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Still, I think we fool ourselves if we treat memoirs as less fictional than many other historical documents.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!]

in freetown, it’s thanksgiving every day [photos]

Okay, every Sunday. From January through May.

Every Sunday afternoon from January through May, some school or another holds a thanksgiving parade, thanking God for the blessings of the previous year. This transcends religious affiliation: my Muslim driver’s son’s school had its celebration last week, and I attended the parade of a Methodist school.

The Methodist school not only had its own band playing, its own children marching, its own alumni marching, but it also hired a host of other marching bands from other schools. The results was thousands of happy young people celebrating their education. It was marvelous!

My friend RK, who took me, is closely involved with the school’s music program, so he knew everyone at the parade. Marching bands would stop and play for him specifically. We watched the parade past, then drove somewhere else to watch it again, and then drove to his house to watch the end from a second-story balcony. AWESOME! Here are some photos. [Sadly, I loaded the photos in reverse order; I think it doesn’t matter so much in this case.]

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.

jogging buffoon, dirty water, & racing from the naked boys

This evening I went for a run.  My hotel is near a stream, and I love being near running water.  I ran on the road for a while, then starting jogging by the stream, sometimes on a path and sometimes leaping from rock to rock.

I of course have no idea where I’m going, so I repeatedly run into dead ends.  There are many people around – homes are built on all sides of the valley surrounding the stream (the Congo Valley Red Pump is the full name) – and every time I run into a dead end and have to backtrack, people laugh good-naturedly.  The only way to respond to this is to embrace it: I raise my arms in victory at every dead end and turn around to re-try my luck.  It’s my one chance to get laughs, since my irony tends not to fly here.

Jogging along the stream is eye-opening: trash is scattered around every bend, yet people are washing their clothes, bathing, fetching water (I imagine for cooking, but maybe just for washing), and yes, even defacating (i just saw a couple of kids doing this, like peeing in the pool).  This may be the only source of water around.

People are in every state of dress and undress, but no one exhibits inhibitions as I go charging past, waving and saying hello or how di bodi in Krio when I’m feeling brave.  (I don’t know what anyone’s feeling, obviously.)

At one point, a group of naked six-year-old boys started chasing me up the river.  I ran faster.

the complete lack of cinemas in Freetown

I love going to the movies.  Anywhere.  I saw Elektra in Manila (bad movie), Miss Congeniality in El Doret (good movie), Never Been Kissed in Kampala (bad movie), Dear Frankie in Cape Town (I fell asleep), Charley’s Angels 2 in Seoul (it seemed really good at the time), Spider-Man 3 in Beijing (mediocre movie)…

People have been able to name at least three cinemas for me here in Freetown: the Odeon, the Globe, and the Strand.  Closed, closed, and almost closed.  The Strand – according to my cab driver – has replaced its big screen with a simple tv screen and just shows football (soccer) matches.

Sierra Leone recently came out of a long civil war.  Now I understand what it means to win the war and lose the peace.

is ishmael beah (former child soldier) right or wrong? OR does it matter how accurate a memoir is?

Ishmael Beah wrote a popular memoir of his time as a boy soldier in Sierra Leone. I’m just finishing the book, and Ishmael is an excellent storyteller who has been through harrowing times.  I remember when the memoir was published, not long after the James Frey memoir was found to be largely fabricated.  The publisher questioned Beah on the specificity of his memoir, and he reassured her that growing up in a culture rich with oral tradition had honed his memory. 

A few days ago, the newspaper The Australian quoted a couple who claim to have discovered that the events in Beah’s book occurred over one year, rather than the three years he claims in his book.  This would mean he was a soldier for a few months rather than two years.  Beah denies this. Whether Beah was a child soldier is not in question.

Whether Beah is right or wrong, this points me to the question of what I want to get out of a memoir. Whether a particular detail is right or wrong doesn’t matter to me: I’m seeking to gain an broad understanding of the challenges faced by child soldiers (both during and after the war).  If it turned out that Beah wasn’t a child soldier at all, that would affect my experience with the book. If he just got some dates wrong, that doesn’t affect much. Likewise with Rigoberta Menchu’s memoir recounting atrocities commited against Guatemala’s native peoples: even if it turned out to be a composite of many people’s experiences, no one denies that these atrocities took place.

Some memoirs, like Alexandra Fuller’s Don’t Let’s Go To the Dogs Tonight or Ruth Reichl’s Garlic and Sapphires, are just great stories, so whether they turn out to be perfectly factual or not is not terribly important. (Those elements of them that ring true are just as valuable as elements of novels that ring true: very valuable!)

With other memoirs, such as Gandhi’s or Nelson Mandela’s, much of what I’m seeking is to learn from the personal integrity and experience of this individual, so if I learned that these were consciously fabricated, I would be disappointed.

Ultimately, I believe all memoirs have an element of fiction, whether consciously constructed or not.  We humans just don’t remember that well, and our perceptions of what we experience involve so many assumptions that ultimately we’re each writing our own novel.  So maybe my novel can learn from someone else’s novel.