Tag Archives: Non-fiction

BENEATH THE TAMARIND TREE: A Story of Courage, Family, and the Lost Schoolgirls of Boko Haram

Go under that tree!. . .They’d arrived at a Boko Haram Camp . . . The hundreds of girls moved en-masse for protection and stood weeping at the foot of the [tamarind] tree . . . Do you know why you are here? . . . It is in your best interests to choose our religion . . . Even if you refuse to accept our religion, you must wear the hijab.

April 14, 2014 dawned like any other in the Local Government Area of Borno State, Nigeria known as Chibok. The Area is located in northern Nigeria and has it’s headquarters in the town with the same name of Chibok; a microdot agrarian village comprised of many Christian families. Militant Islamic groups have killed and maimed innocent residents as well as destroyed towns in the region.

The marauders endeavor to eliminate any Western influences and to force native peoples to their extreme Islamic views.  The most notable of the violent Islamic terror groups is known as Boko Haram; whose name loosely means “Western education is a sin.”

Their heavy-handed tactics have resulted in the closure of all Nigerian Government Schools – except one. The tiny school in the poverty laced Area of Chibok.

On the morning of April 14, 2014, Boko Haram descended on the town of Chibok and “serendipitously” discovered the Government School and the 276 girls receiving Western education. The Jihadists assumed all schools had been closed and couldn’t believe their luck to find one still open. Recognizing the opportunity and exposure they would receive by kidnapping these terrified young girls, the militants forcefully spirited them into the desolate Sambisa forest; the group’s largest home base.

Their actions did bring international attention at first, but soon the plight of these innocent children remained a horrible nightmare to only their bereft parents and a small cadre of activists. Nearly 50+ girls managed to evade capture or escaped enroute to the Sambisa forest but the fates of over 200 remained a painful mystery.

Nearly two years to the day from their capture and in the heart of the divisive United States 2016 election season, Boko Haram revived attention to their insidious kidnapping by releasing 21 girls. Once again, and for a brief time only, the world renewed its interest in the fate of these innocents.

Author, Isha Sesay, born in Sierra Leone and serving as a CNN Africa reporter has now dedicated her life to discovering the fate of the Chibok girls, to keep their memory alive, and to further efforts to discover those still missing. The failure of her network to air an exclusive interview with the newly released girls in lieu of wall-to-wall coverage of Donald Trump and the 2016 Presidential election outraged her and has led to this incredible book, Beneath the Tamarind Tree.

This, soon to be released book in 2019, is a must read for lazy Americans who probably couldn’t point to Nigeria on a globe much less locate Chibok. Count me in on that point. I knew all the buzz words in the news- Boko Haram, the Chibok girls, the kidnapping, the release of a few of the girls. . . But aside for a momentary sense of compassion for the girls, their parents, and their community I became distracted by news at home.

I applaud Isha Sesay for educating me on the history of Nigeria in a way that was easy to read and showed how it’s history is tied to the US. Her unique access to the released Chibok girls and their parents has brought the story down to the individual level while at the same time offering the reader an overview of life in the area as a whole. I was so amazed how desperately the parents wanted their girls to be educated; to be valued as a person and to reach their highest potential. The efforts of these destitute families, living without running water or electricity and the dedication of the girls themselves to honor their parents sacrifices for education is remarkable.

Much of the strength and courage of these families resides in their deep belief in a Christian God and his mercy and wisdom. I honestly had tears in my eyes as I read the interviews from the released girls and their willingness to stand true to their faith and not be forced to convert to Islam. I, also understood, the need for self-preservation and did not judge those girls who “converted” in an effort for survival.

It is a story of heartbreak and cruelty cast in a light that doesn’t offend the reader but offers insight into the daily lives of peoples constantly under crushing terror and emotional distress. In my heart of hearts, I believe everyone should read this book. It is now five years since the abduction and more than 112 girls are still missing. These innocent girls are representative of thousands more girls and boys that have been murdered or turned into slaves for a virulent cause all around the world. The world for those unfortunates that have survived has been irrevocably altered. There is a message here for all of us.

Remember “there but for the grace of God, go I”, when one religious group forcibly dictates the rules and denies the rights of individuals to their own vision of a supreme being or the right to not believe in one at all.

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NEVER CAUGHT : the Washingtons’ relentless pursuit of their runaway slave Ona Judge



In January of 2018, a review of a new book featuring George Washington and his runaway slave named Ona “Oney” Judge caught my attention. I picked up a copy to review for Black History Month in 2019.

NEVER CAUGHT – The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave Ona Judge is a narrative non-fiction. The book is heavily footnoted and supplemented with a lengthy bibliography and index. In a twist from most historical works on Washington that focus on his evolving beliefs about the concept of slavery, Never Caught flips the script. Erica Armstrong Dunbar examines what it means to be born a free person into a world where you are trapped in slavery.  A world where every effort is taken to strip you of your humanity and rights as a human being. In narrating the unearthed facts of Ona Judge Staines life, Dunbar exposes the raw facts of slavery -man’s inhumanity against man.

I met Ona Judge Staines in the archives. . . I was conducting research. . . about nineteenth-century black women in Philadelphia and I came across an advertisement about a runaway slave. . . called “Oney Judge”. She had escaped from the President’s House. . . How could it be that I never heard of this woman. (Erica Armstrong Dunbar)

Quick. Tell me the first ten things that come to mind about the first president of the United States of America. Bet they include: He was married to Martha. Lived in Mount Vernon, Virginia.  Had false teeth (ivory not wood). Was trained as a surveyor. Fought in the American Revolution.  Became our first President. Never lived in Washington D.C. because it didn’t exist in his lifetime.  Never told a lie (that is a lie).  Served two terms in office. We celebrate a national holiday on his birthday.

What? No mention that George at the tender age of eleven, following his father’s untimely death, inherited a 280-acre farm with ten slaves? By the time he married Martha, he personally owned over 100 slaves. Martha Parke Custis, widow of Daniel Park Custis, brought 84 dower slaves from the Custis estate to Mount Vernon upon her marriage. Dower slaves are part of an estate and can only be inherited by members of that estate. George and Martha controlled them but did not own them and could not set them free. Upon Martha’s death, the dower slaves would be passed along like fine china or an heirloom chair to living members of the Custis estate.

George Washington was reputed to be a “kinder” slave owner which meant he fed and provided for his slaves somewhat better than others. His hot-temper has been sanitized in history and ask the slaves that were housed in the smoke house in the new capital if they had five-star accommodations.

A favorite dower slave of Martha’s, known only as Mulatto Betty, gave birth in 1773 to a daughter named Ona Marie and fathered by Andrew Judge, a white indentured servant. Ona’s “carefree” childhood ended when she was nine years old. She was sent to work full-time in the mansion to become Martha Washington’s personal servant and to receive training as a seamstress from her mother. She excelled at both tasks earning her a “most favored slave” status.

As our first President-elect headed north to New York and the nation’s new capital, he knew slavery laws in the northern states were unraveling; the early smells of manumission and freedom floating in the air. He hand-picked slaves he thought he could trust not to run away if they learned that freedom was a possibility – Ona Judge, now in her teens, was high on that list.

Ona played her part carefully. She yearned for freedom. Yearned for a life where her safety and well being wasn’t subjected to the whims of a trigger tempered slave owner. For safeties sake she outwardly projected submission and affection for the Washington family; a family riddled with grief, misery, and poor health. Perhaps in some way she believed the Washington’s had special feelings for her; they did allow her more liberties to travel within the northern city unaccompanied. It is more likely allowing her to dress nicely was meant to reflect more on their social status than on her well-being.

She learned the truth about her place in their lives when the national capital moved to Philadelphia. Pennsylvania law “required emancipation of all adult slaves who were brought into the commonwealth for more than a period of six months.”  The President, financially strapped back on the plantation feared the lost property value of freed slaves.  To protect his investments, Washington devised a shifty system of uprooting his Philadelphia slaves and rotating back to Mount Vernon before the six months deadline.

What the others thought about their repeatedly uprooted lives we do not know. We do know that Ona knew of the progress toward freedom around her. She guardedly watched for that one split second in time where she could chance leaving. When Ona learned that she would be given as a wedding present to Washington’s volatile granddaughter during the next rotation back to Virginia, she knew it was now or never. Taking her life in her hands, she reached out to the free blacks in Philadelphia for help and fled. Ona, now twenty-two-years old and illiterate, headed out into the scary world alone as a fugitive willing to face death or capture.

Her harrowing journey took her to Portsmouth, New Hampshire. She found menial labor and despite the back breaking work, enjoyed her veiled freedom. One can only imagine the horror she felt the day she was recognized on the street by a friend of Washington. Once notified she had been located, Washington put on a full court press, illegally using the power of his office, to have a local government official convince her to return of her own volition. After failing at that attempt, Washington repeatedly sought to locate and physically return her. His tiny slave outwitted him at every turn.

Ona fled to Greenland, New Hampshire and stayed out of the grasp of capture for over fifty years. She married, had children, kept a low profile and missed her biological family still back at Mount Vernon.

Shortly before her death February 25, 1848, Ona, nearly 80 years old and still a fugitive slave of the Custis estate, gave interviews with two abolitionists newspapers. Both interviews appear in the appendix. They are believed to be a unique opportunity to view life as a slave in the Washington presidency.

“When asked if she is not sorry she left Washington, as she has labored so much harder since, than before, her reply is ‘No, I am free, and I have, I trust, been made a child of God by the means‘”.

Highly recommend reading for young adults and those interested in history. A chance to look behind the curtains of the first First Family. A chance to learn about a young black woman determined to be remembered – a human being and a child of God.

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EDUCATED


Tara Westover was born sometime in September of 1986, the youngest of seven children. She’s not exactly sure of the date as she was born at home in a remote mountainous area of Idaho; an area popular with other off-the-grid folks living in the western US area known as the Mormon Corridor. There is no formal record of her birth; no birth certificate was issued until she was nine years old. Like most of their remote neighbors, the Westover family were, in name, Mormons.

Now in her early 30s, Tara shares her moving story. She begins with her apocalyptic childhood leading to her adult life off the Idaho mountain and alienated from most of her family. Her journey is harsh and painful but offered to the world openly and honestly. She exposes a side of life most people have no idea exists and tells us how difficult it is to question your parent’s authority and concern for your well-being. She expresses the contradictions she finds herself facing; rebel against her parent’s way of life thus alienating herself from those she loves and freeing herself to discover the past, present and future available to her through education.

I have floundered with this review. I really enjoyed the book but find it hard to tag it. It’s not the usual “woe is me” memoir. Tara openly expresses love and affection for her family; something I am not sure I would feel under the circumstances. It is my opinion that the author had more than the general public in mind when she wrote the book; she wanted to educate the world about the fundamentalist culture, the bizarre and dangerous life she faced with eccentric parents and she needed to justify leaving her loved ones behind to allow herself the freedom to control her own life as she saw fit.

By the time she was born, her mother, overwhelmed with the number of children and the hard work of a subsistence lifestyle had given up on home schooling. She felt her job was done if she taught the children to read. To be fair, there was never a restriction on the children’s reading interests, but any child with an itch to read did so discretely after a full day’s chores. Tara had access to her older siblings aged text books and rabidly self-educated herself.

Tara Westover was not raised in a traditional Mormon family. Her father demanded total obedience in all matters and maintained control over his family’s daily routine. The slightest action could turn him into a demonic authority pontificating his own version of Mormon fundamentals. In this markedly patriarchal environment, male siblings held power over the girls; one particular brother was a cruel bully. Another brother was helpful in encouraging Tara to find her true north.

Imagine a world where your parents told you that everything outside their front door was corrupt. That something called the Deep State had eliminated personal freedoms and the “Medical Establishment” could not be trusted. The family would avoid hospitals and doctors regardless of the severity of the illness or injury.

Her father consumed with an “End of the World” theory, built massive supplies of food, weaponry, and ammunition to protect his family from renegades unprepared for survival in an apocalyptic world. He worked his children like indentured servants in a dangerous junkyard to pay for the supplies. Horrific physical injuries befall several family members; treatment restricted to mother’s self-created herbal medicines. If a sick or injured person failed to survive on their own at home, it was just God’s will.

Over time, Tara’s older siblings peeled away from the family home, escaping their father’s control leaving a very young Tara to fill their shoes in the junkyard. By the time she was fifteen-years-old, she began planning her own escape. She found odd jobs in a nearby town, made friendships outside the survivalist culture and devoured any and all sources of literature to prepare to take the college ACT test. At seventeen-years-old she enrolled at Brigham Young University, and discovered how much of life she knew nothing about.

One of first lectures, I raised my hand and asked
what the Holocaust was because I had never heard of it.

Encouraged by “outsiders” who recognized her potential, Tara Westover has achieved a first-class education. It was a struggle at first to fill in the blank slate but she graduated from Brigham Young University with honors in 2008. Following graduation she was awarded a Gates Cambridge Scholarship and earned a Masters in Philosophy from Trinity College, Cambridge in 2009. In 2010 she became a visiting fellow at Harvard University. She returned to Cambridge University where she was award a PhD in history in 2014.

Well done, Tara.

Recommended reading. An excellent book club selection.

An in-depth interview with the author can be found on NPR.

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