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by Ishmael Beah

Suggested Essay Questions

  1. How does isolating himself emotionally help Beah to survive his experiences in the Sierra Leone civil war?

    Beah's experiences force him to deny his emotional side in order to survive. His flight from RUF attacks on the various villages in Sierra Leone requires him to let go of attachments to family and friends. Although he holds out hope to see his family, he has no choice but to close off himself to the world. Emotional attachment can be weakness, and weakness can get you killed. Even when he joins forces with groups of friends (first Talloi, Gibrilla, Kaloko, and Khalilou, and later, Kanei, Musa, Saidu, Jumah, and Moriba) Beah remains emotionally distant from his companions. When the boys bury Saidu, they know that they will never visit to his gravesite, despite the villager's efforts to comfort them with an open invitation to return. Over the months on the run, Beah gets separated - sometimes in death - from his companions. The unpredictability of his life dictates that he stay detached. Even after he has begun rehabilitation, he is only able to call Esther a "temporary" friend. He has been living too long with the goal only to remain alive for one more day.

    When he becomes a soldier, Beah's trainers use drugs and emotional manipulation - teaching the boys to picture their targets as the men who burned their villages and killed their families - to push the boys to acts of violence agains the rebels. Beah finds that he must suppress his emotional reaction to the atrocities he commits or lose his focus and, thereby, his life.

  2. How does Ishmael Beah address the loss of innocence in A Long Way Gone?

    While Beah's memoir is written largely in a matter-of-fact tone, he does use several devices to illustrate the theme of loss of innocence: use of flashbacks, symbolism, and nature motifs.

    Beah states plainly that his induction into the Sierra Leone military at the age of 13 was the end of his childhood. Although the violent pursuit of rebels across Sierra Leone traumatized Beah, it is not until he is turned into a killer that he believes himself to have lost his innocence. At this point, Beah stops utilizing flashbacks to his childhood, clearly delineating his old "good" life with his new "bad" life. Before this point, his memories were comforting to him during his wandering and, narratively, they served the function of reminding the reader that Beah is still a child caught in an impossible situation.

    When he is at the Benin Home, he only starts to delve back into childhood memory/flashback when he is able to work through his war experiences. The phantasmagoric nightmares serve as a barrier to remembrances of his family; only by moving through the war images is he able to call up his childhood memories, and then begin healing.

    Beah's rap tapes also symbolize his innocence. His childhood ended without warning, when he and his friends were traveling to practice dance routines. The tapes remain with Beah throughout the months spent avoiding RUF attacks. They save his life - convincing the a chief that he is still a child at heart and not a "devil" - and narratively become a physical representation of his innocence. The tapes are burned when the army takes his cloths, thus continuing their symbolic importance. Music, a reminder of his old life, becomes a gateway to healing when Esther's gift of a Walkman helps Beah to open up at Benin Home.

    Throughout the book, Beah notices and describes the natural world around him in beautiful detail. As the violence increases, the references to nature subside. The scene where Beah and his friends see the ocean for the first time - creating a much-needed respite - stands out as the strongest example. They play together, once more becoming children.

  3. How does Ishmael Beah use memory as a comfort in his most difficult circumstances?

    Ishmael Beah refers to memories throughout A Long Way Gone, relayed as flashbacks. In difficult times, he clings to moments from happier years - especially those occurring before his parents' divorce. By focussing on such memories as stories his grandmother told him, his grandfather's medicines, and the blessing of his childhood home, Beah is able to find solace in madness. If he remembers a time when he was happy, there is hope that he can regain that life. He sometimes feels these memories are a burden, reminding him as they do of a time when his life was much better than his current circumstances. Still, he returns to memories of his family as a sign he has recuperated from his life of violence.

  4. Describe some of the tactics used by the military to indoctrinate child soldiers, and their lasting effects on Beah.

    In order to acclimate children to war and mold them into effective killing machines, Lieutenant Jabati and his men employ several different tactics: drugs, pop culture, and several modes of emotional manipulation transform boys into killers. When Beah is about to go on his first raid, he is handed white pills for "energy". These white pills, plus brown brown and marijuana create a constant haze. Ultimately, there is a disconnect from reality when the addiction takes hold. Without the drugs, as in Benin Home, Beah becomes aggressive and the boys resort to raiding the hospital to quell their hunger. When the drugs begin to wear off, Beah's headaches return - as do images of slaughter.

    Violent movies, like the drugs, help to create a surreal, dreamlike atmosphere for the boy soldiers. They would often go on attacks in the middle of films like Rambo or Commando, sometimes acting out techniques seen in the movies on the battlefield, and then pick up where they left off when returning to base. The reality of war bleeds into the fiction of war films, which helps to further disconnect the soldiers from the truth of situation. Beah's almost cinematic nightmares feel like a product of this conditioning and only through rehabilitation is he able to confront and discuss his wartime actions.

    When he is being trained, Beah learns to channel his rage and seek vengeance for his family. Though he had spent months suppressing his emotions for the sake of survival, Lieutenant Jabati and his men encourage Beah and the boys to tap into the fear and anguish in order to kill. This gives the boys a personal motivation for each kill; though it is unlikely they are targeting the actual rebels who murdered their families. Jabati also exploits his authority by staging contests where the person who kills a prisoner fastest is the "winner". When Beah wins, there is a sense that Jabati is proud of him. In a way, Jabati becomes a father figure to the boys. When Beah and Alhaji are given up to the UNICEF workers, Beah feels betrayed by Jabati. In creating a power dynamic between them, Beah's trust is shattered. It takes the efforts of nurse Esther and other aid workers to begin rebuilding Beah's trust in adults.

  5. Discuss Beah's time in Benin Home. How did the boys' behavior change throughout their time in rehabilitation?

    When Beah and Alhaji are handed over to the UNICEF relief effort, they feel betrayed by Lieutenant Jabati. The boys are still in soldier mode when the arrive at Benin Home; when they meet other refugee children who were RUF, a fight ensues and people die. Beah and his friends are resistant to schooling and talking about their experiences. They are still in survival mode, unable to trust anyone and suffering through withdrawal from drugs. Beah and his friends take unauthorized trips to Freetown, and the staff has no choice but to start taking them into the city - but they also bribe the boys into remaining in class. This action - along with Esther's gift of a Walkman and rap tapes - is a moment where the aid workers show respect for the boys at Benin Home. Slowly but surely, with the help of their caretakers, the boys begin to open up about their time at war. When the drugs subside for Beah, his headaches return with a vengeance. It takes him a long time to be able to cope with his new surroundings, as he had gotten used to living without hope of a life on the other side of war.

  6. How do Beah's experiences in New York City change the course of his life?

    In Chapter 20, Beah travels to New York to speak at the UN. He finds the city is different than he expected, as he had envisioned people racing down the street in sports cars. Beah sees a world outside of violence and war - a world that is very different from Sierra Leone. He learns the word "snow" and repeatedly visits the dreamlike Times Square. Beah also finds that his story is sadly not unique. At the UN, he talks with many children who had similar experiences in their own countries. Beah realizes that he is not alone. Laura Simms, a storyteller who helps the children with their presentations, forges a deep connection with Beah; he eventually flees the war to live with her in New York. Other than laying the groundwork for a future home and life in the United States, the trip to New York gives Beah hope. At the end of the chapter, he is sad to leave, but also knows that if he dies in Sierra Leone, people will care. After years of witnessing and causing meaningless death, Beah comes to understand the value of his own life.

  7. Discuss Beah's writing style. How does writing from the perspective of a child help create an understanding of the child soldier experience?

    Though his memoir was written when he was 27, Beah adopts a writing style appropriate to his age during the events described. This helps the reader to gain insight into what it would be like to live through his experiences. Essentially, the reader is given only the information Beah himself would be privy to at 12 and 13. The villagers - especially the children - largely do not know the motivations and causes that the RUF are operating under; they are familiar only with the violence they inflict. Until it is at his doorstep, the war was something he heard rumors of but didn't fully comprehend; by denying the readers a historical and political context, we are thrust into his position and feel his confusion and fear when the rebels attack.

    Throughout his trials, Beah uses memories of his childhood as a buffer to the harsh reality. These instances help remind the reader that he is still indeed a child, which illustrates the evils of the civil war. Also, Beah does not shy away from the grittier aspects of his experience, like the death of prisoners at his hand. He does not judge or interpret his or any one else's actions, instead letting the reader moralize on his or her own. By not ruminating or reflecting on the atrocities, the reader can truly get into Beah's head and experience the horrors alongside him.

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