Exactly to what extent can growing up in a war-torn country impact one’s childhood? In Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone, this idea is explored in-depth through the author’s first-hand account of his journey as an Army Soldier during the Sierra Leone Civil War. The consequences of violence are described throughout the text. Ishmael’s journey begins as an innocent 12-year-old boy coerced into joining the Army given its advantages of protection, food, and shelter.
The cruelty each opposing side had shown throughout the years resulted in traumatized survivors on both sides of the long war. In the book, Ishmael Beah is able to describe his life during the war with the history of Sierra Leone through his personal experiences with violence and its effects on the people. Beah hails music as the primary coping mechanism for processing the violent events which plague Beah’s childhood. Coping with his overwhelming suffering provided Beah with the mental clarity he needs to fulfill his life’s purpose of telling his story.
Ishmael Beah experienced countless tragic events while living in Sierra Leone during the war. He escaped death several times simply by luck. Beah recalls, “Many times during our journey we were surrounded by muscular men with machetes who almost killed us before they realized that we were just children running away from the war” (Beah 57). As a result of the war, families were estranged from each other, further polarizing the citizens, and accelerating the cumulative bloodshed. This environment is clearly far removed from the ideal for a child. Furthermore, the recruitment of boy soldiers spread fear and increased the mistrust of adults in these children whose childhood had been tainted by the horrific nightmares of their reality.
The book provides powerful insight into the political and social climate of Sierra Leone during the war. Although, it is given from a child’s perspective, the information is clearly presented. For example, Beah mentions the years in which the civil war started, 1991, and the RUF attack on the capital of Freetown in 1997. This happened to be when Ishmael Beah had completed his rehabilitation process in Benin Home. In his memoir, Beah portrays the civil war’s emotional impact on the people in greater detail. This is due to the fact that it outweighed the impact of economic or political events such as inflation or a new party winning the elections. The emotional side effects included the loss of trust, alienation of their own people, and lifelong symptoms related with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
However, the civil war had subsided over the years and was declared officially over in the year 2002. In a recent article called “Sierra Leone’s Opposition Leader is Sworn in as President” published on April 4, 2018 by Jaime Yaya Barry, it states, “Mr. Bio succeeds President Ernest Bai Koroma, who is stepping down after serving a second five-year term. His tenure was punctuated by tragedy, including an outbreak of the Ebola virus and a deadly mudslide, in a country that is still recovering from a civil war that ended in 2002 after the deaths of more than 50,000 people.” Indeed, the people of Sierra Leone have gone through a series of unfortunate events, but despite the tragedies, they have stayed a strong people that survived war, disease, and famine.
The brutal and unforgiving environment of Sierra Leone while in the state of war brought about painful and gruesome experiences to Ishmael Beah. He describes, “The sharp, harsh cry of a woman filled the forest, and I felt the fear in her voice piercing through my veins, causing my teeth to feel somehow sour” (Beah 35). While hiding from the rebels, families and communities were torn apart. In some cases, they even turned a blind eye to the disabled ones to save their own lives. Beah’s story teaches that violence used in war is not solely for the greater good but can also be taken advantage of by both sides for their own satisfaction and entertainment. It is a harsh fact of a country at war.
It is not a trivial matter for this to has been a reality of children in the past and even currently in other parts of the world. “When they were done digging, we tied them and laughed and stabbed their legs with bayonets. Some of them screamed, and we laughed and kicked them to shut them up” (Beah 151). Despite having been the victim of these kinds of assaults, the behavior of young boys changed when recruited into either side and turning into boy soldiers. They come to enjoy what they desperately wanted to get away from. It is a psychological reality that people, especially children, who experience violence at a young age become numb to it for survival’s sake.
Ishmael highlights the consequences of participating in war as a boy soldier by presenting the extent to which how much the boys including himself changed as human beings. “Six people were killed: two on our side and four on the rebel side; and several were wounded, including two of the men who had brought us” (Beah 136). Innocent city officers who were simply trying to help break up the fight ended up losing their lives due to the boy soldiers’ recklessness and violent behavior. This is one of the numerous examples that unintended violence results in injury or death of innocent bystanders. Although, they were fighting to literal death, they were not intending to harm anyone besides each other. The cause of the fight was mainly to gain vengeance for their slain families. Ishmael Beah adds on by stating, “I joined the army really because of the loss of my family and starvation. I wanted to avenge the deaths of my family.” (Beah 199). These boy soldiers were merely children who happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The circumstances surrounding the war drove them to lead a life of hatred and violence, therefore, destroying all empathy they had before the war began.
In the beginning of the memoir, the RUF had just started to rebel and Beah began to listen again to the rap music he had known since childhood. This was instrumental in helping Beah move forward during the tumultuous times as this sentiment provided a temporary fix for passing through the war times while Beah stayed in Sierra Leone. He recalls, “When I was very little, 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.’…Those words became the vehicle that drove my spirit forward and made it stay alive” (Beah 54). In addition to having been necessary for survival, his father’s advice helped keep his sanity in check by providing an incentive to stay strong mentally. Beah was not ready to give up on life so easily because he believed that good will come with time and war will end eventually.
Despite the harsh environment, Ishmael used music as a coping mechanism to get his mind off the ongoing events. Music provided Beah an escape from the incessant traumas of war. He was also able to pass through the grieving phase of the reality that all of his immediate family had died when he was there without being able to do anything to prevent it. With the help of Esther, the nurse, he says, “I sang for her the parts of songs I had memorized that day. Memorizing lyrics left me little time to think about what had happened in the war” (Beah 163). Rap music was a way for him to regain his childhood and enjoy life while he was recovering at the Benin Home. He is able to relate to rap music the most due to its aggressive nature as it consists of curse words, violence, absurdity, and rebellion. The context of this type of music is relatable because he has an emotional connection based on his past history with the struggle of trying to stay alive.
At what age should a person find their calling in life? Is there a specified time in which people have to get their life figured out? All experiences are unique to each individual, but Ishmael Beah is an exception as his are quite distinct when compared to the average person. He was able to find his calling at a very early age unlike many who find it later in life or may never have the chance to discover it at all despite having tried their hardest. It is not an easy thing to find out about one’s self nor is it a task that everyone is able to complete by a certain deadline. Given the chance of a lifetime, Beah followed his passion in storytelling after getting selected to represent boy soldiers from his country and meeting Laura, a person who becomes his mother and guide to finding his calling in life. This conveys the idea that the best things may happen at the most unexpected settings as it was not his intention to look for a new mother or finding his passion.
Attending the United Nations conference in New York was Ishmael Beah’s first step to arrive at his calling. Laura is the main source of inspiration for him to go on and begin exploring the art of storytelling. She is a storyteller herself and a very good one too. Beah describes, “She used elaborate gestures and spoke very clearly, enunciating every word…Before Laura finished talking, I had already decided that I would take her workshop” (Beah 196). He began to make a connection with her after he found out that she knew of the countless stories told in his homeland. As a result of meeting her, he sparked an interest in writing and is now a New York Times best-selling author and a human rights activist due to the tragedies he experienced while living in Sierra Leone during the civil war.
However, Ishmael Beah is still trying to recover from his dark past as it left a great impact on his life as a child and even as a teenager. He states that currently, “These days I live in three worlds: my dreams, and the experiences of my new life, which trigger memories from the past” (Beah 20). Despite the fame and living quite a peaceful life along with a successful career, the unfortunate events in the past continue to haunt him today. The world of dreams represents the nightmares of the war that used to be his reality, and his new life is representative of this new hope that life can truly be enjoyed. On the other hand, when these two worlds are combined, they cause old memories to flashback into his daily life. This creates a more challenging mindframe for Beah to work with and live comfortably. The past will always creep up on him in spite of all of the progress he may have made due to the trauma he suffered while living in the middle of the Sierra Leone Civil War.
In short, the theme of violence is significant to the memoir because it serves a connection between the recent history of Sierra Leone and Ishmael Beah’s personal history. There are intended and unintended consequences of using violence as it results in a change of boy soldiers’ behavior when they went into the process of rehabilitation. Not only were they affected, but the vicious cycle of violence continued on to harm innocent bystanders like the city officers who fell victim to the reckless turmoil between the boys in the Benin Home. On the other hand, Ishmael Beah was able to take advantage of listening to rap music as a means to deal with the events that took place in Sierra Leone while he was a boy soldier and at other times of his life. It was a pathway to his childhood memories and to clear his mind of a painful past. Last but not least, he reached a threshold in which he discovered his calling in life in storytelling, and that resulted in the creation of this book A Long Way Gone.