Sweeping tales of mass sorrow.
All too often, these seem to be the key components of popular discourse surrounding Africa, as depicted, usually, by ill-informed and problematic storytellers. Yet in shining a light on the experiences—the mundanity—of activists in the face of extremism, the author Alexis Okeowo believes it’s possible to flip the script—to visualize Africa’s nuance and texture.
Okeowo explored how to do exactly that at a New America event on Wednesday tied to the recent release of her book, A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa, which offers a blueprint, of sorts, on how writers can explore tales of ingenuity, as opposed merely to suffering, in Africa.
In depicting four deeply human characters, A Moonless Starless Sky seems, above all, to implore writers to leave room to empathize with—not pity—the experiences of people in Africa. What might these people look like? In Okeowo’s case: “a young couple, kidnap victims of Joseph Kony’s LRA; a Mauritanian waging a lonely campaign against modern-day slavery; a women’s basketball league flourishing amid war-torn Somalia; and a vigilante who takes up arms against the extremist group Boko Haram.”
And, texture matters. Although Okeowo’s main characters are in extreme situations, that doesn’t necessarily make them, at all times, activists or heroes. Pointing out murky and ambiguous concepts of how to define “hero,” and how people’s actions can turn them into something sinister or something more saintly, blurring the lines between good and evil, is precisely how writers can portray humanness in their rendering of Africa. In the book, for instance, while the boundaries of what constitutes “love” are muddy when a rape victim falls in love with her captor, Okeowo doesn’t moralize, instead leaving it up to readers to investigate what to take away from the characters’ own reflections on the taboos surrounding this relationship wrought in violence.
How to mitigate against flattening narratives? Karen Attiah, the moderator for the event and the global opinions editor at the Washington Post, echoed the problems found in overly simplistic portrayals of Africa. “I feel that the narratives about Africa are flat, two-dimensional, and, frankly, flat-out racist.” She suggested that writers must incorporate in their writing humanizing narratives of and experiences on the continent, as well as involve more journalists of the African diaspora, who can bring in a new perspective and much-needed relatability.
There are other, structural roadblocks to painting a fuller picture of Africa, though. Okeowo’s book comes after five years of living in Nigeria and interviewing individuals across the continent. Yet despite the obvious merits of this work—exploring personal stories and putting faces to a continent, for one—it can still be frustratingly difficult for writers to convince media outlets to accept their work once it’s been assembled. Indeed, Okeowo pointed out that when she was a freelancer on the continent, her stories, and the people in them, often had to be “extraordinary” in order for media gatekeepers to accept them. The message, often, to writers is that no one is particularly interested in hearing about a perennially beleaguered region. This, despite the fact that Africa’s experiences and tales of triumph aren’t unlike those in America’s backyard.
In fact, we can empathize with people across the world thanks to storytelling. Consider: Before recent flare-ups in Somalia, women were allowed to wear Afros and move around with relative freedom—but in a matter of only a few years, that privilege became taboo. Even so, some women spoke out, regardless of the risk. The deeper point, Okeowo said, is that liberties can disappear quickly, and so what people can do to address a problem immediately, as well as in the long term, can be a lesson for any country.
“What’s striking to me is the way some women spoke out, despite risks to them, or despite the fact that risks can be uncomfortable for them. The freedoms that people can take for granted, as is happening here [in the United States], can disappear so rapidly, and it depends on how people respond—how people resist—and, in the aftermath, how people deal with it.” In other words, constant “othering” has distanced writers, and other people in the West, too, from experiences in Africa—but there’s room for all sides to learn.
An area where we can learn from each other: how to respond to extremism. Self-care, or finding your “happy place,” is one place to start. “It’s different shades at a basic level of self-care. If something happens like a Charlottesville, you tell people to continue living their lives and to do the things that they would normally do—self-care as an act of resistance,” Attiah said. And then there’s Biram Dah Abeid, who, via overt activism, is constantly thinking of how to end modern slavery in Mauritania. To this end, he’s modeled his form of direct confrontation after the American civil rights movement of the 1960s. On the possibility of lessons stretching beyond borders, Okeowo notes: “I have always been drawn to extreme situations elsewhere, but now my own country has become an extreme situation.” Looking at what’s broken abroad can help us to understand what’s broken here, in America.
“We can’t picture faces, we can’t picture families,” Okeowo said. “And it’s the job of the journalist to make those faces, so that when we read about an attack in Nigeria, we can think about a mother and her children and how they might have been similar to us.”