Amid African Extremism, a Writer Finds an ‘Ordinary and Rare Kind of Bravery’

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Media Outlet: New York Times

Alexis Okeowo's book, “A Moonless, Starless Sky,” was reviewed by the New York Times:

In 1996, Eunice, a schoolgirl of 15 in Uganda, was kidnapped by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army and given to Bosco, a fighter, as his bush wife. The story of Eunice and Bosco is the first of four narratives that make up “A Moonless, Starless Sky,” Alexis Okeowo’s carefully wrought account of individual Africans in four countries across the continent. Although Okeowo calls this opening chapter “An LRA Love Story,” theirs is no typical romance. On their first night together Bosco rapes Eunice when she refuses to have sex with him. Yet the pair go on to make a life, have children and, even after their escape from Kony’s men, stay together. Their story sets the tone for this rich and urgently necessary book in which Okeowo disregards all preconceptions to reach for the truth.
Raised in Alabama by Nigerian parents, Okeowo spent time in Africa, first in Uganda as a newspaper intern and then as a Nigeria-based reporter. “Feeling neither wholly American nor African,” she writes, “I had come to see myself as an outsider in both places, an observer at the fringes. It was a perspective that helped me learn to report with clarity.” She is, in fact, wholly both, equipped with the empathy to inhabit her subjects’ lives, the emotional and intellectual capacity to withhold judgment and a sufficient measure of detachment. In prose of devastating simplicity Okeowo mines the moral complexity at the heart of Eunice and Bosco’s story: the question of why abducted girls return to their captors. Many of the men were captives themselves. Some, like Bosco, help their wives escape, risking death to do so. And as Eunice tries to explain, there is the shared understanding: “I couldn’t imagine being with someone who had not faced the same conditions in the bush.”
Okeowo sets out to tell stories of resistance that “are not as easy to notice,” concerned less with drama than with the courage it takes to endure. In Nigeria she profiles Rebecca, who has escaped from Boko Haram, and Elder, a government clerk who fights the insurgents; in Somalia she meets a teenage basketball player named Aisha, who receives daily death threats and has survived two attempted abductions yet still goes to the game, track pants under her jilbab. “It was both an ordinary and rare kind of bravery,” Okeowo writes, “the kind that they didn’t think about every day because they were just trying to live their lives, but that was incredible given the danger they faced.”

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Alexis Okeowo was a Class of 2016 & 2017 New America Fellow. She is the author of A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa and a staff writer for the New Yorker.