In 13 years of reporting world news for CNN Africa, no story impacted Isha Sesay like the abduction of the Chibok schoolgirls in Nigeria by Boko Haram.
“When the news emerged in April 2014, I was moved by the ways the world galvanized,” says Sesay, a Peabody and Gracie award-winner for her coverage of the kidnapping of the 276 girls and its aftermath, including the global movement #BringBackOurGirls. “And I was moved in equal measure by [the fact that], in what seemed to be the blink of an eye, it was gone.”
While the world averted its gaze, Sesay remained engaged, maintaining contact with the families, community elders, activists, journalists, and officials lobbying for the girls’ release. In 2016, she raced to Nigeria to report the stunning news that 21 had been freed.
“This was the moment I’d been waiting for,” she writes, “a chance to shift attention away from the troubling view of these girls as ciphers for loss, a stolen cache of nameless, faceless black bodies. Now the world would share in the triumph of their return.”
When those girls returned to Chibok for the first time, the following Christmas, Sesay accompanied them on their journey. She would return many times, establishing deep relationships with many of the girls, some of whom agreed to share their story.
“It’s one thing to say you want to write a book about these girls and present their lives, and it’s another thing to find girls who would speak,” Sesay says. “A girl could say no—and they’re young ladies now, but we use the term ‘girl’ because that’s how they’re known in the vernacular—but none of them were told they had to speak to me and answer my questions.”
The challenges of reporting the story included restricted access, language barriers, and the fear of re-traumatizing her subjects.
“It was very very important to me—how do I not re-traumatize them with questions?” Sesay says. “How do I ask for detail without hurting anyone? How do I not ask questions that are prurient and tasteless? Because a lot of media is driven by salaciousness, and people want the gory. I’m not interested in the gory. That’s not what this book is about.”
Sesay focuses on the divergent experiences of four girls: Priscilla, Saa, Mary, and Dorcas. She takes evident care conveying their individuality, spiritually, faith, and desire to become educated and successful women, making them prime targets for Boko Haram, whose name literally means “Western (Non-Islamic) education is a sin.”
“I was once a little black African girl, and my life mattered,” says Sesay, who was born in London, raised in Sierra Leone, and lives in Los Angeles. “My story mattered. And it pained me, the way a valuation was put on their lives as ‘not important’—and this is domestically and internationally. I wanted to right that wrong as best I could.”
Expertly reported, boldly and lovingly told, Beneath the Tamarind Tree: A Story of Courage, Family, and the Lost Schoolgirls of Boko Haram (July 9), adds depth and breadth to a story worthy of our sustained attention.
“I hope it inspires readers to see black and brown girls, girls of color, in a new way—to see them in their fullness,” Sesay says. “I hope it inspires them to pay more attention to what happens beyond U.S. borders. And I hope that it inspires them to lending their voice to a call to the Nigerian government to do everything possible to account for the 112 who are still missing.”
Megan Labrise is the editor at large and cohost of the Fully Booked podcast.