The Making and Unmaking of a Child Soldier


I stole a copy of the New York Times Magazine on the way out of my favorite cafe last week. I opened it up on the F-train heading downtown and found an excerpt from an upcoming memoir by Ishmael Beah, A Long Way Gone. In it, Beah details his conscription into the army after his family was killed in the Sierra Leonean Civil War; his rescue and rehabilitation by UNICEF; and relocation to New York City, where he was adopted by a Jewish woman.

By the time I reached my subway stop in Brooklyn, I was weeping.

I don't understand war and I don't understand involving and subjecting children to it. It's telling that in order to further the committal of incomprehensible acts -- that of maiming and killing innocents -- one need necessarily employ children, who lack the judgment of reason and wisdom of mercy.

Ishmael's story was strikingly similar to that of Adu, the protagonist in Uzodinma Iweala's Beasts of No Nation, chronicling the life of a young boy from an unnamed African village who is conscripted into service as a child soldier.

I've been working on it for awhile now, though it's a quick and tantalizing read at 143 pages. The only thing standing in the way of finishing it is my own ego.

I have this terrible habit of comparing myself to other writers. Iweala is my contemporary, graduating from Harvard with a B.A. in English, and came out with this debut novel in 2005. He reminds me that I could be doing so much more with my life.

The first twenty pages of this novel blew me away. He writes in a dialect similar to pidgin English, but unique in its own way. That and the entire novel written in stream of consciousness made it a book of note -- and of the year by Time, People, Slate, Entertainment Weekly, and New York Magazine.

What I find more remarkable, even more than Beah and Iweala's command of their craft, is that their stories are being told at all.

When I look at my father writing his memoir and Ishmael sharing his story bravely, I realize the revolutionary power of words, especially for those of us that have been systematically silenced -- whether by power, culture, or faith -- namely, African women. Even as I sit here writing this blog, I am exercising my belief in the word.

It is its own reward.

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