This book is a difficult read. Not because of the language or even the subject matter, but because of the unyielding focus Nwaubani has on her character, a reimagined Christian teenager who becomes one of the ‘Chibok Girls’ after being kidnapped. We are forced reading this book, to look at the full lives of these girls, to see them as complete human beings, more complicated that the tag carried in media so that when we get to the point where they are kidnapped, we are able better appreciate the cost as a country as human beings. In this novel, we learn they have not always been ‘Chibok Girls’, the popular catchphrase is not their total history; they had lives before the Boko Haram terrorists interrupted it. It is to this effort that the writer labors, that we know they had lives that were interrupted; they had names, dreams, desires and fears that were relatively the same with any other girl anywhere else in the world.
Using the perspective of one narrator, we see what life is like in Chibok, the vicissitudes of naïve youth delivered in short fragments instead of traditional chapters and as far as evoking emotions in the minds of readers, this technique is effective. For example, there is a chapter that contains just one line;
‘News of our exam result will most likely come soon.’
This experimental structure enhances the perspective of the character to the reader, we follow her through the staccato of events in her life with some yearning and nostalgia of our own early teenage years, until the Boko Haram, a threat always looming in some not-too-distant horizon and on the news in Papa’s radio, visits her life with their violence. By starting from the days before the Boko Haram attack, the varied lives of the young girls who often befriended each other in spite of class, religion and marital status, the writer is able to steer us away from sensationalism which is the most popular route when it comes to the Chibok Girls.
It is interesting how the Western world filters into their lives before captivity by way of Papa’s Radio in a number of chapters. Not only is the radio a harbinger of doom, it serves news from Hollywood too, there is an announcement of an Oscars nomination list right next to news of Boko Haram attack in a neighboring region, and this juxtaposing of two different worlds contextualizes the lives of its listeners, who are often non-existent in Nigerian literature. A report of Omotola’s opinions on marriage practices in the context of their reality creates an absurdist effect on the reader and suggests a sort of insularity of the region from the rest of the country, if not the rest of the world.
But Nwaubani has visited this region and lived in it for journalism purposes, interviewing the rescued girls and their parents before writing the book and this is why the story feels so lived in. It would have been more interesting to read the account in an ‘English’ that was closer to Nigeria than the West, or in fact closer to that of a young northern girl, especially since it is written in first person. This is something the writer did so perfectly in her debut novel ‘I Do Not Come to You By Chance’ each time a character from that book was to speak. Even when the well-educated protagonist of that book was speaking or thinking, it still reflected what the Oxford Dictionary has now accepted as ‘Nigerian English’. Beneath the Baobab Tree focuses on the thought process of such a teenage girl even though it misses the language and this saves the book from becoming too academic.