“I never thought that I would be alive to this day, much less that I would write a book”, Ishmael Beah shares at the end of A Long Way Gone (Beah, 219). Acknowledgement sections are typically stuffed with sappy thank-yous and generic nods to those who helped publish the piece; Ishmael is mostly thankful he’s alive to tell the tale.
The 2007 memoir chronicles Beah’s horrific experiences as a child soldier in the Sierra Leone civil war (1991-2002). As most civil wars go, the Sierra Leone one was complicated. Several different factions—namely the RUF (Revolutionary United Front), the SLA (Sierra Leone Army), & the AFRC (Armed Forces Revolutionary Council)—disagreed about how to run the country. Over 50,000 died as a result.
Ishmael in particular lost his village to the RUF. He wandered from village to village with a group of friends for many months, dodging attacks until they settled in a village guarded by the SLA. When RUF forces surrounded their haven, men of all ages were recruited to join in the fight, including thirteen-year-old Ishmael. The army brainwashed his impressionable mind through drug addiction and a “kill or be killed” mentality. Drug of choice? “Brown-brown”—a mixture of gunpowder and cocaine. Confusing your nostrils with your AK-47, classic.
I had a very physical reaction to the book. I read it while vacationing in Charleston. Charleston was so damn lovely, so I guess I had to get my masochistic fix somehow. There were times when I had to put it down, take a walk, and remind myself that there is some good in the world. I think about the civil war in Syria. Same story, different colors. It’s difficult to grasp how lucky we are and it’s a little sickening that we constantly tell ourselves we’ve earned everything that we have. I wonder when we’ll stop justifying indifference to war crimes by emphatically convincing ourselves that our country’s safety comes first. I think that we’ve heard “please put on your own oxygen mask before assisting others” too many times. We’re starting to suffocate from too much oxygen.
In his memoir, Ishmael constantly asks Why me? He watches his friends get blown to pieces. Why not him? “…Rebels had cut off the heads of some people’s family members and made them watch, burned entire villages along with their inhabitants, forced sons to have intercourse with their mothers, hacked newly born babies in half because they cried too much, cut open pregnant women’s stomachs, took the babies out, and killed them” (Beah, 108). Why not him? I think this is a question worth asking ourselves on a regular basis. It is humbling and honest, as we must continue to grapple with our existence despite not having all the answers.
Ishmael’s story has a happy ending, but his childhood is irrecoverable. I had a wonderful childhood full of oversized stuffed animals and trips to Chuck E. Cheese (shout out to that dank pizza), so it’s difficult to comprehend Ishmael’s pain. His impressive writing skills serve to bridge that gap. He transports the reader in time and place to a dark corner of the universe and he doesn’t hesitate to turn up the depravity notch.
My only complaint with the book is its distribution. It’s structured in such a way that leaves me wanting. From a storytelling perspective, I wish he had discussed his pre-war life in more depth. It’s natural for readers to appreciate what’s been taken away if we know more about what was there in the first place. I realize that makes me sound bloodthirsty, but I think with a heartbreaking book like this, anything that makes me feel less removed helps.
Inspired by Ishmael’s triumph over evil, I decided to further depress myself and watch Netflix’s Beasts of No Nation* (2015). The film is a fictional account of a child solider in an unnamed, war-ridden African country, but the story’s elements are almost identical to that of Ishmael’s. Watching the horrors of child soldiering aroused the same level of repulsion and distress as reading them – a testament to both the movie and Ishmael’s book in their effective no-holds-barred approach. Both give me a sinking, overwhelming feeling that there is so much wrong with the world, where would we even start? And then I think of Ishmael now, a gifted writer and a relentless advocate for human rights. His current existence proves that good can come from evil if we fight to find it. I think of Agu, the child from Beasts of No Nation, and I realize we should do everything in our power to help kids like him, if only for the purpose of creating a viral meme depicting Agu eating Ragu.
I give A Long Way Gone 4 out of 5 camel humps, docked one hump solely for the aforementioned story-structure reasons. I give Beasts of No Nation 5 out of 5 camel humps because it effectively addresses before, middle, and after. These are hugely important stories even if they’re difficult to swallow.
*Beah, Ishmael. A Long Way Gone. New York: Sarah Crichton Books, 2007. Print.
*Beasts of No Nation. Dir. Cary Joji Fukunaga. Perf. Idris Elba, Abraham Attah. Netflix, 2015. Netflix.