In 2018, I made a small effort to listen to audio books by people who are not from the U.S. during my commute to the prison where I was teaching ENG 101 at the time. I listened to First, They Killed My Father by Loung Ung (Cambodian) and Mighty Be our Powers by Leymah Gbowee (Liberian). Almost three years ago I read How They Spent Their Sundays by Courtney McDermott, which is based on her time in the peace corps in Lesotho.
After I turned in my 2018 stats, I realized I’m still mostly reading books by U.S. authors. Why is that? More than 50% of the books I was reading in 2018 were those I owned, which means past me wasn’t giving much thought to the rest of the planet when I was purchasing books. I tried to rectify that by using my Christmas gift card to buy a nonfiction book about Africa and one about North Korea.
A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa by Alexis Okeowo was up first. Okeowo was born in the south in the United States, but her parents are from Nigeria. She became “obsessed with Africa” after her nearly year-long internship in Uganda after college. Being both Western and African, Okeowo has a different insight from people born and raised in Africa, but due to her appearance, she also blends in while in Africa.
Okeowo’s book contains journalistic pieces set in four countries: Uganda, Mauritania, Nigeria, and Somalia. The book itself is split into two halves: each of the four countries have a “build up” sort where things come to a head (in the order listed above), then they each have a denouement in section two (again, in the order listed above). Because I don’t have a great memory for names, dates, and places if they’re all jumbled together, I read both sections of each country together so I wouldn’t feel lost. I didn’t see much of a point in have two parts.
Other than this formatting choice, I can’t fault Okeowo’s work. She briefly inserts herself to show when she’s present vs. stories that are in the past that have been told to her. She doesn’t intrude, and her writing style flows easily. Rather than giving massive detail about the history of each country, she gives enough for readers new to African history to make sense of what’s happening and a reason to seek out other books that are more specific.
Rather than review each of the four stories set in different countries, I’m going to give a synopsis and share what I learned.
In this section, readers meet Bosco, a soldier who was kidnapped as boy by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). Child soldiers are trained to be brutal or face their own death. We also meet Eunice, who was kidnapped by some LRA members and given to Bosco as a bride. When Eunice learned that Bosco had also been kidnapped, and despite the fact that he was a member of the group who kidnapped her, they came to rely on each other. Both eventually escape the LRA after Eunice and Bosco have children together. When they return to to Eunice’s village, her family cannot believe she would stay with Bosco, whom she thinks is the only person to understand what it’s like to be kidnapped for years. Their oldest son is often ill, leaving Bosco to think his victims are haunting his child, trying to kill the boy, before they move on to the next oldest child.
This essay challenged my thoughts about boys and girls kidnapped in Africa and what they do to survive and feel closeness with another person. By remaining a couple, Bosco and Eunice fight an extremist group in Uganda.
Confession: I didn’t know Mauritania was even a country, and thanks to A Moonless, Starless Sky I learned that it just abolished slavery in 1981. A woman named Haby was a faithful Muslim, but as a slave she was told “her soul was not worthy of prayer.” When Haby’s brother and an anti-slavery activist named Biram came to get her after slavery was abolished, she refused to go with them. Not knowing that slavery was illegal, Haby thought it was a trick to get her killed by her masters. This essay is really about Biram, though, the activist who never stopped fighting slavery. It reminded me that despite laws, the elite do what is best for them, but tireless activists resist until they die.
When I was in high school and college, it seemed like every African student I met was from Nigeria, so I labeled it a liberal, highly-educated country in my mind. Well, if you’ve heard of Boko Haram, know that they’re Nigerian. This altered my naive perception of Nigeria based solely on observation. Boko Haram translates from Hausa into English as “Western education is forbidden.” Okeowo speaks with a girl who escaped Boko Haram the night they kidnapped hundreds of school girls in Chibok — many of whom are still missing (this is the group that was mostly in the news). The larger focus is on Elder, who organizes a sort of community watch group. The members find Boko Haram individuals in their villages and turn them over to the police, who are not proactive. What I learned is how aggressive Boko Haram are/were: not only kidnapping and murdering people, but destroying power grids, phone towers — basic infrastructure that allows people to communicate and live in a modern way. I also did not learn from the news when Boko Haram dominated it that there was a resistance group.
One way of resisting is by not caring to some degree. In this essay, readers meet Aisha, a girl who loves basketball. But sports and pants are deemed unfaithful to Islam, according to the men who harass Aisha and her family. Please remember that extremist Islamic groups do not reflect Islam as practiced by millions of Muslims all over the globe. There are those who will interpret holy texts in ways that benefit them in all religions. The police are active in Somalia, arresting men who harass Aisha and her sporty friends. The essay taught me how many women are resisting quietly and in “normal” ways — playing sports, and how extremists will target them. Despite the dangers and threats of death, women continue doing what interests them, even when the basketball federation in the country deny them space to practice or money to travel.
While reading A Moonless, Starless Sky, I decided to map out places I was reading about to slowly learn where things are located in Africa. It’s not surprising that my Western public school education focuses on the West. Even when studying China, it was about imperialism. I don’t remember learning anything about Africa. Here is a map of places I’ve read about in books. The blue is lakes.