Beah Shares in Multiple Forums
At age 11, Ishmael Beah, OC ’04, lost his parents and both brothers in Sierra Leone’s brutal civil war. At 13, he shot his first AK-47 and killed hundreds of men, having been forced into the army as a child soldier. He fought for almost three years until he was rescued and placed in a UNICEF rehabilitation center. Beah’s experiences are represented in A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, published this past February. The title, now on the New York Times best-seller list for 29 weeks, sold over 62,000 copies in its first three weeks lining the shelves of Starbucks as the second book promoted by the international coffee chain.
Audience members filled every corner of Finney Chapel Tuesday night, greeting Beah with a standing ovation as he took the podium. Bright green book covers could be spotted dotting the pews of the Chapel. Beah’s visit marked the opening of this year’s Convocation Series.
A Long Way Gone reveals glimpses of a beautiful but ravaged country while recounting young Beah’s wartime experiences, discovering his humanity and recalling his assimilation into civilian life. Beah read excerpts from his book, including one of his first encounters with the harsh reality of a war:
“It was the first time I had seen a grown man cry like a child, and I felt a sting in my heart…Later we learned that the man had tried to escape with his family and the rebels had shot at his vehicle killing all his family. The only thing that consoled him…was when the woman who had embraced him…told him that at least he would have the chance to bury them. He would always know where they were laid to rest, she said. She seemed to know a little more about war than the rest of us.”
The smooth murmur of Beah’s voice matched the minimalist nature of his writing. His straightforward and descriptive prose finds its strength in the simplicity of words. No events are needlessly exaggerated to traumatize or to provoke a response; rather, his candid retelling stands solidly on its own, impacting readers for what it is.
Born in Sierra Leone in 1980, Beah grew up in the village of Mogbwemo and enjoyed listening to American rap music, even penning a few lyrics himself. After the war reached his village, his attempt to flee was thwarted as bloodshed followed him everywhere.
“Violence basically became the order of the day,” he said.
Beah saw entire villages destroyed and watched friends his age die in battle. Child soldiers were trained to kill remorselessly and were constantly drugged with marijuana, amphetamines and “brown brown,” a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder.
After rehabilitation, he went to live with an uncle in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital. In 1996, Beah was invited to speak about the challenges he had faced at the United Nations conference, Children’s Voices, in New York. There, he met Laura Simms, a woman who worked at the UN. When rebels overran the city the following year, and Beah was forced into Guinea, a neighboring country to the north of Sierra Leone, he contacted Simms for assistance. She arranged for him to come to America permanently. Beah now calls Simms his mother. Upon Beah’s 1998 arrival in New York, he completed his last two years of high school at the United Nations International School prior to enrolling at Oberlin.
During his undergraduate years, Beah was very active in bringing attention to the problem of child soldiers around the world, serving on a UN panel with Secretary General Kofi Annan and meeting with Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela. It was also during time at Oberlin that he began drafting his book.
According to Beah, the book was born out of frustration. There was not enough time to tell his story, he told workshop students at a luncheon, also on Tuesday. Many of the people he had met could only conjure an image of a war-torn Sierra Leone.
“People need to see Sierra Leone before the war, during the war [and] after the war,” he said. “I wanted to bring people to that landscape...We are not Africans; we are not Sierra Leoneans. We are people who are suffering.”
Even after graduation, Beah continued to correspond with Associate Professor of Creative Writing Dan Chaon, sending chapters to him for comments.
“[Beah’s story] epitomizes the enduring vitality of the human spirit [and] is a testimony to the power of education to change lives,” said Oberlin College President Marvin Krislov, who introduced the Convocation.
Both at the Convocation and in his book, Beah named Chaon, Associate Professor of Rhetoric and Composition Laurie McMillin, Associate Professor of Creative Writing Sylvia Watanabe, Professor of Politics Ben Schiff and Professor of English Anu Needham as some of the influential people in Oberlin who impacted his life and his writing.
In the question and answer session after Beah’s address, he advised students to be “honest with yourself….You’re disconnected from the harsh realities of the world in this place.” He stressed the importance of stepping outside the Oberlin bubble.
Beah urged Obies to act now, rather than waiting until after graduation. “Everyone has a sense of being very liberal, but doesn’t take the time to learn about the issues they are being liberal about,” he said at the luncheon.
After another standing ovation, at the end of his address, Beah chatted with audience members at a book signing in the Finney lobby.
Beah’s anticipated Convocation speech was preceded by an afternoon reading at the Oberlin Public Library. Like the Convocation, the library overflowed with people, many leaning against the wall or perched on tabletops, all carefully listening to his words.
“When people don’t have a realistic sense of what violence does to the human spirit, that’s a problem,” Beah said. “I want to dedicate my life to educate people about the nature of violence.”
For the first time last year, Beah revisited Sierra Leone, which was a bittersweet experience. Although he was able to reconnect with a few old friends and cousins, he discovered where he might have ended up had he not been rescued. According to Beah, many adolescents line the streets, not knowing what to do with their lives.
Later this year, those same people may be much busier. The Ishmael Beah Foundation, a private, independent institution, will soon begin a series of projects such as the building of literary centers that will function as libraries and a base for a national paper run by Sierra Leonean youths. Beah wants to “use literature to have people find a common place.”
The Foundation is “dedicated to helping former child soldiers reintegrate into society and improve their lives…[and] aims at creating and financing educational and vocational opportunities for children and youth who have been affected by war, so that they can be empowered to choose a life free of conflict.”
Although Beah’s original manuscript was over 500 pages, certainly enough material for a second book, he hopes to tackle fiction next. He is no stranger to the scene, having won Oberlin’s Dainne Vruels Fiction Prize for his story “At Noon.” Some of his other works have been published in VespertinePress and LIT Magazine.
Just last Saturday, presidential elections were held in Sierra Leone. However, instances of ballot stuffing have been reported, and while unofficial results have been broadcast over the radio, controversy continues to surround the situation. Even if a more effective president is elected, many of the same cabinet members will remain in their positions, heavy obstacles on the road to change. Despite all of this, Beah still speaks optimistically about the future of the country.
Beah also referenced the Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2007, a bill that aims to help the 250,000 youths around the globe who serve as combatants, porters, human mine detectors and sex slaves. Designed to encourage governments to halt such activity, the act would restrict military assistance to countries identified in the Human Rights Report as recruiting or using child soldiers in armed conflict.
Although Beah has been an influential figure as an advocate for child soldiers since leaving rehabilitation, the publication of A Long Way Gone quickly catapulted the first-time author into the international spotlight. Beah has popped up all over the media and Internet, appearing on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and in publications, blogs and YouTube. His book was nominated this year for a Quill Award in the Debut Author Of the Year category. He currently works for the Human Rights Watch Children’s Division Advisory Committee, and maintains a busy schedule between his book tour and various other engagements.
With reporting by Laurel Fuson and Piper Niehaus