This year on April 14 the world celebrates a grim anniversary. It has been five years since 276 girls were abducted by the terrorist organization Boko Haram from their school in Chibok, Nigeria launching a global outcry to Bring Back Our Girls.
In this exclusive interview, you will hear from Nigerian journalist and novelist, Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani*, who has been researching and writing about the events leading up to Chibok and all that has followed since. She explains the conditions that gave rise to Boko Haram and how the young men were able to justify horrific violence against their own neighbors. Many girls, contrary to the world’s expectations, came to love the husbands they had been forced to marry and resented being rescued. Adaobi explains this reaction and the ways in which the Bring Back Our Girls campaign helped but also made things worse for the Chibok girls.
As we reflect on this tragedy, Adaobi allows us to get a deeper understanding of how terrorism takes root, the better able to prevent such tragedies and to develop best responses when they do.
*Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is the recipient of the 2018 Raven Award for Excellence in Arts and Entertainment for her young adult novel about the kidnapped girls, Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree. Read our review of her novel here.
Suzanne Ross: Adaobi, on April 14th, 2014 the world became aware of a group called Boko Haram, they kidnapped 276 schoolgirls from a school in Chibok Nigeria and it galvanizes the world around the course of rescuing these girls. Can you tell us what your reaction was when you first heard this very sort of challenge happening right in your home country?
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani: I remember hearing about the Chibok kidnappings and being shocked, horrified by it, and I will be honest, we’d been hearing about Boko Haram, prior to the Chibok kidnappings just a month before in February, the Chibok kidnapping happened in April 2014. In February 2014, Boko Haram had attacked a school in northeast Nigeria and slaughtered at least 40 boys in their school dormitory. So we had heard these stories, they have been in the media but there was just something particularly shocking about the fact they had taken these over 200 girls from their school dormitory in the night and taken away to the forest. I think with previous stories, we have heard especially about the boys, the boys were dead, that was the end, final. But with the girls, you were thinking, what were they doing to these girls, what was happening to them. It was just so horrible.
Suzanne Ross: So Adaobi, can you tell us what you learned about Boko Haram because you began to do your own investigations and you traveled to Chibok, didn’t you, to learn more about what’s going on. What did you learn about being happening already before this kidnapping of the girls has taken place?
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani: Ok the more I delved into the stories of the Chibok kidnappings the more I found out that thousands of girls have been kidnapped even before Chibok. There were thousands of girls, some of them had been taken a year before the Chibok kidnappings. I remember my first trip to Chibok, I hired a fixer who was taking us around the northeast and his cousin had been kidnapped. She had been kidnapped for over a year; I began to meet people who sisters, mothers, brothers, were kidnapped. And it was just almost every family I met has been someone they knew or someone they were related to who had been kidnapped by Boko Haram. So it just suddenly, I realized it wasn’t just Chibok, there were thousands of girls, literally thousands of girls, who had been kidnapped before the April 14, before the world got to learn about Boko Haram after the Chibok kidnappings.
Suzanne Ross: What were they hoping to accomplish by that?
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani: Nobody knows exactly what Boko Haram wants. Now what I can say, I am not blaming anyone but a lot of times, in this part of the world, the military, the government make mistakes that exacerbates situations and I know that at the beginning when the government and Boko Haram started clashing and the state really attacked them and they fled. Boko Haram members fled into the Sambisa forest this was in the sometime around maybe 2010, 2011, 2012. Many of them abandoned their wives and their children or left behind their wives and their children. And what the state, the government did in Borno state, Maiduguri was to go and bomb, flatten the houses of the militants and arrest their wives and children. In fact, I know of a lawyer in Maiduguri who took it upon himself to take the government to court and say you cannot keep these children in jail, you cannot make them homeless, by bombing, flattening their houses, because that was what the government policy. As far you were a recognized Boko Haram member, they will pulverize your house, demolish it. And your family will have nowhere to stay. So a number of them including Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, his wives and children were arrested by the military and the Boko Haram founder, Mohamed Yusuf, his wife and children were arrested as well. So I know at about that time, Boko Haram leader Abubakar Shekau released a video which he said, “You have taken my wives and children, am coming after your wives and children.” Am not saying that is why, am not going to blame the government on the kidnapping of girls and women, but then, I can’t ignore the fact that he did make that threat.
And subsequently, girls and women were being kidnapped from around northeast Nigeria. Because Boko Haram has been with us for years before the kidnapping started. So there is a sense, I suspect that the incarceration of their wives and children or the harassment of their wives and children gave them this idea to do this. In fact, I interviewed a Boko Haram commander who was arrested by the Nigerian military, he was one of their leaders, and he told me this was the reason. He cited some story in the Koran or Hadith or something and he said the prophet said we should do that. If people attack, women are meant to be protected, however, if this happens, we attack back. He said all that. He gave me that impression that was one of the reasons why they started doing that.
Suzanne Ross: One of the things about violence it does tend to escalate and it gets to a point, where it’s very hard to say who started it because everyone saying: ‘you started it, no you did and …’
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani: I think Martin Luther King said something like that violence breeds more violence and more violence, and more violence. And that’s the way it’s been with Boko Haram.
Suzanne Ross: …with Boko Haram. The turning point in your novel, Adaobi, is that just terrible scene in which Boko Haram comes into a village, that you beautifully described the life in the village and the aspirations of the young girls there, one in particular, your narrator who wants to go to school and get an education. And Boko Haram comes in, killing the man this young girl sees her father murdered in front of her house and she becomes kidnapped. It’s as horrible in fiction, this is a fictionalized account you have written, but it’s quite horrible to read and it’s very hard for us to understand how that kind of violence just doesn’t come out of anywhere. It’s being justified in some way. And I mean how did this… you have interviewed former Boko Haram soldiers and militants and how did they justify that kind of violence, that indiscriminate murder?
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani: Well as is usually the case, they use religion to justify it. A number of them believe it’s a holy war. They want to establish a caliphate in northeast Nigeria, well, all over Nigeria. Well, they say, they want to establish sharia law and Islam to be the government they want to topple the democratically elected government and all that nonsense. But the interesting thing is, I have spoken with the psychologist who worked with these commanders, and I met some of the women members, former members myself and it turns out that the majority of them have no idea about the Koran. So somebody just gathers them together and tells them these things, “Oh, this is what Koran says, this is what you are supposed to do.” So even though it’s supposed to be a holy war, it’s supposed to be something they are doing on behalf, well, in the name of their religion a number of them have no idea what their religion actually stipulates.
So the major component of the de-radicalization process for captured Boko Haram members, Imams, Muslims scholars coming in to teach them that their ways are not, that their ways don’t correspondent with what the Koran actually teaches. So the de-radicalization process actually uses the same Koran that they claim justifies their violence to help them see the error of their ways. And you know the thing is, yes, religion is often a tool in this part of the world when powerful people want to incite the masses, it’s usually religion, ethnicity, that sort of thing. So it’s just yet another tool that because in that parts of the country, that’s a densely populated part of the country, they have the poorest people; the least educated people; the most oppressed people; and the largest population, densely populated part of the country. There are men with 4 wives and 30 children unable to feed these people. Most of them live off their farms; they have no other source of income.
So we have the poorest people, thousands, well, probably millions of them doing nothing. So there is a population of people who are just sitting idly, waiting for somebody to come and pick them up and say do this in the name of Allah or whoever. It could be Boko Haram today, tomorrow it could be some other group, the harvest was ripe for this sort of craziness. They were just sitting there, these young people, thousands of them, when you go to northern Nigeria, you just see people sitting idly doing nothing; idle people all over the place and there are thousands of them. So Boko Haram took advantage of the numbers, the poverty, the ignorance, and that’s what we have in Boko Haram. So they use religion to justify, but when you really delve into it, there is nothing really religious about what they do. And that’s something I tried to point out in my book, that there is very little Islamic about Boko Haram.
Suzanne Ross: Yes, you have 2 characters that are good friends before they are kidnapped and they are Christian girls and they have a friend who is a Muslim girl. And you have beautiful interactions about how well the Christian and Muslim families in the village are getting along. There doesn’t seem to be any problem between the families. Is that what you found when you began investigating that; there really wasn’t a big conflict between the Christian and Muslim families beforehand?
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani: In many communities in northern Nigeria, many communities northeast Nigeria, the Muslims, and the Christians lived peacefully side by side. There was no… I mean yes, we have had religious wars over the years, religious conflicts over the years, but as I said, it’s really some politician inciting people to attack and kill and murder without them knowing exactly what the war is about.
But generally, the Muslims and the Christians have lived together side by side in many communities, even including Chibok. Lived together side by side, and then Boko Haram came in and suddenly it looks as if there has been a war between the Muslims and the Christians, but it hasn’t been like that.
Suzanne Ross: So the appeal for the young men who join up, apparently a lot of the militants were kidnapped as young boys and kind of raised and trained in it, but young men as you are saying did find this very appealing that a caliphate was going to be established. But it’s still hard to wrap our minds around the facts that it was less about religion and more about finding a purpose or finding some sense of respect. Is that what you uncovered, the men were longing for some meaning in their lives?
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani: Yes, as I said, a number of them are idle doing nothing. So the sense of purpose that Boko Haram gave them, they had something to live for at last. They were fighting for a cause, to establish a caliphate. And remember that a number of them are quite ignorant, so they don’t even comprehend how vast Nigeria is.
So their world is so small, and some people come and tell them that they are capturing the entire Nigeria, I mean it sounds so stupid. Anyone who knows how large Nigeria is, how much it will take to conquer the country, I mean, beyond planting bombs in key places and frightening everyone, they cannot. There is no how Boko Haram can overrun, can take over the government of Nigeria. It’s just so impossible. But to those ignorant people, it seems possible, it seems a cause worth fighting for, worth giving their lives. Really as I said, they spend all their days in idleness, a number of them, so it was just a perfect way to get something exciting happening in their lives.
Suzanne Ross: One of the thing that was really quite interesting you brought out in the novel is the reaction of the girls who become wives. They are kidnapped and they are married to the militants as rewards for their service and so forth. And one of the girls really comes to love her husband and the other is in a very violent relationship, actually, with her husband. I kind of want to ask you about, first about the husband who calls himself Osama and he wears a mask. It’s a very interesting character, and I thought that in the way you were trying to explore what incites someone to this kind of life and how do they come to glorify violence because his favorite thing to do is to watch a video of the airplanes crashing into the Twin Towers and then falling down, and cheering when people are beheaded and so forth. And there’s this is glorification of violence and I wondered if you can say a little more about what you think personally about how people get caught up in embracing violence so completely?
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani: You know, speaking about the Osama bin Laden thing, the character, first of all, let me say that I usually say that my novel is journalism masquerading as fiction. I tried as much as possible to only include things I have heard already, things that actually happened. So there was, indeed, a woman who was interviewed by someone else, not me directly, who said, her husband wore a mask the entire time. She doesn’t know what his face looks like that he did wear a mask. And then I have heard women saying that these Boko Haram members, even the Chibok girls said the same thing, delighted in watching videos on their laptops. They all had laptops and gadgets, and they were constantly watching videos, including the videos of the Twin Towers crashing. They just loved watching these videos. You know these kinds of videos, they enjoyed watching them over and over again.
And back to the issue of the 9/11 thing, I remember the time the 9/11 incident happened. The horrors of 9/11. I had a friend who was in northern Nigeria at the time, and, as I said, northern Nigeria is majority Muslim in many ways. And she was in part of Nigeria, she was in a place where people where rejoicing at the… And the same thing happened in Nigeria, when Boko Haram began at first it looked like a holy war, the Muslims were about to flush out… It looked like Muslim versus Christian. And at the beginning, there were actually Muslims who identified with Boko Haram, who supported them, who cheered them on, until it was clear that the violence was senseless. There was no method to it, they were targeting Christians and Muslims. And that was when it suddenly became terrorism, it was no longer a holy war. But at the beginning, there were people you know, regular Nigerians who saw it as a religious thing.
And even our current president, President Mohamed Buhari, his has done a lot, he has done a lot in decimating Boko Haram and weakening their strength, but at the beginning he supported them. In fact, that’s one of the points his opponents used against him because he is a fundamentalist Muslim. When Boko Haram started years ago, he actually spoke out on their behalf, our current president, who is now the one pushing them back. So you know, a number of them identified with the 9/11 thing and saw it as an extension of the jihad and they do have these international terrorists as their heroes.
So that’s what I tried to show in that character and in that aspect of my book that they do identify with these people, they delight in the exploit of the terrorists, people attacking America. And, indeed, there was a time in Nigeria when they were people rejoicing at the 9/11 horrors. And those same people are the people who Boko Haram has gone and destroyed their communities today. And they are all in IDP camps in Borno state. Begging for food and dying of diseases.
Suzanne Ross: Let’s talk about the reactions of the girls, because when we heard about the kidnappings, it seems very easy to be on the side of the girls and to just assume that they all wanted to be rescued. And when I started reading your book, of course, that was my assumption. I went in oh, these poor girls, how are going to save them. And you highlighted something that just never occurred to me that some of these girls might not want to be rescued. Can you explain that phenomenon?
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani: I don’t know if I can explain it, but I can describe it. I know that… I am trying to recall the first time it occurred to me, maybe when I met girls. Anyway, you know, there is something I tried to highlight in my book but if you look at the first part of my book, before Boko Haram strikes, the culture isn’t too different, it’s just a softer version of the Boko Haram. Ok, I put it this way, Boko Haram simply amplified the already existing culture in northeastern Nigeria.
Women in northern Nigeria, girls are given away in marriage without, at the age of 12, 11, given away in marriage. So Boko Haram is doing the same thing that the parents have been doing and keeping the bride prices for themselves. Girls are forced into marriages anyway in northern Nigeria. It happens every day. They have one of the worst statistics in the world in terms of child brides, and this is without Boko Haram’s help. And then, of course, the girls not being allowed to leave home without their father’s permission, all that sorts of things. So they live in a society where the women are caged anyway. The woman has no right over what happens to herself, no say, her life is drab, normally. Her life is as excited as her husband wants it to be, or the men in her life, her father, her brothers. So we now have these girls, kidnapped and taken with Boko Haram to the forest, what’s the difference? Simply that they are in the forest, but it’s the same thin. Men are controlling their lives, they are being married off against their wills. These are things they had to deal with on regular basis anyway. The differences with Boko Haram, these people have slaughtered their fathers, maybe their husbands and their brothers, so they have murdered you, but their actions are not different from what you saw other men in your normal peaceful society do anyway.
So for you, it sounds shocking that such a kidnapped woman goes into the forest and falls in love with such a man, and doesn’t want to be rescued, it’s shocking to you and to me. I mean it’s horrible what’s happening, don’t get me wrong, I am not in any way diminishing the horrors of what they have been through, but in terms of the culture, it’s not too shocking.
So you now meet a man who nice to you, who is kind, as the psychologist points out, psychologists work with these women who have been rescued from Boko Haram and are still in love with their husbands. For a lot of the women, Boko Haram gave them freedom. Boko Haram said you can join our army, you can help us to establish this caliphate. For many of the women, their lives have just been going to the store, washing clothes, having babies, and cooking for the men, but here is a higher purpose. You are joining to establish this grand caliphate in Nigeria to topple the government. Come fall in love with these men.
They are the kind of men they meet on a regular basis, I mean, there is violence in their… I read a report a few months ago, some report done by an international organization, that showed violence in school, the violence in the streets, these is without Boko Haram. They are beaten, they are slapped, and they are raped regularly. So the leap… it was not as difficult a leap as it will be for you or for me, we are educated, we know what’s happening in the rest of the world, for them its that’s the life, that’s the culture. Again, am not saying that the horrors are normal and that they didn’t experience them, but I am just saying, this could be why it was easier for them to… These were just normal men to them.
Suzanne Ross: Tricia, you portrayed a very well in the novel of the young girl who does fall in love with her husband. He is sweet to her, he gives her presents, he has status that he conveys on her in the group. So she feels very important. And yet her friend, your protagonist who is unnamed, her Christian name is never given but she is given an Islamic name which means safety. An unusual choice for her, an ironic choice, but she resists being caught up in the propaganda that this is really what Islam is about. What is it about her that enables her to resist falling under the sway of the belief system of Boko Haram?
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani: My main character was very different from the average girl in northeast Nigeria, in the sense that she was well educated, she was the most intelligent in her school, I made that clear. She read books. She had a picture of a world beyond her village. She talked about wanting to go to Lagos, to other parts of Nigeria, to cities like Lagos. She had a young man she had a crush on, who would tell her stories of other parts of the world and things happening. She listens to the radio, she heard about Hollywood and things going on the strange parts of the world and she aspires to that. Her mind was open. And there was a chapter were she made it clear, she actually spoke it out to herself, and she said clearly her intelligence was hindering her ability to enjoy her new life because she saw everyone else around her blending, just getting used to their new lives, and it was just so difficult for her. She said well, clearly, that’s the disadvantage of knowing too much, being too intelligent, you find yourself in that situation and you are aware of what’s going on, you are aware of exactly what’s happening around you.
So that’s exactly what, I think that’s what… And I see people, even with their parents I interviewed, the Chibok parents, for example, some are more educated than the others. And the most educated ones, they respond differently even to the horrors of what happening to their children. The educated ones are more, there is just a difference. They have a better understanding of exactly what has happened. The horrors are clearly spelt out in their minds. The alterations to their children’s destinies are clear to them. And they make it clear when they are speaking to you, they can plot the graph of what has happened. But the less educated one, just think, “Oh, I just want her to come home. Oh, I hope she is well in the forest.” You know, it doesn’t really dawn on them. It’s difficult to communicate this. They know a horrible has happened, but they don’t know it in the fullness of its horror.
So that’s the difference, my main character was less ignorant than the rest of the girls in her village. And she read books, she read The Pied Piper of Hamlin. She read literature, she read books and then she was expecting a consignment of Nancy Drew Mysteries, the week before she was kidnapped.
Suzanne Ross: Well, the horror was very clear, to the world and the world reacted almost immediately with the Bring Back Our Girls Campaign. It was, in a sense, just an act of desperation. Everyone wanted the help, we lived far away but it was a tragedy that captures the heart and minds of the world and everyone wanted to do something and many people got on board with that campaign. I’m wondering if you can let us know, did it do any good? Was that global response helpful in any way to help bring the girls back?
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani: Well it was helpful, I don’t know if it was helpful for the Chibok girls, but it was helpful because the global campaign, Bring Back Our Girls Campaign, put pressure on the Nigerian government to really go after Boko Haram because of the international pressure, the international attention on Nigeria to do something.
They bombarded the Sambisa forest hideout of Boko Haram and, in the process thousands, and am not exaggerating, thousands of girls, I think the first set of girls, I think about 3,000 or so, thousands were rescued. The Chibok girls, have out of the two hundred and something that was kidnapped, 276 I think, the government has only managed to, only about 106 or 107 have been returned to their families. And when people say nothing has been done by the government to rescue girls kidnapped because all the Chibok girls aren’t back, I say that’s not fair, because thousands of girls, the first batch of girls were about 3,000. The government said the rescued about 30,000 women and girls, I don’t know if it’s exaggerated, but I know it has been helpful to girls. The first batch was 3,000 and then subsequently, almost every month, there was another batch. Huge numbers of girls, as I said, who been missing for more than a year before Chibok.
So the Bring Back Our Girls Campaign was helpful in the sense that, it forced the government, compelled the government to go after Boko Haram to the point that, those girls, the forgotten girls were rescued. But in terms of whether it was helpful for the Chibok girls, I am not too sure, because it made them very valuable. Boko Haram began to see them as bargaining chips. The Chibok girls said that Boko Haram leader, Abubakar Shekau, instructed his commanders if they were fleeing, they had to take the girls. He said instead, abandon your wives and children, but you must take the girls with you. So they were constantly with the leaders and it became more difficult to find them. Without the international outcry, it would have been girls kidnapped and they will be with the rest of the girls, but they were constantly being hidden, taken deeper and deeper into the forest. Wherever the Boko Haram leaders were, the girls will be there.
But again, there were advantages because of the media attention on the kidnapping, they were treated differently from the typical. The girls say things like, they weren’t forced into marriage. Well, when you say, forced, in the sense, they weren’t dragged and given to men. But those of them who wanted to marry, who agreed to married where given a choice. Two of the Chibok girls told me that. Two of the Chibok girls, who got married, told me that, when they expressed willingness to get married, there were 10 men, they were given an option. Ten men lined up and they were asked to choose whichever they wanted. And if there was no one they like in that batch of 10 men, another batch of 10 men will come, another batch of 10 men will come, and it will continue, until they were able to select someone they actually liked. And the girls who refused to get married rather than being dragged off and handed over to a man, they were flogged and water was poured on them. They were forced, in the sense that pressure was put on them to make a decision, but that decision was not made for them.
And then, they were fed well, Abubakar Shekau made sure that none of them were raped. There was just attention… So their experiences are not the typical experience of the typical kidnapped girl, no. They didn’t suffer the same kind of violence. They weren’t.. because he was conscious that every single one of those girls, her name was known around the world, they were important people in Nigeria and outside Nigeria who were focused on her return home. And, again, they were bargaining chips. And, indeed, he turned out to be right because when the Nigerian government negotiated the release of these girls, the first batch of 21, and the second batch of 82, the government paid, I think €3 million euros, millions in euros, to get those girls back. Yes, a huge ransom to get them back.
So, the campaign made them valuable. They would have just been kidnapped girls who could have been rescued along with anyone but now the government goes and pays such a huge amount, reportedly €3 million euros, to get the girls back. And you begin to wonder, €3 million euros, meanwhile we have thousands of people in the north, millions actually who are starving, who have no access to healthcare, who have no homes. And the Chibok girls… you give €3 million euros to Boko Haram to rescue, 21 and 82, a total of 103 girls. People started asking, is it really worth it, how are these girls more valuable than the other girls that have been kidnapped. You know so it became complicated.
Of course, to the eyes of the world, they are more valuable, because I hear people saying the government has done nothing, we have only 107, Chibok girls back, how about the hundred and something remaining. And these people completely ignore the fact that thousands have been released already, rescued. And they insist the government has done nothing, simply because the Chibok girls are not back.
Suzanne Ross: So what are the conditions in Borno state now? Where is the status of Boko Haram? And I wonder if you can address… but you bring out sort of the culture of that area was sort of ripe for this sort of thing to happen. So is anything changing there? Has the attention of the world on the Chibok girls brought anymore help or attention into this area of Nigeria that can really use some help?
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani: Well, a lot of help has poured into the northeast Nigeria over the past especially since Chibok kidnapping, but sometimes you wonder if it came… It is almost as if the help came too late, and that’s something I try to show in my book. In the first half of my book, you had people coming in to help, evangelists distributing bibles, doctors coming in to do free medical test for the people, people coming in to distribute sanitary pads, that sort of thing. You saw that there was an awareness of the need in that part of Nigeria, there were trickling of help and then suddenly Boko Haram strikes and the whole world sends in help. Everybody’s help but then it’s almost too late, but then, very helpful, very needed. There a lot of suffering, especially starvation. So the help is not something that can… it’s not a one-off thing. You cannot just go in and help and disappear, it’s a continuous thing that will go on for years, probably decades. As I said, people are starving. In addition to the people that have been rescued from Boko Haram, who are in the camps in Maiduguri there were so many communities that were destroyed, razed. And so thousands of people have no homes, they have no farms, these are people who lived off their farms. They have no farms, no homes, and these people live in open spaces, in camps in Maiduguri, in tents and that sort of thing.
So it’s not a crisis that will go away overnight, there is a lot of help. When you go to Maiduguri, as I showed in my book as well, such a remote part of Nigeria, you see white people everywhere. That’s when you know that help has come from the rest of the world. You look around; there are more white people than in Maiduguri than they are… I see more white people in Maiduguri than I see in Abuja, sometimes. So that’s a sign that the world has sent help. You know, but, well, yes, the world is aware, but these groups were working anyway even before the Chibok kidnappings, but am sure the Chibok kidnapping helped raise more awareness of what was going on there. So definitely, it helped.
It has definitely helped in terms of raising awareness, however, clearly, the world attention is leaving because we have 170 Chibok girls back, and we now know exactly what happened in the forest. And some girls have said they don’t want to come home. The world appears bored with that story. So we are forgetting that there are still thousands of people starving in Maiduguri, thousands of people who need help, people who are being raped in the camps, some of them are being raped by government, by staff of the camps. And, you know, it’s really horrible. It’s a humanitarian crisis. I cannot even imagine how it’s going to go away. It’s going to take a miracle and some sustained humanitarian efforts.
Suzanne Ross: Yeah, a lot sustained involvement. I think part of what was so captivating about the Chibok kidnapping was a discrete, particular event that seemed to have a solution. They were kidnaped if we get them home, the problem solved. But what your reporting and your writing has done is really flesh out the complexity of why something like that happen and the kind of sustained attention that needs to be put on these areas of the world that are just ripe for that sort of false propaganda and false sense of security and importance.
Adaobi, I want to wrap up with a question for you about why you choose to take your reporting, your journalism, around this situation and write a piece of fiction and particularly fiction aimed at young adults?
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani: You know, I got sucked into the Chibok story, at the beginning when the girls were kidnaped in 2014, I didn’t plan to be as deeply involved, but you know one of those stories that sucks you in. You do one interview, you get to do another one, you meet the parents, you hear something else, and you keep getting sucked in. Especially because the girls were missing for so long. So from 2014 to 2016, I think when we got the first girl out in May, or 2017, or 2016 I think, I forget now. Abraham, when did we find the first girl? There was always something about to happen. Somebody has heard something about the girls in the forest. Somebody has said something and negotiations were going on., You know, there were just always, and it was just a story that had no ending, you had to stick with it, you had to stay on it.
And it got to a point where some of us had to know the parents, so we became personally involved, they saw us as their voice. I mean the parents will call, you know, no journalist has called them for a while, they will be terrified that the world has forgotten them and they will call you, asking if there was something they could do, could they talk please. I want to talk to the world. I want them to tell… I don’t want them to forget our girls. So that relationship with the parent and the families kept us involved with the story because they just wouldn’t let go. They would call you whenever something happened. And of course, the girls, some of them were found and rescued or whatever, and some of us had to get interviews.
I wanted to get the full story. I wanted it to end. Like you, I thought it was going to be something, the girls were missing, the families want them rescued, and then the girls are rescued, the end. But it was never like that, there was always a plot twist and you had to keep covering it. So that was how I got involved in the Chibok story. It got to a point where I became friends with the families, they will call, they will send you gifts of farm produce. And you go to Chibok, they host you in their house. You know they saw us as their voice. So when the girls were released and I heard their stories, one of the things I wanted to do in my book was to give them a voice, to give a voice to their experiences. I mean these girls have been through so much, I wanted the world to know what happened, exactly what happened. I wanted the world not to forget what has happened. I wanted to memorialize, I wanted to give the girls a voice really, to tell the story.
And then initially it was very tempting to restrict it to Chibok, but I just couldn’t do that with a good conscience. I thought they are just thousands of girls, thousands of other girls. I know the world knows more about the Chibok girls. They are the celebrated in this crisis, in this incident, but there are other girls, who went through worst, than what the Chibok girls went through, their families went through worst. They were in captivity for much longer, and I felt it would be inhuman, it would be irresponsible of me to just focus on the Chibok girls. So I know, it would have been more marketable “Oh the story of Chibok kidnappings” and it would have made more commercial sense. But I couldn’t do that in good conscience and that’s why my book had to include the stories of the all the other girls that were kidnapped, and that’s why I decided to have a nameless character. My character represents the Chibok girls, my character represents the girls kidnapped before Chibok, the girls kidnapped after Chibok, every single girl who had been kidnapped by Boko Haram and rescued.
And then regarding writing a story for young people, now I know in parts of the world that young people can’t imagine that this sort of thing can happen. You can go to school in the morning and somebody comes and takes you away, and you don’t return home for the next four years. It’s unimaginable in certain parts of the world. But these things happen to girls who were 12 years old, 13 years old, 14 years old, no character in my book is older than 14, none of the main characters in my book are older than 14.
So children around the world need to know that this is happening to their peers in parts of the world. They need to know. And the sooner they are aware, the more conscious, being interested in humanitarian work, wanting to change the world, wanting to solve the world’s problems. The best time to begin thinking these thoughts is at a young age. So when young people… even in Nigerian, I know many young people who have no idea of these kidnappings until they read my book. And then my friends call me, they say my daughter just want to talk to you, she been disturbing me, she keeps saying, mummy what’s… Asking questions, because they are horrified, that this could happen in their country.
But then, these girls were desperate for education went to school and this happened to them. I think every young person around the world needs to know that there are people around the world who have had that kind of horrific experience. And it is something that will never, never be allowed to happen again.
Suzanne Ross: You are right addressing your novel to those formative years where we form our views of the world and how we fit in it and what impact we can have. As an adult reader, I must say it’s a very captivating read for an adult reader as well. I’ve been recommending it to my adult friends, but I am thinking that it’s a wonderful book to read as a family, or in the classroom, in a school setting, for children as they are trying to learn about the world and its complexity. I think that’s what you did in the novel, that doesn’t always come across in the short news report is the complexity of the situation and the reality of the experience of these people that involved. As you say not to excuse the violence, but the Boko Haram militants became people in the book too. They are not just cardboard bad guys. They are real people.
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani: Because they are people and the interesting thing is when I started speaking with the girls, interviewing women, especially women who had fallen in love with their husbands and wanted to go back to them, I suddenly lost my terror of Boko Haram. You know how you are frightened when you hear about Boko Haram, these horrible men. The more I interviewed women who were with them, even the Chibok girls, not one of the Chibok girls had a single negative thing to tell me about the men. They said they were kind, they were this, they were that, and so I suddenly lost my fear of Boko Haram. At some point, I was making effort to see if I could get linked up to Abubakar Shekau and interview him. That was how fearless I was. I was actually making efforts to reach out to him for an interview. It hasn’t happened yet, but I tried.
So that’s the thing, I lost my fears because these women, I realize they made them comfortable. They described the men in ways I saw them as human beings. They were demystified, all that fear and terror left, and that’s the way it was for many of the girls who spent time with them. I mean the Chibok girls had nothing negative to tell me about the Boko Haram kidnappings. In fact, in being with Chibok girls… there was a particular Chibok girl, for example, I was with her in her family house, every member of her family was talking negative about Boko Haram, and she kept silent throughout. She kept silent throughout and then, in private, she would tell me, “there is nothing bad”, in fact a common phrase the girls uses is “nothing bad happened in the forest.” They will tell you that, nothing bad happened to us, nothing bad happened to us. They didn’t do anything bad.
They talk about them as if they are humans, as if they are regular human beings. And they had nicknames for their captors, the girls had nicknames for them, you know, jocular names. You know, there was something I wanted to say when we were talking about writing for a younger audience. I will give this example of the impact a book like this can have. A friend of mine told me that after her daughter who is about 12 read my book, every morning when they are having family prayers, the family gets together to pray in the mornings, her daughter says let’s pray for the kidnapped girls, the girls still in Boko Haram captivity. That happened after she read my book. Suddenly every morning she wants to pray for these girls, prior to that, she didn’t. She reminds her family “can we please pray for the girls that are…” So you see that’s how powerful it can be when at that young age, they are made aware of what happens around the world.
Suzanne Ross: Adaobi, we are so honored here at the Raven Foundation that you have accepted the 2018 Raven Award for Excellence in Arts and Entertainment for your young adult novel, Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree. It’s an extraordinary book and tells an incredible story about a very difficult situation that captured the attention of the world. And you have really done a wonderful job bringing us into the lives of the young girls and the men that were involved in the Boko Haram kidnapping. I want to thank you and express our gratitude for you accepting the award this year.
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani: Thank you, Suzanne. Thank you and the Raven Foundation for selecting me and my book for this award. I feel honored and I am happy that with this award the voices of the girls, who have lived through these horrors under Boko Haram, can be further amplified to Americans and around the world. Thank you so much for honoring me.
Suzanne Ross: Thank you, Adaobi.