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Here’s a different take on Boko Haram and extremism in Africa

- June 22, 2018
This woman and girl escaped their Boko Haram abductors and were living at the Dalori camp for displaced people in Maiduguri, Nigeria, in 2016. (Jane Hahn for The Washington Post)

This week, Nigerian military sources reported that Boko Haram fighters killed nine soldiers and wounded two others in northeast Nigeria. This comes just a week after two suicide bombers killed 43 people, also in northeast Nigeria.

A video released this week by Vox raises the alarm that Islamist militant groups such as Boko Haram are gaining strength in Africa. Most reporting on Boko Haram and other extremist groups in Africa warn that extremism on the continent is on the rise.

Alexis Okeowo’s award-winning book — “A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa” — offers a different perspective on Boko Haram and other extremist groups in Africa.

Okeowo is not an academic but a staff writer at the New Yorker. We like to include one book in the African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular that is written by a journalist whose work goes deeper than the average journalistic piece and tells compelling stories about people and places that are underreported (or for which there is a lot of bad reporting). For example, the book by a journalist featured in last year’s series was Andrew Harding’s “The Mayor of Mogadishu,” and the previous year we included Howard French’s “China’s Second Continent.”

Compelling and clearly written, “A Moonless, Starless Sky” tells four stories of fighting extremism in Africa (more specifically, in Uganda, Mauritania, Somalia and Nigeria). Okeowo’s book draws on her experience living and reporting on the continent, beginning a dozen years ago as a reporter for the leading Ugandan daily newspaper, New Vision.

In “A Moonless, Starless Sky,” Okeowo shares the experiences and perspectives of a young Ugandan couple kidnapped by Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army, a Mauritanian anti-slavery activist, a group of teenage girls who play basketball in Somalia and a Nigerian girl who escapes Boko Haram, as well as a local official who has rallied others to fight back against the terrorist group.

Perhaps because I read an excerpt before the book came out, I was particularly drawn to the two chapters on girls who play basketball in Somalia. These chapters closely follow the experience of Aisha, a 17-year-old girl who plays on a team that travels nationwide to compete against other Somali women’s teams.

In addition to learning more concretely how women navigate the insecurity of present-day Somalia, I also learned some historical context of women’s sport from Okeowo’s book. While present-day women athletes such as Aisha risk being targeted by extremists who consider them infidels for playing sports and wearing pants, female athletes a generation ago — like Aisha’s mother (a swimmer) or her coach, Nasro (a basketball player) — would be in public in bathing suits or basketball shorts, hair uncovered, and no one hassled them. In other words, the extremism that Somalis are navigating today is not rooted in a long history.

Okeowo’s book is a much-needed shift in perspective on extremism.

To be sure, there is a good deal of political-science research on violent extremism — especially on how to counter it. Here at TMC, we’ve featured a variety of posts, including one that identified the characteristics of people surveyed in opinion polls who said they think terrorist attacks on civilians are justified and another on results from research measuring the effectiveness of interventions meant to dissuade young people from joining extremist groups.

But it is much rarer to see from the perspective of ordinary people who are fighting extremism.

One of my favorite passages of “A Moonless, Starless Sky” captures the import of the stories Okeowo is telling. In reflecting on girls playing basketball in Mogadishu, she wrote, “It was both an ordinary and rare kind of bravery, the kind that they didn’t think about every day because they were just trying to live their lives, but that was incredible considering the danger they faced” (page 118).

So much of the reporting on Somalia fails to capture how people navigate insecurity to just “live their lives.” So often reporting — and even research — is reduced to location and casualty count of violent events. Okeowo’s book reminds us that even in the face of extremist violence, people continue to go about their lives. Even if this ordinary bravery may not inform a new avenue of research, Okeowo’s beautiful narration of these stories can engage a wider group of people to empathize with Africans who navigate insecurity in their daily lives.


See our earlier posts in the fifth annual TMC African Politics Summer Reading Spectacular: