Book Review: A Long Way Gone by Ishamel Beah

The Villages that we captured and turned into our bases as we went along and the forests that we slept in became my home. My squad was my family, my gun was my provider and protector, and my rule was to kill or be killed. The extent of my thoughts didn’t go much beyond that. We had been fighting for over two years and killing had become a daily activity. I felt no pity for anyone. My childhood had gone by without my knowing, and it seemed as if my heart had frozen. I knew that day and night came and went because of the presence of the moon and the sun,  but I had no idea whether it was Sunday or a Friday. 


Title: A Long Way Gone: The True Story of a Child Soldier

Genre: Memoir/ Non Fiction

Author: Ishmael Beah

My settling down to read this gripping Memoir was triggered by one of the tweeps I follow on Twitter, @BookCrest _KE. It wasn’t just recommended, but this heavenly sent bibliophile, offered to get the book for me. This also included ‘Behold the Dreamers‘ by Imbolo Mbue. How kind right? Thank you so much Ken.

Anyway, as I’ve mentioned already, I didn’t have the slightest clue of what awaited me in this book. I’m glad though I got to not only own it, but read it as well and share the story with others. 

‘A Long Way Gone: The True Story of a child soldier,’ is an account of real life events of a young man, Ishmael Beah, who experienced the civil war that broke out in Sierra Leone in 1991 – 2002. Through his eyes, readers are ushered into what life must have been like for the citizens of Sierra Leone and that of young boys who were recruited to join the rebels groups and the army.

Ishmael Beah was only twelve when he first came into close contact of war. This marked the genesis of his misery. A long tough odyssey that saw him loose his immediate family, his friends and his innocence as a child when he was later recruited to the soldiers’ army. A boy who was one full of life turned into a monstrous, heartless and violent young man. He took pride in killing fellow countrymen. He found solace in his gun and grenades.

‘… I angrily pointed my gun into the swamp and killed more people. I shot everything that moved…’

He was stripped of his innocence as a child and introduced to hard core drugs that kept him energized when carrying out the atrocities.

‘… I took turns at the guarding posts around the village, smoking marijuana and sniffing brown brown, cocaine mixed with gunpowder, which was always spread out on the table, and of course taking more of the white capsules, as I had become addicted to them. They gave me a lot of energy.

Being a soldier, life for Ishmael Beah wasn’t eased. He faced death on too many accounts and miraculously escaped the traps. Some of his fellow friends who were also recruited into the army died before his eyes when they were out on a mission and this prompted Beah to be the heartless boy he had become.

Having been engulfed in the atrocious activities, Beah and his peers didn’t keep track of the days, weeks, and months of the year. For him, a day was concluded when he saw the rising and setting of sun. Nothing else mattered.

‘I knew that day and night came and went because of the presence of the moon and sun, but I had no idea whether it was a Sunday or a Friday.’

Come 1996, life turned around for Ishmael Beah and his friend Alhaji, when UNICEF rehabilitating officials paid a visit to the soldiers’ camp and the lieutenant gave them up for rehabilitation. Beah and other boys of his age didn’t welcome the idea and it took them a while to adjust to the new life. It wasn’t an easy task for the nurses and the staff members dealing with people who have been brainwashed into believing that things could only work out through shooting and shedding of blood. Simple instructions and advice got Ishmael and his peers agitated. At one instance, the boys attacked a staff member and left him wounded. The boys craved war and drugs the same way one craves food when hungry.

‘In war you dehumanize other people in order to kill them but i think you also dehumanize yourself. That’s what violence does.’

The staff at the rehabilitating camp which was in Freetown, didn’t give up on their task regardless of the hostility they faced when dealing with the boys. The counselling sessions bore fruits eventually when some of the boys were adopted back to the society by their relatives. Ishmael Beah was adopted by his uncle, (a bother of his father) and for a moment there I could have sworn that all the pitfalls he had faced earlier on were now a thing of the past. He had an opportunity to travel to New York and attend the youth summit where he represented Sierra Leone in a seminar that focused on children’s rights. During his time here, Ishmael Beah made contacts with a Laura, a story teller who was also a facilitator in the seminar. Laura will later become Ishmael’s foster mother when he flees from Sierra Leone when war broke out in Freetown and he was forced to travel to Guinea to catch a flight to New York.

It is here that he finally garners courage to share with the world the exodus of his dark, tormenting past life and triumph of overcoming all the struggles, and prejudices that were inflicted to the people of Sierra Leone.

There are a couple of books I know I’ve said struck me right at the centre of my heart, but this particular memoir here, this account of Ishmael Beah caught me off-guard. Every single page came with its own share of pain baggage.  I kept on asking myself, how could a 12 year old be subjected to such pain? How could a nation let such barbarity take place under its watch? The civil war experienced in Sierra Leone has got to be one of the most severe wars to be witnessed in Africa. The country was literally turned into a bloodbath following the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) formation under Foday Sankoh leadership. Corporal Foday Sankoh took over the diamond mines in Kano kept on moving his rebel group towards the country’s Capital, Freetown since they had a rife with the APC party which by then was the ruling party in the country.

I kept mirroring these events with what took place in Kenya back in 2007/08 and the turmoil of bad leadership the country is currently facing. If we don’t take caution, stop and address the red flags, we might find ourselves in a similar situation and God forbid because I don’t even want to think of the worst.

‘People who have not been severly touched by violence don’t understand what the true nature of it is.’

I wouldn’t want to wake up any day and find the peace that I’ve been born in, grew up in and still enjoy today lost and gone with because of politicians selfishness and disrespect of democracy. Africa, it’s high time we proved to the world that we can govern ourselves. That we uphold human rights, children rights, that we have systems in place that work. We need to stand up and bring to book selfish leaders who undermine our democracy. Our judicial bodies need to portray a picture that serves justice to every single citizen regardless of their wealth measure or affiliations.

We cannot be screaming about racism yet we are a jargon of tribalic people who only prides themselves when a certain tribe is butchered because of their political differences. It’s about time we walked our talk!!

The Washington Post said ‘everyone in the world should this book’ and I couldn’t agree more. The book offers more insights than what we’ve been watching in documentaries and reading in papers. Moreover, readers are treated to deeper history accounts in the chronology section that comes after the acknowledgement page. In this section, I also learnt that among the people that were sold as slaves came from Sierra Leone. I related this realization with the slavery story of Colson Whitehead in ‘The Underground Railroad.’

Ishmael Beah narrates the apocalyptic of his journey in the most gripping way that will have you sitting at the edge of your seat clinging hard on your handkerchief because of the trauma that was subjected to a young man.


4 thoughts on “Book Review: A Long Way Gone by Ishamel Beah”

  1. Wonderful review for quite a powerful book. I read this one quite a while back but it has definitely stayed with me. ION, I need to find a friend like Ken 🙂


  2. […] A Long Way Gone: I grew up watching news of how young boys in Sierra Leon were used as rebels soldiers and I remember thinking of how inhuman they can be only to get a first persons account of why he carried out the atrocities that are recorded as the world worst civil war to ever been witnessed in the 19th Century. This is one book that will tag in my heart for the longest time coming because it resonates a lot with almost every other country in the world. Get on with it. […]


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