In Pursuit of Disobedient Women

A Memoir of Love, Rebellion, and Family, Far Away



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March 10, 2020 | ISBN 9780593167625

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About the Book

When a reporter for The New York Times uproots her family to move to West Africa, she manages her new role as breadwinner while finding women cleverly navigating extraordinary circumstances in a forgotten place for much of the Western world.
“A story you will not soon forget.”—Kathryn Bigelow, Academy Award–winning director of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty

In 2015, Dionne Searcey was covering the economy for The New York Times, living in Brooklyn with her husband and three young children. Saddled with the demands of a dual-career household and motherhood in an urban setting, her life was in a rut. She decided to pursue a job as the paper’s West Africa bureau chief, an amazing but daunting opportunity to cover a swath of territory encompassing two dozen countries and 500 million people. Landing with her family in Dakar, Senegal, she quickly found their lives turned upside down as they struggled to figure out their place in this new region, along with a new family dynamic where she was the main breadwinner flying off to work while her husband stayed behind to manage the home front.
In Pursuit of Disobedient Women follows Searcey’s sometimes harrowing, sometimes rollicking experiences of her work in the field, the most powerful of which, for her, center on the extraordinary lives and struggles of the women she encounters. As she tries to get an American audience subsumed by the age of Trump and inspired by a feminist revival to pay attention, she is gone from her family for sometimes weeks at a time, covering stories like Boko Haram–conscripted teen-girl suicide bombers or young women in small villages shaking up social norms by getting out of bad marriages. Ultimately, Searcey returns home to reconcile with skinned knees and school plays that happen without her and a begrudging husband thrown into the role of primary parent.
Life, for Searcey, as with most of us, is a balancing act. She weaves a tapestry of women living at the crossroads of old-fashioned patriarchy and an increasingly globalized and connected world. The result is a deeply personal and highly compelling look into a modern-day marriage and a world most of us have barely considered. Readers will find Searcey’s struggles, both with her family and those of the women she meets along the way, familiar and relatable in this smart and moving memoir.
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Praise for In Pursuit of Disobedient Women

“Dionne Searcey’s In Pursuit of Disobedient Women offers a candid and riveting backstory of the powerful series she crafted on Boko Haram and independent women in Nigeria during her tenure as West Africa bureau chief for The New York Times. Through Searcey’s stunning descriptions and humorously self-deprecating honesty, we gain insight into the relentless (and at times, frustrating) reporting required for such outstanding journalism, while shedding light on the never-ending juggle to balance work and home life as a foreign correspondent.”—Lynsey Addario, photojournalist and New York Times bestselling author of It’s What I Do and Of Love & War

In Pursuit of Disobedient Women is an urgent and necessary work, taking the reader into the heart of one of the most dangerous terrorist militias on earth. Searcey’s fearless reporting on Boko Haram’s survivors is as compassionate as it is unrelenting. It’s a story you will not soon forget.”—Kathryn Bigelow, Academy Award–winning director of The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty

 “In Pursuit of Disobedient Women beautifully chronicles the sometimes harrowing challenges women in West Africa face as well as their triumphs. Searcey portrays African women for what they are: strong and clever, like women everywhere. She weaves stories of family life and motherhood throughout her tales, rounding out a unique and relatable portrait of womanhood.”—Oby Ezekwesili, global women’s advocate, founder of Bring Back Our Girls and former education minister of Nigeria

“Compulsively readable and searingly honest, Dionne Searcey’s account of her tenure as New York Times West Africa bureau chief begins as a personal journey, as she juggles motherhood, career, and guilt, and ends as a testament to the people whose stories she illuminates. There’s not enough space on the pages of a newspaper to tell their tales, which lingered with me days after finishing the book. Thought provoking, at times deeply uncomfortable and moving, yet filled with humor and honesty, this is a book that everyone should read.”—Yangsze Choo, New York Times bestselling author of The Night Tiger and The Ghost Bride

“In turns funny, wise, sad, and terrifying, Searcey vividly puts the reader in her shoes and compellingly details the often ignored stories of women who live through conflict every day, including her own.”—Kim Barker, author of The Taliban Shuffle

“Gracefully moving between the personal and the geopolitical, Searcey gives a poignant and at times harrowing account of one of the more difficult jobs in journalism. A rare book that manages to be both entertaining, thought-provoking, and utterly transporting.”—Ian Urbina, New York Times bestselling author of The Outlaw Ocean
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In Pursuit of Disobedient Women

The hotel looked like all the other big hotels around here. It was trying hard to be five-star but was no match for the elements. One too many rainy seasons had dulled and dented its mirrored exterior. The heat seeped in from outside, overwhelming the air- conditioning. The lobby’s mahogany-looking floors were actually cheap linoleum that had buckled in the humidity. Mold crept along the edges of the walls.
It was early 2016, but the music blaring out of the speakers was a mix of Elton John and Billy Joel and Sting, an easy-listening soundtrack apparently meant to soothe the harsh realities behind the lobby’s glass doors.
I had been living in the region for only a few weeks when I shipped out for one of my first assignments as West Africa bureau chief for The New York Times.
Fifteen hours of airplane and car rides later, I arrived in the muggy southern tip of Nigeria, deep in the country’s oil-rich Niger Delta, tucked right in the geographic middle of the continent’s armpit.
My plan was to talk to residents about the damage a group of militants had done as they blew up oil pipelines in a country that relied on oil proceeds to pay for almost everything in its budget.
I was waiting to see Peter, a local journalist who was my “fixer”— the savvy, street smart, on-the-ground operator who arranges interviews and guides international reporters through and, importantly, out of unfamiliar areas.
In his prime Peter had led other reporters across some of Nigeria’s roughest spots. Now he was almost 60 and nearing the end of his journalism career. He wore striped golf shirts that didn’t quite cover his potbelly. His thick, black-rimmed glasses magnified his eyes. The first time I worked with him, he had to be roused from his bed half drunk and nearly missed an assignment. New to the job, I didn’t know anyone else more qualified. I hired him to take me to the Delta.
The Niger Delta is a dangerous corner of the world in a dangerous corner of the world, where militants were making a sport of taking foreigners for ransom. I didn’t want to be one of those people who worried about getting kidnapped just because they wandered into new places without understanding them. But around here, that fear seemed legitimate. The local papers were reporting new kidnappings every month.
Peter might have caved to the occasional bender but he knew the region well. I was pretty certain he wasn’t going to get me kidnapped—at least not intentionally.
In the city of Warri at the hotel check-in desk, foreign refinery workers from Chevron, Shell and other big oil companies were checking out. Their lives were calculated to be at risk and their corporate overlords were bringing them home.
The people blowing up the oil pipelines were the newest generation of militants who in the past decade had been prowling the Delta’s web of mangrove-lined creeks armed with dynamite. The government for years had honored a deal that paid them to stop, but a new president was threatening to cut o the payments. Attacks were ramping up.
Before I could even set down my bags in my hotel room, Peter called my cell.
“There’s someone here to meet us,” he said. “Come to the lobby.”
I didn’t realize we had a “meeting” scheduled. I grabbed my notebook and rushed to the lobby, where a Celine Dion song was blaring from the speakers now. I spotted Peter and another round-bellied man wearing a beret, who motioned for me to sit down in a corner near the bar. Peter introduced us.
The man, Victor, was from a place called Ugborodo, one of the communities deep in the Delta’s miles of skinny, vein-like water- ways that curl around specks of islands before spilling into the Atlantic. Ugborodo was across the water from a giant, gleaming Chevron natural gas terminal—a miles-long space station monstrosity that was itself a modern city, complete with its own air-conditioned apartments and airstrip.
Victor began telling me of his village’s misery. Their biggest concern wasn’t the terrorists. Years of careless oil company drilling and transport had time and again spilled ExxonValdez–sized amounts of oil into the water. No one properly cleaned it up. People were so poor they were forced to dine on the fish they pulled from polluted swamps. Most everyone in his community was unemployed, yet the oil and gas companies imported workers from abroad. Those corporations were earning billions at the expense of Victor’s people. They lived in tin shacks with no electricity and shared a single, shabby outhouse propped up in the middle of a murky lagoon.
This is going to be an important story, I thought. Maybe Peter wasn’t so bad after all.
The lobby music was overpowering the conversation. I leaned closer to catch each of Victor’s eloquent, pained words, trying to ignore the Sting song now blaring in my ear.
“The president can’t turn his back on the Niger Delta. This region lays the golden egg for the rest of the country.”
You could say I lost my faith in the people on TV, Sting sang.
“Our land is polluted. Agriculture no longer thrives,” Victor said.
You could say I’d lost my belief in our politicians, they all seemed like game show hosts to me, Sting wailed.
I turned around to look for a bartender to lower the volume of the stupid music.
“Dionne!” Peter shouted. Probably for the third time.
I snapped my head toward him. A dozen men in grubby jeans and tight T-shirts were standing in front of me.
The man closest to me was dressed in all black, tall and bald with mirrored sunglasses dangling from his collar. His biceps bulged out of his T-shirt. He wasn’t smiling.
My mind raced. Peter had sold me out. These were the kidnappers I had been hearing about.
But before I could really worry, my phone beeped with a calendar alert I had set for myself a few weeks back. Out of instinct, I looked down.
“Kids need to wear green to school today for Earth Day celebration.”
I swiped away the alert, along with the notion that my husband would ever remember to dress the kids in green to save the planet—let alone remember, while I was being held for the next few months in a damp, dark kidnappers’ hideout, which of our kids hates watermelon-flavored anything, which one likes to go to bed with the hallway light on and which one needs her stuffed tiger to fall asleep.
I looked up at Peter. He looked at me. I did the only thing I could think to do. I stood and introduced myself. And one by one, the men all shook my hand.
They were Victor’s friends. And they were here to talk, not kid- nap me.
But they were, in fact, terrorists. Or at least they used to be until a couple years ago when they struck an amnesty deal with the government to lay down their explosives in exchange for cash. Their own pipeline-busting days were behind them, they assured me.
I spent the next few hours talking with them about explosives, best practices for backyard oil refining and the topic they were most interested in, the bombastic and unlikely candidate for American president back then, Donald Trump.
The men laid out the case for how jilted their region had been, not just by the oil companies but by their own government. Leaders for years had skimmed oil revenues to buy armored Hummers and opulent mega-mansions in the capital city while everyone in the Delta lived in sweltering, small metal shacks on islands where oil flares glared on the horizon, as though they were blowing a fiery raspberry at their misery.
To tell their story, I knew I had to see the community they were describing.
“Can you take me there tomorrow morning?” I asked.
“Yes,” answered an enthusiastic Victor. “But it’s a three-hour ride through the creeks in a small speedboat.”
That’s a long time to spend out in the remote, oil-soaked man- groves with a group of ex-militants when other not-so-ex militants are roaming around. Especially for an American journalist who might as well have dollar bills stapled to her forehead.
Victor must have read my mind. “We know the area. It will be safe,” he assured me. I believed him.
But Mike, the guy in the sunglasses, was agitated, waving his arms and mumbling something to the others, who were getting just as squirmy.
“It’s OK,” I said, reassuring him that I wasn’t worried about my safety. “I believe Victor, and I trust you guys. It’ll be fine.” Did they think I was chicken? I knew this job required more guts than shouting questions at a press conference.
“It’s not you we’re worried about,” Mike said.
They were afraid that if the military spotted them out in the middle of nowhere with a foreigner, let alone a foreign woman, soldiers would assume I was a hostage. They’d be arrested, accused of kidnapping me, and were quite certain no one would believe anything to the contrary.
So I spent the next half hour convincing this band of retired terrorists that I was safe to hang with.

About the Author

Dionne Searcey
Dionne Searcey was the West Africa bureau chief for The New York Times from 2015 to 2019. She won the Michael Kelly Award for courage in international reporting, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi award for international reporting for her coverage of Boko Haram, and a citation for her work by the Overseas Press Club. She and a team of Times journalists were nominated for an Emmy for her stories on Boko Haram. She joined the Times in 2014 to write about the American economy after working for ten years at The Wall Street Journal, where she was an investigative reporter and national legal correspondent, and covered the telecom industry. She has worked as a political reporter at Newsday and The Seattle Times and was a reporting resident at the Chicago Tribune. She started her career as a crime reporter at the City News Bureau of Chicago. She was raised in Wymore, Nebraska, and lives with her husband and three children in Brooklyn, New York. More by Dionne Searcey
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Random House Publishing Group