A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa
Hachette Books. 240 pp. 2017.
I woke up in a cold sweat. Alexis Okeowo’s A Moonless Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa had transported me from my Harlem apartment to an uncomfortably warm night in the bush of northern Uganda. Her stories had infiltrated my dreams.
A Moonless Starless Sky tells true stories of individuals’ relationships with extremism. At first glance, each story may seem far away, alien, and unrelatable. However, Okeowo’s narratives are focused on people. Emotions are universal. You don’t have to know where Uganda is on the map, or the history of Somalia before and after the Black Hawk Down episode, to connect with the memoirs she recounts. Her descriptions evoke from you emotions, relationships, and dreams.
I’ve spent the majority of my career focused on conflicts in sub-Saharan Africa. My first trip to Africa was in the mid-2000s. I spent a semester at King’s College Budo, an elite Ugandan private school just outside Kampala. Okeowo’s sentiment in her forward is applicable to me, too: “I didn’t plan on becoming obsessed with Africa.” From 2011 to 2015 I worked on various projects in Somalia and lived in Mogadishu for part of that time. Despite my exposure to the region, Okeowo’s stories from Uganda and Somalia are still well outside of my own life experiences, yet they resonate.
In one powerful story, Okeowo follows a Ugandan couple, Eunice and Bosco, who were abducted by the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA). The LRA became known in the United States principally through the Kony 2012 campaign, produced by the organization Invisible Children, Inc. Eunice and Bosco’s story begins with their abduction, continues with a version of the Stockholm syndrome, and ends with their attempts to return to normalcy. Gut-wrenching at times, the couple’s story is ultimately one of partnership.
The Ugandan context around Eunice and Bosco will be new to most people. Landlocked and comparatively small, Uganda remains little known outside of the Africanist community. Despite the time I’d spent there, it took me a long while to become aware of the realities in Uganda’s north. The LRA is a rebel group that originated as a form of civilian resistance to the newly formed southerner-heavy government led by Yoweri Museveni. The group has had multiple mutations, creating an ebb and flow in its strength and size. The most recent iteration is a pseudo-Christian rebel group notorious for small-scale bush warfare and abductions of young people. Today’s LRA pales in comparative strength to the LRA that Eunice and Bosco were caught up in.
In Somalia, Okeowo turns to the story of Aisha, a teenager who loves to play basketball. But the presence of Al Shabaab makes her passion a game of life and death. Somalia remains one of the most misunderstood countries in the world. Framed by Black Hawk Down and not much else, the perennial perception of the country as the most dangerous place in the world remains. Emanating from local governance and militia structures, Al Shabaab came to prominence in 2007 as a result of the Ethiopian-led, U.S.- backed invasion of Somalia. Now an Al Qaeda-affiliated terrorist group, Al Shabaab has had a fluctuating jurisdiction in the country. At one point it controlled large swaths of territory. Today, while the group still controls some land, Al Shabaab has been reduced to a more traditional terrorist organization that organizes one-off high-causality attacks. Aisha’s story is one of resistance, perseverance, and the pursuit of her dream to play basketball.
Context is ultimately secondary to the fact that these are people. While the situations they are going through may be incomprehensibly far from the experiences of most people, their emotions and what they deem important remain hauntingly familiar.
Descriptions of Eunice and Bosco’s life, without context, could place them anywhere: “He wasn’t sure therapy would help much, and he valued doing, taking care of his responsibilities, more than talking about the past. Edimon [his son] was still sick, but at least Bosco could watch over and protect him.” Bosco could be any one of us. The stresses of fatherhood and grappling with one’s past are not unfamiliar feelings to many of us. Aisha’s story is similarly relatable. Okeowo describes her, at the moment, as “the embodiment of a feminine Somali woman, one who was giggling about her boyfriend and constantly checking her phone.” It is easy to forget that, at the same time, she is being threatened by Al Shabaab militants who say they will cut her throat.
Okeowo’s storytelling style is uniquely and evocatively one of connection. At the beginning, despite her role as narrator, she remains mostly removed from the stories. Slowly, Okeowo becomes increasingly entwined: “It had been sad, but that was only part of why the story had consumed me. I had conducted an extensive, invasive procedure on Eunice and Bosco, pried into their lives and had them tell me their most personal thoughts and encounters. The end result was sometimes unsettling, sometimes surprisingly familiar. I had become part of their lives, and they were now part of mine.” Her increasing personal integration into the stories she so beautifully weaves provides perspective, exemplifying how one New Yorker was able to engage with stories so seemingly alien, so far from her own.
Beyond proving herself such an engaging storyteller, Okeowo offers a template to those who want to connect with lives falling so far outside their own experiences that they appear all but incomprehensible. The connective tissue here is the unironic universality of personal emotions. The author is able to capture these emotions efficiently and succinctly, sharing relatable stories that are transporting, and which will transport you, as they did me.