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Beyond encounters with death: a review of a long way gone Memoirs of a Boy soldier

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Reviewed by Brain Garusa

How many more times do we have to come to terms with death before we find safety?… Every time people come to us with the intention of killing us, I close my eyes and wait for death. Even though I am still alive, I feel like each time I accept death, part of me dies. Very soon I will completely die and all that will be left is empty body walking with you. It will be quieter than I am. p70

After an encounter with Ishmael Beah through an interview on Doek magazine when literature and all things associated with it kept me sane in the plague induced darkness, I was committed to read more of him. The interview was captivating for me that I knew I would read anything by the author. Literary grace followed me and my Johannesburg based sister Wyna gave me a copy of Radiance of Tomorrow, on my birthday last year. After a lovely journey with characters in Radiance of Tomorrow, I looked for his other publications. I realised he had a memoir. A prayer was made to the gods for another miracle. On Tuesday there arrived a reply. I bumped into a bookshop and an encounter with Ishmael’s life happened. I will use Ishmael in this review because it’s all I saw in the memoir a few times he mentioned his name.

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a long way gone: memoirs of a Boy soldier is a harrowing record of human encounters caught up in the web of madness. One of the greatest lessons that the book hammered is the fact that war is madness. Ishmael’s memories bring to the fore how war dehumanize friends and foes as people lose their conscience.

One of the sticking themes of the memoir is how war robs children of their childhood. In Ishmael’s story the story is more touching because the children were plucked out of the environs that allowed them to be children and were forced to participate in the business of killing and being killed. As one abandoned old man told Ishmael and friends, the ‘country has lost its good heart. People don’t trust each other anymore.’ Child innocence has been taken away from the children as many have been forced to be agents of death of the warring sides. Wherever they go they are treated with suspicion.

Ishmael emphasised the pain of remembering the horrors of the war. Memory can be daunting and painful when one thinks of an exciting and unforgettable past gone by alongside horrors of the immediate and unpleasant immediate past. Reconciling the two makes the inevitable process of remembering even more painful. It is difficult to live when ‘every effort to clear away the terrible thoughts [is] in vain.’

These terrible thoughts made processes of rehabilitation and healing an uneasy task. They affected sleep as the narrator and other boys as they had terrible nightmares.

There is merciless destruction of life, livelihoods, property, and being in Sierra Leone and there seem to have no end to it. The circle of displacement and dislocation of people is endless. The restlessness of the affected is disturbing. Even the narrator, at some point in time, when his age had no ‘capacity to grasp what had taken away the happiness of the refugees’ passing through their village thought some of the stories about the war were exaggerated. Before long the war caught up with him, separated him from his family forever.

Ishmael’s story shows healing from the invisible wounds that come with certain undesirable historical accidents is not easy but is something that humans can try. It takes more than an individual to achieve this healing. The healing of the individual is part of the much needed healing for the whole family and community. For Ishmael his family was welcoming during the rehabilitation process. Organisations that worked with former child soldiers also did a wonderful job in assisting the affected children to come to terms with their past and help forge a new present. It’s unfortunate that some children did not have welcoming families. It is more unfortunate the war followed those who had escaped the village to the city. The book hammered the idea of confronting the ghosts of the past without necessarily being hard on oneself

It’s not all harrowing in the story. It has relief moments that kept the people going in troubled times. The interesting parts are storytelling times. The stories are used to mock the excesses of humanity as well as to cheer those still alive. It is this background that also help the memoir’s texture as the English language is tamed with beauty of Mende storytelling flavour. Nature also comes to cheer at the sorrowful beings. Sometimes the lucky ones are saved by nature as the sky’s ‘tears saved [them] from the red bullets

a long way gone: memoirs of a child soldier is a beautifully crafted account of a tragedy of a people and the human will to survive. Ishmael used the memoir as a well of speaking out, healing as well as documenting not only his life but those he encountered but could not be afforded the chance to tell their stories. We highly recommend that you read the book.

Title: a long way gone: memoirs of a boy soldier
Author: Ishmael Beah
Publisher: Sarah Crichton Books
Year: 2007