On March 5th 2007, I had the opportunity to sit in on a reading by author of a Long Way Gone; Ishmeal Beah. I was a tad bit late so I missed the reading itself. The room was packed full with standing room only for me and my two salone friends who were unlucky enough to be late. The room was full of mostly white folks and my two friends and I accounted for 50% of the Sierra Leonean population in the room.
Ishmael stood at the podium while about twenty or so copies of his book piled on a table waiting for Ishmael’s signature hungry fingers and eyes waiting to devour his memoir (a bit of exoticism for Otherness of his experience filled the room). A Long Way gone is a heart wrenching, painful read that reminds us all about the fragility of human lives and quickness with which things can change. But even more important than that it is a testimony of the resiliency of the human spirit. The images from this memoir will remain imprinted in my mind for a long time.
As I strained my neck to look at Ishmael those horrid images had faded from my mind. In fact it didn’t even occur to me that the young brown skinned man talking at the podium was that orphan, victim and one time aggressor in the book. As we stood in the crowd I jokingly whispered to my friend that Ishmael should try to not too good “cause white people will take him”. A joke I borrowed from Paul Mooney on Chappelle Show.
Yes there is universality about Ishmael Beah’s story as there are children everywhere that have similar stories if not worse. These children don’t just come from the developing world either cause 17, 18, 19 year olds are serving and dying in the US military in Iraq, Afghanistan, and elsewhere. However, as a Sierra Leonean, I don’t want Ishmael to be a Universalist. I want very badly to claim him as Sierra Leonean and to own his experience as part of our collective Sierra Leonean experience and recent history. I understand the need to draw attention to the international plight of children used as carriers, sex slaves, and soldiers but Sierra Leone badly needs Ishmael Beah to represent us too. In a country where so few of us ordinary citizens ever get an opportunity to “talk truth to power” in the international community we need someone who has that opportunity to do so for sweet Sierra Leone.
The very nationalistic me feels incredibly territorial over Ishmael Beah. I want him for Sierra Leone. I don’t want white people to take him as they have done so many other possible voices from the continent and beyond. By taking him I mean to remove him from the reality of his present day Salone society and turn him into a caricature of what they want him to represent.
As Ishmael answered questions that ranged from one that asked him if he could sing and dance , to a question of who he thought would win the American election, to an interesting question from a former volunteer in Sierra Leone on why Sierra Leoneans were so forgiving I could hear the unmistakable tones of that sweet salone accent. As he finished answering questions and people came up to get their copies autographed, my friends and I walked up to the line and waited about 20 mins so we could have him ALL TO OUR SELVES. We didn’t want to be rushed. We wanted him to know that Sierra Leone was there. We spoke in krio so that he would know that his people were in the crowd.
As we spoke, his mother overheard us and walked over to ask us if we were indeed from Sierra Leone. She gave us all big hugs and I could understand how this woman could reach out to a young boy and become his new mother and companion. She came off as one of those people that one could not dislike no matter how hard you tried. Ishmael too heard us and motioned for us to come over “me sistah dem ooona day? Bo oona come na ya bo” (my sisters you are here? please come over). I responded “no oh, just done yanda no mo fos, we day wait tay you done” (oh no, finish what you are doing, we’ll wait till you are done).
As he finally finished, he came over to us and we gave him three big hugs. I told him that I was really proud and happy for him and that his book really touched me. I also told him that Sierra Leoneans everywhere were reading his book and that VSL (http://www.visitsierraleone.org/) book club was reading his book too. I also asked him if he would be interested in doing a reading for a Sierra Leonean crowd to commemorate the upcoming independence on April 27th. He replied that he would do his best and that if we got to him early enough that he would make sure his publicist assured that he could be present.
Ishmael reminded me so much of so many young SL men back home with the boyish good looks, charm, and sense of humor. He joked about visiting Sierra Leone for the Bling & Blood documentary on VH1. He said the girls thought t he couldn’t dance anymore because he was from America. He claims to be a souskous star J
After we had said our good byes and I was on my way back home I began to think about Frederic Jameson‘s theory on national allegories. In “Third World Literature in the Era of Multinational Capitalism”, Frederic Jameson argues that:
“all third-world texts are necessarily…allegorical and in a very specific way: they are to be read as what [he calls] national allegories, even when, or perhaps…particularly when their forms develop out of predominantly western machineries of representation, such as the novel…. Third-World texts, even those which are seemingly private and invested with a properly libidinal dynamic – necessarily project a political dimension in the form of national allegory: the story of the private individual destiny is always an allegory of the embattled situation of the public third-world culture and society”..
I completely disagree with this swapping generalization and eurocentric analysis of literary text from the developing world. And I realize that “third world” is as politically incorrect as the N word. However, I as I thought about claiming Ishmael Beah and wanting him to share the salone love and wave the Sierra Leone flag, it occurred to me that my connection to Ishmael was only significant in as much as I believe that his story is in some ways an allegory of the embattled situation of Sierra Leone culture & society. Even though the memoir is completely personal, Ishmael Beah’s book is being hailed in many ways as a modern day 21st century allegory for Sierra Leone.
If this is the case, are we to assume that our redemption and hope as a nation therefore lies in America? That we can only be saved by leaving Sierra Leone? I’m sure that many of my peers in Sierra Leone would answer yes, that they too need to leave Sierra Leone in order to gain opportunity and have a possibility to make it. I am really struggling with this as there is truth to the available opportunities in the USA and the lack of them in Sierra Leone. I am always the first to tell people that they do not need to leave Sierra Leone to make something of them selves, but clearly Ishmael’s counterparts from Benin House have not been as fortunate as he has.
It is incredibly challenging to tell people to be hopeful and try to make the best of Sierra Leone when the reality of the matter is that young people die spiritually and mentally out of a lack of opportunity. For me there is nothing more depressing that not being able to reach your potential or even worse not even know what your potential is because of a lack of opportunity. A mind is definitely a terrible thing to waste especially when that mind belongs to a young person.
What I truly hope and wish for out of this whole Ishmael Beah child soldier memoir is that he turns it into an opportunity to help his peers in Sierra Leone. If Ishmael Beah cannot move beyond writing this book and the personal returns that come with writing a memoir about his experience than I would be incredibly disappointed and may disown him. However, after talking to Ishmael I am certain and pleased to say that I know I will always be proud to claim him because I believe he is truly going to do something for Sierra Leone. Yes, Ishmael Beah is going to be a voice for change in Sierra Leone….INSHALLAH