“There were all kinds of stories kinds of stories took about the war that made it sound as if it were happening in a faraway and different land.”. A Long Way Gone is a memoir by Ishmael Beah who was also an unwilling boy soldier from Sierra Leone. When he was only twelve years old, Beah’s hometown of Mogbwemo was invaded by rebels while he was performing in a rap group with his friends in a neighboring village. During the chaos, Ishmael is separated from their family but he manages to escape with his older brother, Junior. With their families no longer with them, Ishmael, Junior, and their friends are left to wander from different village in search of food and shelter. Along the way on their journey to survive this war, they witness many unspeakable acts of violence.
However, Ishmael and a new group of friends who he meets in the forest are captured by the army and conscripted as soldiers. This new environment turns them into killing machines capable of horrible violence and are brainwashed into believing that each rebel death may avenge the deaths of their own families. The army provides him and his friends with the food and security they had been searching for, with security being in the form of guns, as well as constant access to drugs such as marijuana, cocaine, and pills. This results in him eventually becoming “less sensitive to his situation, living each day in a haze of drug-induced apathy and regimented bloodlust.” Beah seems then to have gone on a two-year mind-bending killing spree, until he and the other more “promising” soldiers were rescued by UNICEF fieldworkers and sent to a rehabilitation center in Freetown. Ishmael and the other boys begin suffering from serious drug withdrawal
and their taste for fighting and violence develops even more making life for the staff very difficult and risky who also don’t seem to give up hope for this boys throughout their time at the facility. It isn’t until after Ishmael befriends a nurse named Esther when he begins to move past the terrible things he’s done by being reminded of his love for rap music. After he is fully rehabilitated, Ishmael goes to live with his Uncle Tommy in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone. The UN then selects Ishmael to go to New York City to speak to about the effects of war on children. This is where he also meets a storyteller and his future foster mom, Laura Simms. Back in Sierra Leone, it’s only for a while that things are peaceful. That is, until the rebels take control of the capital and overthrow the government. Tn order to escape the war in Sierra Leone, Ishmael decides to contact Laura Simms and asks to come live with her. He then begins his dangerous journey to neighboring Guinea where he catches a plane to America. Upon Ishmael’s arrival, he is then adopted permanently by Laura.
Throughout the book, we can see how music plays such a big role in Ishmael’s life and how vital music was to his survival, especially through his process of rehabilitation. “One evening a music video that consisted of a bunch of young black fellows talking really fast came on the television. The four of us sat there mesmerized by the song, trying to understand what the black fellows were saying. At the end of the video, some letters came up at the bottom of the screen. They read ‘Sugarhill Gang, ‘Rapper’s Delight.’ Junior quickly wrote it down on a piece of paper. After that, we came to the quarters every other weekend to study that kind of music on television. We didn’t know what it was called then, but I was impressed with the fact that the black fellows knew how to speak English really fast, and to the beat.” Ishmael narrates, ”I loved the dance, and particularly enjoyed learning the lyrics, because they were poetic and it improved my vocabulary.”
From the moment Ishmael first heard rap music from a video, he was hooked. The first instance where music saved his life was during his first encounter with war. While their village was being destroyed, the boys happened to be in another village to perform in a talent competition. The fact that he didn’t know what happened to his family after the attack caused him and his brother a great deal of stress. Ishmael states, ”Junior, Talloi, and I listened to rap music, trying to memorize the lyrics so that we could avoid thinking about the situation at hand.” Another example is when Ishmael and his group are captured and brought before a village chief, they are nearly drowned as they are believed to be spies. When his music is found in his pockets, Ishmael tries to explain, ”It is similar to telling parables, but in the white man’s language.” A boy from the village where Ishmael and his friends performed recognizes Ishmael, and the boys are set free. ”I rewound the tape, mimed, and danced to ‘OPP’ barefoot in the sand.
I didn’t enjoy it, and for the first time I found myself thinking about the words of the song, closely listening to the subtle instruments in the beat.” Based on the music, the village chief concludes that Ishmael and his friends are just boys and not spies. Furthermore, music played a very significant role during Ishmael’s rehabilitation. One of his first breakthroughs during rehabilitation occurred when his nurse, Esther, buys him rap cassette tapes and a cassette player. Although Ishmael was upset about it at first, he began opening up about his past once the music hit his ears. This also begins to make it easier for him to trust someone again, which is Esther. Ishmael’s lack of trust in anyone is due to him being “ betrayed” by the only person that he used trust, the lieutenant, since he was the one who sent him away to be rehabilitated.
Moreover, A Long. Way Gone mainly takes place in Sierra Leone during theмyears 1993 through 1997, which has a huge and brutal civil war occurring during that time that destroyed countless lives, Ishmael’s included. Through Ishmael’s personal history we also learn some of the history of Sierra Leone. For instance, in 1991 the Revolutionary United Front was attempting to overthrow the government. However, they fought back which resulted in the war continuing for 11 years. “Some people tried to hurt us to protect themselves, their family and communities… This was one of the consequences of civil war. People stopped trusting each other, and every stranger became an enemy. Even people who knew you became extremely careful about how they related or spoke to you.” This quote shows exactly how miserable those 11 years of war were and how dangerous it was to live there during that time period. The Revolutionary United Front, or RUF, captured towns on the Liberian border, killing and torturing numerous citizens. Then in 1996, Ahmad Tejan Kabbah is elected President by the first multiparty election in nearly thirty years signs a peace accord with the RUF. However, Kabbah was ousted by a military group led by Johnny Paul Koroma and the Armed forces Revolutionary Council.
The AFRC is a force consisting of both army and RUF soldiers who previously fought against one another. In total, the conflict resulted in over 50,000 killed and one million people displaced. It wasn’t until 1999 that national attention was drawn to Sierra Leone, when the United Nations intervened to establish the Lome Peace Accord. Despite the peace accord, RUF forces continued their attacks and seemingly random acts of violence against government and civilian targets so the UN sought disarmament. However, the response on both sides was still slow. Eventually, Great Britain intervened and sent in troops to capture RUF forces to restore full power to Kabbah. The RUF leader was then finally captured in 2000 while the war was declared over in 2002. “The lieutenant went on for almost an hour, describing how 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…
The lieutenant spat on the ground and continued on, until he was sure that he had mentioned all the ways the rebels had hurt every person in the gathering.” During this war, lots of violence and inhumane actions against innocent people occurred. Then groups such as RUF taught young children , such as Ishmael, this feeling of hatred to them which would make it so easy for them to conduct these acts as well. Also, committing violence against your own people would rewrite some sort of motivation involved. Throughout Ishmael’s training to become a soldier, he is told that everything terrible that had happened to him is the fault of the rebels which is way it became to easier for him to kill so many of them. Ishmael is told to, “visualize the enemy, the rebels who killed your parents, your family, and those who are responsible for everything that has happened to you.” Ishmael also states, “I joined the army to avenge the deaths of my family and to survive, but I’ve come to learn that if I am going to take revenge, in that process I will kill another person whose family will want revenge; then revenge and revenge and revenge will never come to an end.”
As we can see, during Ishmael’s time in Sierra Leone he experienced lots of war and violence. It’s was very dangerous to live there during that time due to the war that occurred there and lasted about 11 years. During this time, groups of soldiers such as RUF and AFRC would take over the villages of innocent people and torture and kill them. They would also capture some of the boys who survived and brainwash them to kill, this included Ishmael and his friends. “The idea of death didn’t cross my mind at all and killing had become as easy as drinking water. My mind had not only snapped during the first killing, it had also stopped making remorseful records, or so it seemed,” Ishmael states while he was a boy soldier during the war. Before he became a soldier, Ishmael had to find ways to stay positive in order to survive this dangerous environment.
“When I was young, my father used to say, ‘If you are alive, there is hope for a better day and something good to happen. If there is nothing good left in the destiny of a person, he or she will die.’ I thought about these words during my journey, and they kept me moving even when I didn’t know where I was going. Those words became the vehicle that drove my spirit forward and made it stay alive.” The war in Sierra Leone took away the innocence and imagination from these children being turned into soldiers. During rehabilitation, music helped Ishmael move away from that horrifying and traumatizing part of his life. It had brought back pleasant memories of Ishmael’s life before the war which allowed him to communicate his past without much difficulty. He then used this to his advantage to help the future of other boy soldiers as well. “At the end of these long discussions our faces and eyes glittered with hope and the promise of happiness. It seemed we were transforming our suffering as we talked about ways to solve their causes and let them be known to the world.”