The photo on the cover—a boy on a dirt trail, hair uncombed, mortar cartridge behind his neck, and a gun with a bayonet hanging from his shoulders drew me to Ishmael Beah’s book. The green flip-flop on his right foot, useless and slanting in the wrong direction, a testament of happier times, sealed my fate. Reading the blurb was a formality as was thumbing Steve Job’s biography, which I had intended to buy in the first place.
I paid for the book and went home.
I read the book through one heart-wrenching weekend, stopping occasionally for the weight of sorrow to lift. It did not.
Beah tells his story, in my view, without an agenda or an axe to grind. It is as though he says, “This is my story. Jump to conclusions if you want. Ask questions if you care.” He narrates about his experience as a boy soldier in Sierra Leone, a boy flung into the throes of a war that consumes his family.
His memory is photographic, capturing detail in a way that helps you journey with him. The picture of him wandering in the forest haunts me still.
I walked for two days straight without sleeping. I stopped only at streams to drink water. I felt as if somebody was after me. Often, my shadow would scare me and cause me to run for miles. Everything felt awkwardly brutal. Even the air seemed to want to attack me and break my neck. I knew I was hungry, but I didn’t have the appetite to eat or the strength to find food. I had passed through burnt villages where dead bodies of men, women, and children of all ages were scattered like leaves on the ground after a storm. Their eyes still showed fear, as if death hadn’t freed them from the madness that continued to unfold. I had seen heads cut off by machetes, smashed by cement bricks, and rivers filled with so much blood that the water had ceased flowing. Each time my mind replayed these scenes, I increased my pace. Sometimes I closed my eyes hard to avoid thinking, but the eye of my mind refused to be closed and continued to plague me with images. My body twitched with fear, and I became dizzy. I could see the leaves on the trees swaying, but I couldn’t feel the wind.1
Reading this book almost upended my theology. Why do bad things happen to innocent people? If God is real and good, why doesn’t he stop it? What about ethnic cleansing and genocide in the Bible?
I have not found intellectually satisfying answers. I do not need them to believe, I only need them for debate.
After I closed the book, it took many days for sadness to leave me.
Is war like the Terminator movie? Does the good guy leave the epic fighting scene—usually a dark warehouse with chainsaws, spikes, naked wires, and bottles—limping into the light with the beautiful woman he rescued clinging to his arm, while we cheer and wait for them to kiss?
I recall a scene from Machine Gun Preacher, where an orphan boy tells his story to Sam Childers, which unlocks my tears afresh.
I remember my parents in my sleep. My father was big like you. They shot him. The rebels told me, “If I do not kill my mother, they would shoot my brother and me.” And so, I killed my mother. If we allow ourselves to be full of hate, then they’ve won. We must not let them take our hearts2.
War leaves casualties as J.P. Clark describes in his poem, The Casualties3 (selected lines below).
The casualties are not only those who are dead;
They are well out of it.
The casualties are not only those who are wounded,
Though they await burial by instalment.
The casualties are not only those who started
A fire and now cannot put it out. Thousands
Are burning that had no say in the matter.
The casualties are many, and a good number well
Outside the scenes of ravage and wreck;
They are the wandering minstrels who, beating on
The drums of the human heart, draw the world
Into a dance with rites it does not know
All casualties of the war
Because we cannot hear each other speak,
Because eyes have ceased to see the face from the crowd,
Because whether we know or
Do not know the extent of wrong on all sides
We are characters now other than before
The war began,
I have many questions, fewer answers, but I am at peace in the world as long as I do not let them take my heart.
©Timi Yeseibo 2014
1. Ishmael Beah, A Long way Gone, Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (New York: Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007), 49.
2. Machine Gun Preacher Movie.
3. J.P. Clark, The Casualties, Poems of Black Africa, ed. Soyinka Wole (London: Heinemann/AWS, 1975), 112.
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45 thoughts on “A Long Way Gone: Introspection and Tears”
Timi, I have read this your post before. Hmm, I have even watched Ishmael on Youtube and read excerpts of this and his other book. Hmm hmm, this book was on my wish list long ago, but then I kept beating about the bush when it came to ‘buy with one click’ (since I love my kindle and the versions I can read on it). Now I said to myself yesterday – you are a year older come on get that book and read it so you know from a horse’s own mouth and not just history books what being a child soldier or even living in a war torn country can mean. I wouldn’t attempt a review, almost a third gone and I am losing something in me I don’t know …ah Jehova help me…
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It’s a difficult book to read because it is so sad, although his life eventually took a turn for the better.
One of the things that struck me was how easily any of us could have been Ishmael, if we were born at the ‘wrong’ place, at the ‘wrong’ time.
Happy reading. You are brave.
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Timi, his life did. His friend Mambu was rejected by his family. The other one Alhaji was constantly moving from one foster home to the other. You see the pattern even with our lives out here (wherever that is) – aw yes any of us could be Ishmael. Am reading it to understand more why those refugees I befriended years ago from Sierra Leone, CAR, Rwanda, and even Congo Zaire long ago, behave the way they did… Timi hmm if we saw God and had only one question to ask which would it be? Let try to finish it and sleep me because although I feel ants reading it, I want to get to the end and maybe buy his second book 🙂
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An in-depth review, Timi. I often wonder what goes through the minds of young boys forced to carry arms and fight battles they know little or nothing about. In these war-torn parts of the world, the families of these people and many other suffer all sorts of atrocities. This story prompted me to write a short story “When Your Killer Could Have Been a Child Soldier.”
I love that you also went on to put down snippets of this writer’s novel. Indeed it’s a graphic account. I look forward to more of your book reviews.
Thanks Uzoma. I would like to read your short story. Please could you point me to it?
@ I often wonder what goes through the minds of young boys forced to carry arms . . . in the book Beah shares how they were systematically drugged and made to watch violent movies for hours on end. Talk about indoctrination.
@book review, I guess in a way, this is. It also gave me a platform to address the subjects of pain, injustice, war, . . .
Here you go:
Thanks Uzoma, I enjoyed reading your well-crafted story. It is haunting and makes me remember two lines in the poem Casualties, by J.P. Clark:
The casualties are many, and a good number well
Outside the scenes of ravage and wreck;
I am concerned that the Boko Haram terrorist activities in northern Nigeria does not mushroom into war.
“Why do bad things happen to the innocent?” “If God is really good and all-powerful, why does evil exist?” “Why does God not destroy Satan once and for all?” Questions like this were my bread and butter until a few months ago. Debating stuff, especially the seemingly esoteric, is sort of in my DNA. I, after all, am a seeker. I just have a crushing need to know and understand. But I got sick of yapping about life philosophically. I wanted to do something about it and that’s where I am now: doing something about it.
God is good or else there is no God. Evil exists because God is good. Satan exists because God is good. The innocent suffer because God is good. The goodness of God means that He is not a tyrant. He lets each person choose their way upon the earth. No choice is without consequence though as common sense should tell anybody. Because God is no tyrant, some people will choose to defy Him and He will let them. The logical outworking of that defiance will eventually be their portion but He must in the meantime let each one have their right to do as they please for as long as is reasonable.
Because God wants a world where people do good gladly and willingly without compulsion, He must allow for the meantime a world where people will do evil if they please for as long as they can do good too if they please. Each one of us learns from seeing where one another’s choices take us individually and collectively. As the humam race have witnessed the dangers of trusting a flawed human being with enormous power (think Hitler, Mussolini, Chairman Mao, Stalin, whoever), we have adjusted and adopted diffision of power: the thing we call democracy.
As we witness the dangers of binding people’s wills and creativity (think Taylorism and many work methods in industrialization) we have leaened to adjust and give employees considerable latitude and autonomy with their work, we have learned that rewarding people without restraint brings out the best, not the worst, in them.
As we have learned the dangers of corruption and concentrating resource control at the center (read a handful of extremely powerful politicians), we have learned to diffuse responsibility and trust even the seemingly incapable among is, empowering even the “weaker” sex.
We are changing. We are learning by experience that Good, God’s Good, is the better way. Some people will insist that God had nothing to do with it, I can only say to them that you can breathe because of the movement of your body parts, but that doesn’t mean that the wind has nothing to do with it. We may or may not see God’s Hand in it depending on the quality of our particular eyesight but what we see does not trump what is there. We may be blind, may we not?
If God were not good, nothing would exist. It would take a lot more than a comment (and this is a long-ass one already) to explain that. Suffice to say that God’s Goodness means that we can learn and change and automatically (that is, as an act of will without outside compulsion or coercion) choose Good over Evil.
Whether we know it or not, we are partnering with God in building the world He set out to create in the beginning.
Sorry, Timi, for the length of this comment. 😦
@length of comment, no bother at all. I think your comment shows the depth of your passion- “Debating stuff, especially the seemingly esoteric, is sort of in my DNA.” 🙂
Your perspective may help other seekers find answers. It may foster thought and more debate 😉 Thanks for sharing, Tyrion.
That’s all it takes to start the waterworks with me. I’m a very intellectual, logical person whose life runs in “why?” ans “how?” But my capacity for feeling and empathy still throws me. It’s why I learned to avoid the news and sad stories. The ease with which I enter people’s experiences is just too much to handle sometimes. But I think it’s what saves me from being a total robot.
Thank you, Timi.
We must not let them take our hearts. Our capacity for feeling and empathy keep us human; make us reach out and act . . .
Really, I haven’t read this book but my little contact with pain and suffering as a Red Cross volunteer gives me an understanding. I’ll recommend this book, “Where is God When it Hurts? I guess we all have our trying times and we ask this question?
I don’t think there is any immunity against pain in this world. It touches us one way or the other. You’re right, the title of the book is a universal question. I should look for it. Thanks Tobi.
*heaving a sigh of sorrow*
Where do I start…
I don’t know where to start because this is eerily like deja vu. I have been disturbed by the genocide and horrific killings in the Bible so much that it made me seriously question my faith. I think about the theatres of unbelievable cruelty different parts of the world have become and I wonder how I am supposed to live life.
Over 100 died violently in the state I live, and I think of what it really means for a family, for a village, to be suddenly wiped off the earth. Like J. P Clark subtly recommends, I zoom my reflections from the statistics to the faces. I imagine my family, both nuclear and extended, wiped out in one day. Then I compare the attention these deaths of the poor and powerless receive to deaths of the rich and powerful.
This article is powerful. The excerpt from Beahs book is very touching, making me believe your words about the book even more.
*heaves a sigh of sorrow.*
Where do I start? Samuel, I am determined not to write another blog post!
The pain & suffering we see in the world today, whether cloaked in religious jargon or not, is as a result of man’s inhumanity to man and it would seem that those of us who have managed to curb this evil tendency in man, are powerless; we do not have the means to save the oppressed or do we?
I like to think that the fact that we still feel something is a good sign. Given the amount of bad news (including the ones you mentioned), that assaults us everyday, it is a wonder that we are not totally desensitized.
I feel your sense of loss at the tragedy that occurred close to home. Please keep safe.
People who revolutionized our world, positively or negatively, were usually influenced by another’s writings. When we write, read, and discuss these things, who knows but that we may be fanning the flames of change in another’s heart . . .
Ah, the things in the Bible that make us shudder. Some questions linger, but I remember that Paul who wrote most of the New Testament, claimed to know “in part” and on occasion, he was “perplexed” 🙂
Ishmael Beah is a fine writer, and I cannot imagine the places he had to revisit in his mind to write this book.
This book has been on my reading list for so long. I guess I postponed it because my heart can’t bear to know the story. Since you are brave enough perhaps you would be interested in reading Left to Tell: Discovering God Amidst the Rwandan Holocaust by Immaculée Ilibagiza. It is a sorrowful true life tale with a poignant ending. Very inspiring in that our lives aren’t always as bad as we make them out to be in comparison to the hardships that others are forced to endure.
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I know, I hope you get to read it someday though. You are right about seeing our lives with new eyes. You read this book and you are thankful that you were not a child in Beah’s Sierra Leone.
Thank you for recommending Left to Tell. I’d love to read it. I like books that touch me.
That made me sad 😦
You’re very brave to have read the book. I figure some of us love to think life always has a fairy tale ending with the hero riding into the sunset but alas this is reality and it certainly puts things into perspective. Thanks
Afi, somehow, I hadn’t heard about the book or read reviews before I decided to read it. Maybe it’s just as well. I started reading “innocently.” But once you start, you can’t stop. Your heart bleeds, but you must know the end. Perspective, yes, this book helps puts things in perspective.
You should know that on the book’s website, we are told that Beah has learned how to forgive himself, regain his humanity, and, finally, heal. Not a bad ending right?
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This is powerfully strong story with such weight and heaviness attached. I feel so much sadness for the plight of this young man and others who are in these shoes. Thanks, Timi, for your sharing this ‘book review.’ I am not sure I would be able to handle this, but someday I will read this. I felt that “12 Years a Slave” was an excellent book, but still have not picked up and read the book… Take care and so sad about your friend’s passing, Timi. You are in my prayers… Hugs, Robin
Thanks Robin. It isn’t an easy book to read. The sadness does not hit you all at once, it builds, as do the questions. In the face of such suffering and injustice, many feel powerless, and in a way, they might be. Perhaps that is why we recoil from books like these.
We are powerless and can only do the best we can! Thanks, Timi, for your courage to tell us about this book along with the feelings the book evokes! Smiles, Robin
We may feel powerless, but are we truly powerless? I’ve come to realize that I am not as powerless as I sometimes feel 🙂
Anytime Robin, anytime.
Sad book. Sad story. Not the kind of book I’ll read though. I can understand why it upset your theology.
‘Dare, it is not a book for everybody, but I knew I had to read it and I’m glad. It challenged my beliefs, it redefined what privilege meant to me. It made me think. It reached inside and made me feel things. I like a book that touches me.
But it also taught me about writing. Beah is detailed but not overbearing. His story is strong, his prose is simple. His arguments are clever, and yet he doesn’t make them.
A friend gave me a book about the Biafran war. I hope to read it soon. I hope it will touch me too. 🙂
Men have ruled the world long enough and proven themselves to be innovators and destroyers at the same time. If women ruled the world, would we have lost generations of boy soldiers, sociopathic dictators who kill anyone not pledging mindless obedience, trillions of dollars spent on war making and close to none on education, female genital mutilation, etc? I doubt it, and I’m willing to takle a chance that I’m right. Are you up for it? Or do you think power corrupts regardless?
Too much heavy stuff today to go into discussions of faith and spirituality, so I’ll save it for another time.
You know one of the things that struck me while reading? The realisation that given the “right” conditions any one of us could sink to such levels of depravity. This normal child was trained to become an ace killer. So, men have done horrific things, but I’m not sure women wouldn’t do the same. The methods women use may be different though.
Envy, greed, wickedness, power lust, etc, are not caused by testosterone alone right?
The blood, the death, the pain…and the elusive nature of a plausible explanation for it all. *sighs*
Having been battered ceaselessly with either the news, the sight or the haunting memory of these unending horrors, countless souls lie despondent in the abyss of haplessness. Or what more would an already crushed spirit do in the face of continual assault?
Over time, empathy, save supplication, seems to have grown far inadequate especially since it only puts my mental frame in the sufferers stead, but never improves his plight.
Yet, a worthy reminder this is, Timi. The pathos is sure driven home.
A deep sense of sadness shrouded me for weeks after reading this book. Even while reading, I would set it aside, just to come up for air. The helplessness I felt at the magnitude of such suffering disturbed me.
If we can feel, we are in a good place. But we can do more as you say, to improve his plight. A little thought, a little research, a little determination. Little drops of water make a mighty ocean.
I have always wondered myself whether the story of life always end like we see in the movies. I guess on the long run, hope prevails. It is in his search for answers to the question if pain that man has fashioned for himself all the sorts of religion that we have and sadly religion is one of if not the major cause of pain today. I believe it is in finding peace which only God gives that we can make any sense out of this world of horror, pain and insecurity. Nicely written Timi.
Movies are staged, life is not. Movie actors forget their lines, players in life live with their scars. Man’s inhumanity to man under whatever guise is heart rending. I agree, we can find peace even when life doesn’t make sense. Those who do should help others who are suffering in my view.
In our very Nigeria, similar stories happen every day… be it the student that waited for his turn after seeing his friends head drop by a boko cutlass… to the Alu saga… And Odi… And Zakibiam and Jos and Zagon kataf and wukari and Kano and too many others. I can’t help but think how mean we all are. We read and sigh. And thats it. The root of all these injustices is the corruption, nepotism etc that we speak off every day. Why are we expecting God to intervene? What did we do when our brothers fell? We are all responsible, because we just sat and watched. I’m sure someone can find an appropriate bible verse. God forgive us. There is fire on the mounting and no on is running. One day it shall come down and burn us all.
True Mike, “thousands are burning that had no say in the matter.”
I hope that we will not be those “who escaping the shattered shell become prisoners in a fortress of falling walls.”
In the past when I wrote about things like this, I felt like a hypocrite, as if I wasn’t doing something. I wondered, how can one voice be heard? Until I realized that wars are fought from different fronts. The “drums” can overwhelm or complement the guns.
Are we all sitting down and doing nothing? Really? Your words carry the force of your anger at injustice. That is something, a beginning. As long as we are still feeling, thinking, talking, reading, writing, our hearts have not been stolen. We are becoming ripe . . .
I read that Beah book when it came out and it gutted me. How could one have faith with atrocities like this going on?
Yes, the book reads like a sad song, the melody stays in your head for days on end. How could one have faith with atrocities like this going on? I wonder? But I tried not having faith, and it was worse,
Hmm, I’ve never been religious if that is the faith we are talking about.
Mike, I like to think that everybody has faith, but what we anchor our faith on differs. Maybe I’m naive, but if I didn’t have faith for a better day, my life would seem meaningless and the weight of despair too heavy to bear.
Hmmmm, are there any intellectual answers to the question of pain?
I read stories of people in pain and do not want to be too affected by it. I cringe at the images and recoil after contact with the stories like an earthworm that hits a grain of salt. But does this make me less of a casualty too?
Hmmmm, are there any intellectual answers to the question of pain? I don’t know. I have found answers to some of my personal pain, they were not logical, but they kept me sane.
Who willingly embraces pain? I read this book some years back. To write this post, I planned to read it again. I tried. It was as if I’d opened a wound that hadn’t healed properly. Beah’s narrative is so strong that with a little introspection, feelings of despair and sadness and hopelessness engulfed me. I decided to write from memory.
On some level, we’re all broken, casualties as J.P. Clark says in his poem. Ife, I would still recommend this book to you.
I was recently telling a colleague of being jaded by the news of deaths and killings all around the country… Nevertheless, your story evoked painful emotions in me.
Charles, it is a difficult book to read, because it is very sad. But it is so gripping, you won’t want to put it down. When I think of Nigeria, of Boko Haram, I remember how Beah narrates that he was taken to a rehabilitation centre in the capital. He was surprised that people were going about their business as though there was not an insane war raging in the interior. And then one day, the war reached Freetown . . .
Yes Tony, it’s one of my favourites. I think you would enjoy reading the full poem if you haven’t already. Here’s another by Odia Ofeimun:
Resolve . . .
To placate those the night surprised in their noons;
those we loaded with lead;
pushed to dungeons and makeshift graves;
to absolve our irretrievable selves
from the badger of willow-whips lurking in time.
We need no mourners in our stride,
no remorse, no tears.
Only this: Resolve
that the locust shall never again visit our farmsteads
That Poem is deep and beautiful. Bitter sweet.