“Redemption Song” for Lonely Ishmael: An Essay Review of Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier
When Ishmael Beah got the chance to interview for a trip to the United Nations to tell stories about the plight of children in war-torn Sierra Leone, he told the interviewer the following,
“Well, I am from the part of the country where I have not only suffered because of the war but I have also participated in it and undergone rehabilitation. So I have a better understanding, based on my experience of the situation, than any of these city boys who are here for the interview. What are they going to say when they go over there? They don’t know anything about the war except the news of it”
This is the gist of A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier: Child soldiers can be rehabilitated. Ishmael Beah’s story is the story of a boy whom government soldiers trick into becoming a soldier in order to avenge his family’s deaths and avoid starvation. Not only is he taught how to shoot the rebels, but he also learns how to kill prisoners and slit their throats in one “fluid motion.” Then, rehabilitation helps him to relearn to live again. This is one of the reasons the American audience has been fascinated by Ishmael Beah’s boy soldier story. It is the felix culpa, the fortune fall, like Hester Prynne’s in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. Ishmael’s “letter” is made up of physical and mental scars.
Across Africa in Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Somalia, to name a few, young boys are captured and transformed into boy soldiers, while young girls are raped. Few survive the war and the trauma after the war. Ishmael’s story is the story of a community gone mad. Like Macbeth. At seven, Ishmael was already reciting Julius Caesar and during the war he recites Macbeth.
Yet, Africa is resilient and continues to sing and dance. African Congolese Soukous, Jamaican Reggae, and African American Rap music. This is what keeps Ishmael alive before and throughout his ordeal. African oral traditions and African American vernacular cultures. As a matter of fact, it is because of Rap music that Ishmael leaves his family members to never see them again. While listening to Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” Ishmael forms a Rap group. On their way to Mattru Jong where they are to participate in their friends’ talent show, Ishmael, Junior, and Tallie—these two do not seem to have made it—listen to Eric B. & Rakim’s “I Know You Got Soul.” At the beginning of the war, Rap beats from Naughty by Nature (“OPP”), LL Cool J, Run-D.M.C., and Heavy D & The Boyz (“Now That We Found Love”) provides Ishmael with a respite. More important, Rap music saves Ishmael’s life three times during and after the war. When Ishmael and his friends are captured in one village and mistaken for rebels, the guards find a Rap cassette in Ishmael’s pocket. It is Naughty by Nature’s “OPP,” which Ishmael performs to the delight of the village chief, but not before likening Rap to telling parables” in “the white man’s language.” In another village, a Rap cassette falls out of his pocket. Naughty by Nature’s “OPP” and LL Cool J’s “I Need Love.” After carefully listening to “OPP” and intrigued by the faces of three black men with militant looks on the cover, the village chief asks Ishmael to perform the Rap song barefoot in the sand. Bemused by the music and Ishmael’s dance and convinced that the children are searching for protection, the chief orders his guards to untie the children and give them back their clothes. Rap music disappears when Ishmael becomes a boy soldier and gets new clothes while his old ones are being burned with the Rap cassettes insides them. Rap music comes back into the story when Esther, a nurse who is treating Ishmael, brings him cassettes of Run-D.M.C and Bob Marley’s Exodus. Beah reveals that he grew up on Reggae syncopated tunes.
Not only does the music soothes Ishmael, but it helps him to tell the story of his ordeal in the war,
I began to look forward to Esther’s arrival in the afternoon. 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. As I grew comfortable with Esther, I talked to her about Bob Marley’s lyrics and Run-D.M.C.’s, too. She mostly listened. Twice a week Leslie came and went over the lyrics with me. He loved telling me the history of Rastafarianism. I loved the history of Ethiopia and the story of the meeting of the Queen of Sheba and King Solomon. I related to the long distance they traveled and their determination to reach their chosen destination. I wish that my journey had been as meaningful and as full of merriment as theirs.
The path towards rehabilitation also involves reading a monologue from Julius Caesar and writing and performing a Hip-Hop play about redemption.
Mende folktales of the hunter of wild pigs who can transform himself into a wild boar, Bra Spider, the hunter and the pigs also permeate the pages of Ishmael’s memoirs. Significantly, A Long Way Gone ends with an enigmatic monkey trickster tale about a man who goes to the bush to kill a monkey. While the monkey comfortably sits on the low branch of a tree, the hunter approaches the tree, gets close enough, and gets ready to pull the trigger. Not bothered by the hunter’s presence and unconcerned by the gun, the monkey informs the hunter that if he shoots the monkey, his mother will die. On the other hand, if the hunter does not shoot the monkey, his father will die. The monkey continues to mind its own business. Once a year, the village elders would tell the story to young people and ask them what they would do if they were the hunter. Of course, tales are meant to teach young people and instill wisdom in their minds. When Ishmael was seven, knowing that his mother would not know anything, he silently concluded that he would shoot the monkey so that other hunters would not be in the same quandary. Ishmael Beah’s life during the war in Sierra Leone was like the hunter and the monkey.
So far, one can note that A Long Way Gone is a well-crafted memoir full of other voices, literary and otherwise. Maybe this could be one of the reasons some people have doubted the accuracy of Ishmael’s account, particularly when the book became a bestseller. A memoir is what one remembers at a given time, and Ishmael affirms that his memoir is what he remembers from a fourteen-year old boy’s perspective.
Ishmael addressed the issue in his lecture at the University of Iowa in Iowa City in the fall of 2008, where he briefly recounted his life in Sierra Leone before and after the civil war in 1993. When someone asked him if he has ever been able to forgive himself for the brutality he was trained to inflict while in the army, he answered that it was a very hard thing to do. He said, “It took eight months of rehabilitation and counseling” before he came to the conclusion that he must forgive himself and others as well, because there was nothing he could do to take back what he had done. As a victim of the war, he had perpetuated his loss by being forced to inflict loss on others. He believes forgiveness is the only way for himself and for others, saying, “There is no punishment that can bring back my family. Punitive measures don’t prevent war.” He stressed again that we all had to forgive and begin dialoguing with one another, because communication is the only way to keep something like this from ever happening again.
For Ishmael, sharing the story with the world was very important, as he wanted the world to recognize that hate is not an “Africa problem”. This is not a phenomenon isolated only to one continent. He wants the reader of his book to understand that before the war family and life in Sierra Leone were similar to family and life anywhere else in the world. It is important that people understand that “this could happen to me! This could have been my brother, mychild!” He continued, “Once it becomes personal, you can no longer turn away.”
“When you want to kill someone,” Ishmael said, “you dehumanize that person, but worse, you dehumanize yourself to be able to do that first. Furthermore, changing the world begins first with changing one’s own heart.”
“Honesty and communication,” Ishmael continued, “is the only way to change the world.”