Alexis Okeowo moved to Uganda in 2006 after being awarded a fellowship when she graduated from university. “It was kind of a fluke,” she says, but it ignited her interest for reporting on the continent. She’s now a staff writer at the New Yorker, and has been a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Reporting. Her work has been anthologized in The Best American Sports Writing 2017 and The Best American Travel Writing 2017, and she been awarded fellowships and grants from New America, the Alicia Patterson Foundation, the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting, and the International Reporting Project. Her book A Moonless, Starless Sky was released on October 3.
Foreign Policy Interrupted: Can you explain what A Moonless, Starless Sky is about for those that haven’t read your book?
Alexis Okeowo: A Moonless, Starless Sky is a book of four connecting narratives that aim to tell a story of modern Africa. One is about a young Ugandan couple who are both kidnapped by Joseph Kony’s LRA and another is a story about a Mauritanian who was waging a lonely fight on modern day slavery. There’s a story about women basketball players fighting to keep playing their sport despite threats from extremists who don’t want them to play sports or wear pants. The other is a dual portrait of a young Nigerian girl (who is kidnapped by Boko Haram for going to school but who fights by going back to school anyway) and a government auditor who decides to take up arms to protect his community. So the book is about ordinary people who find themselves in extreme situations and seeing what they do to preserve their ways of life — how they fight against the extremists in their environments.
FPI: What was it like being Nigerian but growing up in Alabama and New York and reporting on the country your parents left?
AO: It was interesting, first moving in 2012, as I had only been there once on a family trip when I was 11 and I didn’t know what to expect. I felt a lot of warmth from other Nigerians, who even though they would tease me for having grown up in America and not knowing a lot of things that were local to the place, they still regarded me as being very Nigerian. They welcomed me in and so that atmosphere was really important. And I would look at the new friends I made and the people I encountered and I would see the same things I grew up with – not just in terms of music and food and culture – but also some of the things my parents or relatives would say. There was an unexpected familiarness that I felt when going there, but at the same time I felt a bit of an outsider. I think that helped me when it came to wanting to know about the country, traveling around and learning about this place that felt both familiar and foreign. I still feel that way about Nigeria but its something I’ve grown to be comfortable with: the insider-outside perspective. But as I say in the book, it is a place that has come to feel like a home.
FPI: How did you select the four people central to the book?
AO: I think looking back a lot of it was an emotional connection, like the Ugandan couple that was kidnapped by the LRA; I built a strong connection to the wife. Theirs was a story that really stuck in my head for years after. It was the same with a lot of the other stories too. The book also came about not long after the Chibok kidnapping in 2014 and I had very strong emotional connections to that story because I was in Nigeria at the time. All the stories just kind of stayed in my brain long after the reporting had ended, because the people at the center of them were just so fascinating and memorable that I wanted to revisit them.
FPI: What were the young girls like that you interviewed in Somalia, who just wanted to play basketball?
AO: On one hand, there’s a fearless confidence that comes from being a teenager, which feels familiar to me. But then at the same time, these girls have gone through a lot. It’s a lot to be threatened on the phone by men who say they want to kill you because you play sports, or threatened in person at gunpoint. I was just struck by their love of the game and the fact they just want to live their lives and don’t want to make a big deal of the fact that they were brave, which to me is so quintessentially being a teenage girl. They just wanted to date boys and go out.
FPI: Can you talk about the fear of being in conflict zones as a female journalist?
AO: When I went to Somalia I thought ok, I’m very apprehensive, just in terms of going into a place that is an active war zone but there’s this strange thing that when you see people going about their daily business and living their lives, it kind of eases that anxiety. I’d be sitting in a restaurant in Mogadishu and there’d be trees and we’re having pizza. I would know that not long ago there had been a car bombing on the street not far away but everyone was chilling and eating and talking, so you relax and let go of some of that fear. I think that’s the only way people live is to push that fear to the side and just go about their daily lives. The same way that in northeastern Nigeria, where girls are being kidnapped, the power went out in my host’s home and there was no electricity but people were having dinner on my host’s front yard, just in the dark, chatting and eating and it’s that strange but very real sense that people maintain their lives. It lets you let go of that fear and just be in the moment, which was helpful.
FPI: How do the people in your book view religion, especially when religious fanatics were ruining their lives?
AO: Even the couple in Uganda, they’re born again Christians, when they were talking about the so called LRA Christians, or the Nigerians were talking about Boko Haram, they say this is not Christianity or Islam this is something completely different that is ruining our religions. So it was very personal because it felt like these extremists were ruining the good name of their faiths. I thought that was interesting because for them the problem wasn’t the religion, it was the way it was being used by terrorists, and in Mauritania’s case by the imams and the government who are claiming Islam supports slavery.
FPI: The anti-slavery activist in Mauritania was very different from your other characters; can you explain why you decided to include him in the novel?
AO: I guess the story felt different because he is actually an activist. The other characters are not activists; they are just people who have found themselves in situations and decided to do something about it. They’re not activists who wanted to fight for a cause. He became impassioned about this issue at a very young age, when he saw slavery around him and was told by his father that his grandmother had been a slave. It became a primary preoccupation in his life, his intellectual life, his personal and his working life, the fact that in this modern era slavery still exists in this country. Even though it’s been outlawed everywhere else in the world, it’s even been outlawed in his own country and yet this injustice still prevails. It’s his main focus and he’s just a single minded, very passionate, very compassionate person, whose desire is to make his country eradicate slavery on a ground level. He’s been imprisoned several times; he’s committed radical acts like burning holy books of Islam that some imams used to support slavery, even though he leads a pious Muslim life. It’s admirable but also kind of unfathomable to see how someone can devote their life to a single cause.
FPI: You beautifully simplify the histories and politics of each country. How did you do this?
AO: I read historical books about each country but I knew I wanted to distill it in a way that was not like an academic book. I wanted the reader to get a sense of what each place was like so the trick was to do a summary/analysis of the country’s politics and history in a way that was not too overwhelming or confusing. As a reader, I hate getting bogged down with too much context but at the same time, in the case of somewhere like Mauritania, there’s so much history and even I didn’t know much about it before I reported there.
FPI: You also describe the atrocities people suffered with such poignant clarity.
AO: It’s part of my writing style to be straightforward but I also think when you are dealing with such harrowing experiences that are already brutal themselves, you don’t need to make it more dramatic. I felt like I needed to be clear but not linger on it too much because the point is not the fact that these people are victims of such brutal circumstances but what happened next, how the choices they made got them through it, their resistance and survival.
FPI: In the book you talk about a couple – Eunice and Bosco – whose son becomes more epileptic because of something he may have heard when you were interviewing his parents. As a journalist, how do you know when to back off or keep pushing for a story?
AO: On a later trip when I was interviewing the couple, they were telling me that their son was experiencing seizure-like spells that they thought might be related to him overhearing the experiences of his parents who were in captivity. That was very surprising and disheartening to hear because, of course, as a reporter you know you are putting your subjects through a lot when you ask them about difficult or traumatizing times, but the last thing you want is for them or their families to be negatively affected. They didn’t blame me, which is something I was very humbled by but that made me think even more about being careful. As reporters, we really have to be careful not to re-traumatize the victims anymore.
FPI: How did you find the right words to talk about the trauma experienced by your subjects?
AO: I was greatly helped by the fact that my interpreter had gone through a similar experience to my subjects and would correct me or make suggestions about how to approach a certain topic or a particular experience that they had, so as to not say something that was too blunt or insensitive. He was a Ugandan who had been abducted by the LRA at the same time so he was familiar with the experiences and the trauma and knew how to talk about it in a way that wasn’t insensitive.