Alexis Okeowo didn’t mean to become obsessed with Africa.
The New Yorker writer grew up in Alabama in America’s Deep South and had visited the continent just once. As a child, her Nigerian-born parents had taken her to visit the motherland for Christmas where she and her brothers awkwardly united with dozens of relatives she had never met before.
While growing up with the comforts of Nigerian food, art and music, Okeowo admits she did not have a great interest for her parents' home continent. But a ten-month post-university internship at a Ugandan paper would plant a seed that would later see the journalist return to the continent as a freelancer reporting stories that would make up her book - A Moonless, Starless Sky – looking at how ordinary men and women fight extremism in Somalia, Mauritania, Nigeria and Uganda.
Okeowo says the challenges of growing up straddling two cultures, at once a part of but also dislocated from both, gave her a unique vantage point and a natural home in journalism.
“Being able to work in Africa and have the benefits of blending in and also having often a deeper affinity to my subjects than other foreign journalists by virtue of our shared skin colour, by virtue of being African, was an asset,” she told SBS Life.
“But then, of course, I am still American, I am still Western, and so having that perspective - being able to see things from both sides – was really important as a reporter, and I wouldn’t have that if I didn’t have that insider- outsider status.”
Okeowo’s own experiences growing up in the Deep South as a black girl in the 1990s, shaped her understanding of how extremes could manifest itself not only in foreign locales but close to home.
Within days of moving to Alabama, Okeowo recounts in the book her family being accosted with the ‘N’ word by a white woman at a petrol station. At school white kids wore confederate flags and didn’t mix at parties and sleepovers.
It’s this ‘insider-outsider’ experience Okeowo tries to brings to her work and is at pains to differentiate herself from the fly-in/fly-out western parachute journalism she critiques as centring white subjects and saviours at the expense of local actors and communities.
Reporters are regarded as immediate experts on a place that they haven’t spent a lot of time in, or they are regarded as saviours.
Much of this, Okeowo says, stems from foreign reporting’s historical roots as a colonial enterprise where westerners – generally white, wealthy and male - travelled abroad to understand ‘the other’.
“Reporters are regarded as immediate experts on a place that they haven’t spent a lot of time in, or they are regarded as saviours who by virtue of having told a story about a place are somehow seen as saving that place …(when) the people in those communities have been grappling with the issues affecting them long before any foreign journalists showed up,” she said.
“So I really push back against that narrative. I find it really irritating because again it’s robbing Africans, it’s robbing non-white people of their agency and …. saying that Africans need to be saved and they can’t do it for themselves, and that’s not the case at all.”
Okeowo is careful to ground her work in empathy for her subjects, and avoiding the numbness and fatigue that can result from endless interviews with traumatised people. She tries imagining herself as her subject, in swapped positions but for the accidental fortune of her birth.
The result is deep reporting, foregrounding not only the trauma of slavery survivors and kidnapped Boko Haram teens, but also the work of activists in fighting extremism on the ground.
I thought it was important that all the protagonists are of the faith in question – they are Muslim or Christian and they are resisting very specific interpretations of their religions.
One of the stories delves into the life of Biram, a Mauritanian-Muslim activist who was jailed for setting fire to Islamic texts condoning slavery. Slavery is rife in the country, despite being officially outlawed. Biram, a devout Muslim, has single-mindedly dedicated his life to slavery abolition work – work that dangerously pits him against powerful institutions green-lighting the practice on religious grounds.
“I thought it was important that all the protagonists are of the faith in question – they are Muslim or Christian and they are resisting very specific interpretations of their religions. Sometimes people like to frame the fight against extremism as something that has to come from a secular standpoint – that you can’t be religious and still oppose a kind of religious extremism - when that’s just not the norm,” she said.
Okeowo understands the limitations of excessive self-reflexiveness from getting the job done, including interrogating her own position of power as a westerner and the nature of journalistic enterprise itself.
But she says, the spirit of critique and inquiry can only be healthy for the journalistic project with a new social media age and diverse storytellers equalling the playing ground in what has been, until recently, a fairly traditional one-way mainstream media conversation.
“It’s so key to have more diverse storytellers - to have people from a place telling stories about that place or have people who are descendants of that place telling stories about that place. Or even people who aren’t even from that place but who are just from different demographics – who are female, who are of colour, who just bring different experiences to the reporting to be able to tell stories in more empathetic and nuanced ways.”
Alexis Okeowo is the author of A Moonless, Starless Sky: Ordinary Women and Men Fighting Extremism in Africa, published by Hachette Australia.