“A Long Way Gone” by Ishmael Beah

The book *A Long Way Gone *was the reading assignment for NAU students over last summer. I didn’t get the chance to read this book during the summer, so I bought it when I got here and kept it in my backpack to read during lunches. Today I finally finished it, and I cried as I was sitting in the cafeteria. The entire book is charged with emotion. This is a fantastic book that everybody should read.

Ishmael begins his story at his village in Sierra Leone when he was 12 years old. He walked into the bush with some friends, when he returned there was nothing left of his village or his family. Then begins a time of survival as Ishmael and his friends get chased from village to village, unknown by everybody, chased by civilians who think they are spies, running from the rebels who shoot civilians on sight. His friends die or are killed and Ishmael somehow manages to survive with the help of rap music lyrics he learned as a young child. He sings rap songs to his captors and they let him live. Finally, he cannot escape anymore and is forced to become a rebel soldier. The graphic details he uses portray the depth of passion in which he carried out his soldierly duties. Ishmael describes his extreme mental state by using simple sentences to draw bold pictures. The result is a surreal portrayal of war in all its terribleness.

Once again, Ishmael’s friends die violent deaths and he is on his own, wandering through the bush, trying to escape, get away, anything. He is an animal, violently killing any man, woman, or child that crosses his path. When Ishmael, at the age of sixteen, finally gets to the city and enters a UNICEF refugee camp he starts a fight that leaves six boys dead and one boy with an eye cut out by a bayonet. At this point the reader wonders if there is any hope that this inhuman being will be able to live a normal life again.

This book is about so much more than killing; it’s about tenderness, rehabilitation, forgiveness, love, and what it means to be human. No one wants to live what Ishmael has, but everybody surely wants his ability to rebound from negative circumstances. To not only survive, but to thrive in spite of these conditions is nothing short of remarkable.

Tonight 28 year-old Ishmael spoke at Northern Arizona University. The 1500 seat auditorium was packed. I sat in the third row, and got my book signed afterward. Ishmael looks just like he does on the back of the book, he’s got the straight-up hair, the mark on his eyebrow, and he’s always smiling. It was a remarkable evening; Ishmael went over his life from when he was about six years old to date. He spoke of the simple life of mud huts and living without knowing what electricity was. He spoke about how he felt as a soldier, knowing that he had to kill several people each day to survive, how his war training taught him to use his gun to supply all his needs of food, clothing, and shelter, how he believed he was avenging the deaths of all his family members and preventing more deaths by killing people every day.

Ishmael talked about how forgiveness entered his life. He realized that no amount of killing was going to bring back his mother and father. He explained the metaphor he uses to close the book, the story from his childhood of the hunter and the monkey. I won’t tell the story; you’ll have to read the book to get the facts. But the moral to this story, as Ishmael explained it tonight, is that anytime you pick up a gun, you have no choice but to kill, and killing always makes more killing. Another interesting point mentioned was how he tuned out his emotions during war. He transitioned from fleeing war to being on the front lines in less than a week. The emotional cost of this act took him many years and a tremendous effort to regain. Today Ishmael is committed to helping others and doing all he can to prevent similar circumstances from happening anywhere in the world. He lives in New York City and laments the taxi situation where he has to ride all by himself in a huge car, which is the opposite of Sierra Leone where everybody rides together and talks to each other. He returns to Sierra Leone frequently and loves the country.