A Long Way Gone

by Ishmael Beah

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Like many stories of initiation, both fictional and nonfictional, Beah’s narrative is built around a journey. Like Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, Beah leaves home as an adolescent and experiences the world at its worst. Like Marlow in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Beah journeys into the jungles of Africa and encounters an uncivilized world filled with unspeakable human horrors. Unlike Marlow, however, Beah is unable to distance himself from the violence and merely report what he sees; he becomes an active participant in the horrific civil war that tore through Sierra Leone during the 1990’s.

Beah’s initiation is gradual. At home in Mogbwemo, Beah lives the life of a typical African adolescent. He attends school and fantasizes with friends about becoming a rap musician. Beah is gradually exposed to and ultimately lured into the violent civil war engulfing his homeland. First, he hears stories of violence from refugees fleeing attacked villages. After he commences his journey from home, he sees the bodies of murder victims in an automobile. Then, he encounters a man who has had his fingers removed and “RUF” carved into his chest with a hot bayonet. Later, the violence hits closer, as two of his traveling companions are killed by gunfire. Eventually, Beah is conscripted into the army and begins to commit the kind of acts that fuel the civil war. When Beah loses his conscience, feeling no remorse for his own violent actions, his initiation is complete. His journey has taken him outside of human civilization; he has become part of the horror.

Beah’s narrative has much in common with other captivity narratives, such as slave narratives and Holocaust narratives. In such narratives, unspeakable horrors are reported in graphic detail by the narrator. The narrator often loses his or her sense of identity. The slave becomes a beast of burden; the concentration camp inmate becomes a number. But through perseverance and good fortune, the narrator somehow survives; he or she is liberated or escapes from captivity and becomes human again. The telling of one’s story of captivity and the writing of the narrative are key elements of the redemptive process. When Beah addresses the United Nations on the issue of child soldiers, and when he publishes his story in book form, he signals an understanding of his ordeal and a willingness to rejoin the human community as a functioning human being.

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