The kidnapping of more than 200 girls from their school dormitory in Chibok, Nigeria, was a most horrific incident that shocked the world, but it led to some unexpected good. The outrage and international outcry sparked by the April 2014 abductions compelled the Nigerian government and international allies to launch an unprecedented attack on the Sambisa forest hideout of the Boko Haram terrorist group. In the process, thousands of women and girls who were also kidnapped by Boko Haram, even long before the Chibok kidnappings, were rescued. The world had been largely unaware of their plight. Over the past four years, I’ve spoken with dozens of former Boko Haram captives, sometimes spending time with them in their homes or in refugee camps, observing as they struggle to restart their disrupted lives.
The majority of the freed women and girls told me that they were starved, raped and forced into marriages while in captivity. This gives you an insight into the depths of abuse that can be regarded as normal among a community of men with no regard for women’s and girls’ rights. Boko Haram believes that girls have no business in school; they should be married off as soon as puberty sets in, or even earlier, if possible, and placed under the absolute control of men.
There were some women and girls who admitted to me that they relished their life with Boko Haram. Despite being kidnapped and forced to wed, being married to Boko Haram militants, especially commanders, made them feel important. They imagined themselves as part of something significant—a global jihad. They were made to believe that Boko Haram would one day conquer Nigeria and then go on to rule the world. They were fed, clothed and tended to by their husbands. Some had slaves from among the captives yet to be married. One girl told me that she was so displeased when the Nigerian military turned up to rescue her that she would have shot at them if she’d had a gun. (Bear in mind that these women and girls are from a region where the typical female lives an uneventful existence, valued as little more than a baby factory, cook and charlady.)
The prevalence of child marriage in Nigeria varies widely from one region to another due to different political and religious factors, with figures as high as 76 percent in the north, and as low as 10 percent in the south. Nigeria has the world’s highest number of out-of-school children (10.5 million), of which about 60 percent are girls. Again, northern Nigeria is worst hit, with 60 percent of the out-of-school children in that region.
In a way, Boko Haram is amplifying the already problematic issues in that part of Nigeria.
Sadly, there are many women and girls who never lived to tell their stories of Boko Haram captivity. Almost all those I’ve interviewed told me of family or friends who died, usually in childbirth, from snake bites, illness, or during Nigerian military airstrikes on Boko Haram camps.
Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree is journalism masquerading as fiction—my attempt to go beyond the news headlines and present as many of these women’s and girls’ stories to the world. Boko Haram may have changed their lives forever and stolen their innocence and dreams, but the terrorists have not succeeded in silencing their voices.
Based on interviews with young women who were kidnapped by Boko Haram, Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree tells the timely story of one girl who was taken from her home in Nigeria and her harrowing fight for survival. Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani is a Nigerian writer and journalist. The author of the award-winning adult novel I Do Not Come to You by Chance (2009), Adaobi has had her writing featured in the New York Times, The Guardian and the New Yorker. You can find her at www.adaobitricia.com.