A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, begins with the briefest of introductions. Following the heading, “New York City 1998,” Beah explains how his high school friends in that city ask him to tell the story of the war in Sierra Leone, a country in West Africa, where Beah comes from. They think it cool that he witnessed the war and want to hear about it.
In Chapter 1 that follows, Ishmael Beah begins his story. As a ten-year-old child living in a village in Sierra Leone in 1991, he hears stories from refugees about the civil war. People tell of how their relatives have been killed and their houses burned. Beah has no knowledge of war and thinks these people may be exaggerating what happened to them.
It would be two years later, in 1993, that Ishmael was first directly affected by the war. He left home with his older brother, Junior, and their friend, Talloi. They were bound for the town of Mattru Jong, to take part in their friends’ talent show. Ishmael and his companions had formed a rap and dance group when Ishmael was eight, and they wanted to compete.
They walk sixteen miles to Mattru Jong on a pleasant summer day. In the early afternoon, they arrive in his grandmother’s village, Kabati. They eat and rest for a while before starting on the remaining six miles to Mattru Jong. Once there they meet up with three friends, Gibrilla, Kaloko, and Khalilou. They stay the night at Khalilou’s house.
The next afternoon, their friends return early from school. The teachers have told them that the rebels have attacked Mogbwemo, which is the town where Ishmael lives. People have fled the village. The rebels will next attack Mattru Jong.
Ishmael, Junior, and Talloi go the wharf, hoping to see their families or hear something about what has happened to them. They eventually decide to return home.
They walk six miles back to Kabati, but the village is deserted. They watch as a vehicle arrives carrying some wounded and dead people. They are all victims of the rebels. As evening comes on, more victims arrive, including a father carrying his dead son and a woman with her dead baby. The three boys decide they must return to Mattru Jong. They are convinced that their parents will no longer be at Mogbwemo.
They arrive back at Mattru Jong late the same evening. Every day they go to the wharf, hoping to hear news of their family, but no news comes. Government troops arrive to defend the town against attack. The boys while away their time listening to rap music.
The chapter ends with Ishmael telling of some of the memories he has of Kabiti and his grandmother before the war came.
This chapter begins several years later, in New York City, where fifteen-year-old Ishmael has been living for a month. He is having a nightmare about his experiences during the war. He was a soldier with other boys and a few adults in a squad. He carried an AK-47 assault rifle, and took part in attacks that killed many people. After he wakes up he wishes he could get rid of all his memories. He stays awake all night, waiting for daylight. All he wants is to reclaim the happiness he knew as a child, before the war began.
Analysis, chapters 1-2
These two chapters jump back and forth in time, showing the present reality (Ishmael survived the war and now lives in New York), the beginnings of the recent turbulent past (the coming of the rebels), and an even earlier time (Ishmael’s memory of some happy moments in his childhood, before the war).
Ishmael is unfortunate in that he happens to be growing up in the relatively small part of Sierra Leone that was affected by the outbreak of the civil war in 1991. The rebels that formed the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) were motivated by a desire to overthrow the Sierra Leone government, which they regarded as corrupt. Sierra Leone was at the time a one-party state under the rule of the All People’s Congress. The president was Major General Joseph Saidu Momoh. It is widely accepted that the government was indeed guilty of abusing its power.
There is some artfulness in how Beah assembles his tale. He is writing for an American readership so he needs to connect immediately with his audience. This he does at the beginning by making it clear that he lives in New York City and attends a high school there. He sets chapter 2 in New York for the same reason. It is a way of getting the American reader interested in his story, which otherwise takes place in a distant place in Africa. Not only this, he emphasizes at the beginning of his tale of his life in Sierra Leone that he is a big fan of rap music. He knows all the names of the American rappers who were popular at that time, and he has their albums on cassette tapes. As he writes of this, he sounds like any American kid of the same age. He and his friends even dress like one, too, with baggy jeans, t-shirts, and soccer jerseys. Like many American kids, too, Ishmael has to deal with the effects of his parents’ separation and the presence of a stepmother in the home. But the familiarity of this for the American reader is combined with the exotic. This is not an American small town but a village in west Africa (Kabiti) where in the evenings, monkeys can be seen in the forest, leaping from tree to tree.
The boys remain in Mattru Jong, not knowing what else to do. They hear that the rebels. The Revolutionary United Front (RUF), are stationed twenty miles away. When the town receives a message that the rebels are coming, all the people hide that night in the forest and remain in hiding for a week. The boys, however, remain in the town, at the house where they are staying. They have been asked by the family to look after it. Ten more days go by and the rebels still have not come. People conclude that the rebels will not come at all, and they return to their homes. Life resumes as normal. But five days later the rebels do come. There is gunfire, and everyone runs in panic. There is only one escape route, and that is across a swamp. Ishmael and the other boys make it across the swamp. They reach a clearing at the top of the hill with many other people. The rebels are firing at them. Many people are killed, but the boys escape. They run for an hour while the rebels chase them. Eventually the rebels give up and return to Mattru Jong.
For several days the six boys continue walking. They are Ishmael, his brother Junior, their friend Talloi, and the three boys from Mattru Jong, Gibrilla, Kaloko, and Khalilou. They sleep in abandoned villages and eat whatever food they can find. But they get hungry and feel they have no choice but to return to Mattru Jong. They creep back to the nearly deserted town that the rebels now control. They see dead bodies in the street. Khalilou’s house has been looted, but they find some money there and decide to return to the swamp and make their escape. Along with some others, they make a difficult escape, trying to evade the attention of the rebels on guard. The guards spot them and open fire. One boy is killed—not one of Ishmael’s group—but the others make it safely to a village. They are disappointed to find that there is no food for sale, and they are so hungry that night that they steal the food of others.
Analysis, Chapters 3-4
In these chapters the reality of the war begins to make itself felt. The beginning of chapter 3 provides a foretaste of the cruelty and brutality that Ishmael will soon get caught up in. The rebels send a messenger to the village of Mattru Jong. They have carved the initials RUF on his body with a hot bayonet and cut his fingers off, leaving only his thumbs. The rebels call the mutilation “one love.” It is a sick joke. Before the war, Ishmael explains, people had adopted the phrase “one love” from a piece of reggae music, and taken to raising their thumbs to indicate the expression to one another. Now this benign slice of popular culture has been perverted by the cruelties of war.
For the first time, Ishmael is exposed to great danger. He could have been killed escaping from the village, but he knew that had he stayed, he and his friends could have been recruited by the rebels as soldiers. The RUF contains many child soldiers, armed with AK-47s and trained by adults to be ruthless. This information serves to foreshadow what will eventually happen to Ishmael. At the moment, however, he is still able to run away and elude the worst horrors of the war.
The boys continue to walk but they grow so hungry they are once more forced to return to Mattru Jong. On their way there they are accosted by three armed rebels, who take them back to the village they just left. The boys, naturally enough, are terrified. When they get to the village, the rebels gather everyone who is there—about fifteen people—into a house. They bully a man in his sixties, asking him why he left Mattru Jong and threatening him with their guns. One rebel threatens to kill him and fires his gun close to the man’s head, terrifying and disorienting him. The man faints. The rebels are amused.
The rebels then decide to choose some recruits. They choose Junior, Ishmael’s brother, and some others. Those who are not chosen are taken to the river, followed by the ones who have been selected. They tell the new recruits that they must kill all the people in front of them. Ishmael and the others are made to kneel. But before they can be killed, gunshots come from near the village. The rebels fire back, and in the confusion that follows, Ishmael, Junior, and many of the other villagers escape. Ishmael and his friends begin walking again, and they walk throughout the night, back to a village where they had been before. The following morning they decide to leave that village and head for somewhere safe, although they have no idea of where that might be.