Out of Africa

At a packed Mondavi Center in Davis, Ishmael Beah, writer of New York Times best seller A Long Way Gone, thrilled a huge crowd with a story that I know all too well: the war in Sierra Leone and its impact on children and young people.

As a journalist and youth activist who reported on the war and politics in Sierra Leone for some eight years before “clinching” asylum in the United States in ’04, I nodded as Beah shared stories that most probably thought took place on another planet.

In Sierra Leone, there was such a strong sense of community that everyone felt like a child of everyone. “You had to be creative to play pranks as a kid,” Beah reminisced. He’s right: All elderly eyes were not just on you, but also had the authority to cane the hell out of you for getting out of line. Nostalgia overwhelmed me as Beah reminded of a childhood that inculcates storytelling in the young: Oral tradition is the source of most African history and is what allows Beah to relive that chapter of his life so well.

Then all hell broke loose. The closely woven Mattru Jong society of Beah’s childhood years was uprooted, dismembered and tossed to the dogs.

These dogs were rebels, who visited Sierra Leone and inflicted some of the most gruesome atrocities humankind has ever seen. There were tens of thousand of killings, mass arson, amputations, disemboweled pregnant women and systemic rape, which robbed people like Ishmael and me of our youth.

Recruited at 13, Beah became a victim-cum-perpetrator of war atrocities. Why children? They are cheap. They don’t need conventional training, equipment or pay. They are more susceptible to indoctrination. They were forced to commit sacrilege—brutally murder relatives or community elders, making the child permanently beholden to the rebels.

But Beah’s fate changed when UNICEF rescued him and brought him to a rehabilitation center in Freetown. Laura Simms later adopted Beah and brought him over to attend a U.S. school in ’98. The rest, as they say, is history, complete with a degree from Oberlin College and a book that gave fresh perspective to child soldiers and the Sierra Leone war.

And me? I grew up with Shakespeare, hip-hop and the BBC, like Ishmael. I got U.S. asylum in 2004, but my story remains untold. There are many immigrants in my shoes who struggle quietly with or bury their past in order to get a fresh start in this country.

But as Beah rightly said that night, Americans need to learn about other cultures. In that same audience was a former Peace Corps volunteer, Jim Skiles, who taught in the same high school Beah attended even before he was born.

Small world indeed.