What Does Resistance Look Like in the Face of Extremism?
Alexis Okeowo on the Complex Ethics of Fighting Extremism in Africa
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 22, 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.
What are the ethics of resisting? When extreme circumstances are forced upon a person, what is she allowed to do to survive? Can she commit apostasy as a religious person, or kill a relative? The answers are complex, possibly unknowable. The idea of survival becomes hazy: It can mean more than just staying alive; it can mean leading the life she feels entitled to have. And in order to do that, the morals she was taught, that she has long lived by, could shift and mutate into something she no longer recognizes. They could change because she believed she was fighting for good, or at least for her right to have a good, sane life, and, along the way, she had to resort to actions she would have never committed in the past. They could change because, when extreme circumstances overtook her life, subverted what she knew and held dear, resorting to radical measures was the only way to resist, and to live.
In my new book, A Moonless, Starless Sky, the four stories I wrote about all deal, in some way, with extremism within Christianity and Islam. But there are many types of extremism, in the spheres of gender and sexuality, nationalism, and race. These stories are only a few windows into what is happening in Africa. And it is revealing that the women and men fighting back are Christian and Muslim, too, and often fighting within their religions for the principles in which they believe.
“What are the ethics of resisting? When extreme circumstances are forced upon a person, what is she allowed to do to survive?”
I don’t have much experience with resisting extremism in my own life. But I do know what it is like to live in a culture of extremes, as a black girl who grew up in the Deep South in the 1990s. Within days of moving to Alabama, a white woman shouted “Nigger!” at my father, my brother, and I as we drove past her car at a gas station.
My father immediately reversed the car and pulled into the station to ask the woman what, exactly, she had said. She had nothing to say after that. A pack of white boys at my high school in Montgomery, home of the Civil Rights Movement, wore T-shirts, sweaters, whatever they could find, emblazoned with the Confederate flag. I went to an academically rigorous school and had white and black friends, but my relationships with my white classmates always had a terminal boundary, past which lay weekend sleepovers and house parties that I couldn’t join because it just wasn’t done. And so, I became used to the extreme polarity of race where I lived, darting between each end with frequency, but never feeling free to jump off one with abandon.
For years, my family faithfully attended an evangelical church that tried to do good works in minority communities. One day, before an upcoming election, the pastor announced a list of right-wing politicians he wanted the congregation to vote for, even though they had no record of representing his black, working and middle class parishioners’ interests. He was trying to curry favor with the city’s political elite. When we left the church after the pastor’s hypocrisy was exposed, it did feel like a win. That is the thing about fighting extremism—each victory, tiny and large, can feel monumental.
The moonless, starless sky was bright the evening Eunice met Bosco in the forests of southern Sudan. The year was 1996, and Eunice had been kidnapped two weeks earlier from a school in a town called Aboke, in northern Uganda, by men who called themselves the Lord’s Resistance Army. Founded by a young man named Joseph Kony in 1987, the LRA was raiding villages in Uganda’s north and abducting children while routing the Ugandan army. Eunice was a thoughtful girl of 15 with inquisitive eyes and closely cropped hair, and she had been visiting her older sister at a girls’ boarding school when rebels surrounded the building. The men, who were really boys if you looked at them closely, tied the girls together with rope and forced them to trek through the forests of northern Uganda, on the way to Sudan, for over a week while they cooked, did laundry, and fetched water for them. Eunice was frightened and exhausted. She was still wearing the blue cotton skirt, her best one, and the matching blouse that she had thought would impress her sister’s friends. Eunice wanted to attend their school one day, too, be among these accomplished girls, and she had hoped to show them that she could fit in, be smart and interesting, dress like they did.
The girls eventually crossed into Sudan and stopped in an area of tall grass and thick, looming trees. More men emerged, including Kony. Rebels began plucking girls from the group, choosing the prettiest ones first. Eunice watched with a swelling sense of dread. There was nowhere to run. They were everywhere. A boy named Bosco, who looked like he was no older than 17, appeared in front of her. He was wearing rain boots, a green military uniform that slouched on his thin frame, and a matching cap over bushy hair. Another rebel, who seemed like he was one of the men in charge, nudged Bosco closer toward Eunice and told him, “This will be your wife.”
Eunice was still; she felt paralyzed. She had nearly just died when the Ugandan military emerged out of nowhere and fired gunshots at the rebels as they led the girls through the bush, and death, she thought, would make more sense than what was happening to her right now.
“You’re blessed that you’ve come to me. We thought that you girls might refuse us. You’ll be okay,” Bosco said to her.
Bosco was 19. Three years earlier, the LRA had also kidnapped him and trained him to be a soldier. Bosco had felt himself become hardened to the killings and kidnappings he was ordered to carry out. But when he first saw Eunice, he fantasized of a new family that would replace the siblings and mother he had lost. He imagined that he had finally found someone to trust. She was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen.
Eunice was repulsed. I have no interest in this man, she thought. How will I get to know him when I absolutely do not want to be with him? Bosco led her to a tent constructed of tree branches with a tarp laid on top, a fragile bush hut, where they would begin the rest of their lives.
Adapted from A MOONLESS, STARLESS SKY: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa. Courtesy of Hachette Books. Copyright 2017 by Alexis Okeowo.