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Alexis Okeowo Finds God In The Brave Acts Of Ordinary Africans

Alexis Okeowo speaks at the 2017 New Yorker Festival at Gramercy Theatre on Oct. 6 in New York City.
Andrew Toth
Getty Images for The New Yorker
Alexis Okeowo speaks at the 2017 New Yorker Festival at Gramercy Theatre on Oct. 6 in New York City.

Journalist Alexis Okeowo spent years reporting in Africa — and quickly grew fatigued with the common narrative: stories of victimhood, hopelessness, chaos and despair.

In her new book, A Moonless, Starless Sky, the 2006 Princeton University grad writes instead about ordinary Africans who are standing up to extremism, people who are in their own ways resisting religious and cultural fundamentalism in acts of everyday bravery.

NPR's Melissa Block spoke with Okeowo, a staff writer at The New Yorker. Here's their discussion, edited for clarity and length.

Interview Highlights

The thread connecting the chapters of your book is resistance, based on your reporting on the ground in Uganda, Somalia, Nigeria, Mauritania. Why did you come to focus on that?

I realized over the years reporting in Africa that my reporting was starting to follow a pattern. I was seeking out people who found themselves, suddenly, in extreme situations. And I was interested in what kind of choices they made, and how they rose to the occasion, and how they tried to preserve their ways of life amid circumstances that were extraordinary. And in all of these situations — whether it was dealing with terrorism or conflict or a failed state — all of the subjects fought back in their own ways and in order to protect their families, or to keep playing sports, or to keep loving who they wanted to love. And, so, I was drawn to those everyday acts of resistance and drawn to [people who] made often simple — but incredibly brave — choices to keep their lives intact.

Let's talk about the couple you described from Uganda, Eunice and Bosco, who were captured by Joseph Kony's Lord's Resistance Army when they were teenagers, both forced to commit unspeakable atrocities in the bush. Eunice is taken by Bosco to be his "bush wife" as it's called. He rapes her on their first night as a couple. But years later, they both escape. They return home. And Eunice chooses to stay with Bosco as a married couple, raising their children together. How does she explain that decision?

You know, that was a very difficult story to report because I wanted to let her tell me in her own words why she decided to stay with a man who had done something horrible to her. But in the end, what she realized and what she told me is that both of them were victims of their circumstances. Both of them were victims of a rebel group that tried to tear them from everything they had known, from the idea of family, from the idea of love. And the truth was, she told me that she had grown close to this man. She had grown to depend on him, to trust him, eventually to love him. And she realized that the idea of perpetrator and victim is not so clear cut. It's not so easy. You know, when you're dealing with people who were abducted to commit atrocities, were forced to commit atrocities but who didn't want to do it, where's the line? What can you call good and evil?

And, so, she did recognize that her family, her community were bewildered. You know, why go back to this man you were forced to be with? But for her, loving was an act of resistance. It was a way to stake a claim on what she felt dear, her family. And it was a way to take control of her life after so much had been controlled for her and decided for her by this rebel group.

And they survived together because of each other.

Yes, yes.

Your book ends on an inspiring note in Somalia with a remarkable young woman named Aisha who has an idol, somebody that she thinks is magic. Who is her idol?

It's LeBron James.

She's a basketball player?

Yeah, she's a basketball player. And she said there's this one guy my neighbor told me about. I didn't know who she was going to say. I thought maybe someone in Somalia. And she said, do you know this guy LeBron James? And like, yeah, I've heard of him.

I think I know that guy.

Yeah — and Aisha's incredible. She is a teenager, a Somali teenage girl who plays basketball despite death threats to her life.

Just for playing a sport, for playing basketball?

Exactly. I mean, Somalia is a young country. And even just as recently as 30 years ago, Somalia had an incredibly strong women's basketball team. Women on the team went around with afros and even played in shorts. But with the advent of the civil war two decades ago and increasing radicalism, the entrance of al-Shabab, the restrictions for women have only increased. Their freedoms have shrunk. And, so, even though Aisha's mom used to play basketball and play it freely, nowadays to do that is something that is incredibly defiant.

Aisha's not an activist. And she's not trying to be a hero. But she just loves the sport. She loves the game. And she feels it's her right to play. And you know, she's religious to a certain extent, too. And she says she doesn't feel like her God wouldn't want her to play basketball as long as she tries to be faithful and good. One great thing I noticed is that under her long skirts, she'll always be wearing track pants, you know, always ready to kind of whip off her skirt and start playing ball. And when she goes to and from the court, she does hide her team's shirt in her bag. But otherwise, she feels like — this is my life and I should be able to live it like I want to.

Is she afraid?

She is afraid. And I think that, ultimately — she has told me that if she did have a choice even though she loves her country, she would love to try living in a place where she didn't have all these risks and restrictions. But she kind of tries to power through it because if people see her as being weak and afraid that puts her at even more risk — and she doesn't want to be seen as being vulnerable. So she puts on this bravado.

In your book, you write: "For years, I'd been asking where God was in the conflicts and crimes I had reported on in Africa." Are you any closer now to an answer to that question?

I do think I am because I think it is in people like this, the people I wrote about. Because I couldn't see God in the horrible atrocities I was witnessing. I just couldn't see any kind of order or righteousness or logic behind that. But I could see faith and good in these flawed people that I was writing about who were all religious in themselves and all had religion as a steadying, supportive force in their lives that enabled them to either resist in overt ways or to just do simple things — like going to the [basketball] court like Aisha in Somalia or choosing to be with her partner like Eunice in Uganda.

I could see God there in people, who I'm not saying are heroes or were perfect but who found in religion something supportive and something fortifying that helped them live their lives and resist.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Meghan Collins Sullivan is a senior editor on the Arts & Culture Desk, overseeing non-fiction books coverage at NPR. She has worked at NPR over the last 13 years in various capacities, including as the supervising editor for NPR.org – managing a team of online producers and reporters and editing multi-platform news coverage. She was also lead editor for the 13.7: Cosmos and Culture blog, written by five scientists on topics related to the intersection of science and culture.
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