Friday, February 29, 2008

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier by Ishmael Beah
These questions are from Book Browse
Answers from Laurie

BBQuestion: 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?

I was not familiar with the civil wars in Sierra Leone at all prior to reading this book. I got a sense of the futility of fighting for either the RUF or the army because it seemed that both groups abused the children of the country in the same way—by making them soldiers. I think my perspective from a person who is concerned about human rights has shifted because I can now see the need for international intervention and support to stop these civil wars in underdeveloped countries. Reading this book has also made me want to learn more about what exactly is happening in Darfur and other regions where anarchy reigns.

BBQuestion: 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?

The boys try to tell the villagers immediately that they are neither RUF or army; they try to explain that they are basically refugees looking for food and their families. The boys stay together for support and belonging even though it sometimes puts them at risk of being seen as evil bands of soldiers. The boys accept each other as they are without carrying over any prejudices from their life before—who was from the city or from a village or who was well off or poor. They learn quickly to trust each other because they have no one else. I think especially in the rehabilitation camps the boys try to get over the stereotypes even though it is very difficult.

BBQuestion: 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?

He was basically fed and clothed and then given a gun after a while. Because his basic needs had been met, then he took the gun as part of his responsibility of paying the men back who had taken care of him. I think their service was necessary because there were none others to fight. There were very few young men to fight for the RUF or for the army so using the children was one way to keep up the fighting. I think the child soldiers were different because they truly had no choice. It was either be in the army and have food and clothes and be protected or continue to wander around the country hungry, cold, and in danger. For children, I don’t think there is a choice beyond filling their bellies and getting cool tennis shoes. There is some similarity though because in Vietnam and even today in Iraq we are recruiting young men and women who for various reasons have no options left to them but the military. The American military promises some of the same support that the army in Sierra Leone did—food, clothing, and protection—for young people who are in poverty without a lot of career choices.

BBQuestion: 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?

Ishmael has an incredible sense of voice. His descriptions are vivid and enthralling even when they are violent and tragic. I could feel the bottoms of my feet tingle when he described walking over the hot sand and then how his feet felt after they had been burned and covered with sand. He also includes not only what he sees, but how these events of his life make him feel. This insight into his very being is what makes his story so powerful. I felt hope, tentatively, when Ishmael found his uncle because that is how he wrote about it. I also sense foreboding of the war finally making it to Freetown because I believe that Ishmael knew the conflict would eventually get to the capital.

His story gives the outside world an honest picture of what the civil wars in Africa are doing to the people of the countries, especially the children and youth. His perspective because it is first hand is much more powerful than outsiders who come in and try to capture it. I have seen part of the movie Blood Diamond, and it seems to put into images what Beah lived in Sierra Leone as a child soldier.

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