Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree
Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani’s new book, Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree is the coming of age and captivity story of a teenage girl enslaved in Boko Haram’s infamous Sambisa forest. As a fictional story based on real accounts of survivors, the author exposes the trauma of female captivity in strikingly lucid vignettes. Apart from journalistic and historical writings on insurgency in Nigeria, Nwaubani’s novel is one of few literary works to project the voices of Boko Haram’s female abductees on the national and global stage. Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree is the writer’s attempt to humanize the stolen girls and put a face to the countless victims of the worst terrorist violence in Nigeria. In this story, Boko Haram is the antagonist, the evil and death- dealing force, the destroyer of dreams and communities.
The novel is set in an idyllic village in Borno State, where Christians and Muslims coexist. Children, especially girls, are brought up under strict gendered and religious codes. The schools are remarkably ill-equipped, and sporadic donations from humanitarian organizations are highly valued by the community. Rate of absenteeism is high among the female student population and school authorities seem indifferent to the monthly challenges of their pubescent female students.
The story begins on a lyrical note that captures the voice and dreams of a young girl at the cusp of change. The protagonist narrator, fondly called “Ya Ta” by her parents, grows up in a closely-knit community defined by family, school, and church. Her growing awareness of self is indicated by her sense of responsibility as the only daughter among male siblings. When her school mate and close friend, Aisha, marries, becomes pregnant, and drops out of school, it appears that Ya Ta will follow a similar pathway. But, she is nurturing bigger dreams about college, scholarship, and a profession with the potential of giving back to her society. She is yet unaware that, like the calabash, dreams can be broken, and one cannot always dream from where one left off (2). Once she earns the Borno State government scholarship for “exceptional children from disadvantaged homes”, the principal pays an unannounced visit to her family with the good news. However, her dreams are threatened and then shattered by Boko Haram’s destructive agenda. Nwaubani interweaves this coming of age story with the gradual encroachment of Boko Haram terrorists. Her portrayal of the desires and vision of the teenage narrator and her peer friends make their capture and abuse more tragically poignant.
Several symbols highlight the novel’s themes. For instance, the radio, also known as “Papa’s radio”, is an important property in Ya Ta’s family; the “Voice on Papa’s Radio” assumes a formidable role as the family’s source for world news. Through the radio, news about global events and Boko Haram’s terrorist activities filter into the community. The writer juxtaposes notable events happening in the United States of America with the lurking menace and destruction by Boko Haram, thus, clearly contrasting security and progress of the West with the insecurity, recurring violence, and economic stagnation in north eastern Nigeria. Boko Haram, like death, strikes unexpectedly “… when your sleep is sweetest” (54). As the terrorists’ invasion dominate conversations among the villagers, it becomes obvious, however, that the government is challenged and seemingly incapable of controlling the advancing insidious group. When doomsday finally arrives to Ya Ta’s village, the residents are taken unawares, mistaking the booming sound of gunfire with the sound of thunder announcing the end of drought. The people’s expectation of life-giving rain is thwarted by the deadly violence of terrorist attack. Eventually captured and enslaved in the Sambisa forest, the notorious lair of the beast, Ya Ta and her school friends, Aisha and Sarah are transformed from dutiful daughters and students to slaves and wives of terrorists. With their names and identities changed, the captives are entrapped in a surrounding where violence rules their lives. “We are like dead people mourning other people who are dead” (123). For Ya Ta, death seems to be the only viable option of escape. They battle with hunger, sexual violence and abuse daily. “Night after night, I pray it will not be my turn. I pray that Al-Bakura and Malam Adamu will choose someone else” (146). In the forest, time becomes meaningless. “I arise each morning with no strength to think of tomorrow morning or the morning after tomorrow. I retire at night with no courage to think of tomorrow night or the night after tomorrow” (169). Ya Ta is also the keen observer of her captive environment. Through her observations, Nwaubani exposes the strategies by which terrorist groups brainwash their female captives and make them suicide bombers. Ya Ta questions Boko Haram’s beliefs about Islam and western education and concludes that “Boko Haram has nothing to do with Allah” (157). She unmasks the group’s contradictions, noting that the insurgent group thrives on the very things they condemn. “If they hated Western education so much, why did they bother with guns and trucks, which you could learn how to make only by going to school” (158). Boko Haram condemns western education, but, ironically, uses western warfare technology to commit atrocities.
Nwaubani’s diction expresses a terse subject in lyrical tenor that contrasts with the atmosphere of pervasive violence. The author demonstrates sensitivity to her readers’ position as vicarious witnesses to violence on the most vulnerable population – women, girls, and children. Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree invites readers to fill in the silent spaces by imagining the traumatic experiences of captive females. Interestingly, excerpts from Robert Browning’s The Pied Piper of Hamelin, a nineteenth century children’s rhyme, provides an allegorical parallel to this story of captivity. As a cautionary tale of retribution due to a broken contract, The Pied Piper of Hamelin strikes a note about Boko Haram’s agenda; however, the political implications of this poem are not clearly delineated in the novel. Nonetheless, the writer’s play on the fictional abduction of children in The Pied Piper of Hamelin and Boko Haram’s abductions of real children sharpens the underlying tragedy in Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree.
The Baobab tree is a central image in this novel. In the Sambisa forest, this symbol of protection and nourishment is turned into a mass burial site, signifying Boko Haram’s transgressions of cultural, moral, religious, and communal principles. For instance, Ya Ta and her peers come of age, not in the sanctioned safety of home and community, but in the wilderness of the Sambisa forest, where the baobab tree signifies only death. In a world ruled by terrorism, insurgency, and lawlessness, death and destruction become the natural outcomes. While the novel underlines the impact of post captivity trauma, it also exposes a growing national and global problem – the challenges of reintegrating female survivors and children of terrorists into society. The novel depicts the stigma attached to being “a wife” and mother of a Boko Haram child. The survivors are plagued by their memories of terrorist husbands. For the liberated captives, the future will certainly not be as they had previously dreamed it. Ya Ta’s desire to ‘fly” and to be back in school is subdued by the knowledge of her pregnancy for a masked terrorist husband, whose identity she may never know. As the voice of Boko Haram’s many female victims, the protagonist narrator occupies an important position. She is the readers’ eye into the terrorists’ camp. As a male reporter advises her, “It’s important that you tell her your story. … You have to tell her everything that happened. That is the only way the world can know, so that they can continue to look for the other stolen girls and rescue them from Boko Haram” (287).
Overall, Nwaubani articulates in this intriguing story of terrorism and its human and material costs, the challenges of the twenty-first century. Readers will find Viviana Mazza’s Afterword, “The Chosen Generation”, and other online resources very useful for understanding the history and activities of Nigeria’s notorious insurgent group. She provides information on the journalistic collaboration behind the story, as well as the obstacles to reintegrating female survivors, such as the prevailing “strong culture of honor based on a woman’s body and her virginity (321). Buried the Beneath the Baobab Tree, indeed, pays tribute to the faceless victims whose captivity presents an endless certainty of trauma.
Reviewed by Pauline Ada Uwakweh, Ph.D., Associate Professor, North Carolina A & T State University
Published in Africa Access Review (July 3, 2019)
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