A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary men and women fighting extremism in Africa

Friday, June 14, 2019

In A Moonless, Starless Sky Alexis Okeowo weaves together four narratives that form a powerful tapestry of modern Africa: a young couple, kidnap victims of Joseph Kony’s LRA; a Mauritanian waging a lonely campaign against modern-day slavery; a women’s basketball team flourishing amid war-torn Somalia; and a vigilante who takes up arms against the extremist group Boko Haram. Alexis Okeowo, a New Yorker journalist who was based in Nigeria for three years, writes about the lives of individuals seeking normalcy amidst, and in some cases fighting back against, the unfathomable reaches of human cruelty.

She effortlessly weaves together these stories, detailing atrocious experiences with frankness, simplicity, and above all humanity. She showcases the courage and resilience of everyday people, painting a picture of countries we usually only hear about through a very imperialistic lens.

From Uganda there is a story of two people who were abducted by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army as teens. After fifteen-year-old Eunice was abducted, she was forced to marry nineteen-year-old Bosco. What happens to these forced unions if the abductees escape and why do so many of these couples choose to stay together? How are the children of these marriages affected? Okeowo also explores the difficult relationships between the former child soldiers and the communities they may have been forced to harm.

Mauritania was the last country to abolish slavery in 1981, but the government did little to actually eradicate the practice. Okeowo explains how slavery became such an accepted part of Mauritanian society and how demographic divisions contributed to its endurance. This section focuses on abolitionist Biram Dah Abeid’s fight to end slavery in Mauritania, a crusade that has put him and his family in peril. What makes someone stand up for others, even at great risk to themselves? In this story we learn how slave-owners are able to enslave people without chains and about the obstacles that arise when adjusting to sudden freedom.

In Somalia Aisha received her first death threat from terrorists when she was thirteen. Her supposed crime? Playing basketball. Somalia went from having one of the best women’s basketball teams in the region to a place where it’s unsafe for women to play sports at all. This is the story of young women who continue to play the game they love despite the risks.

These accounts of ordinary people trying to live their lives freely are both distressing and inspiring. Rebellion doesn’t come without sacrifices and many of these people endured death threats, survived harrowing escapes, and/or remained steadfast against relentless outside pressure. In the face of adversity, these people stand firm in their beliefs and manage to preserve their autonomy. The individuals may not make the choices one would expect or that are easy for outsiders to understand, but they’re all doing the best they can to live their lives of their own free will and/ or cultivate a society where everyone can live freely.

A book like A Moonless, Starless Sky seizes our attention and reminds us that the lives of the millions of people across the diversity of Africa are every bit as complex and challenging as those elsewhere.

These stories are presented as resistance to extremism. In some cases, that’s true in a literal sense. In others, the people featured are just trying to eke out a life, which might be considered a form of resistance. But while ideas of activism and anti-extremism may make a story more marketable in today’s America, Okeowo’s highly readable but heartrending book is unified more around the depth of conflict felt by those profiled. Some of these individuals’ actions render them deeply morally compromised; it’s not a tale of lesser-known Gandhis. Especially searing is the tale of Eunice and Bosco, a couple who met as conscripted child soldiers in the LRA terror group and now try to live peacefully as a family after escaping with their son, under the dark cloud of their appalling past crimes.

A Moonless, Starless Sky is challenging, frightening, and powerful. It’s not uplifting. But, at a time when our world’s political landscape is being constantly redefined, it’s instructive to see how a range of ordinary men and women deliberately seek to create good around them, in ways both large and small.

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Author: Alexis Okeowo