A Long Way Gone is an important and often beautifully written war memoir set during the civil conflict of the 1990s in Sierra Leone.
In choosing books from African writers, I have no desire to reinforce stereotypes about the continent as underdeveloped, war-torn and characterised by widespread famine.
However, I remember a neighbour of mine from Sierra Leone telling me that she hated firework night in the UK as it reminded her of the civil conflict she’d lived through. I was shocked, and sad for her, but I couldn’t begin to imagine what that must have been like.
I also remember reading about the horrors of brutalised, drugged child soldiers when doing research on the international organizations working in particular areas of West and Central Africa in the 1990s for work, and wondered what hope there could be for such children, if they survived their experiences physically.
When I came across this memoir by Ishmael Beah, and saw that it had sold over 600,000 copies worldwide, I was surprised I had never heard of it before.
The book details Ishmael’s normal childhood as a rap-mad kid, whose life is suddenly ripped apart by rebel attacks on his village, and on many others. He is forced to survive day to day, encountering peril from every side, before eventually being enlisted into the army by the age of 12. He becomes dependent both on drugs, including brown brown, a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder, and on the perpetration of violence, which he is encouraged to see as a way of avenging his losses.
Ishmael’s horrific experiences are vividly and unflinchingly described, as are his close relationships with some of his fellow kids, and the small kindnesses he encounters amid his nightmarish existence.
Just as compelling and moving as the losses he endures and the endemic brutality, is his rehabilitation with the aid of UNICEF, and his transformation into a human rights activist and political science graduate.
The subject matter means that this is not an easy read, but I think it is an important book, and one I’m glad to have read.