Guernica Magazine

Alexis Okeowo: Everyday Africans Fighting Extremism

The journalist on establishing emotional connection in interviews, and getting on with the business of living after trauma. The post Alexis Okeowo: Everyday Africans Fighting Extremism appeared first on Guernica.
Photo: Krisanne Johnson.

Aisha wears track pants under her long skirt and hijab. She plays basketball every day, despite menacing phone calls from strangers who say Islam prohibits women from doing so. She and her teammates know where to walk in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, to avoid Al-Shabaab militants. Death threats, kidnappings, men who stalk the court, follow her to practice—Aisha deals with it all, because she loves the sport, and because she wants to live her life.

In her new book, A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa, New Yorker staff writer Alexis Okeowo tells Aisha’s story, along with the tales of several other men and women in Nigeria, Uganda, and Mauritania whose lives have collided with conflict, violence, and fundamentalist ideology. There’s Bosco, who was kidnapped as a child by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army and trained to kill and pillage, and Eunice, who was also abducted by the LRA and forced to become Bosco’s “bush wife.” After Eunice escaped and Bosco surrendered under amnesty, the pair chose to reunite and live as a couple, despite confusion and disapproval from their families and neighbors. We also meet Rebecca, who was among the hundreds of girls kidnapped by Boko Haram militants from a school in Chibok, northeastern Nigeria, and managed to escape by jumping off the back of a truck. And Elder, who leads a vigilante group to fight Boko Haram in his community in the face of inadequate action by the Nigerian government.

Indeed, horror and tragedy pervade these accounts, but Okeowo flips the tired narrative of victimization on its head. The individuals in this book are rendered with depth and specificity, and the stories center on the brave decisions, big and small, that have helped them resist injustice. This even in the case of Biram Dah Abeid, the Mauritanian anti-slavery campaigner who, as a professional activist and politician, is perhaps the least “ordinary” of Okeowo’s subjects. The journalist reaches deep into his past, identifying the moments and encounters that helped transform a curious child into a passionate abolitionist who captured the world’s attention after publicly burning Islamic legal books that justified slavery.

As she writes in the preface to , Okeowo is familiar with living in “a culture of extremes.” The daughter of Nigerian immigrants, she grew up in Alabama, embedded in both a vibrant West African diasporic community and the , she moved to Lagos, Nigeria, where she lived for three years and reported intensely on Boko Haram and the kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls. In 2015, she returned to New York City. Okeowo says she’ll have a lifelong interest in the African continent, but for now is turning her attention to her “other home,” the South. Having reported at a rally in support of Confederate monuments near her hometown recently, Okeowo told me her experiences in Africa gave her the strength to delve into that potentially hostile gathering. “I was able to look at it as kind of another extremist situation.”

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