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Book Review: 'In Pursuit of Disobedient Women'

Dionne Searcey moves family to West Africa, becomes breadwinner

Her husband’s commute from his job in the Bronx to their house in Brooklyn was stressful, traffic-clogged and slow, and each night after he finally made it home it could be another 45 minutes before he found somewhere to park the car. But Dionne Searcey was still floored when, after 14 years of this, her husband, Todd, uttered the fateful words, “I want to move to the suburbs.”

A newspaper reporter and a native of Nebraska, Searcey had worked her way into a job covering the economy for the New York Times. With three young children, their home life had become, she admits, “a huge, rat-raced rut.” But still, the suburbs! She simply wasn’t ready for such a drastic move.

So instead, she moved the family to Senegal, where she became the West Africa Bureau Chief for the Times. “An international move might remind us of why we liked each other enough to have a family in the first place,” she figured.

“In Pursuit of Disobedient Women” is Searcey’s captivating, straight-ahead memoir of their three years in Dakar, Senegal. There is plenty here about family: Todd’s restlessness and job angst; their children’s growing independence and occasional bouts of parasitic worms; a horrifying account of a good friend’s medical emergency and all that it entailed. (Buying him sheets for his hospital bed, to start.)

But while her family life is part of the narrative, what Searcey really wants to talk about are the stories of the people who live there. And my gosh, they are fascinating.

Searcey’s writing is plain and unvarnished; she pretties nothing up. A journalist’s journalist, she lets the details and characters provide the drama and plays down her own role, giving enormous credit to the local journalists and translators who work with her.

The memoir is not just a rehashing of stories she wrote for the Times; many of the stories she tells here never saw print. At the time, the United States was consumed with the election of Donald Trump and for a story out of West Africa to crack the cover of the Times, well, it had to be something astounding.

Frankly, all of the stories she tells seem astounding to me. Searcey gravitates toward stories about women, and the women she interviewed have endured almost unfathomable trauma and yet tell their stories bravely.

“All you had to do was ask,” she writes. “They wanted to share the terrible things they had witnessed. They wanted the world to know.”

Many of the stories involve the violence of Boko Haram. She writes about a woman who watched as a man is cut down by their bullets as he runs toward her — and then realizes he is her son.

She writes about two little boys, both forced to watch their parents slaughtered, both conscripted into the Boko Haram army. They ran away and found a girl hiding in the weeds, pregnant from rape by a Boko Haram fighter. “The threesome kept running until they were safe.” They now live together with the baby, “the world’s most amazing blended family.”

She interviews some of the Chibok girls who were kidnapped from their school by Boko Haram. She writes about the medical complications that develop in child brides — girls whose bodies are not yet developed enough for sex — a problem so prevalent there is a clinic devoted to it. She spends time with a judge who hears divorce cases, and she writes about how more West African women are seeking jobs and independence.

And she interviews young girls who were being trained to become suicide bombers, who desperately did not want to do this. One group fashioned long ropes from their hijabs and carefully lowered the bombs deep into wells where they would do no harm. When word came out that a different market had been bombed than the one assigned, the fighters “called the new girl over and scolded her for bombing the wrong town. Then they shot her to death.”

What is astounding is the poise and fortitude that these women exhibit in telling their stories to a Western journalist. Also astounding is how many of these tales Searcey was able to absorb over three years.

“My colleagues cautioned about ‘self-care’ while reporting grim stories,” she writes. “But I didn’t want Netflix and a facial; I wanted a story.”

This book is full of them.

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