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Ishmael Beah Was Never Very Far Away

Ishmael Beah became a soldier at age thirteen, one year after rebels attacked his village, flushing him into the forest to live on the run with a pack of other boys his age.

Ishmael Beah Because he recollects these experiences in the voice of his younger self — the author is now twenty-six — a handful of critics will hail his memoir as "deceptively simple." And simple it is not. It is, however, immediately accessible. "This memoir seems destined to become a classic," Publishers Weekly predicted.

In We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families, journalist Philip Gourevitch reported Rwanda's genocide from dozens of competing perspectives and filled every gap in between with wide-ranging reflections to educate readers about the region's history.

Think of A Long Way Gone as something akin to that book's photographic negative. Three thousand miles west of Rwanda, at about the same time, Beah describes Sierra Leone's civil war from the inside, entirely absent of political context. Kill or be killed, these were a homeless orphan's options. And choosing sides proved simple: Rebels killed his family, therefore the rebels should die.

At seven years old, Beah was reciting Macbeth in the village square. At twelve, he traveled (sixteen miles, by foot) in a small dance troupe that performed to the music of Run DMC and other American rappers.

By fourteen, he was perpetually high on a combination of cocaine and gunpowder called "brown brown" and otherwise looking for victims to torture or kill.

What starts innocuously enough, two young brothers on their way to a talent show, turns out be to be as horrifying, and yet somehow as redemptive, as anything you're likely to read.

Dave: The first chapter of A Long Way Gone begins:

There were all kinds of stories told about the war that made it sound as if it was happening in a faraway and different land.

Do you think the same was true for adults? Did they have any idea that your village was in such danger?

Ishmael Beah: That was true for adults, true for everyone. The Sierra Leone that I grew up in, before the war, there was political corruption, but the extent of violence, the extent of what the war was doing, was new to people. A lot of people were naïve to the fact that people in Sierra Leone could do this.

What you have to know is that it was a place where you would walk on a path six or seven miles to another village where you knew nobody, and somebody would cook you food, give you a room, ask you nothing for it, and host you like you were family. So a lot of people could not believe that this was happening. Even I.

We could not believe that this was actually happening until it reached us. And I think this naivety is very common, not just in Africa but in all the wars we've heard about. People don't believe that other human beings can lose their humanity to such an extent that they can do such things.

Dave: A bit later, you explain:

I had heard from adults that this was a revolutionary war, a liberation of the people from corrupt governments. But what kind of liberation movement shoots innocent civilians, children, that little girl? There wasn't anyone to answer these questions.

Until the chronology at the end of the book, you give readers less than a paragraph of political context to understand why this war is being fought, why people are dying. At the time of these events, you had no political context, yourself.

Beah: I was trying to capture how I thought then, not now. Then, that's all I had. I learned by what the adults said and what adults did, and what was happening around me.

What I tried to show is that when political corruption is endemic, it affects people who don't even know what it is, or who have absolutely nothing to do with it. I didn't know what was going on in politics, what mishandling of funds or embezzlement was going on, but this stuff was affecting me.

I didn't want to write a history book. I didn't want to be like, "In 1967, Siaka Stevens came in..." There would be too many pages, and it's not personal enough. I was trying to tell the story so that the reader, who is in the United States or wherever, can begin to feel the humanity of what seems so distant or nonexistent.

You can use euphemisms like politicians do. You can be like, "The fragment of an RPG hit somebody." Or, "The RPG destroyed that house." But what happened to the people in that house? If you talk about that, don't cover it up, you bring people's humanity out.

In the back of the book, the chronology talks about the political context and all that, but I didn't want to make it heavily political in the sense that I would put historical narratives in. You can get enough through the personal account: Something has gone severely wrong with this place.

Dave: Are you accustomed to talking in such detail about your past? Some time has passed since the events you describe, but now that the book is being published... There are some pretty horrible scenes in there.

Beah: I am not proud of these things, and I don't think anyone who had lived through it would be. But if I had written this book and glossed over that, just presented it as this kid who is now fine, I don't think you would care. This is what I was subjected to. This is what happened to me.

I lost my humanity, and everyone can lose their humanity if they're put in a circumstance that I was, that a lot of people found themselves in. I needed to explain the reality of what happens, how children become like this, how they embrace that life and that reality. That's the only thing they know. They truly embrace it and become part of it. But equally, how they can also change tremendously.

I couldn't shy away from this. I mean, it's very difficult for me to remember these things and to talk about it now that it's public and everyone knows about it, but I'm doing it because I know what it is to lose family entirely. I know what it is to try to trust your own humanity and your own self-worth. Also, I know what war is. For me, this is a very little sacrifice, remembering, so that it can benefit those people who as we speak are being subjected to the things I was subjected to.

Obviously, it's difficult, but it's important, it's beyond me. I didn't tell the story for me. I'm telling it so that people understand what goes on with a lot of kids.

I'm fine now. I live among you guys now; I live in the United States. I've been lucky enough that I've got a good schooling and things like that. It's a responsibility that I don't take very lightly at all.

Dave: One incredible scene in the book takes place on the beach before you join the army. You're twelve years old, miming LL Cool J. to save yourself and your friends from being drowned by a suspicious mob. I've been trying to picture this, but it's just too strange: You were singing "I Need Love" to save your life.

Beah: Yes. But again, this is the madness that I'm trying to tell you about. Those rap cassettes in our pockets were the only thing that could prove at this time that we were children. That was the only thing that could prove our innocence.

What had happened, everyone had started distrusting each other. People were afraid of young people based on what they had seen them do to their families. This was the only way for us to prove our innocence, in a very weird and strange way.

When it was happening I didn't think about it, but now one thing that is strange is how what people here think is so far away, it's not so far away. American music. People don't know how far what they do reaches, how it reaches people elsewhere in the world.

Dave: In a book about Sierra Leone called How De Body?, there's a photo of a mural painted on a wall in Freetown, a portrait of Tupac Shakur.

Beah: Tupac is very popular in Sierra Leone. So are a lot of musicians. I was in Sierra Leone in 2006 with some musicians, and one of them happened to be from the Wu-Tang. I kept telling him, "You've never been to Africa. It's really not so far away. You don't even think hip-hop is here, but everyone knows of the Wu-Tang. People know the lyrics. They can sing it to you."

We got off the plane, and he saw these kids. He couldn't believe it. He was so taken aback. He said, "How come they know this stuff? How come we don't know they know this stuff?"

But that's what I'm saying. Things reach so deep, to so many cultures.

Dave: Before you came to America for the Children's Parliament, you thought that people in New York City shot each other on the street all the time. You expected to find nightclubs and violence. Why did you agree to come?

Beah: First of all, all I knew was from music videos and things like that. But my thinking was that we would drive to the events; we wouldn't walk on the streets. My conception was that people don't walk on the sidewalk — everyone is in their car; they must drive because it's too dangerous to walk. So I didn't think we would be walking. I didn't think we'd be outside.

Also, because we came under the auspices of UNICEF and the United Nations, there would be protection. They wouldn't bring us if they knew we would be subjected to that. That was my thinking.

Dave: How did other kids fare in the rehabilitation centers? One of your friends, Mambu, returned to the army because his family wouldn't take him back. The war escalated after you got out.

Beah: This is the stuff we talk about when I go to meetings at UNICEF and groups like that. It's difficult when the war is still going on. Children finish the rehabilitation, and they can't do anything with their lives. So they're frustrated. There's that difficulty. I was lucky enough to get out and step away from it. Some people ended up going back.

In my opinion, Sierra Leone and these reintegration programs failed miserably because a lot of things were not put into account. When you reintegrate with society, they have to provide a peaceful environment where you're not pulled back again; they have to find families that really care and want to take you in. You're going to have to include community as part of this process. Also, if you give them vocational training, they feel like they can use that to find a livelihood, but a lot of things have to happen for it to succeed.

There's quite a number of people who survived, but compared to the number of people that were subjected to this it's very little. Very few people were able to completely step away.

Now the war has ended, but still there are a lot of young people in Freetown just hanging about. They're useless. There's nothing they can do with themselves. The political corruption that caused the war continues to this day. If you give someone vocational training, they go to school — and they finish — but that education is worthless because they can't find a job. They can't do anything. It's pointless, to some extent. NGOs can create all these programs and do these things, but in the end, when it comes to the national level, the government has to follow up. That's the next step, to try to push governments.

Dave: I'm going to mention a few items, and I want you to recall your first impressions. Tell me what comes to mind.

Beah: Okay.

Dave: Freetown.

Beah: Freetown was absolutely amazing. I didn't know. I grew up in the country. I didn't have electricity. I didn't have anything like that — buildings that were tall, lights. My impression was, what a huge, beautiful city. I was completely excited to see that and to be there.

Dave: What about the ocean?

Beah: Before the time I describe in the book, I'd seen different parts of it but never that wide. Actually, it took my mind away from what was happening.

Dave: In the book, you also describe your first time in an elevator.

Beah: Ah, yes. I thought of it as a box. I didn't even know what it was called. I was trying to figure out how it could go up, and go up so fast. To be frank, I was intrigued by all of this stuff.

I didn't get to this part as much in the book, but when I got on a plane the first time and we landed at Schiphol Airport, I was already so out of it. I thought I was dreaming up the whole thing, being on a plane. We got off at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, and they had those... what do you call it? You know, like the escalators but flat?

Dave: Moving walkways.

Beah: The moving walkway. I remember when I went back to Sierra Leone I told my uncle, "They're so improved, they make the ground move."

I was like, Where am I? I really felt, and to this day to some extent, I really felt I was dreaming this whole thing up. My god, it's not possible. But I'm seeing it. It's happening.

Dave: What about brown brown?

Beah: Ah, brown brown. Well, it's a very, very bad drug. I would not recommend it to anyone. Basically, it's just another way to make cocaine really powerful, by mixing it with gunpowder. I don't know who came up with that concoction, but it does do the trick. I wouldn't recommend anyone trying it.

Dave: Why do they use gunpowder? Does it change the way you feel? Does it make the cocaine last longer?

Beah: It changes the way you feel, but I think they mix it because then it is more powerful than regular cocaine. You have to realize that in this context, you're using this stuff constantly. The more you use it, I think, the more tolerance you develop toward it. This concoction comes in, and it adds to getting you high and getting you to feel numb to everything.

One thing that it really does is it makes you feel numb to everything. It makes you see everything not as a big deal, not as important. It comes to a point where pulling a gun out and shooting somebody in the head is almost funny. It does this kind of thing.

Dave: The kitchen of your uncle's house was made entirely of zinc. Can you describe it?

Beah: What zinc is, basically, you know what tin is? I think it's probably a British thing. Zinc is also another word for tin. It's like tin.

In Sierra Leone, they call it pan body, which means it's something that's made of zinc, the top and the side and everything. You have a few sticks that are sticking up, and then you have the roof; they just stand the leaves of tin and nail them all around the thing. That's it, basically.

Dave: If Americans could know just a couple things about Sierra Leone, what should they be?

Beah: One thing that I want people to know is that what happened to Sierra Leone was very difficult, but I don't want people to think that only in Africa, or Asia or Latin America, are people capable of losing their humanity. Everyone has that capacity. It's part of our nature. We can lose it, and we can regain it.

Also, I want people not to think of Sierra Leone as someplace that is so far away that it's not part of this world that you live in.

Even though bad things have happened, it's a place that is not hopeless. People still live there. In Sierra Leone, there are people who live next door to neighbors who have massacred their family. There are families who have taken in and adopted children who have killed half of their family. A lot of people don't have the capacity to do that in other parts of the world.

Oftentimes when people speak of Africa in general, they are only fascinated with the violence and the negative aspects. They forget to see that there are also some positive things happening. Granted, there are a lot of bad things happening in Africa, but people live there, so it's also hopeful. There are things that are good about it. It's a beautiful place.

The thing that really gets to me is that countries are in the news only when things get out of hand. That's when it's newsworthy. When the war ends, it's not newsworthy anymore; no one wants to think about it. Actually, the aftermath is the most important part. It's when people have to rebuild. It's when people have to make sure that the politicians don't go back to the corruptions that caused everything. But this is when people are not passionate about it anymore.

In Sierra Leone right now, people are suffering, to some extent, because the government doesn't do anything for them, and no one pays attention. No one knows, and no one cares. I guess what I'd like to say is that people in Sierra Leone are human beings, just like Americans. They want to send their kids to school; they want to live in peace; they want to have their basic rights of life just like everyone else. I think we all owe an obligation to support people who want to do that.

Dave: From your perspective now, what do you think of forgiveness? What do you think of guilt? How do those ideas resonate for you?

Beah: I was a kid when this happened. I wasn't psychologically developed enough to decide whether I would be a part of it or not, nor was there a choice in the situation. Nonetheless, I feel guilty about what I became and what I was forced to participate in or do or carry out.

That being said, the idea of forgiveness...

A lot of people, when they say "forgive and forget," they think you completely wash your brain out and forget everything. That is not the concept. What I think is you forgive and you forget so you can transform your experiences, not necessarily forget them but transform them, so that they don't haunt you or handicap you or kill you. Rather, you transform them so they can remind you, so that this doesn't happen again. They can prevent this kind of thing from happening to other people. You must do things positive with your experience rather than dwell on the negativity of it.

The idea of forgive and forget, it's not good for the perpetrator or the victim, whichever context you want to put it in. If for example your neighbor killed your family, if you keep seeing them as a perpetual murderer, you will never give them a chance to change; they will never feel at ease around you, and you will never feel at ease either. But when you transform that, when you think, Okay, there was once a time they did that; perhaps they can change. When you do that genuinely, you actually give them a chance to transform. Hence you heal. You're not afraid. This is what I think of forgiveness.

Dave: You mentioned earlier that people listen to hip-hop all around the world. In the book we also see how far Shakespeare travels.

Beah: Shakespeare is absolutely big in Africa. I guess he's big everywhere. Growing up, Shakespeare was the thing. You'd learn monologues and you'd recite them. And just like hip-hop, it made you feel like you knew how to speak English really well. You had a mastery of the English language to some extent.

That was very popular for young people. Adults would be very proud if their child would go to the village square to recite a monologue.

To this day, I'm a big fan of Shakespeare. I have the collected works all around my house. It's always great to look at. He was such a wonderful writer. Most everything he said is still relevant to this day. It's absolutely amazing.

Dave: You write at length about Bra spider and Leleh Gombah and the ways that storytelling was a central part of your childhood.

Beah: There was a strong oral tradition. Storytelling was not just entertainment. It was also a way to impart certain knowledge to the young, to impart the history of communities and cultures. And moral behavior, how to behave — all the stories had a moral underpinning or a message. This was how it was done. They told you a story and you walked around remembering.

Dave: The book isn't yet out — tomorrow it will show up in stores — but has the advance press started to put you back in touch with people from your past?

Beah: Yes, actually. Before this book, when I went back to Sierra Leone, I found Leslie. I found people who walked out of the rehabilitation center and talked to them. I was also able to see a few of my friends from the rehabilitation center. Some of them were doing well, some were not doing so well. I was able to see all of this.

The other thing this book has done, the people it has put me in touch with are those I went to school with. When I went to school, I did not tell my story to all the friends that I made. A lot of people are now like, "How come you never told me this story? We always knew there was something about you that you weren't sharing." Especially when they met my mom. They'd be like, "So, you're adopted."

Dave: Is it a relief now to put the story out there? You don't have to hide it anymore.

Beah: There is some relief that I don't have to hide it, but I didn't write it because of that. I wrote it because I wanted to use it to help other people.

I think of the book as a powerful advocate. Instead of going to a UN conference or UNICEF conference and speaking for fifteen minutes, it was something that could make people understand at a deeper level how this happens.

But there's some relief, obviously. And writing the book, the process itself, made me understand certain things more and made me come to terms with a lot of things that perhaps I was reluctant to go into or deeply let myself feel. That's good. It was difficult, but I'm happy about that.

Dave: Have you thought at all about what you want to do next?

Beah: Life is very strange, my friend. It throws you different things. You can have your plan, but life always has its own plans. Sometimes you're lucky your plan fits what life has for you. Other times it doesn't.

I've always been interested and intrigued by words, so I like to write. I will do that some more. I have ideas to write other things, but I'm also interested in international affairs and law school.

I'm only twenty-six. I'm like any twenty-six-year-old: I don't know much about what I want to do with my life. I'm still learning about life as I go along. We shall see.

Ishmael Beah will visit Powell's on Hawthorne on Thursday, February 22, 2007. We spoke by telephone ten days prior, on Monday the 12th. Beah was riding all the while on a First Avenue bus up to the UN at 42nd Street.

So many times during our talk I was reminded of recent conversations with Philip Gourevitch and Chris Hedges, two war correspondents interviewed this winter at Powell's.

"We could not believe that this was actually happening until it reached us," Beah started. "And I think this naivety is very common, not just in Africa but in all the wars we've heard about. People don't believe that other human beings can lose their humanity to such an extent that they can do such things."

That was Beah's take. Hedges put it this way: "Most people are incapable of understanding how fragile the world around them is and how quickly it can disintegrate. There is an inability to grasp that the world around you is crumbling even as it crumbles."

Similarly, when Beah spoke of forgiving your family's murderer, Gourevitch offered a useful frame of reference:

In the very best of circumstances, living in a country [Rwanda] where virtually everyone was either targeted or a targeter, or was either family of killer or killers, themselves — that's a pretty monumental thing to wrap your mind around....

Just that alone: the fact that geographically, sociologically, and otherwise, perpetrator and victim were intermingled, are still living side by side. It's not like, "You go to Belgrade and I'll go to Sarajevo, and we'll snarl every time we see the other guy on TV but we won't have to see each other in the market each day." Oh, yes, you will.

÷ ÷ ÷

Dave interviews authors for Powell's. He created our Out of the Book film series. He likes cats and dogs.

Books mentioned in this post

  1. There Is No Me Without You: One...
    Used Hardcover $9.95

  2. A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy...
    Used Hardcover $5.50
  3. We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow...
    Used Trade Paper $6.50

Dave is the author of Out of the Book, Volume 3: State by State

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