One of the recent narratives about Africa to emerge out of the US focuses on the growing influence of extremists.
Highlighted are terrorist attacks by Boko Haram in Nigeria, and Al-Shabaab in Somalia; and questions about the sustainability of dozens of US military special operations bases scattered throughout the continent.
These narratives seem to be replacing previously generalised stories about Africa that define the vast continent in terms of what it lacks — including safety and security.
This backdrop makes Alexis Okeowo’s A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa, a timely book that will interest readers around the world. She zeros in on the lives of people in Uganda, Mauritania, Nigeria and Somalia, and the ways in which extremism has affected their day-to-day reality.
Although so much of the discourse tethered to issues of extremism is about the regions affected, the numbers of displaced people and the groups responsible for violence, the book seeks to recover the humaneness of those intimately familiar with its brutalities.
It is divided in two parts. The first focuses on how extremism has affected four individuals and their families. The second explores how they react and the methods they use to push back. Over the course of the book, it becomes clear that Western ideas of extremism as a singular event, rather than a continuous process, is limited.
Okeowo writes about individual people, but they also speak to the realities of millions of Africans caught in the middle of and, sometimes, the crossfire of extremist elements.
They are child soldiers struggling to come to grips with their past, former slaves trying to create a new life, families fleeing terrorist groups and young women striving to create a sense of individualism in a society that denies it at every turn.
Her profile of a former slave in Mauritania, and the people working to secure her release and freedom, is particularly captivating. Slavery is often a word that evokes images from a bygone time when human rights was more of a lofty ideal than a fundamental part of being human. What Okeowo shows, though, is that for many people in Mauritania, slavery is a way of life — it’s all some ever know. Her attention to the day-to-day details that make up a slave’s life illustrate how this system shapes how people see and interact with the world.
Despite Okeowo’s eye for detail one of the shortcomings of the book is the lack of the first-person voice Okeowo affords her subjects. Too often, the quotes in the book repeat information she has summarised, or don’t offer much to show their individual experiences.
The most powerful moments in the book are when Okeowo simply lets her subjects speak. In the chapter about Haby, the Mauritanian slave who is eventually freed by activists, Okeowo integrates her subject’s voice more consistently, which reveals the horror of her life.
Haby’s life was organised around a daily routine of tasks, many of them demanding and physically exhausting. If she did not complete her tasks in a satisfactory way, she explains how her master Abdoulaye would "hit me, [call] me slave. He would come to me and beat me, saying that my body needed to be beaten to be put into shape.
"He said I have to be beaten from time to time, because if I’m not beaten, I will forget that someone is over me. I spent my life like this."
Moments like this in the book display the humanity of "ordinary women and men" adapting to remarkably difficult and often violent circumstances.
Despite Okeowo’s journalism background — she is a staff writer at The New Yorker — the lack of voices throughout the book leaves much to be desired. There is too little of their own voices in the book to transport readers from the safety of the US to ground level in Africa where the consequences of extremism play out every day.