Excerpt from A Moonless, Starless Sky by Alexis Okeowo, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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A Moonless, Starless Sky

Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa

by Alexis Okeowo

A Moonless, Starless Sky by Alexis Okeowo X
A Moonless, Starless Sky by Alexis Okeowo
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  • First Published:
    Oct 2017, 256 pages
    Paperback:
    Oct 2018, 256 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Karen Lewis

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Preface

I didn't plan on becoming obsessed with Africa. But ever since taking a ten-month internship at a newspaper in Uganda after college, I have returned to the fascinating, unpredictable, and maddening continent again and again to report stories. Before moving to Uganda at the age of twenty-two, I had traveled to Africa just once: In elementary school, my Nigerian parents took my brothers and me to their country of birth for Christmas, and we shyly and awkwardly united with dozens of relatives we had never met. My parents had both ended up as college students in Alabama, where I grew up. We had all the comforts of Nigerian food, art, and music in my childhood home, but I didn't have a great interest in Africa. I was drawn more to the prospects of adventure.

I traversed Uganda, flying in tiny planes to the remote, arid northeast and the border with Sudan, and bungee jumping over the Nile River, all the while trying to figure out my relationship to its inhabitants. Feeling neither wholly American nor African, 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. Five years after my internship in Uganda, I moved from Brooklyn back to Africa, this time to have a home base in Nigeria. It was then that I realized things had changed. After several years in and out of Africa, becoming familiar with so many of its cultures and parts, I no longer felt like an outsider. The continent had become a second home.

But as a novice reporter in Uganda, I initially approached my subjects—back then, primarily survivors of the civil war—with a mix of alienating emotions. Sympathy, for the suffering they had endured, which usually turned into pity, and a blend of disbelief and bewilderment that they had come through to the other side, mostly intact, still able to laugh and feel joy and express compassion for strangers.

I was writing 800-word news stories that didn't delve deeply into my subjects' lives, and they still felt foreign and incomprehensible. It took time to understand that what I was beginning to feel intimately—a kinship to Ugandans, a sense that we were far more alike than we were dissimilar—had to extend to how I undertook my reporting. If I wanted readers to understand that the people I interviewed were not that different from them, I needed to practice empathy when writing. That meant telling the stories of their lives, their likes and dislikes, their hobbies, the people they cared for. It meant conveying that I understood that I could have been a woman who had been disfigured by a rebel group had not it been for the fortune of my birthplace.

As my reporting deepened, the lives that interested me the most were the everyday, complicated Africans who were dealing with religious and cultural fundamentalism, state failure, and conflict, people who were grappling with their countries and trying to push them forward. What does resistance mean in the fight against extremism in Africa? There is the obvious profession of an activist: someone who has devoted her life to a cause. That cause usually swallows activists whole, dominates their lives. Activists can stage protests and sit-ins; they can also, in radical cases, take up arms. Liberty, that precious, delicate right, is fleeting in so much of the world. Sometimes it is there for you to take and enjoy; other times it suddenly and violently disappears, as if it never existed in the first place. But there are always people who go looking for that freedom, even at personal risk. They are not only activists and vigilantes, but also ordinary people. I became interested in subtler forms of resistance, ways of fighting that are not as easy to notice. Preserving your way of life amid extreme situations is also a vital struggle. That can mean continuing to live in your house, going to work, seeing your friends, dancing, playing sports and music, being as free as you know you deserve to be. It can also mean loving who you want, no matter who that person is, and keeping your family together.

Excerpted from A Moonless, Starless Sky by Alexis Okeowo. Copyright © 2017 by Alexis Okeowo. Excerpted by permission of Hachette Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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