Impressions After a Reading by Ishmael Beah
Ishmael Beah, the author of his recent book, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, seemed ill at ease for a moment as he sat down in a rather grand chair on the raised sanctuary to begin the interview with several hundred people sitting quietly in the pews below him. He smiled self-consciously and immediately connected with his audience. This was a young man who is quickly learning how to work a room - a good thing to know if you want to make a difference in the world.
He looks much younger than his twenty-six years with his slight build and boyish smile. Perhaps it was his diet as a boy. Maybe it was the "brown brown", concoction of cocaine and gunpowder that he snorted as a boy soldier. Perhaps he just seems young for his age. All these thoughts and more ran through my mind as I watched him center himself, become more grounded, and begin reading a passage from his memoir.
The passage he read was a lovely vignette about being with his brother at his grandmother's house and how the boys tussled a bit to gain control of a hammock, and how one brother tricked the other into getting his way. It was all so mundane, so touchingly ordinary.
I could not help but think about the fact that not long after that day with his family, Ishmael was carrying an AK-47 and killing rebels in villages across his country - many of whom were boy soldiers like himself getting high and watching Rambo films when they were not being Rambos themselves.
Ishmael spoke sparingly about his time in the army, coyly urging the audience to buy his book to learn more about that. At one point he spoke about a meeting he had a few hours before the reading. This really got my attention because he told of his time that afternoon with some boys in the Alameda County Juvenile Detention Center in San Leandro just south of Oakland. He described his meeting with "these children" in very loving terms. The publisher of his book had sent copies to the youth there, and they had read about Ishmael before he met them. Because of his experiences with violence he was/is able to see past what they have done, and could still see the childish innocence that is buried deep beneath the wounds that come with being a boy soldier - be it in Freetown or Oaktown. In a strangely compelling way, for perhaps the first time I could see that it is all the same.
During the interview that was being conducted by Ishmael's mentor, Priscilla Hayner, Co-founder of The International Center for Transitional Justice, they spoke about the Truth and Reconciliation process that was occurring in Sierra Leone. Again, just as I did when I heard how the South Africans are doing it, as I listened to them describe how it works, I was in awe of the Africans' capacity for forgiveness and for their resilience. If we ever did in the past, we in the United States today have no structures now in our culture to reclaim and redeem these young soldiers. We just see them as criminals, as gangbangers. Nothing more. We want them to disappear. We say, Lock them up and throw away the key. But we are not throwing away keys. We are throwing away our children. The Africans have figured that out, and they are reclaiming as many of them as they can.
As fate would have it, when I returned from the reading that evening, I came across a story about three boys who killed a homeless man in Milwaukee a few years ago. They had asked him to buy them beer, and while drinking the beer with him the boys began to beat him, kick him, and eventually kill him. In a taped interview the youngest of the boys (who was 15 at the time of the killing) spoke about it in ways that seemed so similar to what Ishmael spoke of. It all happened so fast... We smoked some marijuana... We hadn't slept all night... I didn't think about what I was doing... I just joined in... It all happened so fast...
That boy is now serving a fifteen-year prison sentence. He is a few years older now, but still thinks and talks much like a fifteen year old. I'll grow up here in prison... I've never driven a car... I've never had a job... He doesn't say it in a self-pitying way. Just matter of factly. As if he is speaking about someone else at an incomprehensible time and an incomprehensible place.
Sort of like Ishmael.