Tales of a Former Child Soldier

Ishmael Beah captivates crowd

January 28, 2014

“When you’ve been so deeply touched by violence, you don’t glorify it. You’re not fascinated by it in any way,” author Ishmael Beah told a captivated crowd of several hundred on Saturday afternoon at the Arthur Curley Memorial Lecture during the 2014 ALA Midwinter Meeting and Exhibits in Philadelphia.

Beah grew up in the southern countryside of Sierra Leone, a West African nation that endured a bloody civil war from 1991 to 2002. More than 60,000 people died and another 2 million were displaced during that time, and Beah found himself recruited into the life of a child soldier, an experience he chronicles in his first book, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.

He spent his talk discussing education, books, libraries, writing, and cultural differences between his native and adopted homelands.

Because books were—and remain—in short supply in Sierra Leone, and because of the reverence people have for education there, Beah recalled that schoolchildren had to wash their hands before touching a textbook, which only the teacher had in his or her possession.

In secondary school, he was introduced to Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson, which “blew my imagination completely,” he said. The book taught him what literature can do to one’s sense of self and place: “I tried to imagine myself outside of who I was through this narrative.”

But it wasn’t until he attended Oberlin College that Beah—a political science major at the time—said he became serious about writing. A schoolwide short story competition led to his first published story, “At Noon.” It was based on true events, living in the capital city of Freetown with his uncle after the war. Every day at noon, fighter jets would fly over the city to bomb the remaining rebel strongholds. It was only at this time of the day that those who had food could go outside and cook in peace, he said; otherwise boy soldiers would come around, put a gun to your head, and eat your food.

Beah has traveled back to Sierra Leone many times since coming to the United States. He said that during these trips he began to observe that people—the media in particular—were very interested in what happens during war but not as much about what happens afterward. “When the bloodshed was occurring, when the gunshots were sounding, the media was paying attention,” he said. “But as soon as the bloodshed ended, their attention turned to another place that was equally, if not more, showing the degradation of humanity.”

He said he began to wonder, “How do people return home? Is it even possible to do that? If they are able to return home, how do they begin to repair their traditions? How do they begin to learn to live together again as a community?” These questions led him to write his novel, Radiance of Tomorrow.

Despite the war and his horrific experiences, Beah said he considers Sierra Leone to be his home, “where my spirit rests more than any other place.”

Watch video excerpts of his presentation here and here.


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