“If I hadn’t gone to school, I wouldn’t be here today”

When civil war seized Sierra Leone, Ishmael Beah’s parents were killed – and at 13 he became a child soldier – now a resident of New York, he’s dedicated to helping others learn from his experience, as Robert Jeffery finds out

Ask Ishmael Beah where he comes from and he will tell you: New York. But few of the people he meets during his everyday existence as a student in the Big Apple could guess what took place in his harrowing, complex and ultimately inspiring past. Born in the sprawling Southern Province of Sierra Leone, Beah's unremarkable childhood was shattered by the outbreak of civil war.

Separated from his parents and two brothers, who were later killed, he ended up as one of the country's 7,000 child soldiers, fighting for government forces against rebel insurgents in one of Africa's bloodiest conflicts. At 17, he was rescued by UNICEF and taken to the US. After four years of horror ("Somebody being shot in front of you, or you yourself shooting somebody, became like drinking a glass of water", he recalls), Beah began the long process of acclimatizing to Western life and overcoming his trauma. He studied economics at university and took creative writing classes.

His experiences would be turned into a memoir which was published in 2007 as A Long Way Gone and became a global sensation that captivated young people and sold more than 700,000 copies.

The book made Beah an unofficial spokesperson for the campaign against child soldiers, but also drew criticism: an Australian newspaper claimed the 27-year-old author was patchy on the detail of his life in Africa, including the length of time he spent fighting.

Beah's publishers provided a detailed defence of his work, but the criticism still rankled. Today, however, Beah faces the future with confidence. While he works on more books and continues his studies, he travels regularly to Africa as an ambassador for UNICEF and continues to raise awareness of the use of child soldiers.

IB World caught up with him in New York, to ask how he found hope in such desperate circumstances.

You’ve visited one of the world’s poorest countries, the Central African Republic. Did you have a particular mission?

I spoke to rebel groups to try to negotiate the release of children who had been fighting, and spent time with the children themselves. I took them copies of the French translation of my book, read them a few chapters and they asked me questions about it.

They knew who I was and there was a direct kinship because of that – they were able to talk to me about things they might not have felt comfortable talking to other people about. They wanted to understand whether what they were going through was something they would be able to move beyond.

It was easier talking to somebody like me, who has been through the same experiences. There’s a deep frustration because you are waiting for something to happen, for your life to move along, and you are also left with the memories of everything that happened to you, everything you saw.

How do you make sense of the very difficult things you’ve been through?

As you get older, you have to learn to live with your experiences, how to refocus and put them into context. Somebody asked me what’s more real to me: the life I have now, or the life I had as a boy soldier.

Actually, being a soldier is more real to me than this life because I never imagined that I would have what I have now.

Every now and then I shake my head and say ‘wow’ at the things I am doing and the places I am going. But what happened then… it happened. There’s no point trying to rationalize it, you just have to move on.

How can you expect young people to relate to what you’ve been through?

When you try to move it into a human context – what it means to lose somebody, what it means to not have something functioning in your life – young people can relate to it because they can imagine what it’s like. It makes them appreciate what they have and what it would feel like to lose it.

What it’s like to be a child who loses their mother, loses everything they have and then has to just wander around… a lot of young people will try to put themselves in that position. They can understand how fortunate some of us (and I include myself in this) are to have the lives we do.

Sometimes you can forget that. Whether it’s having hot water to take a shower or being able to have a future, to think ‘in five years I’m going to go to school’ or whatever.

There is a whole generation of young people who don’t have that opportunity because their whole lives have been reduced to whether they can live to see the next hour. They can’t think about a future.

Do you resent people around you now who have relatively privileged lives?

I was a bit angry at first, but I realize that what I needed to do was find a way to educate the people I came across about where I came from. People didn’t know about Sierra Leone, so if I met someone in the United States I would have to describe it in terms of Liberia, which they might understand.

So my frustration turned into a desire to educate people. But my generation, with the internet, they are more savvy… they can find out about places quicker. There is still a tremendous need for people to understand the African continent and stop generalizing about it.

The mainstream media often say ‘it’s just one of those countries where those things happen’ but wars don’t just start out of nowhere. There’s serious planning that goes into it.

What was it like having people casting doubt on the veracity of your story?

First of all, if the book hadn’t been successful nobody would have questioned it. And the publishers don’t just print a book and put it out there – they fact-check it and they verify it.

If you publish an excerpt in the New York Times, like we did, the paper also fact-checks it. Of course, I never took pictures or made notes: I was a kid running from the war and I never thought I would write a book.

Possibly people thought that nobody could survive an experience like that and be sane or have a life. It all goes against what people expected from somebody like me, and so they questioned it. I feel I have answered those questions now.

Some of them were ridiculous.People said: “We don’t think your village exists, because it’s not on a map.” But the last map of Sierra Leone was made in the 1960s and new villages start up all the time. Journalists have been there and they have seen the town. It just makes me laugh now.

What was your early education like?

Because of where I grew up, we didn’t have a huge breadth of books but we had a few. One book I do remember was Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson.

I was in primary school and the teacher would read from it because we only had one copy. I remember Jim Hawkins being such a strong character; I loved that stuff.

And then there was Shakespeare. Because Sierra Leone was a former British colony, we all learned English and it was very prestigious if your child could recite a few lines of Shakespeare. Your parents would be very proud of you.

“Friends, Romans, countrymen/Lend me your ears”... we’d quote Macbeth, Julius Caesar, all that stuff. Later on, I loved George Orwell. Because of my early upbringing I developed a strong love for language – I used to read the dictionary for fun to learn new words.

What can young Africans expect from their schooling today?

I am optimistic, but at the same time we need to refocus the education system. Some people want to get an education and go to school, but others think: ‘If I went to school, what would I do with it?’

There’s a need for a more informal system of education, and for teaching the sort of entrepreneurial skills people need.

People need to see there are other career choices than the traditional ones: they want to be a doctor or a lawyer, but if they learned to use a computer they could do more for themselves and their country.

People in Africa see education as a way to make money but it is also a way to find out more about yourself and your place in humanity. When I came out of the war all I knew how to do was fight, and if I hadn’t been in school and known that I could use my brain for other things I wouldn’t be here today.

What can the world learn from Africa?

Because of Africa’s history, you have a lot of people there who are looking out and looking for hope elsewhere. The only way they can see themselves prospering is to go somewhere else. But what Africa has in abundance is simplicity, patience and resilience.

There is also a lot of intelligence, but what’s lacking is opportunities for naturally intelligent people. They don’t believe in their own capacities because of the situation they are in. And then there are environmental issues. In Sierra Leone, because we didn’t have electricity or a refrigerator, every morning we went to the market and got what we needed to cook that day.

Everything was fresh and natural. You’d go to the farmer and buy a potato or cassava and then you’d go to the guy who’d just been fishing so you could get some fish. Taking care of the land is a very African culture. People respect the land – they let it breathe and grow.

And finally, what can young people do?

For my generation, I want to change the idea that you just give some money and then you can say ‘I helped x or y’.

We need to go beyond that. Read about the issue, find out about it and really think about what you can give that can help – not just money, but also your skill sets.

Sometimes that is more valuable than money. That’s such a change of idea, to give people something that doesn’t have a monetary value.

Expose yourself to the world as deeply as possible and find out how you can contribute to it.

Writing the wrongs

It is often said that everyone has a book in them. For many, the act of writing can actually help them move forward in life.

So what prompted Ishmael Beah to put his ideas down on paper? “When I went to university, I took a few creative writing courses,” he explains.

“There was a competition for a short story, where you could win US$3,000. I was a student with no money, so I thought I would give it a try. I wrote a story called At Noon, which was about when I left the war and I was in Freetown, the capital city. When the rebels reached the city, if you tried to cook food they would see the smoke and would come to your house and take it from you. But every day at noon, this fighter jet would come and bomb their strongholds. That’s when they would go into hiding, so we could all come out and cook our food. I won the competition, and one of the professors said I had some talent and offered to be a mentor to me if I wanted to write some more.”

Encouraged by this, Ishmael started to commit his experiences to paper as a way of organizing his thoughts. “I wrote more and more and by the time I graduated I had the book,” he says.

“I was asked to show it to an editor, who showed it to a publisher. I never intended it to happen.” He also found it an excellent way to deal with his past.

“It helped a lot,” he says. “When I started writing, it was the first time I had gone into the pain I felt. I hadn’t spoken to anyone about a lot of it. I had to be part of those experiences again and it helped me understand certain things.” So would he recommend it to others?

“A lot of young people with similar experiences started writing after I did. I think they were afraid before. And when I went out to speak, I had people with all sorts of different experiences of war coming up to me. I remember a Vietnam veteran who said: “I gave your book to my son so he could understand why I didn’t want to speak about certain things”.