Study Guide

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier Community

By Ishmael Beah

Community

That night for the first time in my life I realized that it is the physical presence of people and their spirits that gives a town life. With the absence of so many people, the town became scary, the night darker, and the silence unbearably agitating. Normally, the crickets and birds sang in the evening before the sun went down. But this time they didn't, and darkness set in very fast. The moon wasn't in the sky; the air was stiff, as if nature itself was afraid of what was happening. (3.4)

People are what make a village. Without people walking around living their day-to-day lives, a town is just a bunch of spooky houses. Community is what gives you comfort.

The sound of the guns was so terrifying it confused everyone. No one was able to think clearly. In a matter of seconds, people started screaming and running in different directions, pushing and trampling on whoever had fallen on the ground. No one had the time to take anything with them. Everyone just ran to save his or her life. Mothers lost their children, whose confused, sad cries coincided with the gunshots. Families were separated and left behind everything they had worked for their whole lives. (3.8)

As soon as danger strikes, people must abandon their connections to their community to survive. Even parents are separated from their children by the panic of it all. War definitely is an effective tool for breaking down any community. Once the enemy does that, it can rebuild the community any way it wants.

Some people tried to hurt us to protect themselves, their families and communities. Because of these things, we decided to bypass villages by walking through the nearby bushes. This way we would be safe and avoid causing chaos. This was one of the consequences of the civil war. People stopped trusting each other, and every stranger became an enemy. Even people who knew you became extremely careful about how they related or spoke to you. (6.1)

Life is tough for Ishmael and his friends, not just because they're homeless and starving and their families are dead. People who have been attacked by soldiers just don't trust a group of strange boys. They could be anyone. No one can take a chance to help someone they don't know.

It was clear from the tone of his voice that he didn't want me around and didn't trust me. I looked at the curious and skeptical faces of the children and the woman. I was glad to see other faces and at the same time disappointed that the war had destroyed the enjoyment of the very experience of meeting people. Even a twelve-year-old couldn't be trusted anymore. (7.15)

Even little kids are a danger. This man has a family to protect and he has to think of them first. He can't worry about helping this unfamiliar boy. He's got to worry about his own little community first to survive.

"Everyone ran when they heard of the 'seven boys' on their way here. I couldn't run at all. So they left me behind. No one was willing to carry me and I didn't want to be a burden," he said.

We explained to him where we were from and where we wanted to go. He asked us to stay for a while and keep him company.

"You young fellows must be hungry. There are some yams in that hut over there. Can you boys cook some for me and yourselves?" he politely asked. When we were almost finished eating the yams, he said slowly, "My children, this country has lost its good heart. People don't trust each other anymore. Years ago, you would have been heartily welcomed in this village. I hope that you boys can find safety before this untrustworthiness and fear cause someone to harm you." (8.22-24)

This old man is one of the first kind people who Ishmael and his friends come into. The rest of the community has run from the "dangerous" boys, but the old man has no choice but to stay behind and wait to see what happens. He knows that the army's goal of destroying connections between people is working. If they can keep people afraid, they can keep right on killing. The old man seems to understand that children, especially, need to feel safety in their community.

The villagers had heard a rumor that some young people, believed to be rebels, were heading their way. Upon hearing this, they had armed themselves and hid, waiting to defend their homes and protect their families. This should not have been a big shock to us, but we didn't expect it to happen here, since we thought we were now far from harm. They asked us several questions along the lines of where were we from? where were we going? and why did we choose that direction? Alhaji, the tallest among us and sometimes mistaken for the oldest, tried to explain to the chief that we were just passing by. Afterward, the men yanked our torn crapes off our feet, untied us, and chased us out of their village, waving their spears and machetes, and screaming after us. (9.10)

In times of war, communities go on lockdown and chase strangers away. It becomes Us vs. Them.

After the meal, the villagers started playing drums, and we all joined hands and danced in circles under the moonlight. During an interval after several songs, one of the men announced that when the dancing had been exhausted, "whenever that will be," he jokingly said, "the strangers will tell us stories about where they are from." He lifted his hands and motioned for the drummers to continue. During the festivities I thought about the biggest celebration we used to have in my town at the end of the year. The women would sing about all the gossip, the dramas, the fights, and everything that had happened that year. Would they be able to sing about all that will happen by the end of this war? I thought. (10.9)

It's obvious the war hasn't come to this town yet. If the people aren't worried about being attacked they can be warm and welcoming. This welcoming community was a taste of home for Ishmael.

The house was big enough to hold all fifty-seven of us. First, we sat around in Laura's living room and told stories; then we danced into the night. It was our last night in New York and it was the perfect place to spend it, because the house was as interesting and filled with amazing stories as our group was. Everyone felt comfortable and saw something from their home. (20.30)

In New York City, Ishmael finds community with kids from all around the world who have lived through the horrors of war. They might be from different places, but they've all been affected by the same terrible realities. It's a community based on shared experiences.

I was sad to leave, but I was also pleased to have met people outside of Sierra Leone. Because if I was to get killed upon my return, I knew that a memory of my existence was alive somewhere in the world. (20.31)

This is a really sad thought, but also a bright moment for Ishmael. He feels as if his life has gotten bigger. His story has touched more people. The world is his community now and he won't be forgotten.

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 can't understand why people from the same community would treat each other this way. Why does the war break down people's relationships? Why does it make it so easy to exploit and harm others?