Transcript - Ishmael Beah Was Never Far Away
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?
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 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 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 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 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.