Study Guide

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier Choices

By Ishmael Beah

Choices

But we knew we had no choice, we had to make it across the clearing because, as young boys, the risk of staying in town was greater for us than trying to escape. Young boys were immediately recruited, and the initials RUF were carved wherever it pleased the rebels, with a hot bayonet. This not only meant that you were scarred for life but that you could never escape from them, because escaping with the carving of the rebels' initials was asking for death, as soldiers would kill you without any questions and militant civilians would do the same. (3.12)

Ishmael decides to try to risk a dangerous flight rather than be captured by the RUF fighters and be forced to join the army. Possible death or possible killing. Those are two pretty terrible choices.

After all the trouble and risk we undertook to get the money, it became useless. We would have been less hungry if we had stayed at the village instead of walking the miles to Mattru Jong and back. I wanted to blame someone for this particular predicament, but there was no one to be blamed. We had made a logical decision and it had come to this. It was a typical aspect of being in the war. Things changed rapidly in a matter of seconds and no one had any control over anything. We had yet to learn these things and implement survival tactics, which was what it came down to. That night we were so hungry that we stole people's food while they slept. It was the only way to get through the night. (4.6)

This was one of the first situations where Ishmael is forced to choose something—stealing—that would previously have been unimaginable to him. It's one of our first illustrations of what the war is doing to him.

"You left Mattru Jong because you don't like us." He put his gun on the old man's forehead and continued. "You left because you are against our cause as freedom fighters. Right?"

The old man closed his eyes tightly and began to sob.

What cause? I thought. I used the only freedom that I had then, my thought. (5.12-14)

Thinking a subversive thought is the last bit of free will Ishmael has left.

One of the unsettling things about my journey, mentally, physically, and emotionally, was that I wasn't sure when or where it was going to end. I didn't know what I was going to do with my life. I felt that I was starting over and over again. […] At villages where we managed to find some happiness by being treated to food or fresh water, I knew that it was temporary and that we were only passing through. So I couldn't bring myself to be completely happy. It was much easier to be sad than to go back and forth between emotions, and this gave me the determination I needed to keep moving. I was never disappointed, since I always expected the worst to happen. (10.1)

It's tough to make good decisions when you don't know what tomorrow will bring. Ishmael decides the best thing to do is to not get his hopes up or be happy. If he just expects the worst, he'll never be disappointed. Compare this to a typical carefree kid, who generally trusts that the world is OK and he'll be taken care of.

"Every time people come at us with the intention of killing us, I close my eyes and wait for death. Even though I am still alive, I feel like each time I accept death, part of me dies. Very soon I will completely die and all that will be left is my empty body walking with you. It will be quieter than I am." […] Tears formed in my eyes and my forehead became warm, thinking about what Saidu had said. I tried not to believe that I too was dying, slowly, on my way to find safety. (10.3)

Saidu talks about his choice to embrace death only to escape it over and over again. Maybe that's why he dies just a few pages later. Once you've given up fighting and hoping, what's left?

That morning we thanked the men who had helped bury Saidu. "You will always know where he is laid," one of the men said. I nodded in agreement, but I knew that the chances of coming back to the village were slim, as we had no control over our future. We knew only how to survive. (10.114)

Knowing where your loved ones are buried is kind of comforting, but Ishmael and his friends know it's unlikely that they'll be able to stop by and put flowers on Saidu's grave. Just another option that's been eliminated from their lives.

"That is why we need strong men and boys to help us fight these guys, so that we can keep this village safe. If you do not want to fight or help, that is fine. But you will not have rations and will not stay in this village. You are free to leave, because we only want people here who can help cook, prepare ammunition, and fight. There are enough women to run the kitchen, so we need the help of able boys and men to fight these rebels." (12.23)

Ishmael and his friends are given a difficult choice by Lieutenant Jabati, but it's not much of a choice at all. They don't have to fight, but then they won't be able to eat or stay in the safety of the village. It's only an illusion of choice, really.

"The rebels will kill anyone from this village because they will consider us their enemy, spies, or that we have sided with the other side of the war. That is what the staff sergeant said," Alhaji said, explaining the dilemma we faced. The rest of the boys, who were lying on their mats, got up and joined us as Alhaji continued: "It is better to stay here for now." He sighed. We had no choice. Leaving the village was as good as being dead. (12.25)

Ishmael pretty much sums it up here. They are completely helpless. When you have no freedom to act, it's easier to just hand over control to people who are making your choices for you.

It sickened me to see that Sierra Leoneans asked money from those who had come from the war. They were benefiting from people who were running for their lives. Why does one have to pay to leave his own country? I thought, but I couldn't argue. I had to pay the money. (21.36)

Ishmael is attempting to flee Sierra Leone and he's really upset by the guards who keep shaking down frightened people for money. They have power and they could have chosen to help people, but they don't. Ishmael can't do anything but accept it and pay the money. By now, he's used to being powerless.

When I was seven I had an answer to this question that made sense to me. I never discussed it with anyone, though, for fear of how my mother would feel. I concluded to myself that if I were the hunter, I would shoot the monkey so that it would no longer have the chance to put other hunters in the same predicament. (21.57)

This is Ishmael's answer to the monkey story dilemma and it's actually pretty clever. Whatever he chooses, one of his parents will die. But in the end, Ishmael makes the choice that will help other people. He's spent a lot of time without the freedom to decide, so it's empowering for him to make this mental choice.