Guernica

Alexis Okeowo: Everyday Africans Fighting Extremism

Photo: Krisanne Johnson.

Aisha wears track pants under her long skirt and hijab. She plays basketball every day, despite menacing phone calls from strangers who say Islam prohibits women from doing so. She and her teammates know where to walk in Somalia’s capital, Mogadishu, to avoid Al-Shabaab militants. Death threats, kidnappings, men who stalk the court, follow her to practice—Aisha deals with it all, because she loves the sport, and because she wants to live her life.

In her new book, A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa, New Yorker staff writer Alexis Okeowo tells Aisha’s story, along with the tales of several other men and women in Nigeria, Uganda, and Mauritania whose lives have collided with conflict, violence, and fundamentalist ideology. There’s Bosco, who was kidnapped as a child by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army and trained to kill and pillage, and Eunice, who was also abducted by the LRA and forced to become Bosco’s “bush wife.” After Eunice escaped and Bosco surrendered under amnesty, the pair chose to reunite and live as a couple, despite confusion and disapproval from their families and neighbors. We also meet Rebecca, who was among the hundreds of girls kidnapped by Boko Haram militants from a school in Chibok, northeastern Nigeria, and managed to escape by jumping off the back of a truck. And Elder, who leads a vigilante group to fight Boko Haram in his community in the face of inadequate action by the Nigerian government.

Indeed, horror and tragedy pervade these accounts, but Okeowo flips the tired narrative of victimization on its head. The individuals in this book are rendered with depth and specificity, and the stories center on the brave decisions, big and small, that have helped them resist injustice. This even in the case of Biram Dah Abeid, the Mauritanian anti-slavery campaigner who, as a professional activist and politician, is perhaps the least “ordinary” of Okeowo’s subjects. The journalist reaches deep into his past, identifying the moments and encounters that helped transform a curious child into a passionate abolitionist who captured the world’s attention after publicly burning Islamic legal books that justified slavery.

As she writes in the preface to A Moonless, Starless Sky, Okeowo is familiar with living in “a culture of extremes.” The daughter of Nigerian immigrants, she grew up in Alabama, embedded in both a vibrant West African diasporic community and the racist realities of the Deep South. Upon graduating from Princeton, she got her start in journalism with an internship at a state-run newspaper in Uganda, and then went on to freelance for various news outlets while in East Africa and Mexico. After a stint as David Remnick’s editorial assistant at The New Yorker, she moved to Lagos, Nigeria, where she lived for three years and reported intensely on Boko Haram and the kidnapping of the Chibok schoolgirls. In 2015, she returned to New York City. Okeowo says she’ll have a lifelong interest in the African continent, but for now is turning her attention to her “other home,” the South. Having reported at a rally in support of Confederate monuments near her hometown recently, Okeowo told me her experiences in Africa gave her the strength to delve into that potentially hostile gathering. “I was able to look at it as kind of another extremist situation.”

—Meara Sharma for Guernica

Guernica: You’re writing about big, sweeping life-and-death issues in this book. But what struck me throughout was the detail you were able to draw out of your subjects. For example, you describe how Bosco, on the night he was captured by the Lord’s Resistance Army, was told to remove and replace a severed hand from his brother’s splayed-open stomach. Rebecca, the Nigerian schoolgirl kidnapped by Boko Haram, was comforted by praying: it was like “rolling up in a mound of cool sheets.” Can you tell me about the process of unearthing these kinds of details?

Alexis Okeowo: With each subject, it comes through time and often repetition. So when I’m meeting my subjects for the first time, I’m asking them broad questions about their lives, starting from their childhood, and then progressing further on. And then each time I meet with them again, I’m zeroing in on specific encounters or things they said. With Bosco, he’s telling me about what happened during the night of his abduction, how his brother was killed. And the first time, he’s telling me in broad strokes. I was taken, they murdered my brother. And then a couple sessions later I’m asking: Ok, but when you were taken, how were you feeling? And then, How was your brother killed? It is like doing a kind of procedure on each subject. I am trying to get them to hone in, be specific, and relate to me as much as they can remember. It just takes time. It is a repetitive process, and sometimes my subjects get sick of me.

Guernica: Was that an impulse that came naturally to you, or did it develop over time?

Alexis Okeowo: It definitely came over time. When I first started out as a journalist, I was writing short news stories, and you simply don’t have the time to keep going back to subjects and asking them the same thing. Which is essentially what you are doing, asking them the same things over and over again and seeing how their answers change or deepen each time. It took time for me to realize what to ask that would illuminate my subjects’ stories. Not questions that are gratuitous—you know, What color was this particular leaf?—but questions that will actually show something about their experiences.

Guernica: When you’re spending this much time with your subjects, how would you characterize your relationship? Do you feel close to them? Do they feel close to you?

Alexis Okeowo: Thinking of the story of Eunice and Bosco, the Ugandan couple, I felt among the closest to them. They named their youngest baby after the photographer I would often travel with to see them. We did become almost like distant relatives who kept showing up. And interestingly, they were telling us things they hadn’t really told other people, things their relatives or neighbors didn’t know. Thinking of my relationship with the activists in Mauritania, just by virtue of talking so much and being in such close contact, not just in person but later over WhatsApp and email—you do inevitably become close and develop an emotional connection. Which I should have expected. But it always comes as a bit of a surprise, to realize how much you care for your subjects.

Guernica: With so many of these stories, you’re asking your subjects to recount difficult memories: being kidnapped by militants, watching friends and family members die, being forced to maim and kill. In the process of reporting, how do you gauge how far to push, and the line between gathering detail and causing new pain?

Alexis Okeowo: Intuition, but also, in the case of Eunice and Bosco in Uganda, I was greatly helped by my interpreter. My interpreter had gone through the same experience—he had been abducted, he had been a child soldier. And he just was a remarkably sensitive person. He also had experience interviewing former child soldiers and was familiar with how to treat the situation. [I found him through] an organization that is preserving the testimonies of survivors of the civil war in Uganda—he had been working with them.

The first contact between Eunice and Bosco really was a rape. When I finally did ask Eunice about that experience, I remember my interpreter guiding me as far as how to say it, how to reference it. I’m so grateful he was there. Because it is very difficult. Even as sensitive as you try to be, it’s inevitable that you could push too hard or ask the wrong thing and retraumatize someone.

I think what also helps is that when we get to the subject’s home in the morning, we’re not just launching into [the darkest parts of their lives]. We’re hanging around, we’re eating, we’re chatting, I’m talking about myself. Eunice and Bosco are cracking jokes, laughing. We’re hopefully creating an atmosphere where we all feel comfortable, where it isn’t an interrogation, where it is as much as possible a conversation.

Guernica: Has there ever been a scenario where you feel you’ve probed too far?

Alexis Okeowo: You know, when I was reporting on the Chibok kidnapping in northeastern Nigeria, a friend of mine, a Nigerian lawyer from that town, two of his nieces were kidnapped. He lived in the capital, Abuja, where I was staying, and he had offered to go with me to the town. He was going to be my guide; we were going to work together. So I would call him every day, trying to plan with him, not really realizing how much personal grief he was going through and how much risk his family was facing. Until one morning, he calls me bawling, sobbing, and he tells me his brother was just killed in a Boko Haram attack. I just remember hanging up the phone and then crying myself. For a number of reasons: because of the heartbreaking nature of the work I was doing, over his loss and not knowing how to comfort him, and also realizing that the nature of what I was doing—this reporting, this taking stories from people and taking their willingness to give me their help—in a way could be harmful. Careless toward their own emotions. I just felt helpless. Here I am, asking him to go with me to this town for my own purposes, and his relatives are being killed. You just realize how selfish reporting can be.

Guernica: In the book, certainly all of the individuals you feature are resisting, in some way. But most of them, with the exception of Biram Dah Abeid, the Mauritanian antislavery activist, are very matter-of-fact about it. It isn’t a dramatic, ceremonious kind of resistance. It’s just: This is what I’m doing. Of course I’m going to play basketball. Of course I’ll organize a vigilante group to save my town.

Alexis Okeowo: I love that most of them wouldn’t think of themselves as resisting anything. They would think of themselves as living their lives, protecting their families. [Aisha] is a teenage girl in Somalia who is just trying to play basketball, see her boyfriend, and go out. You know, like any normal teenager. But what to me is extraordinary about it is that she’s doing it under these extreme circumstances. That’s what I love about these stories. They aren’t grand tales that are supposed to be lessons in bravery or courageousness. They’re just about how people try to get on with the business of living, even in situations that are so extreme and difficult. And how they find happiness and joys and pleasures. That was what was striking to me. Only Biram in Mauritania is an activist. The rest aren’t. I wanted to talk about this range, from the smallest actions and decisions to those that are bigger and more deliberate, like fighting for a cause.

Guernica: Somewhat of a logistical question: You reported this book while you were a freelancer, before you were on staff at The New Yorker. When you were traveling and visiting sources and subjects again and again, were you on assignment, were you getting paid?

Alexis Okeowo: Most of these stories, if not every single one, was reported without an assignment. So I was going there on my own dime often, staying somewhere cheaply, staying with friends, to pursue these stories I was interested in and that no one would assign me to go report.

Guernica: And then once you had the compelling characters…

Alexis Okeowo: Exactly. Then [editors] were like, Oh, yeah, sure I’ll take the story [laughs]. Once I’d done all the work and spent all this money. After I got the book advance I was able to use it to go to Somalia, which is an extremely expensive and difficult place to work in. I wouldn’t have been able to do it on my own. But yeah, most of them were reported on my own dime and my own time. I was just drawn to them. I knew there was a story there but I couldn’t articulate it for an editor.

Guernica: That seems to speak to the paradox of reporting today. You want to tell these deep, human stories, but to do that you basically need to fund yourself, and then reverse-engineer a pitch.

Alexis Okeowo: Exactly. It’s very difficult, and it’s getting even more difficult. Because often, even if you do get an editor to sign on before going, there are time restrictions, especially if it is a place that is costly to be in. You’re expected to do it very efficiently and fast, and that can prevent you from getting the kind of story you want.

Guernica: After a few years of living and reporting from Nigeria, you moved to New York. How did you decide to leave?

Alexis Okeowo: I love Nigeria. I love Lagos. It’s another home for me. But when I left, I was burned out. I had come off several months of reporting on terrorism, reporting on extremist groups, and it was a lot. I was exhausted and I felt like I needed time away. My immediate family is in the States and I just thought I was at a point where I wanted to be closer to them. And I just needed distance. I didn’t know how long it would be for, but I knew I wanted to get away. I was starting the book and I wanted space to write and think and not be tempted by the news to go start covering what I had been covering.

Guernica: Do you find there is something gained for you in being away from the continent but still writing about it? Are there things that reveal themselves to you that didn’t before?

Alexis Okeowo: I think so. One example is, I reported twice on the civil war in Uganda with Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army. When I was first there after college as an intern at the state-run newspaper, I was writing about survivors of that war, and it was a very intimate experience. But then when I left, I was able to see more of the complexity of the conflict, more of the culpability of the government—certain narratives that had fallen to the wayside while I was in it. That helped me when I went back later on to report on Eunice and Bosco and what had happened to them. I think I was able to report with a fuller idea of what had actually happened during this war. The conflict had been painted as: these were the awful rebels, they were brutal, and it was all their fault—the violence was their fault. But actually, the Ugandan government had a lot to do with it as well. That was something that emerged to me, being away from it and seeing it from a distance.

I think with all of these stories, stepping away and not writing when I’m there, I’m able to seek out other perspectives, read other things, and see all of the sides and evaluate them. When you’re in it and you see gruesome things, you see suffering—maybe that can [cloud] things. I think doing the reporting in the place, having that intimate experience and then stepping out gives you the distance to see the nuances, to see the complexity. As opposed to writing when you’re in it and emotions are running high and there can be a lot of chaos.

Guernica: How do you think the reporting you’ve done in Africa affects the way you see the US, particularly right now?

Alexis Okeowo: It’s interesting. I grew up in the South, in Alabama, and I was recently there covering a rally where they were erecting a new confederate monument. It was a surreal experience because this was a place I’d grown up in, but I felt like I was seeing it with fresh eyes. It almost felt like I was in a foreign country again. I don’t think I would have even gone to something like this before because I was basically almost the only person of color there, and from the surface it seemed like a hostile environment. But then I thought, I have done things like this before, just not near my hometown. I was able to talk to people in the way I would when I’d been reporting on people in Africa, from more of a dispassionate viewpoint, even though this place was infinitely more familiar and emotional for me. I was able to look at it as kind of another extremist situation.

Guernica: That’s a really interesting parallel.

Alexis Okeowo: The situations I report about [in Africa] are more extreme, but there are still similarities. Even, for example, with a place like Somalia, which is truly a failed state. In the book I’m talking about women’s freedoms, and the way that they almost suddenly started constricting, and how a lot of women went along with it but many didn’t. It makes me think about how here the government is constricting the rights and the freedoms of immigrants, potentially of minorities, potentially of women when it comes to reproductive rights. It makes me think: How are we going to react? Are people just going to go along with it, or are they going to resist in whatever way they can? Because these things can happen so suddenly and seemingly overnight. And it really is about how people react, what they choose to do. That really struck me as I was writing this book, just seeing the choices people make and the little things they try to do to protect what is dear to them, and wondering how we as Americans are going to do that too. And at what cost.

Guernica: Are there new challenges that come with reporting in the South that you didn’t come up against in Nigeria—namely, race?

Alexis Okeowo: Yeah, that is the biggest one. It is certainly a risk if I’m around white nationalists or private militias that could be hostile to me because of my skin color. That will determine the kinds of things I’m drawn to writing about. As opposed to the conflict zones I was working in in Africa, where there were risks, but they never had to do with the fact of what I looked like. I’m in Somalia and, yes, I’m nervous, but at least I know no one is going to come up and target me because they’ve noticed me as being particularly different. That was very freeing, writing on the African continent. To blend in most of the time as a reporter.

Guernica: How do you think your childhood in Alabama affected how you approached reporting in Africa?

Alexis Okeowo: In Alabama, I grew up in two cultures. One very Southern environment and all that came with that, and then, my parents being Nigerian and having a very rich scene of West African friends. I took that for granted, having that Nigerianness. And so showing up in Uganda and not really knowing much about it, thinking that perhaps I’d be more accepted because I am of African descent, but also realizing that wasn’t as true as I thought it would be. Because at the end of the day, I realized I was way more American than I thought I was. Even the way I approached reporting was from that viewpoint of being a young American who hadn’t begun to relate to Africans yet.

When I was first writing about the survivors of the war with the LRA, I was just not able to fathom what they had gone through. It felt so alien. That understanding, or that empathy, started to come about from adjusting my viewpoint and not seeing them in an abstract way, but trying to draw commonalities, trying to find out what their interests were, and trying to see how possibly we were similar. Outside of my reporting life I was making friends with a lot of Ugandans who didn’t have these extreme experiences. So there came a realization: How much difference could there be between someone who did have this experience and someone who didn’t? As people, how different could we be? The marker was the experience. That was the seed of becoming interested in these extreme circumstances. Trying to get at what these extreme situations do to people, how it changes them, what kind of decisions it forces them to make, and if it pushes them to become the people they were perhaps destined to be. Something about that came from starting out and interviewing people who were in extreme circumstances and trying to find the commonalities of our human experiences. There obviously were a lot, but this extreme experience had thrown us on different paths.

Guernica: You seem to have a recurring interest in narratives, how stories are told, and who is doing the telling. For example, you’ve written recently on “activist” movies about Africa; director Melina Matsoukas, who has helped shape the public personae of Beyoncé and Rihanna; and television executive Mona Scott-Young. Does that stem from reporting on Africa, where, perhaps to do it well, you have to be mindful of how you’re telling the story, as well as the story itself?

Alexis Okeowo: As a reporter writing about Africa, you do have to be aware of the metanarrative; you have to be aware of how these stories have been told in the past, because they have been so often problematic. It is a constant thing you are wrestling with. Especially with Africa, but also with anywhere foreign, or any minority community—anything apart from the mainstream narrative. It is endlessly fascinating to me, whether it is about Mona Scott-Young, who is telling stories about black American women and men and the music business, or the director I’m writing about now who is telling stories about women in South Asia and the Middle East. All of these people are aware of both their burdens and the freedoms they have as nonwhite creators. That’s definitely a preoccupation of mine because I also feel that personally. I do place a greater burden on myself, especially if I’m telling stories about people of color, especially Africans, to tell them in a more nuanced way, and perhaps a different way.

Guernica: In your years of reporting, have you seen any hopeful change in terms of how the continent is covered?

Alexis Okeowo: One thing I’ve absolutely loved is that I now know quite a few reporters of African descent or black Americans working on the continent. That has really improved reporting. You have Monica Mark working for BuzzFeed in West Africa; Tamerra Griffin in East Africa; Kimberly Adams used to be in Cairo; Michael Onyiego, who is a Kenyan American, in Kenya. Of course there are tons of African journalists who have been telling these stories forever. But it is also nice to see journalists from the diaspora going back and telling the stories of their parents’ homelands, even if they are far removed. I think it brings a fresh perspective, and they’re telling stories that haven’t usually been told.

And then I think, with all reporters—white, Western—there has been so much pushback and so much helpful criticism from Africans, on social media and in various outlets, that to be a young reporter working in Africa today, you do have to be on your toes; you do have to be aware that you can’t just write anything you want anymore. People are checking on you, and people will call you out if your coverage is subpar.