A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa
Alexis Okeowo, 2017
Review by Leila Green
“In history, there were the choices people made and the choices made for them, and then there was the murky in-between.” Journalist Alexis Okeowo declares this a little after the halfway point of A Moonless, Starless Sky, her debut book based on the six years she spent reporting from Africa. Okeowo, a current staff writer for The New Yorker, appears to know the feeling of the in-between all too well. The daughter of Nigerian immigrants, she was born and raised in Alabama. According to Okeowo, straddling between Nigeria and the U.S. led to early feelings of displacement: “Feeling neither wholly American nor African, I had come to see myself as an outsider in both places, an observer at the fringes.” But these feelings made for great journalism: “It was a perspective that helped me learn to report with clarity.”
It is Okeowo’s unique lens that gifts the four subjects of this book with a rare sense of compassion and familiarity. Through her measured, yet open investigative tactics, you get the sense that Okeowo isn’t just mining for facts. Instead, as she relays stories you sense that she is simply hanging out with friends. Gracious and incredibly courageous friends. This intimacy affords the subjects in A Moonless, Starless Sky an air of normalcy, which makes their subtly heroic resistance tactics all the more impressive.
These four “ordinary women and men fighting extremism in Africa” are just that: ordinary. Eunice and Bosco are just regular teens in Uganda when they are kidnapped by Joseph Kony’s brutal Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Biram is an average Mauritanian who learns he could have been enslaved, which drives him to launch an anti-slavery crusade. Rebecca, a kidnapped school girl, and Elder, a government bureaucrat, struggle against Boko Haram’s reign of terror in northern Nigeria. Aisha, a bold teen in Somalia, breaks all the rules to play basketball. When the dysfunction of the state seeps through the walls of these people’s homes, they are swept up into the chaos. Despite the unfairness of it all, they still fight for their lives and for their dignity. According to Okeowo, when it comes to fighting extremism “each victory, tiny and large, can feel monumental.”
Okeowo’s generous understanding of resistance allows her to craft robust, detailed portraits of her subjects. She trades in the broad brush typically employed by journalists writing “about Africa” for a thin brush that allows her to depict tiny, yet necessary details. These are the details that strike compassion. In A Moonless, Starless Sky we don’t just learn about these people’s struggles. We also learn about their victories, their personalities, and what makes them laugh.
This is no sensationalist exposé of trauma, nor does it ever hint at pathology. This is simply storytelling. Okeowo refrains from using the exhausting, “See! They’re just like us” trope that seems to be so popular when writing about Africans. The revelations here are much more profound. The stories are not focused on making Africa seem “relatable” or deconstructing stereotypes. Okeowo’s lyrical prose and heart-wrenching insights are much too wise to be reduced to a plea for respectability. There are many wonderful ideas explored in A Moonless, Starless Sky: the ethics of victimhood, the possibilities of forgiveness, the influence of religion on sexism and racism, the increasingly blurred lines between the personal and the political. But perhaps the largest takeaway is the book’s fascinating examination of how normalcy and chaos can coexist. A Moonless, Starless Sky examines the endless malleability of the human spirit, showing how ordinary people can become extraordinary when armed with courage. This is essential reading for the world.