Sierra Leone

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier – Ishmael Beah


Confession: This isn’t the first time I’ve read this book. I was assigned this book in my Modern Africa class my senior year of college. However, when creating my booklist, I knew I had to reread Beah’s personal account of being a child soldier in Sierra Leone.

A Long Way Gone follows the story of a boy who is ripped away from his stable, normal life of hanging out with his parents, going to school, and dancing and practicing rap music. At first, he’s on the run: from the rebels, from the war, from the atrocities ripping a part his country. Before long, Ishmael is pulled into the war and forced to be a soldier. He is taught to the kill the enemy in order to avenge his family’s death. Eventually, the UN pulls him out of the war and helps him rehabilitate into an advocate for young people like him.

It’s hard to fathom the reality children like Beah face when civil war brings them into war. And even from reading, it still feels unreal and so far away. But the truth is, this is real and this is happening. What I personally found so terrifying was how every time Ishmael finds peace and stability, the war finds its way back in and disrupts it. It’s like he keeps reliving his worst nightmare and can’t escape. This is so unsettling to me and it begs the question: Is hope enough to survive?

Speaking of survival, that’s definitely the main theme of the book. As every page turns, the goal of each moment of Ishmael’s life is to survive what’s happening. Whether it’s being captured, finding food, dodging gunfire, or rehabilitating, it’s always about making it through or surviving. Although some would argue that all humans are trying to survive (i.e. Darwinists) I think there’s value into the idea that most people in advanced countries are trying to thrive. It’s not about making it through each moment. It’s about maximizing each moment. It’s about going to the best college, meeting the coolest friends, traveling to the farthest places, making the most money, and getting married and having the ideal life. The focus is on thriving, not surviving.

Do I recommend this book? Absolutely. Ismael Beah has written an astounding story about his stolen childhood. Warning: there are parts that are hard to read due to the graphic nature of war. But if you push on, it’s worth it. Does this make me want to go to Sierra Leone? It’s not supposed to.

♦♦ Culture Bit: Related Reading ♦♦

Beasts of No Nation is another book that has similar themes about child soldiers and survival in Africa. I was also assigned this book in undergrad. However, I didn’t enjoy it as much as A Long Way Gone. (Additionally, I also saw the movie but can barely remember it. I know it won various awards.)

Has anyone read both books? What did you think?

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