Ishmael Beah: An Interview

We were fortunate enough to get an interview with the author of our first review (A Long Way Gone), Ishmael Beah. We had a great conversation, not only was Beah gracious in accommodating our probing questions into the intense emotionality behind the book, but also astute in discussing Sierra Leone today, his hopes for his country, and efforts to make it a place that matches those hopes. 

Ishmael Beah

ARBWhile reading A LONG WAY GONE, we were both moved and intrigued by the way you wove past and present to provide a fuller narrative. How was the process of going back and sorting through your memories to put the book together?

BEAH: It was very difficult to relive the memories of the war during the writing of the book. It was also the first time that I had allowed myself to delve back fully into what had happened as I needed to relive it again to be able to write it with the same emotions, feelings of the boy I had been in the war.

I wanted the reader come along the journey, to see hear, smell, and be close to what it felt like.

Of course this brought about nightmares and flashbacks again. I am happy that I did though; it is a small price, remembering, however difficult it was during writing, to pay so that people can know the story.

I survived and that comes with a responsibility.

So I wrote all I could remember and double checked the memories. The ones I doubted, I threw out and of course I also decided to leave out some things so that the book didn’t become a celebration of violence but rather showing what violence does to the human spirit.

ARB: In many instances of political/national violence, writing becomes a way for the victim to reconcile or think through his relationship with his state

BEAH: Absolutely. In my case, writing started as quest to understand what had happened to all of us in my country, and to also prepare how to speak about it succinctly and eloquently whenever I had the opportunity. And then it became a book.

ARB: How do you approach Sierra Leone now? 

BEAH: I love my country deeply, even during and after the war, my memories of it remain a place of remarkable beauty, a place with laughter, intelligence, storytelling… I guess, simply home. I feel at peace fully only when I am home regardless of what had happened.

ARB: Often we want things to change (especially in Africa) but have no real idea of how exactly the change should occur. What do you want the Sierra Leone’s future to look like?

BEAH: Yes, I think the populace sometimes doesn’t know how to make the change, even though they know something must change.

I would like the politics to improve so that the country can move forward with a strong economy and opportunities for everyone, especially the young generation. We are on that path but we need leaders with a vision for the country, short and long term, and leaders who serve the people. I do have hope though that it will happen.

I believe if anyone embarks on becoming a leader then they should have plans and solutions otherwise they have no business running for office.

ARB: Music is an important aspect of your journey, and I think in some ways your understanding that your old life has been paused really hits you when your tapes are burnt. They seemed to connect you to and remind you of a world outside and before the war. 

BEAH: Yes, music was a strong part of my life and it remains so. During and after the war, it helped me connect with a past that was peaceful, that was fun, and filled with the beauty of simplicity.

ARB: What sort of music are you into now, and are there any artists from Sierra Leone you’d recommend? 

BEAH: I listen to a wide range of music. If it is good I will buy it! In Sierra Leone, my favorite musician that I will recommend is a fellow called Emmerson. He is sort of the young Fela Kuti in the sense that he speaks for the people. I am a big reggae fan and have all songs ever recorded by Bob Marley! I also listen to many young African musicians. So much talent on the entire continent as you know

ARB: Definitely. We’re currently obsessed with Brenda Fassie’s ‘good black woman‘ and Nigerian M.I’s ‘MI 2, The Movie’ will always be a favorite. 

BEAH: Speaking of Nigeria. P Square is hot! I hear their music all around the world and it makes me so happy you know. I tell people ‘yes, they are from west Africa!’

ARB: Haha. One of our editors has vowed that P Square must play at her wedding regardless of how far into the future it is. They are really good.

Doing a bit of research into your current activities, can you tell us some more about the Beah foundation and your work with UNICEF?

BEAH: The foundation gives opportunities to young people in Sierra Leone. I wanted to do something to provide opportunities for others the same way I received access to opportunities that then allowed me to discover my own potential.

We have over a hundred young people that we sponsor all over the country from primary school to university and also vocational training. We are thinking of moving to support entrepreneurship, small businesses, etc.

With regards to Unicef, I am the goodwill ambassador and advocate for children affected by conflict. This means that I do policy work on issues and travel to the field to participate in negotiations and release of children in war.

Of recent I was in Central African Republic before it fell apart. Policy side is working on enhancing the effectiveness of all UN resolutions and international laws relating to children and war.

ARB: We’ve recently been discussing the issue of African aid within the continent and always seem to end on the idea that investing in education and micro-finance seems to have the biggest/most positive impact, so we’re excited that the foundation is looking into that.

If people were interested in aiding the foundation’s work, what are some ways they could do that?

BEAH: Well of course we need funding to reach more young people. I have been donating personally with a few private donors.

Money isn’t the only thing though, we also need expertise in web design for example, fundraising, and all this other things required to run a foundation. Also we need to showcase successful young Africans so that our beneficiaries can see what is possible. This will mean having people on our board and willing to chat with the youngsters from time to time.

ARB: Absolutely. We’ve found that social media has been really helpful in linking us to prominent people (e.g you) so that’s a possible avenue. And if we can ever be of specific service we’d be eager to help.

BEAH: Thanks, much appreciated. I will keep you posted on my new book, a novel coming out in Jan 2014. It is titled “Radiance Of Tomorrow” set home in Sierra Leone.

ARB: On a final note, to everyone who has ever read A LONG WAY GONE, all over the world, what’s one thing you want them to take out of the book?

BEAH: One thing is to really give context, the necessary human context, to my story. Our stories are often presented in a way that makes us, Africans, come across in the ways people who don’t know us have always perceived us.

For example, wars don’t just start like that, there are reasons and even during war people find happiness, love and do their best to keep families together.

ARB: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us. We are really excited to share your insights with our readers.

BEAH: Thank you.

Read our review of A Long Way Gone here. 

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