more on whether it matters if Ishmael Beah was telling the truth

A few weeks ago I blogged about whether it was important if Ishmael Beah’s account was not entirely accurate is his memoir A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier.  Chris Blattman has posted some thoughtful remarks on the topic.  I agree with his conclusion that it’s “better, I think, to take Dave Eggers’ approach, who penned a superb novel, What is the What, from the real experiences of a young refugee in southern Sudan.”

Still, I think we fool ourselves if we treat memoirs as less fictional than many other historical documents.  So while we wait for writers to admit to their novelization, I recommend a hearty helping of skepticism and a recognition of what we care about.  If Ishmael Beah has incorporated others’ stories within his, then his account still teaches me about the experiences of boy soldiers in Sierra Leone: That is what I was looking for anyway.  If, however, he has invented aspects of the tale, it’s more problematic.  I have no way of knowing, and so I enjoy the tale and assume it resembles the experience of boy soldiers.  Like any other non-fiction account would.

[Historian Aaron Sachs has a great piece on how a newspaper morphed his experience of encountering a dead body while out walking from fact to sort-of-fact.  Unfortunately, the piece is not available on-line so I can’t send you to it, but if you happen to be at Yale, check out “Cold, Hard, Facts,” Palimpsest, Vol. 1, No. 1 (May 2003).  The first page of Sachs’s piece is available as a sample.  What a tease!]

Africa Reading Challenge: A Long Way Gone – Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, by Ishmael Beah

Last week, just before coming to Sierra Leone, I finished listening to Ishmael Beah’s memoir of his time running from and then participating in Sierra Leone’s civil war (excellently narrated by Dominic Hoffman).  This morning I visited two schools that served as rebel headquarters during the war; this book was very insightful into the impacts of the war here.  My thoughts:

skilled storytelling drives this tale of a boy who is both normal (for his time and place) and completely exceptional

Ishmael Beah tells of how his village was destroyed when he was just 11 years old, during Sierra Leone’s civil war of the 1990s. He and his friends wandered to escape the war for many months and then were forcibly enlisted in the military. After two years of fighting, UNICEF rescues him and other boys, and we learn how Ishmael is rehabilitated and reintegrated into civilian society.

Beah is a skilled storyteller, and he gives a compelling account of how the war affects children like him. The first half of the book is the wandering (which is similar to another excellent narrative of boy refugees, What Is the What by Dave Eggers), and the last third focuses on the rehabilitation and Beah’s life beyond. The relatively small middle portion deals with Beah’s time as a child soldier; I would have appreciated more information on that time, but Beah doesn’t need long to paint a clear picture. (I was surprised at the omission of any role of sexual violence, which was apparently significant in the Sierra Leone conflict.) I felt the eye-opening, unique contribution of this book was the story of the rehabilitation. This was in the early days of UNICEF’s and other organizations’ efforts to rehabilitate boy soldiers, and the challenges they faced are striking.

In some ways, Beah’s story feels like two stories. The first three-quarters are the normal: his experience seems to be similar to the experiences of other children in the period. The last quarter is the exceptional: Beah’s story diverges from that of the other boys as he comes to the USA as a UN representative for children affected by the war. Both are of interest, mostly due to Beah’s skills in narrating his tale.

It is natural to compare this to other books about young refugees and child soldiers in Africa. Beasts of No Nation and Moses, Citizen and Me are both novels about boy soldiers, the former focusing on the conflict and the latter on post-conflict re-entrance into the community. Beah’s account is more compelling than either of the novels, partly because it’s more likely to be fact and also simply because he’s a good writer with a powerful story to tell. Child soldiers play a small but crucial role in Adichie’s wonderful Half of a Yellow Sun. Interestingly, Moses, Citizen, and Me revolves around the boys putting on a performance of Shakespeare’s Julius Cesar, and that play also has a role in this memoir.

This book stands out from the others in its vivid and detailed description of the challenge of rehabilitating child soldiers as they withdraw from addictions to both cocaine and violence. A heartening supplement to Beah’s success story is the research of economist Chris Blattman, who finds positive outcomes for former child soldiers in terms of political participation elsewhere in Africa [1].

[1] Blattman, Christopher, “From violence to voting: War and political participation in Uganda,” Center for Global Development and Yale University, 2008.