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Fantastic zebras: Boston student pulls fast one on Boston Globe

Abubakar Suleiman
Abubakar Suleiman
David L Ryan

Abubakar Suleiman is a remarkable young man. He went from living in northern Nigeria to a graduate of Roxbury’s Orchard Gardens school. It is no small feat given that he was assigned to a failing school in one of Boston’s toughest neighborhoods.

His successful graduation is the kind of against-all-odds stories that warms the heart. A young man went from hunting Zebras and fending off cheetahs in Nigeria to graduating the 8th grade in Boston.

The only problem with this inspirational tale is that a lot of it was fictional.

Reporter Yvonne Abraham spoke with Sulieman and told his story in the June 30th edition of the Boston Globe. She opened with the the rough life that Suleiman lived in Nigeria. He stayed back in 5th grade due to his inability to read in English, but accelerated rapidly during his 6th grade year from a 1st grade reading level to that of an 11th grader. The school played a role, but Abraham says that it boiled down to the hard work of a young man.

At Thursday’s graduation ceremony, Bott called Suleiman “the epitome of the American Dream.” His classmates voted him most improved. He looked delighted by the honor, and appalled by the spotlight.

One small problem with the story. There are no wild zebras in Nigeria. Blogger Bob Blewett caught the error on July 3 writing:

While it is possible for a cheetah to exist in the savannas of northern Nigeria, this is extremely rare. Humans would frighten, not antagonize, any wild cheetah there.  Besides, hunting is about accuracy; javelin is about distance.

People took to Twitter and blogs to correct Abraham and let her know that she had been duped. She listened and issued this apology on July 4:

After writing this column about an impressive, immigrant eighth-grader who earned his javelin prowess throwing spears at zebras in Nigeria, I received several notes from readers saying there are no zebras in the wild in Nigeria.

They’re right. I spoke to the boy, and he admitted that the hunting escapades he told me about, stories he told friends and teachers since arriving at the age of 10, were tales he’d heard from an uncle, and not his own. But in conversations with his mother and teachers, the rest of his story checks out. His many remarkable accomplishments in Boston stand.

Sometimes stories can be too remarkable to be true. While it turns out that Suleiman was not hunting zebra, he did manage to improve his reading by 10 grade levels in one year. That is quite the accomplishment.

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About Author

Tom Murphy

Tom Murphy is a New Hampshire-based reporter for Humanosphere. Before joining Humanosphere, Tom founded and edited the aid blog A View From the Cave. His work has appeared in Foreign Policy, the Huffington Post, the Guardian, GlobalPost and Christian Science Monitor. He tweets at @viewfromthecave. Contact him at tmurphy[at]humanosphere.org.