A childhood interrupted by war
“Each morning when I get up, I always feel happy. Because I know what it was like when you are not being able to sleep during the night without this peace and comfortable life,” Ishmael Beah told students at the Concordia International School Shanghai.
The 38-year-old was at the school in late January to read from his memoir “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier” and shared his experiences as a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador for children affected by war – representing them and helping with peace negotiations in places where there is war.
“We basically go deep in the jungles and bushes, meet the warlords and ask them if they are interested in the peace of their country. One of our ways to persuade them is to show our respect for their lives, especially children and women who are their mothers,” says Beah.
Born in a small village in Sierra Leone, West Africa, Beah grew up like any other carefree teenage boy who goes to school every day, plays sports and, at times, is naughty. At the age of 12, civil war broke out, engulfing the whole nation.
Though he fled attacking rebels, Beah, like many other children who lost their entire families during the armed conflict, had no choice but to wander a land rendered unrecognizable by violence. By 13, he’d been picked up by the government army, and Beah, at heart a gentle boy, found that he was capable of truly terrible acts.
In 1996, Beah was rescued by UNICEF and some NGOs’ involvement in preserving human rights due to the increasing violence in Sierra Leone. He was invited to speak at the UN in New York the same year.
“I spoke straight from my heart. I really meant what I said. This was also why my American foster mother, Laura Simms, decided to adopt me … because she thought ‘this is the child I want’,” Beah recalls.
In 1998, at the age of 17, Beah moved to the United States. He finished his last two years of high school at the United Nations International School in New York and graduated from Oberlin College in 2004. Three years later, he published his first book “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.” In 2014, his second, a novel, was published — “Radiance of Tomorrow.”
“For me, who comes from a war-torn place, a place most people have not heard about, writing has become a way to bring life to some of the things I could not give people or provide physically,” Beah says.
LeeAnne Lavender, who teaches AP English at Concordia, has been discussing Beah’s book with her students since 2008.
“As a result of reading the book, students engage in meaningful dialogue about ongoing violence in our world and about what it means to seek peace in this world. These discussions are rich and important, as it would appear that we, as human beings, have a long way to go in figuring out how to truly love and accept one another,” says Lavender, who describes Beah’s memoir as “powerful and compelling.”
In 2009, Beah traveled home to Sierra Leone with an ABC News camera, a return he describes as “bittersweet.”
“At that time, I felt another story started pulling at me. I wanted to have people understand how it feels to return to places that have been devastated by war, to try to start living there again, to raise a family there again and to rekindle some of the traditions that have been destroyed,” he says.
In addressing the issue of the post-war reconstruction in Sierra Leone, Beah says the biggest problem he sees is the lack of opportunities for children who lost their families during the war.
“They need a different memory to beat the trauma. When they don’t have that, which is often the case when they get released from the rehab center, they don’t have the resources to really build themselves up,” says Beah.
Q: What made you decide that you want to be a writer?
A: Since I came to the United States, I went to different conferences to talk about my experience and sometime I went into serious debate with someone about the issues I want to talk about.
But I always felt that kind of limited because most of time I just had five minutes on the panel. It wasn’t efficient for me to say what I really want to say given the context of the situation. So I felt kind of frustrated. I decided that maybe there was a way to prepare myself to write these ideas down so that I can find a simple and intelligent way to say. So I started to write.
Q: Why targeted teenage readers with your memoir?
A: Because I had experienced the war when I was at that age. When I lived in the US, I met taller kids who would never have that kind of experience and wondered how I would have had that experience. I also didn’t expect them to bury their head in the sand and pretend that this wasn’t going on.
I feel I can touch that specific generation … to change their minds on certain things … how they think about war, how they think about others. I want them to be interested in the world, to expose the sense of realities of people who are completely different.
Q: You moved into fiction in your second book, what is the difference?
A: For me, it happens to be a memoir as my first introduction to the literary world. Because I just have the story to write about in the first person context. With a memoir, I feel here is always something or somebody that has to be agreed on with the narration. It limits me from going to the places that I have no opinion about.
But writing fiction is different. It is to create a world with characters that only exist on some certain days in your life. I kind of decide what the story is about according to how I feel about it. I make connections of the characters in the way I want them to be.
Q: What is your advice to youngsters in this changing world?
A: Based on my experience of being involved in a war, I don’t think children are too little or too young to make a difference in this world. All of us are contributing to the world in one way or another.
I want to push them to appreciate what they have and make themselves useful. We cannot be passive citizens of the world. If we are complaining that the world is just breaking in so many different ways, we actually can stop it from being so.