Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree by Adaobi Tricia Nwaubani and Viviana Mazza
Katherine Tegen, 2018. Hardcover, 330 pages. Young adult novel. Ages 14+
When I heard the premise of Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree, I wondered, how does someone write the trauma of a girl kidnapped by Boko Haram? I saw nothing to suggest it was written in verse, thinking about Andrea Davis Pinkney’s The Red Pencil and how well verse articulates trauma. Buried Beneath is not (completely) written in verse, but in (often poetic) vignettes. The brevity of most vignettes both builds and allays tension.
The novel is broken into sections, partitioned by an excerpt of Robert Browning’s The Pied Piper of Hamelin. We get the everyday life mingled with a hopeful future; the attack; the first and second camps; the rescue.
Our protagonist-narrator remains unnamed. But she is hailed by Ya Ta “daughter” by her parents. She is the only daughter in a household of brothers, and all the labor and expectation that that involves. Contrary to the strong cultural belief that an education is wasted on a daughter, with her father’s blessing she goes to school and excels. Through much of the book’s beginning she is waiting to hear the results of a scholarship that will allow her to attend a university. She goes to school with her best friend, Sarah. The two of them often visit another friend Aisha, who is their age, but is newly married and no longer attends school. When the village is attacked, Aisha is pregnant with her first child.
Buried Beneath provides a lot of cultural information and groundwork for what is to come. There is a lot to learn, and it is marvelous what Nwaubani is able to accomplish. “The Voice on Papa’s Radio” offers a timeline in the early part of the book and a flavor of perspective and criticism, e.g. pop cultural news like “nominations for this year’s Academy Awards” are paired with the announcement that “fifty-five people have been killed in the northeast of Nigeria.”
The girls in the novel are interested in both, minding weather reports and news of Boko Haram attacks while debating what DVD to watch at Aisha’s—Sarah will want to watch a romance; which fits with her trajectory (and invites its own discourse).
Where our protagonist attends a Christian church, Aisha is Muslim, and Boko Haram’s rhetoric and activities provoke criticism from Aisha’s Islamic community. Nwaubani is educating the reader, but she writes in such a way that the readers education is not the only concern. The perspective of Aisha’s community will prove a stark contrast to Boko Haram’s teachings, and an anchor for our protagonist.
Our protagonist is able to maintain some critical eyesight where Sarah proves to be persuaded. Sarah’s narrative arc is breathtaking, and our protagonist’s efforts as her best friend are no less so. Her and Sarah’s relationship alone is worth the read. Their situation is fraught and the novel is compassionate toward survivors; no one will be left un-mourned.
Menstruating and pregnancy is a necessary conversation. It threatens the girls’ education in ways many (but not all) American girls of their age and older take for granted—menstruating in particular. Please remember, the presence of this conversation does not make this a “girl’s book”.
A reader’s experience will add weight to this read. And while, Nwaubani applies a light hand to certain situations in the novel, she can’t allow us to look away. Once kidnapped by Boko Haram after families are shot or cut down, the reader will know what it means that women are taken from their beds in the middle of the night. Our girl and her Sarah will be chosen as wives eventually. Nwaubani gets the point across with as quick and painless as she can. Structuring the book in vignettes helps, and while significant in its violence and trauma, the distribution of the weight makes the read manageable. The reader compelled to stay with the narrator.
She is eventually given an Islamic name Salamatu, but our girl fights to hold on to who she wants to be, not a slave nor wife but an educated person of her own mind. Intelligence is an attribute that distinguishes her from Sarah (ex. her raising her hand to spare Sarah the consequence of not being able answer a teacher’s question). Belief and enjoyment distinguishing Sarah’s experience from our narrator’s own in the camp; which causes her to question the use of her intelligence.
Could it now be causing me misery, preventing me from believing, and enjoying my new life?
A sack full of precious stones will only slow down your trek through the wilderness, after all, and is better dumped by the wayside or exchanged for a cup of water.
The inclusion of proverbs are frequent. I’m fond of “Inside a pot of soup, the horse is a less valuable animal than the hen.” In her youth, our narrator seeks discernment, and her intelligence has never been her only attribute. It is useful, as is her ability to imagine beyond her present circumstances. Education is a resource, a means to achieve something, but the “what” she could achieve is born out of her dreams—like those dreams that carry us through her morning at the opening of the book.
At the end, the stories she has to tell, however painful, are tools to inform and help others imagine her experiences. Those experiences are a part of her, and she’s left with complications. I look for hope when we hear her called Ya Ta once more. And while the novel leaves us (and her) with uncertainty, it doesn’t leave us uncertain or despairing of our heroine. We’ve been on a harrowing journey with her, in the depths with her, that ring of possibility, of potential, still finds its way into the novel’s close.
The close isn’t so tidy, however, that the reader will shut the book and be satisfied. It’s remarkable how Nwaubani gives us a taste of resolution with “Ya Ta,” without allowing us to think we can’t still have some part to play in the rescue and future of the survivors of Boko Haram.
Once the novel ends, Viviana Mazza authors an article at the back of the book, “The Chosen Generation.” We learn of her and Nwaubani’s work, and we are offered an overview of events and meet survivors and families of kidnapped girls. This non-fiction portion is a powerful addition to the novel. It was a smart pairing—the work and the writers of each.
Buried Beneath the Baobab Tree is a powerful experience, artful and impactful. There is so much to talk about. I see this work as a great opportunity for not only young people, but adult book clubs.