Long Way Gone (Beah)

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier
Ishmael Beah, 2007
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
229 pp.
ISBN-13: 9781616826543


Summary
My new friends have begun to suspect I haven't told them the full story of my life.

“Why did you leave Sierra Leone?”
“Because there is a war.”
“You mean, you saw people running around with guns and shooting each other?”
“Yes, all the time.”
“Cool.”
I smile a little.
“You should tell us about it sometime.”
“Yes, sometime.”

This is how wars are fought now: by children, hopped-up on drugs and wielding AK-47s. Children have become soldiers of choice. In the more than fifty conflicts going on worldwide, it is estimated that there are some 300,000 child soldiers. Ishmael Beah used to be one of them.

What is war like through the eyes of a child soldier? How does one become a killer? How does one stop? Child soldiers have been profiled by journalists, and novelists have struggled to imagine their lives. But until now, there has not been a first-person account from someone who came through this hell and survived.

In A Long Way Gone, Beah, now twenty-five years old, tells a riveting story: how at the age of twelve, he fled attacking rebels and wandered a land rendered unrecognizable by violence. By thirteen, he'd been picked up by the government army, and Beah, at heart a gentle boy, found that he was capable of truly terrible acts.

This is a rare and mesmerizing account, told with real literary force and heartbreaking honesty. (From the publisher.)



Author Bio
Birth—November 23, 1980
Where—Mogbwemo, Sierra Leone
Education—B.A., Oberlin College
Currently—lives in New York New York


Ishmael Beah is a former Sierra Leonean child soldier and the author of the 2007 published memoir, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. His first novel, Radiance of Tomorrow, about the aftermath of that war was published in 2014.

Civil War
Beah was 11 years old when civil war overtook Sierra Leone in 1991. Rebels invaded his hometown of Mogbwemo in the Southern Province of Sierra Leone, forcing Beah to flee. Separated from his family, he spent months wandering south with a group of other boys. At the age of 13, he was forced to become a child soldier, spending the next three years fighting for the government army against the rebels.

Beah says he doesn't remember how many people he killed. He and other soldiers smoked marijuana and sniffed amphetamines and "brown-brown," a mix of cocaine and gunpowder. He blames the addictions and the brainwashing for his violence and cites them and the pressures of the army as reasons for his inability to escape on his own: "If you left, it was as good as being dead."

Rescue and transition
Rescued in 1996 by a coalition of UNICEF and NGOs, Beah went to live with an uncle in Freetown, Sierra Leone, where he attended school. That year he was invited to speak at the United Nations in New York. He returned to Sierra Leone, but in 1997 Freetown was overrun by both rebels and the Army, who had since joined forces. With the violence escalating, Beah contacted Laura Simms, whom he had met the year before in New York.

Again, with the help of UNICEF, Beah made his way back to the US. There he lived in New York City with Simms, who became his foster mother, and attended the United Nations International School. He later enrolled in Ohio's Oberlin College, graduating with a Political Science degree in 2004.

Following his 2007 publication of A Long Way Gone, Beah appeared on The Daily Show, telling Jon Stewart that he had found the transition back to civilian life difficult. It was harder to return to society than to become a child soldier, he claimed—because dehumanizing children is a relatively easy task. 

Beah credits Nurse Esther, a UNICEF volunteer, with having the patience and compassion required to bring him through the difficult period. She recognized his interest in American rap music and reggae, gave him a Walkman and a Run DMC cassette, and used music as his bridge to his past, his childhood prior to the violence. Slowly, he accepted Esther's assurances that "it's not your fault."

If I choose to feel guilty for what I have done, I will want to be dead myself. I live knowing that I have been given a second life, and I just try to have fun, and be happy and live it the best I can.

Books and recognition
A Long Way Gone was nominated for a Quill Award in the Best Debut Author category for 2007. Time magazine's Lev Grossman named it one of the Top 10 Nonfiction Books of 2007, ranking it at #3, and praising it as "painfully sharp", and its ability to take "readers behind the dead eyes of the child-soldier in a way no other writer has."

In 2009, as a 29-year-old, Beah traveled home to Sierra Leone with an ABC News camera, a return that he describes as bittersweet. Later in February, 2013, he traveled to Calgary and spoke at the My World Conference.|

Beah published his first novel in 2014. Radiance of Tomorrow tells of the difficulty of rebuilding a war-torn community for both the victims of violence and its perpetrators. The novel has received wide praise for its compassion and elegant, nuanced style.

Controversy
The accuracy of the events and chronology presented in A Long Way Gone have been called into question, particularly the claim that Beah became a child soldier in 1993, rather than in 1995 as the timeline of events in Sierra Leone's civil war suggests. (Adapted from Wikipedia. 1/12/2014.)



Book Reviews
Beah’s memoir joins an elite class of writing: Africans witnessing African wars. I think of Sozaboy, Ken Saro-Wiwa’s masterly novel about a young soldier during the Biafran war, or Machete Season, Jean Hatzfeld’s book of blood-chilling interviews with Rwandan killers. A Long Way Gone makes you wonder how anyone comes through such unrelenting ghastliness and horror with his humanity and sanity intact. Unusually, the smiling, open face of the author on the book jacket provides welcome and timely reassurance. Ishmael Beah seems to prove it can happen.
William Boyd - New York Times


Everyone in the world should read this book. Not just because it contains an amazing story, or because it's our moral, bleeding-heart duty, or because it's clearly written. We should read it to learn about the world and about what it means to be human.
Carolyn See - Washington Post


In 1993, when the author was twelve, rebel forces attacked his home town, in Sierra Leone, and he was separated from his parents. For months, he straggled through the war-torn countryside, starving and terrified, until he was taken under the wing of a Shakespeare-spouting lieutenant in the government army. Soon, he was being fed amphetamines and trained to shoot an AK-47 (“Ignore the safety pin, they said, it will only slow you down”). Beah’s memoir documents his transformation from a child into a hardened, brutally efficient soldier who high-fived his fellow-recruits after they slaughtered their enemies—often boys their own age—and who “felt no pity for anyone.” His honesty is exacting, and a testament to the ability of children “to outlive their sufferings, if given a chance.
New Yorker Magazine


Beah's harrowing story of a boy caught up in the civil strife in Sierra Leone is not an audio to curl up with before bedtime. Beah's even-toned narrative is particularly disturbing because it's almost exactly the same whether he is enjoying the company of a newly found uncle or busy shooting and maiming rebels and even burying them alive. His monotone works particularly well when he is recounting his dreams, for he cannot distinguish his nightmares from his waking life. Beah speaks with a thick accent that omits "th" sounds. Many words are understandable in their context, but a few are not. He also stumbles over some longer and more complex words. Despite these drawbacks, Beah's tale is a riveting snapshot of childhoods stolen from all too many, not just in Sierra Leone but in Somalia, Iraq, Palestine and other places ravaged by civil wars.
Publishers Weekly


Rarely does one encounter anything but outrage, sadness, and pain when reading about the exploitation of child soldiers, but Beah's account also offers hope, humility, bravery, and, yes, peace. Beah was 13 years old when rebels attacked nearby villages in his native Sierra Leone. He was separated from his family (he learned later that they perished) and was on the run from both the rebels and the Sierra Leone Military Forces for over a year. Eventually captured by the military, which could behave as horrendously as the rebels, the boy was forced to join the army, carrying guns or grenade launchers. Like the thousands of other children traumatized by these events, Beah needed rehabilitation when his "tour of duty" was over. A former juvenile center turned counseling house afforded him a safe haven. After being chosen to speak at a UN conference in New York, he began the long process of relocating to the United States. The brutality of war is brought out early in this narrative, and just to have survived is amazing. Beah writes with frankness and honesty about his experiences but also with other people in mind; his account of the healing process after the horrors he saw is remarkable. His book, especially relevant in today's world, should be in all high school, public, and academic libraries.
James Thorsen - Library Journal


The survivor of a dirty war in starkest Africa recounts his transition from 12-year-old orphan to killing machine. To emerge from Sierra Leone's malignant civil conflict and eventually graduate from college in the U.S. marks Beah as very unusual, if not unique. His memoir seeks to illuminate the process that created, and continues to create, one of the most pitiable yet universally feared products of modern warfare: the boy soldier. It illustrates how, in African nations under the stress of open civil war, youthful males cluster in packs for self-protection, fleeing the military forces of all sides, distrusted and persecuted by strangers they encounter, until they are killed or commandeered as recruits. Nearly half the text deals with Beah's life as a fugitive after marauding rebel troops ravaged his home village. He fled with several other boys, but they were separated during another attack and he was forced to spend several weeks alone in the bush; the loneliness there instilled a craving for human companionship of any type. The regular military finally snared Beah and some new companions, telling them they must train as soldiers or die. The rebels, they were assured, were responsible for killing their families and destroying their homes; as soldiers, they would exact manly revenge and serve the nation. Cocaine, marijuana and painkillers became the boys' mind-numbing daily diet. They were indoctrinated by practicing mayhem on tethered prisoners and became willing experts at lying in ambush with their aging AK-47 rifles. For them, killing human beings had replaced ordinary child's play. Beah's halting narrative has confusing time shifts, but it's hideously effective in conveying the essential horror of his experiences.
Kirkus Reviews



Discussion Questions 
1. How familiar were you with the civil wars of Sierra Leone prior to reading A Long Way Gone? How has Ishmael’s story changed your perception of this history, and of current wars in general?

2. Chapter seven begins with the story of the imam’s death, followed by Ishmael’s recollections of his father and an elder blessing their home when they first moved to Mogbwemo. How do the concepts of faith and hope shift throughout this memoir? What sustains Ishmael emotionally and spiritually?

3. Chapter eight closes with the image of villagers running fearfully from Ishmael and his friends, believing that the seven boys are rebels. How do they overcome these negative assumptions in communities that have begun to associate the boys’ appearance with evil? What lessons could world leaders learn from them about overcoming distrust, and the importance of judging others individually rather than as stereotypes?

4. What did Ishmael’s parents teach him about being a man? How did he define manhood once he began his long walk west? What general life lessons were his parents able to teach him that sustained him during his brutal passage from boyhood, and that he carries with him to this day?

5. Discuss the role of American hip-hop culture in creating a “soundtrack” for Ishmael’s life. Why are rappers so appealing to him?

6. The boys’ discovery of the Atlantic Ocean and their encounter with a cheerful fisherman who heals and feeds them is followed by the tragedy of Saidu’s death after a bird falls ominously from the sky. Discuss Ishmael’s relationship with the natural world. In what way is he guided by the constancy of the earth and sky?

7. When Ishmael arrives at the fortified village of Yele in chapter twelve, what do you discover about the way he began his military career? Was his service, and that of his equally young friends, necessary? What made his conscription different from that of drafted American soldiers serving in previous wars?

8. Ishmael tells us that some of the boys who had been rehabilitated with him later became soldiers again. What factors ensured that he could remain a civilian?

9. Storytelling is a powerful force in Ishmael’s life, even providing a connection to his future mother, Laura Simms. What traits make Ishmael a memorable and unique storyteller? How does his perspective compare to the perspectives of filmmakers, reporters, or other authors who have recently tried to portray Africa’s civil wars?

10. Ishmael describes his use of Krio and many tribal languages to communicate, as well as his ability to quote Shakespeare’s Elizabethan English. What communities and empires are represented in his many speech styles? In which “villages,” from the relatively new UN to the centuries-old Mende and Temne settlements, does the greatest wisdom lie?

11. How does Ishmael’s concept of family change throughout the memoir, from his early life in Mattru Jong, to the uncle with whom he is reunited, to his American family with Laura?

12. It takes many weeks before Ishmael feels comfortable with the relief workers’ refrain that these events are not his fault. What destructive beliefs had he become addicted to? What states of deprivation and euphoria had his body become addicted to?

13. What universal truths does Ishmael teach us about surviving loss and hunger, and overcoming isolation?

14. Ishmael’s dramatic escape during the later waves of revolution concludes with the riddle of the monkey. Is his dream of obliterating the monkey—and its violent endgames—closer to being fulfilled in these early years of the twenty-first century? What would it take for all of humanity to adopt Ishmael’s rejection of vengeance?

15. Ishmael gives credit to relief workers such as Esther, in conjunction with organizations such as UNICEF, for rescuing him. He has dedicated his life to their cause, studying political science and speaking before a broad variety of groups, ranging from the Council on Foreign Relations to the Center for Emerging Threats and Opportunities at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory. What steps has he inspired you to take to help end the use of child soldiers? How can each of us join Ishmael’s cause?

16. After reading the chronology of Sierra Leone’s history, what reasons can you propose for the coups in Ishmael’s homeland? Did the arrival of Portuguese slave traders, or the later colonization by the British, contribute to Sierra Leone’s twentieth-century woes? What did you discover about the motivations of the army soldiers versus those of the rebels? In your opinion, what made the leaders of the RUF so ruthless for so long?
(Questions issued by publisher.)

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