A Moonless, Starless Sky review: a diligent but at times artless portrayal
Ed O’Loughlin on Alexis Okeowo’s account of ordinary Africans fighting extremism
Extremism in Africa: a girl at a camp for internally displaced people in northern Nigeria, where Boko Haram declared a caliphate in 2014. Photograph: Stefan Heunis/AFP/Getty
A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa
Alexis Okeowo, a staff writer at the New Yorker magazine, has done a lot of old-fashioned footwork for A Moonless, Starless Sky, her four-stranded work of nonfiction. The book’s locations are spread across the main width of Africa, from Mauritania, in the far west, to Somalia, in the eastern horn, with intermediary chapters set in northern Nigeria and Uganda/South Sudan. The ordinary women and men fighting extremism of its subtitle are also diverse: an anti-slavery campaigner in Mauritania, a Nigerian militia leader resisting Boko Haram guerrillas, a young couple from northern Uganda who met after they were kidnapped by the roaming, nihilistic Lord’s Resistance Army, and a Somali girl who risks being murdered by Islamic misogynists for the sin of playing basketball.
Okeowo has followed their lives over several years, making multiple visits to places that are difficult to reach or, in the case of Mogadishu, in Somalia, or Maiduguri, in northern Nigeria, downright dangerous. There are also, as is often the way with nonfiction these days, autobiographical interludes – Okeowo, though raised in Alabama and educated at Princeton, is the daughter of Nigerian immigrants, and her exploration of her own African identity is a subthread throughout.
Casual readers will learn a lot about Africa from this diligent, well-researched book. Okeowo is clearly a determined and dogged reporter, and her passion for Africa, and for her subjects, is apparent, as are her courage and industry.
By presenting her narratives almost exclusively from her interlocutors’ points of view, Okeowo leaves herself little opportunity to test their truth or meaning
This can be a trying book to read, though, and not only because of its troubling subject matter. One problem is that Okeowo has chosen a very linear and self-limiting way to tell her story, essentially interviewing her subjects, editing down their life stories and stolidly retelling them. This makes for a flat, artless, often plodding narration.
Her prose is workmanlike, and sometimes a little less than that. For example, the book’s sonorous title is drawn from its very first sentence: “The moonless, starless sky was bright the evening Eunice met Bosco in the forests of southern Sudan.” This does not make sense, no matter how you define the word “evening”.
A more substantive problem is that, by presenting her narratives almost exclusively from the points of view of her chosen interlocutors – except when she appears in their stories herself – the author leaves herself little opportunity to test the truth or meaning of their stories by, for example, seeking and telling the other sides of them.
This is not a big failing in those sections of the book where the stories are essentially one sided – the Somali basketball girl, the Lord’s Resistance survivors and, to an extent, the Mauritanian anti-slavery campaigner. But this lack of depth of field becomes troubling in her account of Elder, a government clerk who has become the leader of an armed militia in Maiduguri, resisting Boko Haram.
It is difficult to read Elder’s proud accounts of how he takes his “boys” to houses in the city to drag out Boko Haram members or sympathisers, and then hands them over to the army, without wondering if these suspects would tell a different story – if they could tell any story at all. Hundreds if not thousands of Boko Haram suspects, many of them innocent, are alleged to have been tortured and murdered by Nigerian soldiers and local militias pursuing an ill-conceived counterinsurgency. Okeowo does eventually acknowledge that such allegations have been made, and puts them to Elder in an interview, but he is allowed to wriggle off the hook much too easily.
Aisha, a 14-year-old Somali girl, loves to play basketball. But as far as the Islamist bigots are concerned, girls should not play sport, or have any fun at all
By then the book’s professed theme of ordinary women and men fighting extremism is beginning to look shaky. Elder is not an ordinary man, and could be mirroring extremism rather than just fighting it. Biram Dah Abeid, the Mauritanian anti-slavery campaigner, is fighting not extremism but the status quo in his country, where slavery persists as a caste-like institution. He has run for his country’s presidency, and came to Dublin in 2013 to receive a human-rights award from Front Line Defenders.
Eunice and Bosco are certainly ordinary Africans, or were, before the Lord’s Resistance Army kidnapped them and forced them to become killers, but they are trying to escape and survive extremism, not to fight it. Stylistic and thematic quibbles aside, though, this is a very good segment, sensitively exploring the young couple’s efforts to overcome the trauma of their experience – he was made a fighter, she his forced bride and rape victim; both were forced to kill innocent people – in a society that blames and shuns them for their coerced past.
Probably not coincidentally, the book’s strongest thread is the one that most closely matches its mission statement. Aisha, a 14-year-old Somali girl, loves to play basketball. But her country has become a particularly lawless, confused and brutal theatre of the so-called war on terror, with various Islamist factions battling secessionist regions, clan fighters, Ethiopian invaders, African peace keepers and pot-stirring American spooks with their bungling air strikes and assassinations.
As far as the Islamist bigots are concerned, girls should not play sport, or have any fun at all. Aisha receives threatening anonymous phone calls, which she ignores. Attempts are made to kidnap her and her team-mates, and she survives a shooting attempt unscathed. Another girl player, abducted from her home, is found several hours later, tortured, mutilated and dead.
Yet Aisha, a devout Muslim herself, persists with her sport as much for the youthful joy of it as for principled defiance. Okeowo begins to find her feet in this section when it comes to character building and description. And real life has provided her story, at the time of writing, at least, with something like a happy ending. One would not be surprised to see this section of the book turned into a movie. If so, let’s hope Aisha will be able to play herself.