Author Recognizes Ordinary Africans Fighting Extremism NPR's Melissa Block talks to Alexis Okeowo author of A Moonless, Starless Sky. Among the stories, a Somali girl defies al-Shabab and plays basketball, and a Mauritanian man campaigns against slavery.

Author Recognizes Ordinary Africans Fighting Extremism

Author Recognizes Ordinary Africans Fighting Extremism

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NPR's Melissa Block talks to Alexis Okeowo author of A Moonless, Starless Sky. Among the stories, a Somali girl defies al-Shabab and plays basketball, and a Mauritanian man campaigns against slavery.

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 06: Alexis Okeowo speaks on stage during The 2017 New Yorker Festival at Gramercy Theatre on October 6, 2017 in New York City. Andrew Toth/Getty Images for The New Yorker hide caption

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Andrew Toth/Getty Images for The New Yorker

NEW YORK, NY - OCTOBER 06: Alexis Okeowo speaks on stage during The 2017 New Yorker Festival at Gramercy Theatre on October 6, 2017 in New York City.

Andrew Toth/Getty Images for The New Yorker


Journalist Alexis Okeowo spent years reporting in Africa. And she quickly grew fatigued with the common narrative - stories of victimhood, hopelessness, chaos and despair. In her new book titled "A Moonless, Starless Sky," she writes instead about ordinary Africans who are standing up to extremism, people who are in their own ways resisting religious and cultural fundamentalism in acts of everyday bravery. Alexis Okeowo joins me here in the studio. Thanks for coming in.

ALEXIS OKEOWO: Hi. Thanks for having me.

BLOCK: Let's talk about this thread connecting the chapters of your book, this thread of resistance which is based on your reporting on the ground in Uganda and Somalia, Nigeria, Mauritania. Why did you come to focus on that?

OKEOWO: Well, I realized over the years reporting in Africa that my reporting was starting to follow a pattern. I was seeking out people who found themselves in suddenly extreme situations. And I was interested in what kind of choices they made and how they rose to the occasion and how they tried to preserve their ways of life amid circumstances that were extraordinary. And in all of these situations - whether it was dealing with terrorism or conflict or a failed state - all of the subjects fought back in their own ways and in order to protect their families or to keep playing sports or to keep loving who they wanted to love. And so I was drawn to those, as you call them, everyday acts of resistance and drawn to how they made often simple but incredibly brave choices to keep their lives intact.

BLOCK: Let's talk about the couple you described from Uganda, a couple named Eunice and Bosco, who were both captured by Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army when they were teenagers, both forced to commit unspeakable atrocities in the bush. Eunice is taken by Bosco to be his bush wife as it's called. He rapes her on their first night as a couple. But years later, they both escape. They return home. And Eunice chooses to stay with Bosco as a married couple, raising their children together. How does she explain that decision?

OKEOWO: You know, that was a very difficult story to report because, you know, I wanted to let her tell me in her own words why she decided to stay with a man who had done something horrible to her. But in the end, you know, what she realized and what she told me is that both of them were victims of their circumstances. Both of them were victims of a rebel group that tried to tear them from everything they had known, from the idea of family, from the idea of love. And the truth was she told me that she had grown close to this man. She had grown to depend on him, to trust him, eventually to love him. And she realized that the idea of perpetrator and victim is not so clear cut. It's not so easy. You know, when you're dealing with people who were abducted to commit atrocities, were forced to commit atrocities but who didn't want to do it, you know, where's the line? You know, what can you call good and evil?

BLOCK: Yeah.

OKEOWO: And so she did recognize that her family, her community were bewildered. You know, why go back to this man you were forced to be with? But for her loving was an act of resistance. It was a way to stake a claim on what she felt dear, her family. And it was a way to take control of her life after so much had been controlled for her and decided for her by this rebel group.

BLOCK: And they survived together because each other.

OKEOWO: Yes, yes.

BLOCK: Your book ends on an inspiring note in Somalia with a remarkable young woman named Aisha who has an idol, somebody that she thinks is magic. Who is her idol?

OKEOWO: It's LeBron James (laughter).

BLOCK: She's a basketball player.

OKEOWO: Yeah, she's a basketball player. And she said there's this one guy my neighbor told me about. And I, like, looked up his video and his photos. And you know, I didn't know who she was going to say. I thought maybe someone in Somalia, someone - an African. And she said, do you know this guy LeBron James? And like, yeah, I've heard of him (laughter).

BLOCK: I think I know that guy.

OKEOWO: Yeah, and Aisha's incredible. She is a teenager, a Somali teenage girl who plays basketball despite death threats to her life.

BLOCK: Just for playing a sport, for playing basketball.

OKEOWO: Exactly. I mean, Somali's a young country. And even just as recently as 30 years ago, Somalia had an incredibly strong women's basketball team. Women on the team went around with afros and even played in shorts. But with the advent of the civil war two decades ago and increasing radicalism, you know, the entrance of Al-Shabaab, the restrictions for women have only increased. Their freedoms have shrunk. And so even though Aisha's mom used to play basketball and play it freely, nowadays, to do that is something that is incredibly defiant.

Aisha's not an activist. And she's not trying to be a hero. But she just loves the sport. She loves the game. And she feels it's her right to play. And you know, she's religious to a certain extent, too. And she doesn't - and she says one time in the book, you know, she doesn't feel like her God wouldn't want her to play basketball as long as she tries to be faithful and good. One great thing I noticed is that under her long skirts, she'll always be wearing track pants, you know, always ready to kind of whip off her skirt and start playing ball. And you know, when she goes to and from the court, she does hide her team's shirt in her bag. But otherwise, she feels like, this is my life. And I should be able to live it like I want to.

BLOCK: Is she afraid?

OKEOWO: She is afraid. And I think that ultimately - she has told me that if she did have a choice even though she loves her country, she would love to try living in a place where she didn't have all these risks and restrictions. But she kind of tries to power through it because she told me one time that if people see her as being weak and afraid that puts her at even more risk - and that she doesn't want to be seen as being vulnerable. So she puts on this bravado.

BLOCK: You write, Alexis, in your book, (reading) for years, I'd been asking where God was in the conflicts and crimes I had reported on in Africa.

And I wonder if you're any closer now to an answer to that question?

OKEOWO: I do think I am because I think it is in people like this, the people I wrote about because I couldn't see God in the horrible atrocities I was witnessing. I just couldn't see any kind of order or righteousness or logic behind that. But I could see faith and good in these flawed people that I was writing about who were - actually they're all religious in themselves and all had religion as a steadying, supportive force in their lives that enabled them to either resist in overt ways or to just do simple things like going to the court like Aisha in Somalia or choosing to be with her partner like Eunice in Uganda. I could see God there in people, who I'm not saying are heroes or were perfect but who found in religion something supportive and something fortifying that helped them live their lives and resist.

BLOCK: Alexis Okeowo, her book is "A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Men And Women Fighting Extremism In Africa." Alexis, thanks so much.

OKEOWO: Thank you for having me.

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