§ion=&combo2=&text1=&text2=&SocNetUsername=&SocNetPassword=&authCode=& 7th Decade Thoughts: A Long Way Gone by Ismael Beah

7th Decade Thoughts

Thoughts about books, politics and history (personal and otherwise), pictures I've taken and pictures I've edited.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007

A Long Way Gone by Ismael Beah

This book was written by a young man, born in 1980, who was away with his friends when the rebels attacked his village in Sierra Leone. He was not yet 13. He and his friends wandered together, barely managing to feed themselves. Sometimes they were attacked by villagers who assumed a roving bad of young boys was dangerous—likely to be affiliated with the rebels; they fled from several villages that were attacked. They were eventually given a choice of leaving a village than had given them sanctuary or be inducted into the army. It was the army or starvation. They were issued AK 47s and taught how to kill. (Interestingly they had not deteriorated into wild creatures á la Lord of the Flies before the adults took charge. In one village they were suspected of being rebels and the cassettes (US rap music) in Ishmael's pocked suspected to be training tapes until he played them and mimed to the tape and got the whole village dancing.)

He was not an illiterate kid—but a good student in a secondary school, as were the friends he escaped with. One of the officers in the Army read Julius Caesar in his spare time. This book totally puts to the lie the notion that this Civil War was a matter of ignorant and disposable "tribal" people fighting each other, an attitude I think many in the West have when they hear of African civil wars. (Similarly, I think part of the power of Hotel Rwanda was its portrayal of people everyone could identify with caught up in horrible and arbitrary violence, giving a lie to that feuding primitive tribal preconception.)

This kid survived and came to the US where he was educated at an international high school in NY and Oberlin College. The book is remarkably well written, with a narrative style that's compelling and some startlingly original figures of speech describing his experiences. He’s also extraordinarily open about his feelings in all situations—from the drug-induced frenzy of combat to the nightmares he experienced after the army to his first experience of snow and cold in New York City.

It’s startlingly clear that many many children in his situation didn’t survive. A seven-year old, inducted with him, died in the first battle. Several of his companions in the rehab center ended up rejoining the army when the war came to Freetown. When Ishmael was asked to go to an interview where a UN agency was interviewing juvenile victims of war to represent Sierra Leone at a UN convention in NY, he didn’t know what to do in the box people were walking into and when someone pushed a button and the box moved, he only knew not to be afraid by the reaction of the others in the elevator. And that was in Freetown. Imagine his reaction to New York.

This is an important book. I know of no other by an author with this kind of experience as well as with the language skills and understanding able to tell this kind of story.


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