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

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

In the tradition of Behind the Beautiful Forevers and Nothing to Envy, this is a masterful, humane work of literary journalism by New Yorker staff writer Alexis Okeowo--a vivid narrative of Africans, many of them women, who are courageously resisting their continent's wave of fundamentalism.In A Moonless, Starless Sky Okeowo weaves together four narratives that form a powe...

Title:A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa
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A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa Reviews

  • Cynthia

    I really wanted to love this book. A book about Africa, written by a first-generation Nigerian American and told from the perspective of ordinary people instead of bureaucrats and international aid workers? Sign me up.

    The stories themselves are compelling: an LRA child soldier and the girl who was forced to marry him, who choose to stay together after they are free; one man's campaign against modern-day slavery in Mauritania; a girls basketball team that continues to play despite threats to thei

    I really wanted to love this book. A book about Africa, written by a first-generation Nigerian American and told from the perspective of ordinary people instead of bureaucrats and international aid workers? Sign me up.

    The stories themselves are compelling: an LRA child soldier and the girl who was forced to marry him, who choose to stay together after they are free; one man's campaign against modern-day slavery in Mauritania; a girls basketball team that continues to play despite threats to their lives from Muslim extremists; a vigilante group fighting Boko Haram. Unfortunately, Okeowo's writing is not. Whereas other works of journalistic nonfiction I have read (

    by Rebecca Skloot,

    by Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, and

    by Tracy Kidder, for example) brought some fire to the subject matter without sacrificing fact-based reporting, Okeowo is cool and clinical where more than a little passion is warranted and needed. For example, there was one point when she met with a bureaucrat to discuss the girls basketball team and why they had not been able to travel outside of Somalia for games. When the official was evasive with his answers, she said she grew "bored" with him and turned to something else. Bored? Not frustrated or angry, just bored? Others may find this lack of emotion "journalistic" and "unbiased"; for me it undermined Okeowo's efforts to connect readers with the real lives of real people.

    Finally, I found the structure of the book somewhat frustrating. Each story is broken into two parts, so you read the first half of each story in part 1, and the second half in part 2. There was no logical or thematic reason why they needed to be split like this, and I found myself forgetting people and events by the time I reached part two. I would recommend reading each story in full (from part 1 and 2) before moving onto the next.

  • Taryn

    Alexis Okeowo interviews citizens of four African countries to showcase acts of rebellion, both big and small. These courageou

    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.

    In

    , 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?

    (ABC Austrailia, October) |

     (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.

    (CNN/YouTube, 2012)/

     (2017) - Biram Dah Abeid's story | 

     - estimations of the number of people living in slavery today.

    In recent years, Boko Haram has terrorized northern Nigeria and kidnapped

    . Rebecca Ishaku was

     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.

     

     (Reuters, June 2017) |

    (CNN, September 2017) | 

    - interview with Rebecca (BBC, October 2016)

    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.

      

     by the author Alexis Okeowo (New Yorker, September 2017) | 

    (BBC, December 2016)

    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 

     to get a sense of her style.

  • Krystal

    The comparison to Katherine Boo's, Behind the Beautiful Forevers made me weary, but I can wholeheartedly confirm that this author's compassion for her characters far surpasses that book!

  • Ifeyinwa

    Gathering my thoughts on how to articulate why this book disappointed me.

  • Dayle (the literary llama)

    RATING: ★★★★★ / 4.5 Stars!

    REVIEW: I received this book for free from Hachette Books in exchange for an honest review.

    I love non-fiction but there aren't a lot of non-fiction books that interest me. I'm particular about my choices, mainly the author, because a great subject could be rendered completely boring in the wrong hands. Still, when Hachette offered me a chance to read A MOONLESS, STARLESS SKY, I immediately said yes. The synopsis may be small but the promise of this book was great and I

    RATING: ★★★★★ / 4.5 Stars!

    REVIEW: I received this book for free from Hachette Books in exchange for an honest review.

    I love non-fiction but there aren't a lot of non-fiction books that interest me. I'm particular about my choices, mainly the author, because a great subject could be rendered completely boring in the wrong hands. Still, when Hachette offered me a chance to read A MOONLESS, STARLESS SKY, I immediately said yes. The synopsis may be small but the promise of this book was great and I knew I had to give it a chance...and I'm so happy I did.

    A MOONLESS, STARLESS SKY is amazing. Alexis Okeowo did an excellent job with the 4 stories she told of "ordinary women and men fighting extremism in Africa". The book was split into two sections, the first having the begining of each of the 4 stories and the second having the conclusion (what they are up until the current time) of each of the true tales. Her writing style spoke to me. It flowed and moved and informed without getting too bogged down in historical and/or geographical facts (something that has happened in other non-fiction that I have read). She told us just enough to give us an acurate picture without going overboard into a long-winded text-book like examination. The stories were about the people and Okeowo kept that in focus.

    There is an amazing diversity between all the different stories. Each one highlighting different races, beliefs, genders, nationalities and how those are treated and perceived and evolving in the different regions. But even with all of those differences there is a cohesiveness. The fight against extremism in all it's different forms, brings these stories and people together in a way. And it's eye opening.

    These are the stories of real people. They are great people and they are flawed people, struggling and yet strong, each victory great and small is worth so much. And the way these victories are accomplished can be hard to understand, simply because we will never live through such situations, but Okeowo tells them with a mixture of fact and empathy that makes all the difference. You see heroes and heroines, the beginnings and middles of violence and resistance, the fight back that may seem like another form of extremism, but through it all are the people who are doing what they feel is right. They are incredible stories.

    Overall I gave A MOONLESS, STARLESS SKY 4.5 stars, although it was easy to round up in this case. I highly recommend it and hope you connect with the writing the same way I did.

  • Sara-Jayne

    What a beautiful, eye opening collection of stories. This nonfiction book from Alexis Okeowo was impossible to put down. She effortlessly weaves together stories from four different countries in modern day Africa (Uganda, Mauritania, Nigeria, and Somalia), detailing atrocious experiences with frankness, simplicity, and above all humanity. She showcases the courage and resilience of everyday people, painting a picture of countries we usually only hear about through a very imperialistic lens. My o

    What a beautiful, eye opening collection of stories. This nonfiction book from Alexis Okeowo was impossible to put down. She effortlessly weaves together stories from four different countries in modern day Africa (Uganda, Mauritania, Nigeria, and Somalia), detailing atrocious experiences with frankness, simplicity, and above all humanity. She showcases the courage and resilience of everyday people, painting a picture of countries we usually only hear about through a very imperialistic lens. My own perception of Africa as a whole was radically challenged, and I'm positive that yours will be too.

    I found the set up of the book interesting and quite effective; part one details the first half of each story, ending on a cliffhanger, while part two picks up where each left off and concludes on a hopeful note. The subject matter is, of course, heavy (child soldiers, rape, military coups, slavery, Boko Haram, etc.), but Okeowo's style reflects her years as a successful journalist for the New Yorker; she does not linger on the gory details for sensationalism, but does her best to present an honest peek into the lives of African men and women from all around the continent.

  • Lynecia

    2.5 stars.

    *Review below*

    I was so absorbed by the personal stories of some of the people in Alexis Okeowo’s book, that more than once, I almost missed my stop on the subway whilst reading it. Her subjects traverse the continent -- Uganda in the East, Nigeria to the West; northward to Mauritania and Somalia in the Horn of Africa. Okeowo is a seasoned journalist, having moved to Uganda straight out of college to intern for a newspaper for a year - and she’s focused her beat on the continent ever s

    2.5 stars.

    *Review below*

    I was so absorbed by the personal stories of some of the people in Alexis Okeowo’s book, that more than once, I almost missed my stop on the subway whilst reading it. Her subjects traverse the continent -- Uganda in the East, Nigeria to the West; northward to Mauritania and Somalia in the Horn of Africa. Okeowo is a seasoned journalist, having moved to Uganda straight out of college to intern for a newspaper for a year - and she’s focused her beat on the continent ever since.

    The people she follows in her book are living through atrocities that most of us have learned about through the Western media - The LRA, (remember “Kony 2012”?), the Boko Haram kidnappings (#BringBackOurGirls), al-Shabbab (see: recent terror attacks in Mogadishu) and Arab enslavement of Black Africans in the deserts of the Sahel and Northern Africa. (I’d venture to say the West is less familiar with this scourge, but I digress. I recommend watching a 2009 Australian documentary called “Stolen”, if you can find it, for more on slavery in that part of the world). Her stated aim is to highlight the everyday ways that people living under religious extremism, terror and oppression choose to fight back, to resist, in ordinary ways. Okeowo was able to take those aforementioned atrocities, that have again, been filtered through the Western gaze and allowed the personal stories of the people who lived through them take center stage.

    While I enjoyed the stories, and some of the backstory she provided, I wish she spent more time crafting the narrative structure of the book. It seemed to jump around alot, and there were points that didn’t seem to gel, but seemed to be thrown in for narrative effect.

    Each piece on its own could have been a longform article - each of them moving and compelling. However compiled in a book, they don’t really fit with her central thesis of ordinary resistance in the face of terror. However, the stories are still worthy of being told. I’d recommend reading this just for those.

  • Valerie

    There were two quotes from the preface that set the tone for this book perfectly:

    In this book, Alexis Okeowo frames the picture of resistance through this unde

    There were two quotes from the preface that set the tone for this book perfectly:

    In this book, Alexis Okeowo frames the picture of resistance through this understanding in a manner that made each story relatable despite its extreme differences from the life I live. Many of the stories recount moments of incredible strength and resilience. On the flip side, so much of what they're fighting for, risking their lives for, and striving towards are ordinary and what many in the United States may see as a right. This is a large part of why I think the stories here really struck me: they were a reminder of the many privileges I have simply because of where and when I was born, a sentiment Okeowo herself acknowledges and shares.

    All in all, this is a read that explores how despite the progress we have (and haven't) seen in recent years, there's still so much further to go. There's definitely some points that I had to read and reread and then reread again because of how much information was provided to the reader. However, given the complications present in the political climates these men and women live in, that detail is completely understandable. I enjoyed it and would recommend, especially as a means of understanding a whole different view of the world than you may usually have. This book was a strong reminder for me of the privilege I have and motivated me to try to use that privilege to benefit those who aren't as lucky as I have been.

  • Amirah Jiwa

    A collection of beautifully vivid stories that manage to captivate without losing any of the context and nuance essential to reporting like this. Okeowo doesn't fall victim to any of the common pitfalls when discussing religious extremism or conflict: no poverty porn, no casting her subjects as pitiful and their situations as devastating, no ignoring all the shades of gray to paint a black-and-white picture of what's right or wrong, good or evil. Most importantly, this book does what it set out

    A collection of beautifully vivid stories that manage to captivate without losing any of the context and nuance essential to reporting like this. Okeowo doesn't fall victim to any of the common pitfalls when discussing religious extremism or conflict: no poverty porn, no casting her subjects as pitiful and their situations as devastating, no ignoring all the shades of gray to paint a black-and-white picture of what's right or wrong, good or evil. Most importantly, this book does what it set out to do: highlight the (extra-)ordinary people that are fighting extremism with great courage and optimism (though they might not see it that way themselves). Tears pricked my eyes at moments, but the cause was never a sad thing described. Rather, it was always a powerful action taken or set of words spoken by someone who has hope for a better future that moved me.

  • Emma Deplores Goodreads Censorship

    This is a short nonfiction work by a Nigerian-American journalist that goes behind the headlines in four conflict areas in Africa, telling the stories of people who range from victims to local leaders. It is a very engaging book, a quick read that introduces readers to several countries and humanizes big events, although at only 236 pages for so many stories, it is very brief and therefore unable to treat its subjects with the depth I would have liked.

    Eunice is a teenage girl living in rural nor

    This is a short nonfiction work by a Nigerian-American journalist that goes behind the headlines in four conflict areas in Africa, telling the stories of people who range from victims to local leaders. It is a very engaging book, a quick read that introduces readers to several countries and humanizes big events, although at only 236 pages for so many stories, it is very brief and therefore unable to treat its subjects with the depth I would have liked.

    Eunice is a teenage girl living in rural northern Uganda when she is kidnapped by Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army while visiting her sister at boarding school. Once in the bush, she is forced to marry Bosco, a young man also kidnapped as a teenager, and both are forced to participate in acts of violence. By the time both eventually escape, they have children together, and Eunice, like many young women whose futures are circumscribed by LRA kidnapping, decides to return to Bosco. Former rebels are given amnesty to encourage defection, but the couple faces ostracism from their community and seems to be passing on their trauma to their children.

    Biram is a Mauritanian activist, growing up in a socially conscious family in the last country in the world to outlaw slavery (it became illegal in 1981, but not a criminal offense until 2007), and one where the police remain uninterested in bringing wealthy slaveowners to justice. He starts an organization dedicated to eradicating slavery, rescues slaves directly and draws attention to the cause by risky acts like publicly burning the books used to justify slavery under Muslim law (though he is Muslim himself). Later he expands his focus to other racial justice issues and runs for president of Mauritania.

    Abba, aka Elder, is an auditor and patriarch of a large family in northern Nigeria when Boko Haram gains traction in the area. Frustrated by the lack of government response to the attacks, he joins a local vigilante group that captures militants and hands them over to security forces, proving far more effective than the actual military. He becomes a leader in the group and moves into politics as well. Meanwhile, Rebecca is a teenage boarding school student in nearby Chibok when she is kidnapped by Boko Haram along with 300 classmates. Fortunately, she is one of the 50-odd with the courage and presence of mind to quickly escape, and gradually overcomes her trauma while returning to school in a distant city.

    Finally, Aisha is a teenage girl in Mogadishu, Somalia, who refuses to let al-Shabaab terrorists intimidate her out of playing basketball. They certainly try – she receives regular death threats by phone, is nearly kidnapped and has a gun pointed at her on a bus – and another female player is brutally murdered. But Aisha is determined to live her own life, and she and her teammates find joy in the game and treasure rare opportunities to participate in tournaments, despite the lack of government support.

    These are all fascinating stories, though the subtitle doesn’t quite fit anyone other than perhaps Aisha: Biram and Elder are leaders, not ordinary people, while Rebecca is a survivor but not exactly fighting extremism, and Eunice and Bosco remain victims. Each story is told in two chapters, one in the first half of the book and the other in the second, and the second half provides much of the emotional consequences and complexity that seemed to be missing from the first half. Of course the circumstances of these people’s lives, and the strength required to keep going, is extraordinary to the Western reader. This book tells very compelling stories in a quick and accessible way; for me it is too quick (each of these stories deserves its own book), but it provides a great introduction while telling human stories behind events in the headlines.

    My other reservation is the fact that the book cites no sources, and the author tells us nothing about her research other than what happens to come out in the text as she relates her experiences in meeting these folks. She generally applies critical thought to the stories people tell her – for instance, she includes the accusations of brutality against Elder’s group – but sometimes seems to accept simplistic stories, as in the 9-page life story of a Mauritanian slave that seems to be a chronicle of constant abuse. Though the author seems to do her research, it’s never clear how well the stories are corroborated.

    Despite that, I think this is a great premise for a book and these stories are engaging, emotional, and well-told, with enough background information included for readers unfamiliar with these countries to understand their contexts. I recommend it.

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