On Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree: a story of “the chosen ones” – Book Review: By Prof. Mrittika Ghosh

On Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree: a story of “the chosen ones” – Book Review: By Prof. Mrittika Ghosh

We are a chosen generation
Called forth to show His excellence
All I require for life, God has given me
And I know who I am.

Based on interviews with young women who were kidnapped by Boko Haram, the novel Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani narrates the story of a Hausa girl who was taken from her home in Nigeria and her harrowing fight for survival. The text also includes an afterword by award-winning journalist Viviana Mazza.
The novel was first published by HarperCollins in September 2018. It won the 2018 Raven Award for Excellence in Arts and Entertainment, was named as one of the American Library Association’s Best Fiction for Young Adults, and Notable Social Studies Trade Books for Young People 2019 selection.

The kindle edition and the hardcopy of the novel are available on Amazon. The Kindle Edition is priced at₹ 440.02 and the hardcopy can be availed at ₹ 1,254.00. A soft copy version is available on Z.Library.
Adaobi Tricia Obinne Nwaubani is a Nigerian novelist, humorist, essayist, and journalist. Her debut novel, I Do Not Come to you by Chance (which is based on Nigerian email scam) won the 2010 Commonwealth Writers’ Prize for Best First Book (Africa), a Betty Trask First Book award, and was named by The Washington Post as one of the Best Books of 2009. Her writing has been featured in the New York Times, the Guardian, and the New Yorker, and she writes a regular column for the BBC website’s “Letter from Africa” section. She is of Ibo origin.

To write this novel Adaobi collaborated with Viviana Mazza, a writer and a journalist at the foreign desk for the Italian daily newspaper Corriere della Sera. At Corriere she specializes in covering the United States and the Middle East. She has also covered, among other countries, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Nigeria. She has published the following books for Mondadori: Storia di Malala, Il Bambino Nelson Mandela and a version of the Storia di Malala book for younger children. In April 2016 she published Ragazze rubate, written with Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani. It tells the story of the young schoolgirls kidnapped in Nigeria by Boko Haram.

After the publication of Ragazze rubate Adaobi and Viviana decided to collaborate on a fiction, portraying the predicament of a young girl, from the Hausa community, by the radical group Boko Haram.

Viviana Mazza, in the Afterword of the text writes, “They are girls that were supposed to be more fortunate than their mothers. They had better access to education. They would have a chance to make their dreams come true. Yet something changed along the way.” The novel of Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree unfolds through the first-person narration. The protagonist is a secondary school student, preparing her dreams for higher education. She lived in a remote part of the Borno State, in Northern Nigeria, where women marry early and only three out of ten teenage girls are allowed to go high school. After marriage, only a few continue to go, and that is only with the consent of their husbands. For example, Aisha, a friend of the protagonist, was forbidden to go school, though her husband treated her well. She had full access to television, accompanied by dvds and was allowed to entertain her friends and learn from them about the lessons, taught in school but was forbidden to physically attend the school. The fact that the protagonist and some of her friends were going to school was quite impressive. They were called “the Chosen Generation,” as they were supposed to be more fortunate than their mothers. They had better access to education. They would have a chance to make their dreams come true. Yet something changed along the way. It was the advent of Boko Haram.

Since 2009, the terrorist group Boko Haram has been fighting an armed insurgency with the aim of creating an Islamic state in northern Nigeria. More than twenty thousand people have been killed and over two million displaced by the fighting and, in a disturbing trend, thousands of women and girls have been abducted and raped. One of these abductions received worldwide media coverage, at least for a while: on April 14, 2014, Boko Haram kidnapped 276 girls from their secondary school dormitory in Chibok, a small town in northeast Nigeria. In the middle of the night, they put the students on trucks and carried them away into the darkness of the Sambisa forest. Fifty-seven girls managed to escape by jumping off the trucks; 219 were taken away. This incident became not only the central thrust of the text Ragazze rubate, by Adoabi and Mazza but also influenced the thematic content of the novel Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree; the only difference being that in the later the protagonist and her friends were abducted from their homes, after their village was massacred by Boko Haram. After the Chibok kidnapping, a movement called Bring Back Our Girls was born out of rage and frustration against a government that had not taken the threat of Boko Haram seriously and was not doing enough to free the hostages. The movement received a global recognition and was supported by eminent personalities like Malala Yousafzai, the youngest Nobel Peace Prize winner and Michelle Obama.

Although Nigeria is the largest oil producer in Africa, due to the monopolization of oil wealth by corrupt political elites the majority of the inhabitants of country are left with no economic benefits. A fragile democratic system of government has emerged after countless coups and countercoups. The country, a home to almost 500 communities, is roughly divided into two parts; the Muslims in the north and the Christians in the south.

The poverty, unemployment, and illiteracy in the north proved to be a breeding ground for extremism. Beginning around the year 2000, twelve northern Nigerian states, including Borno, adopted Sharia law: a collection of rules and principles based on an interpretation of Islam’s sacred texts. Amputations and floggings, which had been banned, were reintroduced as punishments. Sharia coexisted, often contentiously, with civil law. Northern politicians had pushed for it; they used Sharia as a way to boost their popularity among the local population by promising a just society in the name of Islam. Corruption and abuse were still rampant, however, and people grew dissatisfied. Radical religious groups—including the one that would later become Boko Haram—initially allied themselves with those politicians, but later they turned against them. Muhammad Yusuf had founded a new mosque in Maiduguri after being cast out from other mosques for his extremist views. In his speeches, he laid blame on Western influence and education for the corruption of Nigeria’s leaders. Northern Nigerians began to call his movement Boko Haram, which means “Western education is forbidden.” His followers—some of whom were unemployed students and graduates—were mostly peaceful in spreading the group’s ideas, despite some local skirmishes with policemen and rumors that they were stockpiling weapons. In 2007, following doctrinal differences between Yusuf and his former mentor, the latter was murdered inside his mosque. In 2009, Boko Haram started an armed rebellion against the state to install a government based on Islamic law. But soon a new leader, Abubakar Shekau, was in place. He was more of an extremist than the founder. “Kill! Kill! Kill!” he shouted in one of his videos. “Now our religion is Kill! Kill! Kill!” He sent his followers to attack not only police and government facilities, but also both Christian and Muslim civilian targets. Fear of Boko Haram existed in both communities, regardless of religion or ethnicity.

Boko Haram’s attacks consisted of suicide bombers as well as conventional armed assaults on both civilian and military targets. It has been noticed that after the 2014 kidnapping, the majority of Boko Haram’s suicide bombers were female: some as young as seven years old. Boko Haram jihadists relied on stealth, blending into local communities or hiding in the vast countryside. Vivianna Mazza, in the Afterword of the text, claims that Maiduguri, which is few miles away from Chibok was the birthplace of Boko Haram. Many a times the Nigerian Government has been criticized about their handling of this terrorist group. In fact, in the course of the novel it is significant to notice that hardly any news of insurgency and violence travelled to the remote parts of Northern Nigeria. For the family of the protagonist of the novel, the only source of news was radio and hardly any news of Boko Haram attacks were covered till the assaults became rapid and frequent. News of Boko Haram travelled by mouth and it was difficult to identify the reality from myth.
As already mentioned, the novel unfolds through the perspective of a first person narration. The narrative is divided across small chapters; sometimes a chapter finishes within a paragraph or two. This novel was aimed for young adults and the author has just justice to this demand through the use of lucid language. The linear mode of the narration breaks as the plot progresses. However, what is interesting to note is that although the subject matter deals with violence, the author has refrained from using the gory details of the violence. Even when the abducted girls were raped in the camp the graphic descriptions of the event have not been mentioned, rather the author has chosen to focus more on the psychological predicament of the girls. In the course of the plot when Boko Haram attacked the village of the protagonist, Aisha, one the protagonist’s friend was pregnant. The men of the village were gunned down and the women, teenagers and children were abducted and carried to the heart of the Sambisa forest. Aisha went with them. The virgin girls were spared from rapes, as they were reserved as wives for Boko Haram men, but Aisha, though of protagonist’s age, was not spared as she was not a virgin. The morning, following the night of abuse, the protagonist discovers Aisha exclaiming, “This is not Islam! This is definitely not Islam!” The protagonist has witnessed Aisha and her husband devoutly revering Islam, and this single lament of Aisha highlights the fact that although Boko Haram claimed to be the guardian of Islam, their religion is something else!

The plot unfolds with the protagonist, a young schoolgirl, aspiring to go to university and preparing to appear for an exam for the same. She remains almost anonymous in the first part of the novel. In passing references, it is mentioned that her parents call her Ya Ta, a nickname of endearment. The first half of the novel provides a glimpse into the lives of the protagonist, her family, her friends Aisha and Sarah. The vivid description of the village life portrays a picture of peaceful coexistence of both the Christian and Muslim communities. Central to the narrative is the symbol of the Baobab tree. An entire chapter is dedicated to the description, utility and the myths surrounding the tree. The detailed depiction proves that how a Baobab tree is deeply enmeshed in the identities of the people of the community of the narrator. In fact the first thing that the narrator notices when she is abducted and carried into the Sambisa forest is the absence of the Baobab tree. This is purely ironical as Baobab tree is popularly known as the ‘tree of life’, in Nigeria and its absence in the Boko Haram camp means absence of life. Ya Ta and Sarah, saw the tree only once in the forest but the picture of it was horrific. Once the girls were sent deep into the forest to fetch vegetables, to their delight they saw a Baobab tree in the distance. But when they rushed to it they discovered that in a huge pit, right next to Baobab tree, the bodies of the deceased girls, from the camp, are rotting. Ironically the ‘tree of life’ has transformed into the ‘tree of death’ in the hands of Boko Haram.
The novel records how young girls were forced into marriage. Ya Ta, Sarah and many others are hurled into forced marriages to men, whom they have never seen in their lives and when they refuse to consummate, they are forced into it. The novel, therefore, will force a reader to question the institution of marriage, practiced in the society of Boko Haram.
The narrative not only records the mental and physical violence inflicted on teenagers and women, but it also provides a glimpse into the radicalization of the abducted teenagers, both boys and girls. In the afterword of the text, Viviana claims that most of the Chibok girls, who were rescued after years of their abduction, have been surprisingly radicalized in the oath of Boko Haram. Some vehemently claimed that they married the Boko Haram men willingly and they are in complete empathy with the religious practice and mores of Boko Haram. Viviana writes, “It’s difficult to understand why. Do they feel fear or shame? Do they really identify with their kidnappers? Are they unwilling to leave behind the lives they have built while in captivity? After all, three years is a long time. Clinical psychologist Dr. Fatima Akilu, head of Nigeria’s de-radicalization program, says that being a jihadi wife has its advantages over the “normal” life in a patriarchal society: they have power, slaves who clean and cook for them, and even the respect of men. When they are freed, kidnapped women face challenges reintegrating into a society that stigmatizes them.” The narrator showed this bout of radicalization through Sarah, who was converted and named as Zainab in the camp. Sarah accepted her marriage willingly and to the shock of the narrator started embracing the religion of Boko Haram. She became so radicalized that she completely turned against her best friend and she naively volunteered to become a suicide bomber, without even realizing the consequence. The narrator, who was named as Salamatu after her conversion in the camp, also witnesses her younger brother, Jacob, being transformed into a Boko Haram.
The plot lacks closure, and the novel is left open-ended. The narrator does get rescued, but fate reserves more struggle for her. The author perhaps consciously ends the novel like this as she wanted to deploy the plight of hundreds of girls and women who were freed but have not been able to return to a normal life either due to the stigmatization by the community or due to their own radicalization. What happened in Sambisa forest changed them forever. The Chibok girls are the most famous part of a lesser-known story. Even if all of them come home, the insurgency will still be there. They will always remain the “choosen ones”.

Mrittika Ghosh
Assistant Professor
Amity University Kolkata

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