Sierra Leone, Africa (1993-1997)
Though we take a few quick trips to New York City, A Long Way Gone mainly takes place in Sierra Leone during the years 1993 through 1997. This is right smack in the middle of a huge and brutal civil war that destroyed countless lives, Ishmael's included.
Our author gives us a little bit of background about how the war started. In 1991, the Revolutionary United Front was attempting to overthrow the government. The government fought back and the war went on and on like that for 11 miserable years. But really, politics and the history of Sierra Leone aren't the focus of this story.
Ishmael does tell us about the scenery and landscapes of Sierra Leone. We get some truly beautiful pictures of a country that is not only ravaged by war, but blessed with natural beauty. In fact, because Ishmael lives in such a natural environment in his village, he has a really special connection with nature. He's always looking towards the forest, trees, animals, and the moon for help on his journey. Sometimes he even gets it…when a coconut tree is willing to cooperate.
There are also some interesting contrasts between the more remote areas of Sierra Leone, where Ishmael lives, and the big cities—both Freetown and New York City. When Ishmael and Mohamed first set foot in Freetown, they can hardly believe their eyes:
My neck was hurting just from looking at the tall buildings. There were mini-markets everywhere, selling clothes, food, cassettes, stereos, and many other things. The city was too noisy, as if people were having arguments everywhere simultaneously. We wandered about all the way to the Cotton Tree, the national symbol of Sierra Leone and the landmark of the capital […] "No one will believe us when we tell them this," Alhaji said as we walked away. (16.41)
Ishmael has never experienced big city life like this. He might not know how to work an elevator or what snow is, but he's learned a lot more about fear and survival and the price of revenge than anyone living in those fancy high-rise buildings.
In the end, Ishmael has to flee Sierra Leone to survive. Though it's clear he loves his country and cares for its people, he's just not safe there anymore. The danger of being forced back into the fighting is way too real and Ishmael can't be faced with that choice again. America becomes his new home and the place where he finds a platform to share his story. We're glad he came to stay.