MONTREAT, N.C. — If Hope* … *has a voice, as the theme of the conference went, then 800 students attending the College Conference at Montreat in western North Carolina got to encounter as vivid an example as they might ever hear or see on January 5. Ishmael Beah, author of the best-selling A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, showcased for the students how a wrecked child’s life had been turned from killer to humanitarian, thanks to the efforts of a few ordinary radicals.
Beah delivered a plenary address in the morning and responded to questions in an afternoon session. In his address, he told his story in two chapters: his old life and his new life. They couldn’t be more different. The old life took shape when a band of young rebels engaged in his nation’s civil war arrived in his small Sierra Leone town. Soon this 12-year- old was far away from his home and parents, toting an AK-47, taking drugs (marijuana, amphetamines, and a toxic mix of cocaine and gunpowder), wandering around with a band of trained teen and pre-teen hoodlums. He cannot count the number of people he killed in the ensuing two years. He had become a brutal killing machine.
That all began to change when he was rescued by some UNICEF fieldworkers and taken to a rehab center in Freetown. As he told the students, “If people had given up on all the children — since we had become accustomed to such violence — I would not be standing in front of you. But because there were people who believe we’re not lost completely … we were able to come here.”
One particular UNICEF worker, a kind nurse named Esther, overwhelmed Beah with care at the center. “I tried to tell her the most horrible stories, so she would be afraid of me, but that just made her more curious and wanted to be closer to me.” Reflecting on all the workers there, he said, “Their willingness to see us as children even though we had become such horrible people — that changed me. We would bite staff members and stab them. And the first thing they would say was, ‘It’s not your fault.'” He laughingly told the students that he and his fellows figured the workers there to be “really crazy, crazier than we were!”
“Hope has a voice,” he reflected, echoing the theme of the conference. “I had to learn how to sleep again. I had to learn how to be human again. But people knew this was possible, and because of that conviction I was able to find hope.”
One favorite activity at the camp was playing soccer. In fact they developed a team that played against school teams. The only problem was that if they lost they would break out in a fight. “But then we started winning our games. We stopped fighting.” In fact, their behavior improved markedly. They worked harder in class. They obeyed their advisors. “We later found out that the leaders were talking to the other teams, fixing the games so we would win.” He laughed. “It was a great strategy.”
Eventually, UNICEF took Beah to the United Nations to tell a stunned gathering of diplomats about the experience of child soldiers. He stayed in New York City, where he became a foster child to a woman he now calls “my mom.” He graduated from high school and Oberlin College, majoring in politics, although he doesn’t want to be a politician. “I can’t be a good politician. I’m too honest.” The students laughed. He clarified: “In politics it’s not that people aren’t honest, but [other] people look at them as if they are not fallible anymore. When you are a politician you can’t afford to not be fallible at some times. I need to be and to admit it.”
His book has brought international fame — helped by the widely viewed Hollywood movie Blood Diamond, which tells the story of the Sierra Leone war with its child soldiers. That movie was shown at the Montreat conference the night before Beah spoke.
When asked by one of the students about his calling for the future, the 26-year old responded, “To raise awareness with UNICEF, to move nations to peace, to prevent these things from happening, too.” His greatest hope is to help children and youths. “I think young people — we are in a position to take charge of the world that’s being handed off to us in a shambles.” He has set up a foundation to help children suffering from the plight of war. “I didn’t want it named after me,” he shrugged, “but they insisted that that’s what will work best.”
Looking back on his old life, he found redemptive moments, some good lessons, and hope. In their oral culture, he developed the skill of deep listening. “When I was a kid, you’d sit down by the fire to hear a story. Then a few days later the village elders would make you retell the story rapid-fire. You didn’t want to be known for not listening well.” A resulting instinct for narrative is evident in his book.
Even in the violent years, he found hope. “One of the things I learned as a kid when dragged into war as a child soldier, was the strength of the human spirit, and the strength of the human spirit to find hope even in hopelessness itself. We would go days and days without food. When we could find an orange or some other scrap of food that gave us hope. It helped us keep running away from the war.”
One caution he offered to the students was to question their own assumptions about other nations around the world, especially in Africa. For example, most Americans’ introduction to Sierra-Leone has been through reports of the war there. But “that was where I learned Shakespeare, hip-hop, M.C. Hammer. … When people speak of other nations, it seems like these places are hopeless, always at war, there’s no hope there. But there is a shred of hope. …Today, Sierra-Leone is at peace.”
Any final word of advice, the students asked?
“I never want any one to belittle their own capacity and their own strength to do anything they want to do. I started writing this book in college … others said, ‘you don’t know what you’re saying,’ but I knew what I wanted to stay.”
He concluded, “Go out. Make mistakes. But don’t make too many of them.”