Alexis Okeowo ’06’s A Moonless, Starless Sky is a finalist for a PEN America Literary Award.
Krisanne Johnson
Reading Room: Alexis Okeowo ’06

Stories of religious extremism in Africa aren’t hard to find, from Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, a heterodox Christian rebel group that has been waging a war in northern Uganda for decades, to Boko Haram, an Islamic militant organization in Nigeria. But behind each attention-grabbing event are the lives of millions of people across Africa who are quietly resisting religious and cultural fundamentalism. 

Four of these tales are featured in A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Men and Women Fighting Extremism in Africa (Hachette), by Alexis Okeowo ’06, based on six years of travel and reporting across the continent. In the book, Okeowo, a staff writer for The New Yorker, highlights people who defy conventional accounts and expectations about Africa, focusing on those affected by some of its most violent conflicts. 

“I wanted to challenge the common narrative that Africans are either perpetrators of violence or passive agents of suffering,” Okeowo says. “They’re flawed, complicated individuals trying to create good lives for themselves and making choices much in the way we do, even in these situations of conflict.” 

Elder, a government bureaucrat in Nigeria who grows fed up with the government’s inadequate response to Boko Haram, is a compelling example of this. He formed a vigilante group of several thousand men who use rudimentary weapons like machetes and homemade guns to fight the militants. Okeowo says she wants readers to understand the “moral grays” of his situation: “I’m trying to show his reasoning — how you begin to do things you never expected because you feel they’re necessary to protect yourself, your family, your community.”

The stories often resist preconceived notions about human relationships as well. There’s Eunice, who was kidnapped by Kony’s LRA at the age of 15 and given as a wife to a young soldier, Bosco, who was himself kidnapped by Kony and trained as a fighter. When Eunice refuses Bosco’s advances on their first night together, he rapes her. But eventually, as they suffer through the horrors of battle together, they grow to respect each other — and they stay together, even after escaping from Kony’s army.

Many of the central figures share a faith with the people they are resisting. Eunice and Bosco are Christians, like Kony, but refuse to embrace his violent, messianic version of the religion. In Mauritania, one of the few countries in the world where modern slavery still exists — and is perceived by some to be sanctioned by Islam, the state religion — an anti-slavery activist named Biram publicly burns Islamic texts that justify slavery, even though the act constitutes apostasy, a crime punishable by death. In fact, it’s his faith in Islam that helps drive him to fight religious extremism.

Okeowo says she was inspired by the quiet courage of her subjects — especially Aisha, a teenager in Somalia who loves to play basketball, despite increasing restrictions on women’s freedom. Although Aisha receives death threats for playing, she wears track pants under her long skirts, always ready for a game. 

“Aisha would never say she’s a hero,” Okeowo says. “She would probably say she’s a normal teenager who wants to hang out with her boyfriend and to go to the beach.” But it’s her resilience — a quality shared by everyone in the book — that allows her to fight back, in her own way, against the religious fundamentalism of her culture. “Resistance can often just be the courage to keep living your life the way you believe is right.”