It reads like one continuous narrative, but it is actually a selective cut-and-paste from two very different sources: one, a report from the Guardian detailing the 2014 abduction of almost 300 Nigerian schoolgirls, and the other, an excerpt from Susan Minot’s novel Thirty Girls (February 2014). The result is a haunting fusion of fact and fiction:
Just before midnight on 14 April in Chibok, north-east Nigeria, pastor Enoch Mark’s phone rang. Half asleep, it took him a while to make sense of the voice talking rapidly down the line. Eventually four words penetrated: “Boko Haram are coming.” . . . We woke to the banging. Across the ceiling, lights bobbed like car lights on a bumpy road. We heard shouting, then a large thing banging, banging on the outside wall. They were stoning the glass in the window past the bars. Girls started to cry and others quieted them, putting their hands over their mouths. . . . When the gunshots began, 15-year-old Lydia Togu, an art student, was shaken awake by her elder sister Soraya, who whispered for her to get dressed quickly. The two hurried out to the courtyard where other confused and crying girls were filtering out. . . .When the girls had all gathered together, the men began shooting into the air and shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is greatest), she said. . . . They had on brown berets and red berets and baseball hats. Some had braided hair and dark glasses. Many wore camouflage shirts. Everyone was screaming. . . . Abigail was taking her shoes from the floor and a rebel hit her back, making her fall down. . . . He was not old; he was young, fifteen or sixteen. . . . They raided the school supply stores and then forced the girls at gunpoint to march for an hour into the forest, where trucks were waiting. “I thought my end had come,” Lydia said. . . . Sister, they took all of us, Penelope said. They took all of you? She nodded, crying. Sister Giulia looked at George, and his face understood. All the girls were gone.
Minot’s book is based on another real-life event: the 1996 kidnapping of 139 schoolgirls in Uganda. The novel was released in February 2014, and just two months later, the crime again came to life. On the night of April 14, 2016, militants from Boko Haram, posing as guards, broke into the dormitories of a secondary school in Chibok, Nigeria, and forced at least 276 girls onto trucks bound for an unknown destination in the countryside. Some girls escaped that night and since, but around 200 remain missing. The worldwide campaign to #BringBackOurGirls brought some awareness but no resolution.
With the stories woven together as they are above, it’s difficult to tell whether the setting is Nigeria, Uganda, or another African country altogether. Is it 1996 or 2014? Were the perpetrators members of Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, Boko Haram, or some other rebel terrorist group? How many girls were taken—100, 200, 300? There’s more than an eerie similarity between the two stories. There’s a genuinely disturbing sense that these two separate kidnappings flow seamlessly together, cohering into a single narrative of thousands of young girls all across Africa who continue to be taken from their schools, their families, their identities.
In an April 2014 interview, Susan Minot told CNN’s Christiane Amanpour that one of her main motives in writing Thirty Girls was to bring awareness to these ongoing acts of violence. She grew attached to the story years before when she met the Ugandan teacher Sister Rachele Fassera, who bartered with an LRA leader for the return of 109 of her students, but was forced to leave 30 girls behind.
Written as a novel, Thirty Girls considers all the parties involved: the teachers who lose their students, the schoolgirls who are taken captive, the parents who either try to find their daughters or close their doors on them forever, the teenage boys who are transformed into terrorists, and the bystanders who watch worldwide. The book focuses on two people’s perspectives in particular: 16-year-old Esther, one of the schoolgirls held captive by the LRA, and Jane, an American reporter come to cover the event. Esther is among the lucky girls who manage to escape. Though these girls are rarely willing to talk about their time in captivity, Esther agrees to share her experience with Jane. “These things must be told,” Esther explains. “You wonder if the world knows of such things. They must not. Surely such things would stop if they knew.”
Thirty Girls represents one more attempt to make sure the world knows, even though the kidnapping sometimes seems secondary to the journey of Jane and her fellow first-world travelers. Jane’s narrative, which dominates the book, can be as tiresome as Esther’s is riveting. Where Esther gradually transforms her pain into strength, Jane seems to founder in self-involvement and lack of purpose. Yet, if we dare, we should pay special attention to Minot’s American journalist, for in her perspective we might find our own. Though we cling to the idea of being connected with the world at large, like Jane we get bogged down in the minutiae of our everyday lives—jobs, romantic entanglements, social obligations. Until trouble touches us personally (as it comes home to Jane near the novel’s end), it’s all too easy to treat Esther and all the girls like her as a news story, rather than sisters whom we have lost.
“What is life after all?” Jane asks in the end. “Are we made of what we think? Or of what we have done?”