Book Review

Ishmael Beah. A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. New York: Sarah Crichton Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2007. 229 pp. Map. $22.00 Hardcover.

Gary Stewart and John Amman. Black Man’s Grave: Letters from Sierra Leone. Berkeley Springs, WV: Cold Run Books, 2007. 224 pp. Map, 12 photographs, Notes, Bibliography, Index. $14.95 Paperback.

As Time magazine notes (February 2007), “We’re at what might be called a cultural sweet spot for the African child soldier.” Those of us teaching in the academy need to be aware of the popular accounts our students are reading and/or watching (such as the Leonardo di Caprio vehicle, Blood Diamond) both to build on the genuine concern and to address the distortions that inevitably are communicated along with the “real” stories of terror, loss, and survival. Of the two accounts reviewed here, one (by Ishmael Beah) has received widespread attention in the popular media while the other is likely to circulate in a narrower audience. Both, however, provide important first-person accounts of the devastating regional war in Sierra Leone, Liberia, and parts of Guinea and Ivory Coast from the early 1990s through the present. Both also provide a sympathetic human face to the seemingly senseless conflict that reduced hundreds of thousands of people to homeless refugees and profoundly altered the life prospects of innumerable young people.

In 1993, Ishmael Beah, age 12, was on his way with a group of friends to a talent show in a neighboring community when his village was attacked by RUF (Revolutionary United Front) rebels. Unable to return home, and not knowing the fate of his family, he and his friends survived in the forest for weeks, running from various armed groups and eyed suspiciously by civilians who had already learned to fear young boys. Finally pressed into service with a national army unit that offered food and protection, he was taught to handle a weapon and introduced to marijuana, cocaine, and an assortment of other drugs. He was also taught—in lessons reinforced with American action films like Rambo—to kill without mercy and to take what he wanted or needed at the point of gun. Finally demobilized by a humanitarian organization, some of the most harrowing descriptions in the book are of Beah’s cold-turkey drug withdrawal process, experienced in the company of hundreds of other sick, paranoid, and reflexively violent boys like himself, all of them angry and confused that they had been betrayed and handed over to “rehabilitation” by the commanders they had come to idolize and depend on.

Beah ultimately became such a model of therapeutic rehabilitation that he was invited to a United Nations conference on child solders in New York City; there he was able to make contacts that ensured his survival when war broke out again in Sierra Leone. With a keen intelligence and a decent education before the war (in between massacring villagers he trades quotes from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar with his commanding officer)—and the good fortune to finish high school and graduate from Oberlin College in the US—Beah is an eloquent writer. While his experience as a child soldier may indeed be typical, it is clear that his post-war life is not; most young men and boys in the Guinea Coast region had little in the way of trauma counseling and drug rehabilitation. (In Liberia, most demobilized fighters got three hours of counseling, if that, before being sent on their way). The DDRR (Disarmament, Demobilization, Rehabilitation and Reintegration) programs implemented by the UN and other agencies, if well-meaning, have been woefully inadequate to the task of retraining young fighters for “normal life.” As Africanist educators, it is important to point out the exceptional unfolding of Beah’s tale—and to impress on our students that the lives of most former child soldiers did not resolve as happily and successfully as Ishmael Beah’s; it in no way diminishes his own courage or his suffering to drive this point home.

While both the popular press and the scholarly and policy-related literature have focused on the role of those who fought (child soldiers and adult combatants alike), Stewart and Amman’s Black Man’s Grave takes on a much-neglected aspect of the war, the experience of men who avoided recruitment into either government or rebel forces, yet who struggled to maintain themselves and their families through the long years of disruption. Stewart and Amman served as Peace Corps Volunteers in the same town in Sierra Leone in 1968-1970 and 1979-1982, respectively. Though their stints in service were separated in time, they came to know many of the same people, familiar figures in any rural African community: school administrators and teachers, local businessmen, farmers—and family members to all of them. When war ravaged the northern town of Fadugu, causing it to be abandoned and resettled multiple times over the years, many inhabitants reached out through letters to American and European friends, as people all over the region were doing. Stewart and Amman have skillfully integrated excerpts from letters they received with an historical narrative of the war drawn from published sources. The result is an account of the conflict from the point of view of ordinary heroes; teachers who keep showing up for work after years with no paycheck, traders who risk their lives and livelihoods trying to keep small towns supplied with necessities, and local chiefs who, after years of doing what the central government tells them, finally find the courage to stand up to power.

Stewart and Amman do a fine job of tracing the story of Sierra Leone’s trajectory from post-independence optimism to deep cynicism and disillusionment with “big man” politics. The global context of the diamond trade is also covered in enough detail to help students make sense out of other representations (such as Hollywood’s version) and to make it clear that the disaster that struck Sierra Leone was not all of its own making. In many ways, Black Man’s Grave shares with Michael Jackson’s In Sierra Leone (2004) the strategy of telling the history of a country through the long-term personal relationships between the authors and some of its citizens—an effective device for drawing in readers, one that could be used in a compelling way in the classroom. Black Man’s Grave is, in some ways, a more appropriate choice for teaching than A Long Way Gone, and not only because it includes the standard academic apparatus of a bibliography and index. While not as beautifully written as Beah’s memoir, and not hitting the “sweet spot” of fascination with child solders, the lives documented in Black Man’s Grave are equally compelling and representative of the wartime experience, if not quite so dramatic. While it is unlikely that the authors or their Sierra Leonean correspondents will be offered a US book tour sponsored by Starbucks, as Beah has, their stories also deserve to be told.

Professor Mary H. Moran

Colgate University

Hamilton, NY


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