Study Guide

A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier Man and the Natural World

By Ishmael Beah

Man and the Natural World

"We must strive to be like the moon." An old man in Kabati repeated this sentence often to people who walked past his house on their way to the river to fetch water, to hunt, to tap palm wine; and to their farms. I remember asking my grandmother what the old man meant. She explained that the adage served to remind people to always be on their best behavior and to be good to others. She said that people complain when there is too much sun and it gets unbearably hot, and also when it rains too much or when it is cold. But she said, no one grumbles when the moon shines. Everyone becomes happy and appreciates the moon in their own special way. Children watch their shadows and play in its light, people gather at the square to tell stories and dance through the night. A lot of happy things happen when the moon shines. These are some of the reasons why we should want to be like the moon. (1.42)

Ishmael grew up very connected to the natural world and hearing stories about it. His elders felt there were lessons to be learned from nature, like this reminder to be like the moon—the kind of person that brings happiness and gratitude to the world. Shmoop definitely wants to be like the moon. How are we doing?

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)

Nature often reflects what's happening in the story. Ishmael is frightened by the empty town and the impending attack and he notices that the animals and bugs and even the moon have followed suit; they're hiding out, too.

The other food that was available in most villages was coconut. I didn't know how to climb a coconut tree. I had tried, but it was just impossible, until one day when I was very hungry and thirsty. I arrived at a village where there was nothing to eat except for the coconuts that sloppily hung from the trees, as if teasing me, daring me to pluck them. It is difficult to explain how it happened, but I mounted the coconut tree quite fast and unexpectedly. By the time I realized what I was doing and thought about my inexperience in this particular art, I was already at the top of the branches and plucking coconuts. I climbed down just as quickly and looked around for something to crack them with. Luckily, I found an old machete and got to work on the coconut shells. After I was done snacking, I found myself a hammock and rested for a while.

I got up well rested and thought, I think I have enough energy now to climb and pick more coconuts for the road. But it was impossible. I couldn't even climb past the middle of the trunk. I tried again and again, but each attempt was more pitiful than the last. I hadn't laughed for a long time, but this made me laugh uncontrollably. I could have written a science paper on the experience. (7.10-11)

Ishmael has to rely on nature for food, but the coconut tree proves to be a tough (coco)nut to crack. When he's hungry enough, he's able to scale the tree and get some food without even thinking about it—it's pure instinct. Once the hunger's gone, no more coconuts for him. It is a pretty crazy story, but it's how his body and nature work together for a while to get him some food.

I had spent more than a month in the forest when I finally ran into people again. The only living things I had met were monkeys, snakes, wild pigs, and deer, none of which I could have a conversation with. Sometimes I watched the little monkeys practice jumping from tree to tree or watched the curious eyes of a deer that sensed my presence. The sounds of branches snapping off trees became my music. There were certain days when the sounds of the branches breaking made a consistent rhythm that I would enjoy very much, and the sonority of it would echo for a while and would gradually fade into the depths of the forest. (8.16)

Ishmael spends a whole bunch of time in the forest hiding out and, though he's lonely, it's clear this is a calming period for him. Nature is a respite from the troubles of his own world.

It was the Atlantic Ocean. The sounds we had heard were those of the waves hitting the shore. I had seen parts of the ocean but had never stood at the shore of one this vast. It spread out beyond the vision of my eyes. The sky was at its bluest and seemed to curve down and join with the ocean in the distance. My eyes widened, a smile forming on my face. Even in the middle of the madness there remained that true and natural beauty, and it took my mind away from my current situation as I marveled at this sight. (9.6)

This is a beautiful, lyrical. Ishmael has been walking along and being afraid for so long, but the sight of the ocean reminds him that the world is still a beautiful place. Well, the natural world at least. People are still managing to muck things up pretty badly.

Some nights the sky wept stars that quickly floated and disappeared into the darkness before our wishes could meet them. Under these stars and sky I used to hear stories, but now it seemed as if it was the sky that was telling us a story as its stars fell, violently colliding with each other. The moon hid behind clouds to avoid seeing what was happening. (10.59)

Another moment where nature reflects the mood. Ishmael seems to think the sky is crying and the moon is hiding. We'd say that's a pretty good reaction to what's happening down below.

The path had ended, but we kept running until the sky swallowed the sun and gave birth to the moon. The bullets continued to fly behind us, but now their redness could be seen as they pierced through the bushes. The moon disappeared and took the stars with it, making the sky weep. Its tears saved us from the red bullets. (11.41)

This passage is another great illustration of the juxtaposition of beautiful language describing the natural world and…bullets.

We took the guns and ammunition off the bodies of my friends and left them there in the forest, which had taken on a life of its own, as if it had trapped the souls that had departed from the dead. The branches of the trees looked as if they were holding hands and bowing their heads in prayer. We crouched into the forest and formed another ambush a few meters away from our initial position. (13.14)

Ishmael seems to have grown up with the belief that people and nature are closely intertwined. He's just killed a bunch of people, and he thinks that the trees seem sad because of all the blood spilled around them. The natural world has been polluted and it mourns accordingly.

My nickname was "Green Snake," because I would situate myself in the most advantageous and sneaky position and would take out a whole village from under the tiniest shrub without being noticed. The lieutenant gave me the name. He said, "You don't look dangerous, but you are, and you blend with nature like a green snake, deceptive and deadly when you want to be." I was happy with my name, and on every raid I made sure I did as my name required. (16.22)

In the army, Ishmael becomes a predatory animal. He uses his natural ability to attack and kill those lower than him on the food chain. We're guessing snakes everywhere are pretty insulted by the metaphor.

When I was a child, my grandmother told me that the sky speaks to those who look and listen to it. She said, "In the sky there are always answers and explanations for everything: every pain, every suffering, joy, and confusion." That night I wanted the sky to talk to me. (17.71)

After spending all that time fighting and killing, Ishmael is finally ready to become the person he was again—someone who listened to the natural world and learned from it.