Study Guide

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier Art & Culture

By Ishmael Beah

Art & Culture

One evening a music video that consisted of a bunch of young black fellows talking really fast came on the television. The four of us sat there mesmerized by the song, trying to understand what the black fellows were saying. At the end of the video, some letters came up at the bottom of the screen. They read "Sugarhill Gang, 'Rapper's Delight.'" Junior quickly wrote it down on a piece of paper. After that, we came to the quarters every other weekend to study that kind of music on television. We didn't know what it was called then, but I was impressed with the fact that the black fellows knew how to speak English really fast, and to the beat. (1.2)

This is Ishmael's first time hearing rap music and it's actually a pretty big moment in his life. Rap not only helps him in the good times, it's helps him through some tough spots during the war. It even saves his life. More music, less problems.

Junior, Talloi, and I listened to rap music, trying to memorize the lyrics so that we could avoid thinking about the situation at hand. Naughty by Nature, LL Cool J, Run-D.M.C., and Heavy D & The Boyz; we had left home with only these cassettes and the clothes that we wore. I remember sitting on the verandah listening to "Now That We Found Love" by Heavy D & The Boyz and watching the trees at the edge of town that reluctantly moved to the slow wind. (1.39)

Music is an escape from the awful reality around Ishmael's life. It's also his only connection back to home. That and the clothes on his back. We guess if you're stuck with only a few cassette tapes, those are some good ones.

The crowd shouted, "Drown the rebels." The guards walked into the circle and started searching our pockets. One of them found a rap cassette in my pocket and handed it to the chief. He asked for it to be played.

You down with OPP (Yeah you know me)
You down with OPP (Yeah you know me)
You down with OPP (Yeah you know me)
Who's down with OPP (Every last homie) 

The chief stopped the music. He stroked his beard, thinking.

"Tell me," he said, turning to me, "how did you get this foreign music?"

I told him that we rapped. He didn't know what rap music was, so I did my best to explain it to him. "It is similar to telling parables, but in the white man's language," I concluded. I also told him that we were dancers and had a group in Mattru Jong, where we used to attend school. (6.9-13)

Hip hop saves lives. Once the chief hears the boys talk about their past and their rap group, he realizes they aren't actually a threat. Crisis averted thanks to Naughty By Nature.

I rewound the tape, mimed, and danced to "OPP" barefoot in the sand. I didn't enjoy it, and for the first time I found myself thinking about the words of the song, closely listening to the subtle instruments in the beat. I had never done such a thing before, because I knew the words by heart and felt the beat. I didn't feel it this time. As I hopped up and down, hunched and raising my arms and feet to the music, I thought about being thrown in the ocean, about how difficult it would be to know that death was inevitable. (9.50)

This is actually the second time Ishmael avoids being killed by sharing the magic of hip hop. Of course, though he usually loves dancing and rapping, it's sort of tough to enjoy your favorite music when you're being threatened with death.

I remembered nights I had spent sitting with my grandmother by the fire. "You are growing up so fast. It feels like yesterday when I was at your name-giving ceremony." She would look at me, her shiny face glowing, before she told me the story of my name-giving ceremony. Growing up, I had been to several of these ceremonies, but Grandmother always told me about mine. (10.25)

Stories play a huge role in Ishmael's life. He grew up listening to stories like this one in addition to all kinds of other folktales. For Ishmael, stories are a way to share a piece of yourself and to capture the past—good or bad. It's no wonder he's grows up to be a storyteller himself. We bet you remember the childhood stories you heard, too.

I took off my old pants, which contained the rap cassettes. As I was putting on my new army shorts, a soldier took my old pants and threw them into a blazing fire that had been set to burn our old belongings. I ran toward the fire, but the cassettes had already started to melt. Tears formed in my eyes, and my lips shook as I turned away. (12.36)

The symbolism here is pretty obvious—gone are the beautiful days of music to enrich Ishmael's life, replaced by war.

We lost a few adult soldiers on our side and my friends Musa and Josiah. Musa, the storyteller, was gone. There was no one around to tell us stories and make us laugh at times when we needed it. (13.15)

This is another example of how losing stories is a loss of the past. Stories were Ishmael's brief periods of escape from his horrible present.

I sternly asked, "Why did you get me this Walkman and cassette if we are not friends? And how did you know that I like rap music?"

"Please sit down," she said, taking the package from me, putting the battery and cassette in the Walkman, and handing it to me. I put the headphones on and there was Run-D.M.C.: "It's like that, and that the way it is…" coming through the headphones. I began to shake my head, then Esther lifted the headphones off my ears and said, "I have to examine you while you listen to the music." I agreed, and took off my shirt, stood on a scale, and she checked my tongue, used a flash-light to look into my eyes… I didn't care because the song had taken hold of me, and I listened closely to every word. (17.17-18)

Esther is a pretty smart lady. Ishmael actually mentioned on one of his little questionnaires that he likes rap music, so Esther goes out and buys him some. A reintroduction to the songs from his childhood is exactly what this child soldier needs to heal.

Most of the facilitators worked for NGOs, but there was a short white woman with long dark hair and bright eyes who said, "I am a storyteller." I was surprised at this and gave her all my attention. She used elaborate gestures and spoke very clearly, enunciating every word. She said her name was Laura Simms. She introduced her co-facilitator, Therese Plair, who was light-skinned, had African features, and held a drum. Before Laura finished talking, I had already decided that I would take her workshop. She said she would teach us how to tell our stories in a more compelling way. I was curious to find out how this white woman, born in New York City, had become a storyteller. (20.14)

Ishmael is instantly drawn to Laura because she says she's a storyteller—just like him and his family. It seems like fate that she would end up becoming his adoptive mom in the end.

Pa Sesay, one of my friends' grandfather, had told us many stories that night, but before he began telling the last story, he repeatedly said, "This is a very important story." He then cleared his throat and began:

"There was a hunter who went into the bush to kill a monkey. He had looked for only a few minutes when he saw a monkey sitting comfortably in the branch of a low tree. The monkey didn't pay him any attention, not even when his footsteps on the dried leaves rose and fell as he neared. When he was close enough and behind a tree where he could clearly see the monkey, he raised his rifle and aimed. Just when he was about to pull the trigger, the monkey spoke: 'If you shoot me, your mother will die, and if you don't, your father will die.' The monkey resumed its
position, chewing its food, and every so often scratched its head or the side of its belly.

"What would you do if you were the hunter?" (21.50-52)

Is this a pretty crazy story to tell little kids? It's a really huge dilemma—who would you allow to die, your mother or your father? Ishmael sees this tale as a metaphor for the war. The fighting armies have put everyone in this exact position. They have to choose to kill or be killed. It's no way to live.