Newsmaker: Ishmael Beah

Posted Tuesday, January 14, 2014 - 10:00
Ishmael Beah

After serving as a child soldier in Sierra Leone’s civil war, Ishmael Beah struggled to find hope that he could regain his humanity. His first book, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, chronicles this experience and has led to his work in human rights advocacy, particularly as it relates to children and war. His forthcoming novel, Radiance of Tomorrow (Macmillan, 2014), delves into what people experience after war. Beah, who will headline the Arthur Curley Memorial Lecture at the 2014 ALA Midwinter Meeting and Exhibits in Philadelphia, talked with American Libraries about the nature of violence and the profound power of books and libraries.

Why did you decide to write a memoir about your childhood experiences in Sierra Leone?

ISHMAEL BEAH: It came out of several frustrations about the lack of knowledge about the use of children in war and also the way my country was only presented as a place of violence. I wanted to put a human face to the experience so that people can become somewhat intimate with the life of a child in war, with a country at war. I wanted young people in particular to understand the nature of violence and what it does to all of us when we are consumed by it or find ourselves in circumstances where it is our only choice. My intention was to show the strength and resilience of the human spirit to outlive suffering of any sort.

What, if any, impact did you hope your memoir would have on life in conflict areas? My aspiration was that it would show children emerging from conflict the possibility of recovering from war and having a normal life. Of course, it is a long and difficult process, but it is possible. For those who are still in conflict, I had thought that perhaps my small story would rekindle their spirits and never give up hope.

What role did education and libraries play in shaping your experiences, then and now? To lend the words of Nelson Mandela, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” In my case education, or access to it, changed my life. It enabled me to rediscover my humanity and my mind, and to find my place and role in the world. I believe education to be a most potent medicine for whatever we encounter in our lives. My recovery from war was completed because I had the opportunity of education. It even gave me the tools to understand what had happened to me. I remember when I started school in the US and how remarkably happy I was to discover the existence of a library in my school and that I could borrow books for free or sit in there and read anything I wanted. I couldn’t believe it! Libraries are powerhouses of knowledge, a place I see as the garden where the mind comes to fuel, revitalize, and cultivate its potential. What place could be better than that in any society or community in the world?

Why is access to information important, both in conflict areas and more generally? Information or knowledge is power and in places of conflict, access to that power is crucial. It is literally life or death. There is a reason why schools, libraries, and generally places of knowledge get attacked and destroyed during conflict.

What are you hoping librarians come away with after hearing your lecture or reading your books? I will open the doors and windows to my culture, to Sierra Leone, and hope that they will walk in, peep in, and deepen their understanding of my traditions, my people, of what it means to be human anywhere in the world. Books have the ability of transporting us to other places to feast with our imagination. I also come from an oral tradition that regards exchange—in this case a lecture—as a journey. Thus, I will bring librarians along on that journey, and we can all come out with some insights and hopefully some seeds planted in our imagination.

What opportunities do you think librarians provide for the advocacy work that you do? I see the role of librarians as similar to that of the elders in my culture. They carry the knowledge that needs to be passed on to the people, especially the younger generation. There are many places in the world where a child would do anything to get a book or learn how to read one. And sparking the imagination, the mind of anyone in the world, is the most precious gift. Hence, I think librarians can be quite helpful in conflict and postconflict areas. My advocacy work is really trying to empower young people to utilize their minds and re-believe in their intelligence and capacity to choose better for themselves.  Librarians do the same.  

What was your first experience with a library? My first experience with a library and a librarian, if I can say so, was during primary school in Sierra Leone. My teacher had a few books: textbooks and some novels. All the students went to his home after school and begged to have a few minutes to read. Sometimes I stayed behind and would copy by hand some paragraphs or chapters in my notebook to read at a later time. My real experience with a library was here in the US in New York. It was my first day of school in this country and there was a library tour. I couldn’t believe the amount of books that were in there that I now had access to. I kept asking my teacher if it was really true that I could check out books anytime I liked. My peers found my reaction and excitement very strange as to them it was normal to have a library.

Do you have another story about a library experience that you'd like to share? In high school and university, I spent hours in libraries reading, of course, but also imagining if only we had so many books at our disposal in my village [in Sierra Leone], I would have read so much more as a boy. But I am catching up now!

What will it take to expand the role and presence of public and school libraries in West Africa? A good government and ministry of education that is invested in such an endeavor. This is the only way it can be sustainable. 

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