A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa by Alexis Okeowo

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.

Uganda

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.

Mauritania

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.

Nigeria

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.

Somalia

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.

Uganda, Mauritania, Nigeria, & Somalia were explored in Okeowo’s book. Liberia was in Gbowee’s book (linked above). Lesotho was in McDermott’s book (linked above).
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25 comments

  1. I won’t say much except that I bought this book last year, because I think Okeowo was out here for he Sydney Writers Festival. I didn’t see/hear her, but I bought the book. Like you I want to increase my diversity this year, so will do my best.

  2. I must confess that I don’t know that much about the beautiful African continent. I have only visited South Africa but would love to see more.

    I have a feeling those stories would probably torn my heart into pieces but it’s so important that Okeowo wrote them and that they are being heard. Your post inspired me to expand my horizons and read more authors from different continents! I tend to stick to UK / US or European writers and I do want to change that. Thank you. 🙂

    I discovered last year Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, who is a Nigerian author. I absolutely loved her audio version of her essay – ‘We Should All Be Feminists’, I highly recommend it, it’s just around an hour long and could be perfect for listening on a commute. I am planning reading her novel Americanah this year, and possibly more of her books if I do enjoy it. 🙂

      • I wish I was there with you! 😊 Such a great observation about her work speaking to college students! Thanks for sharing that with me (off to check if Adichie will be in the UK later on this year… 😊)

  3. I’ve been curious about this book! When you mentioned you would be reading it I knew I’d keep my eyes open for your review.

    I like that you added the map on here too! Gives me a sense of direction in relation to the pieces in the book. I think this might be my random pick from the library next month 😉

    • Niiiiice. I do recommend that you reach the sections from different countries together. I have no clue why breaking them up seemed logical.

      The map does help me remember where a country is. In high school, I crammed to remember the countries for a test in social studies, but then I forgot it all. Keeping the map is solidifying the countries in my head.

  4. Wonderful, clear review, Melanie. I applaud your use of your gift card to focus on other countries. I admit I’m not very good about buying books set in other countries myself. When I buy books (not all that often for a bookworm) I do try to buy books by other races/ehtnicities but I don’t usually focus on non-American authors. I should try to branch out a little.

    • I have a background in African American lit and history, so I have lots of books by that group. At some point I convinced myself that put me way ahead of the curve, but when I do my end-of-the-year stats by nation, it’s cringy.

  5. I have read a few, maybe half a dozen African novels in the past few years, mostly Nigerian, but others too, one about a Somali girl athlete who trained at night in an attempt to escape attention. Map of Africa great idea. For years I had map of the US on the wall so I’d know where the states were when I was reading your ubiquitous fiction.

  6. Sounds fascinating. I have read a few books from Nigerian authors in recent years but there is definitely room for more. I always plan on reading more translations but I am often at a loss as to where to start so I like hearing about what other people are reading outside of North America.

  7. This book sounds interesting. And what a great review if it! I love you’re idea of keeping track of your reading on a map.

    You’re comment about how the author blends in when she goes to Africa made me think of my sister’s visit to Africa. (The adopted sister whose biological mother was white and bio father was black.) To them, she was white. They called her “white girl with dreadlocks”.

  8. When I took a world geography class in college, my instructor spent the first half of the semester solely on Africa, because he figured that us students were more familiar with European & American geography, and not so familiar with African geography. This is really the only class I remember taking that had a particular focus (or any focus really) on Africa. It was fascinating!
    This sounds like a very interesting read. I haven’t read too much African nonfiction, just a few here and there, and this sounds intriguing.

    • I started getting into classes about African American experience (literature, history) and then took “African and African American film.” It was interesting to see a culture through a camera. I largely remember the African American films and conversations about how black people could be represented on screen, how they were kept from awards, etc. There were few African films, but I do remember that they were slooooooow. Now that I’m reading Roots for Black History Month, I see how slowly things happen in Kunta Kinte’s tribe. Things are slowed down because they don’t need to be fast, may not even know the reason for doing something fast.

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