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Arts, Activism, and Change: An interview with Ishmael Beah
By Iquo B. Essien

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier recounts Ishmael Beah’s experiences during the civil war in war in 1990s Sierra Leone. At thirteen-years-old, rebel forces murdered his family and destroyed his village, forcing Ishmael to fend for himself.



He traveled around the country with a group of boys until they reached a village occupied by the Sierra Leone Armed Forces. The boys were fed and clothed until they were given a choice to either join the army or leave. They joined and were transformed into cold-blooded murderers, Ishmael earning the title of junior lieutenant for his cutthroat tactics. After some years on the front lines, UNICEF convoy arrived to rescue several of the boys from the front lines. Their weapons and ammo were removed and they were taken to a rehabilitation center, Benin Home, for intensive support and counseling.

But the road to recovery was long.

He and the other children experienced severe drug withdrawal and post-traumatic stress, fighting each other, sometimes to the death, and wounding their caretakers. As their symptoms subsided, some, like Ishmael, began opening up to rehabilitation. Though his war experiences robbed him of his childhood – leaving permanent scars on his body and psyche – he regained his humanity and was repatriated.

Near the end of his stay, Ishmael was one of two children selected to speak before the United Nations about their experiences as former child soldiers. The speech was a defining moment in his career as a child soldier activist.

Since then, Beah has continued to speak out against the practice of using child soldiers in armed conflicts, and has even discussed the matter with Kofi Annan, Nelson Mandela, and Bill Clinton. He now lives in New York with his adopted mother, Laura Simms, and between conferences, touring, and book signings, serves on the Human Rights Watch Children’s Rights Division Committee.

“I speak to let people know that there’s a possibility of recovering from this,” Ishmael says. “But thirty minutes was not enough. Every time I walked away, I remembered that there was a child somewhere experiencing it. Remembering was a small price to pay.”

He wrote A Long Way Gone as a means of humanizing and raising awareness of child soldiers. Over 50,000 copies later – sold at Starbucks worldwide – Ishmael is an acclaimed author being courted by major Hollywood movie studios. He is not planning on selling the rights to his story anytime soon, though, and is surprisingly down to earth given his meteoric rise to fame.

Ishmael sat down with The AFRican Magazine's Iquo Essien to discuss child soldiers, activism, hip-hop, and the arts. In person, he is slender, of short stature, with bright eyes and a loose afro. His youthful appearance and playful smile belie his somber past, though his words carry with them a weight beyond his twenty-five years.

AM: In your book, you don’t mention girls at all; however, some were conscripted to help carry food and ammunition and became sex slaves during the war. Can you talk a little bit more about girls that you encountered as a child soldier?

Ishmael Beah: That was a decision that I made not to write about girls. When people think of child soldiers they only think of boys, but there were girls with AK-47s, as well. These girls were also sexually abused by their commanders and became their wives. Some were raped, impregnated, and after the war had to live with these children. I would do an injustice to it if I had written about it because I don't fully understand that double suffering. Not only to be traumatized – exposed to violence – but to also be victimized in that way. That was one of the downsides of the rehabilitation process. Because there was so much focus on boys, when the rehabilitation centers sprang up, there were very few girls who were taken care of. And society stigmatized girls raped by their commanders, calling them bush wives, so they would hide instead of come forward to receive help. Some didn't even go back to their families because they wouldn't take them in, so they went to cities and took up [commercial sex work]. Now, in Sierra Leone, people are putting together programs to protect such women.

AM: Rap music saved your life a couple of times. You mentioned when you and the boys entered a village and were held as potential rebels, the chief ordered his men to play a rap cassette they found in your pocket. When you all started dancing to “You Down with OPP,” he realized you were boys, not killers, and released you. Do you think there's a role for music and the arts in activism.

IB: I think there is definitely a role for music in activism, particularly for young people. A lot of young people are more willing to listen to rap artists or musicians if they preach a political message than politicians who they distrust. Just to give you an example, in Sierra Leone, a lot of the hip hop that's there – which is rapped in Creole and local languages – is used to not only question what government is doing but to also talk to the youth so that they hope, have something to look forward to, and don't despair so quickly. So I think hip hop and any musical form that's popular can definitely, if it's done well, be used creatively to talk about social issues. In Sierra Leone we have Jungle Leaders, Daddy Sarge, and Dry Eye Crew. Back home there's really not a venue for young people, or anyone, to speak to the government, so music has become a way for young people to talk about what's going on, to question what is going on, and to find a way to understand it.

AM: What do you think about the lyrics in some American hip-hop music?

IB: Well, one of the disappointments I have is that what attracted me to hip hop was the political poetry. And back in the day, with Run DMC and other people, they were able to do it in such a way that it was still party music. You could go to A Tribe Called Quest, still party music, but they talked about interesting things, and there was the storytelling aspect of it. Now, the way hip-hop is done it's so difficult to defend. It's become more you find a good beat and you say whatever you want over. Not all of it, but most of the ones that get the play on commercial radio. But still there are guys like Talib Kweli, Mos Def, a group I like called Typical Cats in Chicago, and a Somalian guy who lives in Toronto named K’Naan. He mixes African drumming, music, and hip-hop, but his lyrics are just amazing. He has a line in one of his songs where he says, "In the land of Somalia where life is cheap, but wisdom is free.”

AM: When you were growing up, was music an aspect of your upbringing?

IB: Well, there was the influence of American hip-hop and a strong love for reggae. Before the war, there was so many rastas in Sierra Leone. Every year they would have a celebration on Bob Marley’s birthday – not so much anymore – and there was a lot of music playing in the streets, like dancehall, which we call ragamuffin. And then there's traditional music. I come from the Mende tribe, so there was a lot of improvisational drumming and singing. Where I grew up, at the end of the year, there were these talented women that would sing about what had happened in the village and they would use gospel and comedy in it. They would have the shakers and the men had drums and instruments. Then there's the old tradition of storytelling.

AM: Have you ever written any of them down?

IB: The oral tradition of storytelling impacted my life a lot – I wrote a couple of them in the book, like Bra Spider. But I worry, because the power of the stories is the oral tradition. It's the idea of transmitting it orally to a person so that they internalize it and it becomes part of them. I'm kind of torn about writing it down because I almost feel like it takes the power away. But there are a few people who have done it, like Amadou Hampate Ba; who talks a lot about it.

AM: Do you feel like writing is a part of your activism?

IB: Well, writing is a form of activism for me because of the subject matter that I choose to write about. It’s a way of informing people, reminding them to pay attention to certain issues that are bigger than me, bigger than anyone. And it’s also a way for people to understand the humanity of other people elsewhere that they generally would not know about. And for me it’s more informative about the issue, cause I feel like when you connect people all of a sudden those stereotypes collapse and people are able to see each other more clearly. I want to bring down those invisible walls of nationality and culture. In such a way that it’s not extremely political, it’s a human story, so that people can make the human connection. I feel that with art or writing, you have to have a purpose. I want to write a story that I feel so deeply about that I think it’s going to change the way that people view my culture or my people. Some of my favorite writers are the obvious ones, Wole Sonyinka, Chinua Achebe, but one of favorites is J.M. Coetzee, a South African writer. Most currently, my favorite young writer is Chimamanda Adichie.

AM: Are you working on another book now?

IB: Yes, but it's very young to discuss. [Laughs] Well, there are two things that I’m working on right now. A lot of people are interested in what happened after I came to the States. When I wrote A Long Way Gone I had written a lot of it already, but I cut quite a bit out, so I could either work on that or write a work of fiction. I’m not sure which way I’ll go.

AM: Where do you see yourself in the next five years?

IB: I want to write some more, definitely. I’m starting a foundation – called the Ishmael Beah Foundation – to provide educational opportunities and scholarships for former child soldiers in Sierra Leone as a way of giving back. It’s incorporated, we’ve started taking donations and have corporate sponsorship – 2 from every book sold at Starbucks in the UK goes to the foundation. But I also want to go back to graduate school. My plan is to continue writing while doing a dual program in International Affairs and Human Rights Law, so I can work more on the policy level to keep pushing for human rights. For me, it’s all about purpose.

To learn more about the Ishmael Beah Foundation, visit: beahfound.org.