Uncovering Traumatized Characters in Helon Habila’s The Chibok Girls

This article is published by the Zamfara International Journal of Humanities.

Manta G. Yadok
Department of English & Literary Studies,
Federal University Wukari,
Taraba - Nigeria.


Rinret W. Lukden
Department of English & Literary Studies,
Federal University Wukari,
Taraba - Nigeria.


Psychological issues of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are not restricted toindividuals, rather, they could be triggered by communal issues in which the traumatic experiences of an individual are understood through the social and cultural context. There are several creative texts that engage these issues in discourse and HelonHabila’s The Chibok Girls is one of such. Particularly, The Chibok Girls explores experiences of the secondary victims which include parents of the kidnapped girls in Chibok town, Borno state Nigeria, Chibok community and security operatives assigned to superintend in the locality where the tragic event happened. Although the text uses an investigative reportage, the paper is guided by two major tasks. First, it engages Balaev’s argument on traumatic experience to demonstrate how trauma is not a specific experience of an individual rather it seeks to affirm that an individual’s trauma originates from a collective pool of experiences that are repressed and shared by members of a specific clime. Therefore, understanding trauma is a function of understanding societal state. Second, this paper explores how some characters in the text have developed coping mechanisms and how few of them resigned to fate in managing their emotions with a ‘hopeful’ resolve of the ‘possible return’ of the missinggirls. This paper is not a political critique, but it reconnoiters the polemics associated with the repressed emotions of the characters in terms of securing the freedom of the kidnapped girls and highlights the failure of key political actors to secure the rights of its citizens.


Helon Habila, adopting an investigative journalist approach, recounts the kidnapping in April 2014 of 276 girls from a government secondary school in Chibok town of Borno State, Nigeria. The government is alleged to have negotiated the release ofabout 83 of them while 113 are still with the abductors. The girls were believed to have been ‘taken’ by the extremist jihadist sect known as Boko Haram which means ‘Westerneducation is abhorrent” Helon Habila gives insight as to how ‘radicalism can keep a country under hostage, a country where corruption is rife, government is dysfunctional and the young people alienated’

This paper focuses on traumatized  characters and their coping mechanisms. It also explores how Helon Habila willingly become a victim of trauma by recollecting, political, social and historical experiences as one raised in the North Eastern part of Nigeria which is currently bedeviled with insurgency. The Nigerian novel has evolved and drawn into a wide field of discourse such a trauma studies. It is expedient to note that trauma has always been a major preoccupation of literary texts of what makes up Nigerian Literature. The works of Cyprian Ekwensi, Chinua Achebe and even mythical characters of Amos Tutuola and others have contained tropes of traumatized characters which have not been given due attention in the critical enterprise.

Sigmund Freud’s hypotheses concerning the unconscious and the workings of repression laid the foundation and popular diffusion of the concept ‘trauma’ which is Freud’s psychoanalytic tool for the exploration of human psyche which laces emphasison the viability of the “conscious mind and unconscious” as a guide to understand the workings of the mind/interior of traumatized characters. Dobbie (2002:56) argues that the unconscious mind can be regarded as the force behind a number of physical acts perpetrated by humans and this is analogous to the small portion of an iceberg that is visible above the surface of a water body but which is a large part of the iceberg buried beneath the surface of the water.

Thus, this paper examined how repressed thoughts, feelings, and ideas reenact themselves from the unconscious mind of the characters to find an outlet; and at the same time how it influences the character’s behaviors.

In defining trauma, the American Psychiatric Association (2013) describes trauma as a ‘post- traumatic stress disorder’. It is also defined as a “mental disorder thatcan develop after a person is exposed to traumatic events such as sexual assault, warfare, traffic collisions or other threats”. Experiences of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder may manifest in form of frequent painful recollections, flashbacks, feeling withdrawn or separate from others, thoughts of

suicide and tendency towards anger and violence. Caruth (1996:67) notes that post- traumatic stress disorder is a reflection of the direct imposition on the mind of the unavoidable reality of horrific events, the taking over of the mind and event that cannot be controlled ‘(67). For Caruth post- traumatic stress disorder, (PTSD) seems to provide the most direct link between the psyche and eternal violence. In reviewing trauma texts, critical appraisals of Iweala’s text also accentuates the fact that it is a traumatic literary piece, because it dwells on the traumatic experiences of a child soldier.

The novel explored by Omobowale and Adebayo (2018) in their paper titled “Narrative war, trauma and the banality of evil: Narrative aesthetics and the representation of PTSD in Beast of No Nation” centered on narrative aesthetics such as the site of trauma being met with the inability to express itself in a legible and logical language as seen in the lack of coherence in sentences by the protagonist. Omobowale and Adebayo absorbed Cathy’s belief on narrative aesthetics in the post colony and how it argues for more politically engaged discussions especially in the collection and social contest.

In view of the above, this paper, overall, argues that Michealle Bailaev’s Trauma Theory is a viable paradigm with which to investigate the social and cultural milieu of the text as further reinforced by the argument of Cathy Caruth.

Theoretical Framework

The evolution of trauma theory in literary criticism might best be understood in terms of the changing psychological definitions of trauma as well as the semiotic, theoretical and social concerns that are part of the study of trauma in literature and society. The allure of the classic model exists in the painting of neurobiological theories regarding the processes of the mind and the memory together with semiotic theories regarding the processes of language associations, and symbolization. Yet if the psychological basis of trauma is re-examined, then the classic model fails to fit the laws of structuraland post-structural linguistics. This is to suggest that the traditional Laconia approach only works if the psychological definition of trauma conforms to a particular theoretical recipe that draws from Freud to portray traumatic experience as a pre-linguistic event but universally causes dissociation 995).

The range of pluralistic models showcased in this collection moves away from the focus on trauma as un-representable and toward a focus on the specificity of trauma that locates meaning through a greater consideration of the social and cultural contexts of traumatic experiences which is being posited by Michelle Baleav. Balaev re- evaluates Caruth’s theory to be the traditional paradigm of trauma studies. Baleav moves from the personal experience of trauma to a collective experience. Baleav also moves from the causes of trauma to the effects of trauma, and from

what is traditionally and individual psychological disorder to a collective disorder. Thus, locality trauma in psychoanalysis is through the defense mechanism tactic developed by the ego to protect it against anxiety. The ego helps to cope with the conflicting demands of the id and the super ego. The defense mechanisms are thought to safeguard the mind against feelings and thoughts that are too difficult for the conscious mind to cope with. Scholars have described over twenty (20) defense mechanisms but for the sake of this paper, four of these defense mechanisms are examined and they include:

1.      Denial

2.      Repression and suppression

3.      Rationalization

4.      Sublimation

i.            Denial: this is an outright refusal to agree or recognize that something has happened or is currently occurring. Victims of traumatic events may deny thatthe event ever transpired. Denial functions to protect the ego fromcircumstances with which the individual cannot cope.

ii.             Repression and suppression: repression acts to keep information out ofconscious awareness. However, these memories don’t just disappear, instead, they continue to influence our behaviour, the memories from our awareness are believed to occur unconsciously.

iii.            Rationalization: this is a defense mechanism that involves explaining an unacceptable behavior or feeling in a rational or logical manner, avoiding the true reason for the behavior. Rationalization also protects self-esteem and self- concept.

iv.             Sublimation: is a defense mechanism that allows us to act out of unacceptable impulses by converting these behaviors into a more acceptable form, Freud believed that sublimation is a sign of maturity that allows people to function normal in socially acceptable ways.

In addition to locating trauma within the Ego Axis, Terry Eagleton (2008:159) suggests that “the link between the ego and the external reality is ruptured and the unconscious begins to build up an alternative, delusional reality”. Eagleton added that if the neurotic may develop a paralyzed arm, the psychotic may believe that

his arm has turned into an elephant trunk. Since, in the Freudian psychoanalytic theory, psychotic and neurotic thoughts and perceptions are severely impaired. On a whole, defense mechanisms can be both good and bad by protecting your ‘ego’ from stress and providing a healthy outlet.In other instances, these defense mechanisms might hold you back form facing reality and can act as a form of self-deception.


Traumatized Characters in the Text

The victims of trauma can be categorized into two. The first victims are usually those directly involved in traumatic experiences and the secondary victims are those who areindirectly involved. In the text the The Chibok Girls the primary victims are the girls kidnapped by ‘Boko Haram’ and the secondary victims are the “girls” parents, neighbours, people living in Chibok and areas troubled by Boko Haram activities, and passionate Nigerians who continue to await their return. As earlier posited, trauma is usually located within the Ego when the link between the Ego and the external reality is ruptured and the unconscious begins to build up an alternative, delusional reality. This is what Caruth (1996) notes as most direct between the psyche and external violence and thus results to the conflicting demands of the Id and the super Ego through the defense mechanism.

Most of the characters are unnamed, and unveiled through their professional titles. The first character is a soldier whose coping mechanism is repression and suppression This is evident in his behavior as he shouts aggressively at Helon Habila and his entourage he feels they were intentionally trying to bypass the stop and search posts. The soldier shouted and said; 

“you think, you think….

So you are civilian JTF? So what?

Four months we have been here without salary, our friends are killed byBoko Haram and I am sick….

I go keep you here for hours in this sun” pg.15

The excerpt above clearly indicates this character has been traumatized by the events of the Boko Haram activities over time and for him to remain on the job, he has to subdue his emotions. These memories do not disappear or exist in oblivion. They continue to influence his behavior and trigger memories which occur unconsciously. Helon Habila was only glad that soldier was not having a gun. Like the character Agu inthe Beast of No Nation the site of trauma is met by a repetitive phrase in the first line asthe soldier yells out in anger. As for Agu, he had a lot of incoherence speech.

Secondly, an unarmed father of one of the kidnapped girls whose coping mechanism is denial lost his life, as captured on pg. by 74, of the text The Chibok Girls denial functionsto protect the Ego from things with which the individual cannot accept. It is obvious thefather could not accept the fate that had befallen of his daughter. It was depicted on several occasions that he goes to the mountains shouting his daughter’s name before he finally died of depression.

Rationalization is a defense mechanism that involves explaining an unacceptable behavior or feeling in a rational manner by avoiding the true reasons for the behavior. This is reflected in the conversation of the narrator and the unnamed driver from the airport who rationalized the activities of the text when Habila asked him of his view he recounts “we accept modernity too quickly… we spill our secrets to the white men, everything we know, we go and tell them for reward all in the name of western education”. (pg57). With this reply, one can only wonder if the driver is also member of the Boko Haram or he is trying to stay safe.

Lastly, sublimation is a defense mechanism that allows individuals act out unacceptable impulses by converting the behaviors into a more acceptable form. A vividaccount is seen in the burial rites carried out in absentia for the kidnapped girls as a means of closure for the traumatized parents on (pg. 74).

As earlier posited, Helon Habila too, the author of the text The Chibok Girls has unwittingly become a victim of trauma through his collection of collective experiences of the traumatized victims. Habila started by recollecting how the version of Islam he knew while growing up was a peaceful religion, he reminisced those times he and his Muslim neighbors share things in common and begins to wonder how the trajectory has changed. By embarking on a herculean task to gather different accounts from the traumatized characters, Habila brings to the fore a reality that people react differently to traumatic events, even in terms of neurobiological responses as posited by Balaev.


the effects of trauma on national development

Davis and Williams (2015) observed that a nexus exists between trauma and national development. It impacts the broader community and is referred to as collective trauma which is an aggregate of trauma experienced by community members or an event that impacts a few people but has structural and social traumatic consequences. They also affirm that the symptoms of community trauma are the product of economic, political and social isolation, a lack of investment in economic development leads to high levelsof violence, and the maintenance and improvement in the built environment, the loss ofsocial capital with the flight of middle class families and the concentration of poverty and exposure. The atmosphere in Chibok was filled with tension, palpable fear and uncertainties. Most people declined granting interviews and a number of them did not know who to trust: as noticed in the case of the Vice-Principal of the Government secondary school in Chibok. Even men clearly turned down interviews as a result of the “kidnap”, schools were closed down, the teachers had to stay at home without pay and with constant threat from the government not to say anything to the press. Education which is the bedrock of any country is gradually being crippled by the activities of the Boko Haram Sect. The evils perpetrated by the Boko Haram members cuts across religious climes which is evident in the mutual experiences of the characters, both Christians and Muslims are affected. In many cases, trauma can actually strengthen the memory of anevent as noted by Balaev and Caruth. People who develop post- traumatic stress disorder have traumatic experiences causing them to experience serial flashbacks of the events rather experiencing repression. Thus making Helon Habila have a collective memory that is socially and historically induced by the events that chronologically led to what the state is currently experiencing in the North East. This expresses the laxity on the side of the leaders to curtail security issues. At the moment, Nigeria’s most challenging problem is how to keep its citizens safe. Nigeria has been ranked as one of the most unsafe places to go in the world and this has grounded a number of businesses, potential investors are risk averse concerning the country, thereby increasing the rate of poverty.

It has also been observed that female characters in the text were either not properly covered or had more absorption of pain than the males. Conversely, the male counterparts easily gave up i.e. the two fathers who died out of Post- Traumatic Stress Disorder. The death of the men obviously, reduced, the workforce of a nation, it will also cripple the economy and increase the number of widows, child dropouts and subsequently creating new crop of nuisance.


This paper has demonstrated that trauma is not restricted to the confines of personal experiences alone rather it is a function of a collective shared experience. This indeed emphasizes the idea of trauma as a function of societal reality into which all individuals in that society are implicated. The parents of the kidnapped Chibok girls and Nigerians have continued to be hopeful as a result of several campaigns pioneered around the world by prominent personalities such as Michelle Obama and Oby Ezekwesili who championed the cause of the Bring Back Our Girls Campaign through the media, long walks, prayers and advocacy in small groups. These and many more reflect the collective experience shared as a result of the effects of trauma.


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