Sunday, 29 March 2009

A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah

This is not a book I would have chosen. I mean, who in their right mind would choose to read (which surely one does for pleasure) ‘The True Story of a Child Soldier’? Okay, Okay; sometimes we do want to read a book in order to be more informed about an issue.

Which is the reason our groupie said she chose this book. She said it deals with a subject about which everyone should be more aware. I don’t know about you, but I have a very fervid imagination. I can imagine only too clearly what atrocities there are going on in those African states. I can imagine how killing fellow beings can numb the senses and dehumanize the perpetrator of crimes. I feel incensed by both government and guerrilla fighters’ treatment of children and women. Appalled that the world lets this all continue.

So, what are we members of this book group for? I for one appreciate that it encourages me to read books I would otherwise not consider. I cannot therefore demur. This groupie is a younger member of the group - bright and socially aware. We bow to her awareness. We read the book about a child soldier in Sierra Leone in spite of the less than inviting subject.

I struggle through it. And so it seems did everyone else including our young groupie. The writing is not good. And it is a harrowing subject. We know that the author is young and not educated in prose but.... And does it seem that perhaps someone else had a hand in it? And then there is a lot of walking in this book. He walked, and he walked, and he walked. And he killed. And he was saved.

Ishmael is obviously an intelligent, articulate child who suffered horribly. But he had (has even now as an adult) the ability to survive. Everything in the story is testament to this. He had (has) a great capacity for love. He wants to belong, to be part of a normal environment, to live and grow. That should give hope.

But it was interesting that all of us had the same response to the book. It’s not often that we are in such agreement. We all hated the subject, we were not impressed with the style and we all found it odd in many ways. BUT. But we were glad that we had read it. We learned things. Things that even over-active imaginations don’t supply.

That children were conscripted to fight by the army as well as the guerrillas. Drugs were (are) widely used to numb the children mentally so they can commit the crimes. But also to keep the children awake with their adrenalin pumping so they are in a state of arousal. They need to be in order that they can run at a moment’s notice and kill at command. And, of course, by keeping them addicted the perpetrators keep them dependent.

We know that child soldiers have little choice but to fight. Many have lost their families and their ability to survive. They are used and abused. But from this story we learn that amongst all this horror, there are some caring individuals (and some aid) that makes a real difference to the rehabilitation of a few. More importantly, we learn that it is possible to rehabilitate child soldiers.

We also learn from our groupie that Sierra Leone was where the first slaves were sent to America – because they knew how to plant tobacco. It is the second poorest country in the world. That diamonds are now the main source of wealth and that the corruption surrounding this wealth accounts for much of the fighting. Those powerful foreign governments have contributed to this power struggle.

And we think about the shocking fact that there are over a quarter of a million children fighting in the world. If all these wars were in some major way associated with oil, we in the West would have waged a war by now to overthrow the leaders that carry out these atrocities and the resulting carnage. And the resulting destruction of societies.

Our groupie was right. This story reminds us above all that we in the ‘civilized’ West do not do enough to change these things: that we still have a Long Way to Go.


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