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Titles similar to Beneath the Tamarind Tree
For nearly a decade, award-winning CNN anchor and correspondent Sesay covered hard-hitting stories from all around the world, but none affected her as deeply and as personally as the 2014 abduction in Nigeria of 276 schoolgirls by Boko Haram militants. Sesay’s sustained and many-faceted inquiry has resulted in her first book and the first comprehensive chronicle of this brazen crime against educated girls.
Born in England, Sesay spent much of her childhood in her parents’ homeland, Sierra Leone, where her mother, like the kidnapped schoolgirls, was poor and at risk in a misogynistic society that discouraged girls from attending school. A “fierce feminist,” Sesay’s mother earned a PhD and achieved many firsts as a woman in academia and politics while supporting three children, one severely disabled, after her husband’s death when Sesay was 12. In reflecting on how Boko Haram’s assault against the girls was meant “to silence them,” Sesay writes, “To deny females a voice is to take away their ability to challenge the very practices and norms that subjugate and harm them.” Furthermore: “the only reason I’m able to take this stance and speak up is due to the fact I’ve been empowered by education, and that I was born to an educated mother.”
Sesay’s intensely focused reporting helped turn the kidnapping and disappearance of the schoolgirls into an international cause célèbre, involving such high-profile figures as First Lady Michelle Obama in the #BringBackOurGirls campaign. But with no new developments in the case, Sesay found herself almost alone in her determined pursuit of the truth, her persistent inquiries into the inadequate response of the Nigerian government provoking enemies serious enough to necessitate the presence of a bodyguard. Finally, her zeal and fortitude led to her meeting the 21 traumatized girls who were unexpectedly released in October 2016. She subsequently accompanied them on their dangerous journey home and developed a unique rapport with four of the courageous survivors and their families.
In enthralling and unnerving passages that vary from an incisive history of Boko Haram to scenes that could be torn from a demented terrorist thriller to moments of heart-wrenching emotion, Sesay fully recounts each stage of the ordeal. She vividly describes the “parched earth” Chibok region in northern Nigeria, where struggling Christian farming families, a vulnerable minority in a Muslim region, sent their ambitious and disciplined daughters to the only boarding school available to them, a rudimentary place without electricity, running water, or security. There Priscilla, Mary, Saa, and Dorcas, each committed to their faith, families, studies, and career aspirations, were diligently preparing for exams when the terrorists materialized in the dead of night and destroyed their world.
Sesay conducted “hundreds of hours of conversations” to understand what happened in the chaos of the ambush and during the girls’ long, brutal, often bizarre captivity. At one point, the Boko Haram took the terrified yet resourceful and increasingly resolute girls deep into the forest where they confined them beneath a “colossal” tamarind tree, a living prison. The men abused, starved, threatened, beat, and harangued the girls, trying to force the Christian students to convert to Islam and marry militants. The young women banded together and resisted with prayers, valor, wit, and extraordinary strength.
Peabody Award–winning Sesay’s narrative is not only dramatically informative, it is also brilliantly structured, commandingly eloquent, and profoundly empathic. Her resounding and awed account of the girls’ personalities, convictions, hopes, and achievements will stand with books by the Nobel laureates and women’s-rights heroes Malala Yousafzai (I Am Malala, 2013) and Wangari Maathai (Unbowed, 2006), as well as with Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003), Alexis Okeowo’s A Moonless, Starless Sky (2017), and Sally A. Nuamah’s How Girls Achieve (2019). Sesay’s galvanizing Beneath the Tamarind Tree will recharge the global battle for women’s equality.
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