On April 14, 2014, Boko Haram terrorists abducted 276 girls from a secondary school in the mostly Christian town of Chibok, in northeast-ern Nigeria. The event spawned the #BringBackOurGirls campaign, and became the symbol of the government’s failed battle against the insurgents. Fifty-seven girls had escaped at the outset. But until 21 of the kidnapped girls were freed in October, only one other had been found.
Helon Habila, a novelist who grew up not far from Chibok, succeeded in getting through checkpoints on two recent visits to the town and its environs. In 110 spare yet vivid pages, he evokes the traumatized aftermath—parents walking “as if there was no blood in their bodies,” escaped girls reciting oft-told stories. He also sketches the history leading up to the horror: the violent rise of Islamist extremism in Nigeria.
When Habila concludes by stressing “the shocking banality” of what has happened, he isn’t referring merely to the evil. He knows the ranks of the marauders include “ordinary boys in dirty shirts and slippers, shooting at whatever they were told to shoot at by their handlers.” But the girls who got away, as he learns, were ordinary, too—saved by “chance, opportunity, and desperation.” In rescuing the Chibok tragedy from “mythic status,” Habila’s unusual primer quietly yet powerfully revives the call to take notice.