you have a lot of money. In Africa, that’s not the case. It’s just that so many people are coming from so far away, and there are not many choices for where you are going to send your kids, that the schools become boarding schools. The kids just can’t make that journey every day, so the schools just become residential. So that’s why. My mother went to boarding school. My father went to boarding school. That was just the norm. Neither of them came from wealthy families. In the case of the school at Chibok, there was no electricity, no running water. It had broken windows. They sat four to a table. Some of the girls slept on mattresses on the floor. You know, it’s hard. There are many ramshackle places like this…
JR: So, did they have a security fence to surround the school?
IS: They had a wall surrounding the school and then they had a wall that surrounded the hostel, the dorms. Some of the girls saw the men enter the hostel area, where they slept, but what they didn’t know—they could not have known because the wall was there—was that there were so many men surrounding them. They had no idea. There’s also a widely held notion that Boko Haram attacked the school to take the girls. Which, from my interviewing of the girls, is not what happened.
“There is something incredibly intimate and putting what you see and feel on the page, so I appreciated that aspect of it. I also had to piece a lot of the story together, and you can do that in a book much better than you can on film.”
It was a crime of opportunity. [Boko Haram] got to the school and asked for the boys—they wanted the boys. The school had a student population of mixed genders for a couple of years. This was originally an all-girls school that started taking in boys because of the instability in the area caused by Boko Haram attacking the schools. A lot of schools closed down and when they did, this school started taking in boys. Boko Haram used to attack schools and target the boys, not girls. They’d typically tell the girls, “Go home! Stop going to school and get married!” So, that’s what the girls thought was going to happen.
When the men came in, they asked for the boys and they asked for a brick-making machine. Several of them relayed stories, and in particular Saa, because her English is so good, and she has such a vivid and clear and strong memory of the event. The girls say the men argued about what to do with them. Some of them said, “Let’s kill them.” Some said, “Let’s put them in the classrooms and burn them.” Some said, “Let’s take them.” So, they didn’t come with a plan. These girls listened to the conversation between the men, arguing about what was going to happen with them. Then a commander turned up and said, “What’s going on?” The men said, “We’re trying to figure out if we should to kill them.” And the commander said, “Why would you kill them? We have an empty truck. Let’s just stick them in the truck.” So, you see, it was a crime of opportunity. There was no one there to protect them, so they just took them.
JR: Was there a headmistress normally there? Where was she?
IS: She was in Maiduguri, the northern state capital, where she had a home. She was regularly there, instead of being on the school grounds.
JR: You’ve got to be kidding me….
IS: There were a few teachers there, but this happened after school term. The girls were there to take their final exams. The school was serving as an exam center. So, there were some teachers, but not many, and the moment the men came in, the teachers disappeared. They left them. None of them have come forward since then to identify themselves as having been there that night or to explain what happened.
JR: You explain what happened in your book, Beneath the Tamarind Tree, through the eyes of these girls….
IS: (smiles) Yes.
JR: The title, Beneath the Tamarind Tree, refers to how the girls were hidden under the low-lying branches of tamarind trees in the Sambisa Forest.
IS: In fact, this is why Boko Haram made the Sambisa Forest their HQ because of the tree cover. And Boko Haram know it so well… They know where the caves are, they know where to hide. That’s exactly why they chose it.
JR: How hard would it have been to find the girls? Could they have used a helicopter? Why did it take so long?
IS: Well, that’s the 64,000-dollar question, isn’t it? Some people say that [the Nigerian government] knew where they were. It’s murky. It’s deeply murky. I think if they were hidden underneath that tree, as the girls tell me, of course it would have been hard to spot them. The girls were also kept in camps, you know, with Boko Haram wives and children. They made the girls take off their school uniforms and wear these shrouds, effectively, and so you couldn’t distinguish them from the others. They wore these drab-colored hijabs. So, there were no distinguishing features. But there were a lot of girls, which you would think would have been a tip-off. Somehow, they claimed that [the government] didn’t know where they were. Right now, I think it’s less about them knowing where the girls were and more a case of, Why wouldn’t they do the deal? They had contact with Boko Haram, but the Nigerian government said that they wouldn’t negotiate. Some said they would, but then some said they wouldn’t… and then, some said they would.
JR: You are known for your film reporting and do very well with that medium. Why did you decide this story would be better as a book?
IS: At first, I thought none of these people would ever have spoken on film. I feel like if I had asked them on camera how they feel about what had happened, they would not have been as forthcoming. It would have created a lot of self-awareness. There were moments I wanted, desperately, to have the audience see where the girls come from, who they are, where they lived, to get the texture of their lives, visually.
I am a very visual person who loves film and documentary, so, ideally, I will make a documentary pegged to this book. In fact, I’m speaking to people right now about doing that. I think that film would have given me a different access point in that way, and would reach a wider audience because… it’s film! (laughs)
But there is something incredibly intimate about putting what you see and feel on the page, so I appreciated that aspect of it. I also had to piece a lot of the story together, and you can do that in a book much better than you can on film. With the page, and with me as a narrator, because it is narrative nonfiction, I could help these girls tell their story. I could help fill in the blanks and shade the grey areas. I felt like I had a little more latitude to help bring more of their interior lives to light. So, these are some of the things I considered when I thought about writing a book or doing a documentary. I remember thinking about the doc and calling someone and they didn’t even bother to return my call. I thought, “This is going to be really hard as a doc!” So, I gave up and started the book. (laughs)
“With the page, and with me as a narrator, because it is narrative nonfiction, I could help these girls tell their story. I could help fill in the blanks and shade the grey areas.”
JR: Your book exposes so many things I didn’t know about the kidnapping and negotiations. I think of myself as rather well-informed, and I did live on the African continent for years, but I wasn’t aware of the details surrounding the kidnap. Was this kept from the news?
IS: Yes, some parts of it… But also, the story just died down. Sometimes, when I talk to people about the book, they’ll say, “Yes, that’s so sad about those kidnapped girls, but they’re all back, right? Didn’t they all come back?” It is so weird! Some people say if you run international news, Americans won’t watch it, or that the ratings [for their news station] drop when you run international news. I don’t think that’s necessarily true. I always wonder, is it a chicken-and-egg thing? Do [Americans] not watch because you don’t have it available for them? Or is it not available for them because they don’t watch? Also, I think the Nigerian Government just wants this whole story to die down. They want it to go away. They’re not going to be happy on July 9th [when the book is released]. (laughs)
JR: Isha, thank you so much for coming. Your book is amazing! Thank you for writing this and sharing this whole story with us!
IS: I’m so glad you enjoyed it! It was my pleasure.