Five Questions for Ishmael Beah


I interviewed former child soldier Ishmael Beah, author of A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, for The AFRican Magazine. Beah's memoir is a recent offering from Sarah Crichton Books, an imprint of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, being sold at Starbucks coffee houses throughout the nation.

I first read about Ishmael in a New York Times Magazine cover story featuring an excerpt from his memoir about his experiences during the 1990s Sierra Leonean Civil War. At thirteen-years-old, his entire family was murdered by rebel forces, forcing him to fend for himself. He traveled on foot from village to village with a group of boys looking for safety, and thought he found it when they entered a village occupied by the Sierra Leone Armed Forces.

Eventually, the boys were given a choice to either conscript into the army or leave the village. They joined, and were transformed into coldblooded murderers, Ishmael even earning the title of junior lieutenant for his cutthroat tactics.

After some years on the front lines, a UNICEF convoy arrived at the base and some of the boys were selected, their weapons and ammo removed, and ordered onto the trucks. Ishmael was one of several child soldiers rescued from the war front and taken to a rehabilitation center, Benin Home, where he received intensive support and counseling.

Though his war experiences robbed Ishmael of his childhood and any semblance of a normal life -- leaving permanent scars on his body and psyche -- he was able to regain his humanity and be repatriated.

Near the end of his stay, he was one of two children selected to travel to the United Nations in New York City and speak about their experiences as former child soldiers. The experience was a defining moment in his career as an anti-child soldier activist, and ultimately led to his writing the memoir, as a means of raising awareness and understanding about this issue.

In addition to continuing his writing and speaking engagements, Ishmael is in the process of setting up the Ishmael Beah Foundation to raise awareness about child soldier rehabilitation. To learn more, visit

Q: One thing I noticed in your book was that you didn't talk much about girls. I know that some were conscripted to do odds and ends, help carry food and ammunition, even become sex slaves. Can you talk a little bit more about girls that you encountered during the war?

Ishmael Beah: That was a decision that I made not to write about [girls] in particular. I think when people think of child soldiers they only think of boys, but that's not all -- there were girls with AK-47s, as well. They were in the groups that I encountered and in ones that I fought in too. But not only that, these girls were also sexually abused by their commanders and became their wives. Some, during the course of the war, were raped, impregnated, and after the war they had to live with these children. It's not my story. I would do an injustice to it if I had written about it because I don't fully understand that double suffering (I like to think of it that way). Not only to be traumatized, exposed to violence, but to also be victimized in that way. I cannot explain that. I'm hoping that there is a girl who is brave enough to write her story, it would be more powerful than any book I could have written. 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 some of these girls didn't come for rehabilitation even when the war was ending because they were afraid of being stigmatized. 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, to take care of them in a discreet fashion.

Q: What also struck me from the book was the number of times that rap music saved your life. You talk about the time when you and the boys entered a village and were captured and held as potential rebels, until the chief ordered his men to play the rap cassette they found in your pocket, and had you all dancing to: You Down with OPP (Yeah You Know Me)/ You Down with OPP (Yeah You Know Me)/ You Down with OPP (Yeah You Know Me)/ Who's Down with OPP (Every last homie). So you guys started dancing and he realized you were just boys and not killers, so he let you go. My question is, on a larger scale, do you think there's a role for music and the arts in activism? There are a lot of projects underway like Live 8 to end poverty...

Beah: 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. And there's so much going on in the world right Sierra Leone we have Jungle Leaders, Daddy Sarge, Dry Eye Crew, there's a new guy Paps who just came out with a new album. In Sierra Leone there's really not a venue for young people, or anyone, to speak to the government, to have a dialogue. 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.

Q: What other kinds of music do you listen to? Did you grow up on?

Beah: Before the war there was the influence of American hip hop and a strong love for reggae in Sierra Leone. There are a lot of rastas there. Every year they would have a celebration for Bob Marley -- not so much anymore -- and there was a lot of music playing in the streets. There was King Yellow Man, a lot of dancehall, which we call ragamuffin. Now I listen to all kinds of music as long as it's good. [Laughs.] Jazz. I listen to the big guys like Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock. There's some African jazz that's quite good too, like Hugh Masekela. I also listen to Soukous -- my all time favorite is Alain Kounkou. There's Kanda Bongo Man, but he's old school. Of course, reggae, I listen to Damian Marley, his album is really good. And there's a fellow named Tiken Jah Fakoly, an Ivorian musician, he'll actually be performing in Central Park. I listen to afrobeat, Fela, his son Femi is okay, but no one can ever play like Fela. [Laughs.] If I go to the club I listen to the ones that everyone dances to, and it's good to dance to, but the lyrics are horrible.

Q: It's true! And what do you think about that? The lyrics in some American, not all, hip hop music?

Beah: Well, one of the disappointments I have is that, for me, what attracted me to hip hop was more political poetry. And back in the day, you know 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, even if they just chilled it out. It made it so much more interesting, the storytelling aspect of it, the good things. Now, the way hip hop is done it's so difficultu to defend it, the poetry and artistic aspect of it. It's become more you find a good beat and you say whatever you want over it and people are like that's a good song, but they don't know what they're dancing too. Not all of it, but most of it, the ones that get the play on the commercial radio. But still there are guys like Talib Kweli, Mos Def, a lot of underground cats. There's one group I like called Typical Cats in Chicago, I like their stuff quite a bit. A guy from Somalia who lives in Toronto, K'Naan, his album is called Dust foot Philosopher, he does a song with Damian Marley. His album is excellent. 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." You should listen to the album, it's beautiful.

Q: And my last question is a fun question. Did you see Blood Diamond? What did you think?

Beah: Well, I always like when people find a way to raise awareness. And I think Blood Diamond really did raise awareness to the point that a lot of people do know about Sierra Leone. I think that is good. But with that said, the film did well showing the extent of destruction, but I don't think it did enough research. First of all, it made it seem like only the rebels were recruiting children [and not the Sierra Leone Armed Forces]. In truth, all troops were recruiting there were things that weren't done properly. They had some stereotypical things about Africa, but there's always gonna be a dark savannah, that kind of thing in films. But one thing that really upset me was how they made it seem that healing, recovery, and rehabilitation from war is so quick. I was completely upset. I think that they could have done more. Because what it does is that people are really inspired by that. They think that all you have to do is pull a kid out [of war], shake him, tell him he's a good boy, and he'll cry and be fine. This is not the case. And then they could have rehabilitation centers with shorter life spans. It took me months to get a grip on things. If somebody believed that two months was enough for me, I would not have survived. In different countries people believe in a quick fix. With war, there is no quick fix.

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