By Jackson Holahan
The New Yorker has made a habit of recruiting some of the finest war and foreign correspondents onto its staff. Dexter Filkins, Jon Lee Anderson, and William Finnegan are among those who have ventured far into dangerous territory in order to breathe life into stories which may otherwise have gone unreported.
Alexis Okeowo, who was named a staff writer in late 2015, is continuing the tradition of the foreign correspondent who takes considerable personal risks driven by the conviction that all stories deserve to be told, particularly those that require a great deal of courage to uncover in the first place.
"A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Woman and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa" is the result of Okeowo’s tenure spent reporting in Africa over the past decade. Although based in Nigeria and Uganda, she travelled widely across the continent and in the process encountered everyday people taking a stand against extremism in extraordinary ways.
Okeowo selects four unique stories to demonstrate the uncommon courage that a few common people display in the face of serious harm. She profiles Eunice, a woman who was kidnapped by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) and was quickly forced into a marriage with Bosco, one of the violent militia’s notorious child soldiers. Eunice and Bosco ultimately escape from the LRA, at great personal risk and begin the challenging task of gaining acceptance and meaning in their local communities once again. In civil society, they also struggle to maintain a marriage that was consummated under duress and the threat of violence. Eunice admits, “In a perfect life, I would not be with Bosco, but I decided to give my life to him.”
In Mauritania, the last country in the world to outlaw slavery and one in which the practice often continues without punishment, Okeowo follows the work of Biram Dah Adbeid. Biram is a court clerk turned anti-slavery activist who rose to nationwide prominence for his aggressive efforts to free slaves throughout the country. He managed to parlay a strong degree of populist support for a presidential bid in 2014. Although unsuccessful, he vows to run again.
In Somalia, Okeowo chronicles Aisha, a brave young woman who endure threats and physical violence in order to play competitive basketball, an activity forbidden by Al-Shabaab, the Islamist militant group that controls vast swaths of the country. There is the story of Abba Kali, a civil servant known as Elder, who establishes and leads a local militia to combat Boko Haram, the foreign terrorist organization that operates with relative impunity throughout Kenya and a number of surrounding countries.
Okeowo’s declarative prose is concise and rarely ventures into the realm of prescriptive analysis. This gives the reader the opportunity to make an independent assessment. Each story has moments of tragedy and triumph and none arrives at any neat, positive conclusion. This underscores the complexity of each narrative, where a host of competing influences that include cultural traditions, political power centers, and foreign actors, to name only a few, collide with great force, resulting in unpredictable outcomes. In each case, the prospects for ongoing progress are far from certain, making the tenacity and commitment of Okeowo’s subjects to maintain even a tenuous hold on building a stable existence even more admirable.
The book’s title is as close as Okeowo comes to tipping her hand. Even in such challenging circumstances, it is encouraging to think of Biram, Eunice, Elder, and Aisha as the stars that might guide way for others, both at home and abroad, to stand defiantly against the forces of extremism and terrorism.