Isha Sesay left cable news to write about her time covering the 2014 abduction of 276 Chibok schoolgirls by the terrorist organization Boko Haram: “An ‘othering’ of Africa still exists in newsrooms.”
Isha Sesay became a TV news star in 2014, leading a CNN news team to a Peabody Award with her coverage of the kidnapping of 276 schoolgirls in Chibok, Nigeria, by the Boko Haram terrorist group.
The Britain-born journalist, 43, stayed with the story over the years, spending time with many of the 164 girls who escaped or were eventually released as part of the negotiations with the Nigerian government, as well as with the families of the 112 still unaccounted for — even after public attention moved on. But in August, the CNN International anchor quit cable news because, in part, she was tired of Trump stories (“There was no respite”). She put her experiences covering the schoolgirls into a book, Beneath the Tamarind Tree, which Dey Street published July 9.
Where are the Chibok schoolgirls now?
The majority of the freed girls are at the American University of Nigeria in the New Foundation School, a specially created preparatory school just for them. These girls were stolen from school and had been held in captivity for years and yet came back with a thirst for education. Sadly, 112 are still unaccounted for. We can safely say a lot of them married their captors — not out of free will. Boko Haram has said some died during airstrikes, but that’s unconfirmed. And we’ve also seen videos where at least some of the girls have said that they do not want to come back. They’ve been brainwashed. That’s a really tragic situation for the parents who are still heartbroken.
When is the last time anyone has heard from these girls, or their kidnappers?
The last video they released was January 2018, which CNN struggled to confirm. It was a 20-minute video that showed 14 girls on camera, saying they would not return. The government may have more information, but part of the problem is there’s a kind of information blackout. The last major statement made by the government was that they don’t know whom to negotiate with because Boko Haram has split into factions.
Has the government given up on retrieving them?
For sure. Speaking to one of the key Bring Back Our Girls activists, and also the mother of one of those girls, they feel utterly abandoned. It’s one thing for your child to be taken and for the government to say, “We’re trying. Here’s what we know so far,” and it’s another thing to be completely ignored and dismissed, particularly in a country like Nigeria that is so status-obsessed, so class-conscious. These girls are poor, they don’t have famous names, they come from a part of the country so far off the beaten track it might as well be another planet. People just don’t care. Parents have died from the heartache. More than a dozen have died.
Why did you write the book?
I wanted to humanize these girls. They’ve stayed nothing more than a headline, and I wanted to show that girls all over the world have hopes and dreams, inner lives, ambitions, visions for the future. This story hit me in a deeply personal way because my mother is from a place not that different from Chibok. She was born in a town in Sierra Leone, one of the poorest countries in the world, in a home that had no running water and electricity, and rose to having a Ph.D. in English language and linguistics and being the first woman to [run for vice president] in Sierra Leone. I see firsthand the power of education. But for the grace of God, I could have been born in a place like Chibok.
What can readers do to help?
We must not forget the 112 who are missing. The only reason the Nigerian government even acknowledged fully what had happened in Chibok was because of the groundswell of public outcry. The voices of global citizenry can shame governments into taking action. The world is so deeply interconnected now. What happened in northeastern Nigeria is a flare — it’s a warning of instability, and places that are unstable can become safe havens for dangerous individuals and groups. What they plot in those spaces could potentially affect us here in the United States. Nobody should look away and say, “That’s not my problem.”
In 2014, “Bring Back Our Girls” was on everybody’s lips. People were tweeting and demonstrating. Then it just disappeared. It speaks to me of the ease to which the West, specifically America, can look away from the crimes perpetrated against black and brown people, in particular women. The ease with which we so quickly move on. I look at other cases of kidnapping — not mass kidnapping — like Natalee Holloway, JonBenet Ramsey, Madeleine McCann. We should remember those children, and we should also remember close to 300 African children being taken. I tried to keep doing it within the CNN apparatus, but organizations have different focuses these days, and the story also moved away from being easy for TV.
The book gets into the hierarchy of what’s covered in the news. What is that hierarchy?
Look at the way Ebola was covered. Ebola was ravaging Africa, and coverage in the U.S. was miniscule until it impacted those two Americans in Liberia. There was a sense that we were weighing out whose lives matter and deciding how much coverage that gets. There’s very much an “othering” of Africa that still exists in newsrooms, a tendency to normalize tragedy that comes out of there. I saw it and heard it. Every day, decisions are being made as to what to cover, what’s the top story, the second story, the third story. More often than not, it is my experience that Africa and black and brown people are at the bottom.
You’ve said one of the reasons you left CNN was Trump …
I hit a crossroads at CNN. It was a perfect storm of factors. There were editorial decisions that would have involved moving from L.A. [to Atlanta], which I didn’t want to do, but also I just didn’t want to do any more Trump. Even at CNNi, we were doing at least 75 percent Trump. There was no respite. I had hit a fatigue with Trump and it was sucking all the oxygen out of the room. I have a charity that empowers adolescent girls in Africa [W.E. Can Lead]. These stories matter to me, and this is what I want to put my energy in. I just wanted more agency in my life.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
A version of this story first appeared in the July 10 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.