When journalist Alexis Okeowo, raised in Alabama by her Nigerian-born parents, first began reporting from Africa, she assumed she would be accepted as a fellow African. “Of course, it wasn’t like that,” Okeowo said. “They saw me as a foreigner, as western. It was kind of a jolt.”
Over time, though, Okeowo found herself winning her subjects’ trust. “I just kept showing up,” she said. “They started to regard me as an annoying distant relative.”
The seeds for Okeowo’s first book, “A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa,” were planted when she began reporting on the kidnapping of 300-plus girls in northeastern Nigeria by the terrorist group Boko Haram. “I was reporting on a vigilante and a schoolgirl who escaped from the group,” she said. “I wanted to go back and get to know them more and learn how they survived these situations, and how they decided to fight back. They stuck in my imagination, and I wanted to both get to know them more and pay tribute to what they’d done.”
Writing about resistance to religious and political extremism on the African continent, Okeowo said, she began to see connections to life back in the United States. “There was particular resonance as I was writing it,” she said, noting that she finished the book during and after the 2016 election. “What was happening in America seemed like an extreme situation too.”
Among the stories she chronicles in her book — which profiles everyday people battling oppression in Uganda, Mauritania, Nigeria, and Somalia — Okeowo found some lessons. “One of them is just not being afraid to speak out against what you see as injustice, even though it may make things uncomfortable for you in the short term,” she said. “Or simple acts of solidarity, looking out for people — especially people who are more vulnerable than you.”
Okeowo will read at 7 p.m. Thursday at Harvard Book Store.Kate Tuttle, president of the National Book Critics Circle, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.