Genre: World

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

Posted November 15, 2017 by Taryn in Reviews / 0 Comments

A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa by Alexis OkeowoA Moonless, Starless Sky by Alexis Okeowo
Published by Hachette Books on October 3rd 2017
Genres: Political Science, World, African, Social Science, Women's Studies, Human Rights, History, Africa, General, Genocide & War Crimes
Pages: 256
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Alexis Okeowo interviews citizens of four African countries to showcase acts of rebellion, both big and small. These courageous people of faith have seen their communities terrorized by extremist groups, but they refused to let those extremists determine their life’s course.

Liberty, that precious, delicate right, is fleeting in so much of the world. Sometimes it is there for you to take and enjoy; other times it suddenly and violently disappears, as if it never existed in the first place. But there are always people who go looking for that freedom, even at personal risk. They are not only activists and vigilantes, but also ordinary people.

In A Moonless, Starless Sky, Okeowo brings faraway places into stark view. Through her objective eye, we are introduced to complex people who’ve survived extraordinary situations. Many people might not be familiar with the political situations of these countries, so she adds context by delving briefly into the histories of each nation and extremist group. This book’s one big flaw is the structure. The book is divided into two parts; half of each story is in part one and the other half is in part two. That’s easy enough to overcome though! I read the accounts by country rather than the order presented.

This is the story of two people who were abducted by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army as teens. After fifteen-year-old Eunice was abducted, she was forced to marry nineteen-year-old Bosco. What happens to these forced unions if the abductees escape and why do so many of these couples choose to stay together? How are the children of these marriages affected? Okeowo also explores the difficult relationships between the former child soldiers and the communities they may have been forced to harm. Most community members recognize the former child soldiers as victims too, but it’s an understandably uncomfortable situation. What efforts are made to reintegrate them back into society and how do their neighbors handle their presence?

More information: Former Ugandan child soldiers rebuild lives after years of terror (ABC Austrailia, October) | The Bizarre and Horrifying Story of the Lord’s Resistance Army (The Atlantic, October 2011)


Mauritania became the last country to abolish slavery in 1981, but the government did little to actually eradicate the practice. Okeowo explains how slavery became such an accepted part of Mauritanian society and how demographic divisions contributed to its the practice’s endurance. This section focuses on abolitionist Biram Dah Abeid’s fight to end slavery in Mauritania, a crusade that has put him and his family in peril. What makes someone stand up for others, even at great risk to themselves? Okeowo also spends time with a woman Abeid helped rescue. Haby is one of the millions of people who were born into slavery. When she finally had the chance to escape in 2008 at the age of 34, she was insistent that she would never leave her owners. Captivity was all she had ever known. Through Haby’s story, we learn how slaveowners are able to enslave people without chains and about the obstacles that arise when adjusting to sudden freedom.

More information: Mauritania: Slavery’s last stronghold (CNN/YouTube, 2012)/ ArticleThe abolitionist fighting to free Mauritania’s slaves (2017) – Biram Dah Abeid’s story | The Global Slavery Index 2016 – estimations of the number of people living in slavery today.


“Nobody rescued them,” a Chibok government official said of the girls who made it back. “I want you to stress this point. Nobody rescued them. They escaped on their own accord.”

In recent years, Boko Haram has terrorized northern Nigeria and kidnapped thousands of boys and girls. Rebecca Ishaku was one of the hundreds of girls abducted from a boarding school in Chibok, Nigeria. This is an account of one young woman’s risky escape and the enduring effects of terror. Okeowo also interviews a government clerk who refused to stand idle while his community was being relentlessly attacked by Boko Haram’s members. Elder became a unit commander for the Civilian Joint Task Force, a volunteer group that sought to reclaim their communities from the terrorists when the government failed. The story of ordinary citizens fighting Boko Haram is remarkable, but issues arise when the behavior of some of the vigilantes begins to mirror the group they’re fighting.

“God gave me the opportunity to think about my future, so I can’t let them stop me from going back to school.” – Rebecca

More information:  On Boko Haram front line, Nigerian vigilantes amass victories and power (Reuters, June 2017) | Boko Haram Fast Facts (CNN, September 2017) | Chibok girl ‘happy’ over schoolmates’ release – interview with Rebecca (BBC, October 2016)


“I see it as something very powerful, to be young and a woman in a country that is not safe and has gone through a lot of war, and to have a dream and wear pants and a shirt and hold a basketball—there’s nothing more powerful and strong to me,” Ilhan said. “To think about what I want for myself and to do it.”

Aisha received her first death threat from terrorists when she was thirteen. Her supposed crime? Playing basketball. Somalia went from having one of the best women’s basketball teams in the region to a place where it’s unsafe for women to play sports at all. This is the story of young women who continue to play the game they love despite the risks. One thing I liked about this section was getting to see a different side of Somalia, like its vibrant nightlife.

More information:  The Fight Over Women’s Basketball in Somalia by the author Alexis Okeowo (New Yorker, September 2017) | Who are Somalia’s al-Shabab? (BBC, December 2016)

What are the ethics of resisting? When extreme circumstances are forced upon a person, what is she allowed to do to survive? Can she commit apostasy as a religious person,  or kill a relative? The answers are complex, possibly unknowable. The idea of survival becomes hazy: It can mean more than just staying alive; it can mean leading the life she feels entitled to have. And in order to do that, the morals she was taught, that she has long lived by, could shift and mutate into something she no longer recognizes. They could shift because she believed she was fighting for good, or at least for her right to have a good, sane life, and, along the way, she had to resort to actions she would have never committed in her past life. They could shift because, when extreme circumstances overtook her life, subverted what she knew and held dear, resorting to radical measures was the only way to resist, and to live.

These accounts of ordinary people trying to live their lives freely are both distressing and inspiring. Rebellion doesn’t come without sacrifices and many of these people endured death threats, survived harrowing escapes, and/or remained steadfast against relentless outside pressure. In the face of adversity, these people stand firm in their beliefs and manage to preserve their autonomy. What I liked most about this book were the complete portraits of the interview subjects. Okeowo explores their flaws, hopes, and fears without judgment. They may not make the choices one would expect or that are easy for outsiders to understand, but they’re all doing the best they can to live their lives of their own free will and/or cultivate a society where everyone can live freely. If you’re possibly interested in this book, I recommend reading the author’s article The Fight Over Women’s Basketball in Somalia to get a sense of her style.