Tale of Two Storytellers
The Satya Interview with Ishmael Beah and Laura Simms
Storyteller Laura Simms first met Ishmael Beah at a UN conference in 1996
called Children’s Voices, where 57 young people from 23 countries
came together to discuss the challenges they faced—homelessness,
child labor, prostitution and war. Ishmael Beah, 15, left his country for
the first time to attend, and something about his story captivated Laura
At 10 years-old Ishmael was too young to understand the complexity of the civil
war that had just begun in Sierra Leone. Refugees started fleeing to his village. “It
was evident they had seen something that plagued their minds, something that
we would refuse to accept if they told us all of it,” he writes. But by
the age of 12, the war had finally reached Ishmael. The RUF, Revolutionary United
Front, had invaded and destroyed his home. After being on the run for several
months and losing his entire family to the bloodshed, Ishmael and his peers were
recruited to join government forces. “We had no choice. Leaving the village
was as good as being dead.” Armed with an AK-47, addicted to “brown
brown” (a mixture of cocaine and gun powder), and given the nickname “Green
Snake,” Ishmael became a child soldier.
His book A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier (Farrar, Straus and Giroux,
2007), documents these years of his childhood. Ishmael poignantly shares stories
of his youth, his indoctrination into war and his journey back to regain his
With the help of Laura Simms, who took Ishmael in as her own son, Ishmael managed
to flee Sierra Leone in 1998, and move to New York where they both live today.
Laura loves the honor of being a storyteller in the modern world, using stories
to promote tolerance, peace and environmental stewardship. Ishmael also continues
his storytelling tradition by advocating on behalf of child soldiers. Sangamithra
Iyer had a chance to catch up with Ishmael Beah and his American mom, Laura
and listen to their stories.
Laura, what was it about Ishmael that first grabbed your attention?
Laura Simms: I think it was his equanimity. His capacity for listening. His inner
glow. That was before the conference began, when I first met him. When I heard
his story later that day, I was deeply penetrated by the violence of what he
had been forced to engage in and the tremendous loss and suffering that he and
all these children had lived through.
Ishmael, can you explain what it was like initially to be removed from the war
and placed in the rehabilitation center in Freetown, Sierra Leone?
Ishmael Beah: For the first two months, we were going through withdrawal from
the drugs. After that, the trauma hits. You begin to remember. It takes a while
for people to recover. It took me about eight months to regain myself and continue
the process of healing. Turning a young person into a killer is easy to do. You
destroy everything that’s dear to them. To bring them back, to undo those
acts, takes a selfless compassionate person.
In your book, A Long Way Gone you talk about how at the rehabilitation
you and your peers were at first angered when the staff would say “it’s
not your fault,” but eventually you believed it. How did you come to accept
and forgive yourself for what happened in the war and truly come to believe that
it wasn’t your fault?
IB: We didn’t think people could care, but it was their perseverance—their
willingness to view us as children—that eventually made us believe it.
Laura, what was it like when Ishmael first came to live with you?
LS: We were both thrown into a foreign country. I had to become a mom to an African
boy and he had to become a son to an American woman. I think we both had to listen
and observe and ask a lot of questions. We had an amazing thing happen the very
first night he was here. He asked me to tell him a story. I couldn’t really
think of anything. So I told him I would tell him this African story I had learned
20 years ago. I really wasn’t sure where it had come from or why I was
telling it. But as I told it, he began to sing! It turned out to be a Mende story
he knew from his childhood. It was an astonishing moment of—just how did
he end up in this house in lower Manhattan hearing a Mende story that was forgotten
in the war, and out of his mind came a song that he heard in his grandmother’s
village? It was about two brothers who through the power of resilience, imagination
and song really saved their lives.
That is sort of what happened to us. I learned not to ask certain questions because
I wanted him to be able to discover that person he was before the war. And for
those muscles of childhood and happiness to get strong enough that when he did
tell his story it would not overwhelm him and become the only thing that he related
to in his identity, but that he could relate to his goodness.
His appreciation for me, his growing trust, really introduced me to a trust in
my own goodness, which was a great gift. There’s this deep connection [between
us] that is unexplainable. It began a conversation, which still goes on today.
We learn from each other the importance of storytelling—the importance
of speaking one’s truth.
Storytelling is also a form of healing. Laura, can you talk about your work and
the role of storytelling in conflict resolution?
LS: What I know about storytelling is what gave me the inner courage to recognize
the strength of Ishmael’s basic goodness, as something more transformative
and powerful than the incident of being turned into a killer.
I’m a storyteller and committed to the benefits of that activity in itself.
That process really keeps alive very important capacities one needs to envision
a future, to overcome hopelessness, to have a sense to live with what’s
happened in your life and go forward. It allows people to move beyond fixation
But there is a second half to the storytelling. We live by the stories we believe.
We are dealing with an activity that is kind of the very nature of mind itself.
So learning how to listen, and really understand the deeper ramifications of
how a story can actually separate, destroy, manipulate, or how a story can liberate,
comfort, heal and open is a really important discernment.
I work for an environmental group, I work at peacemaking, and I work in tolerance
and try to awaken and activate this capacity for flexible thinking for generosity,
compassion and awareness.
One thing that struck me was when Ishmael talked about the fragility of happiness
during the war.
LS: During the first three months after Ishmael arrived, I had taken him with
me on many tours. He heard a lot of stories. He rode a bicycle, he went swimming,
he met friends and so forth. It was a chance for him to have a taste of his childhood
and strengthen that child inside him. He said to me, “I thought that my
joy had been destroyed, but I’ve had such a great three months and I recognize
that joy is still inside of me. It wasn’t destroyed.” And I was almost
dancing around the house. I said, “Well, I think Ishmael, that you will
really live, you will not only survive, but that joy will get stronger and stronger.”
I work with many kids from Sierra Leone who have had hands or arms amputated
or were rape victims—great suffering. They are the most cheerful people
and the most committed to helping other people make a decent life. They are such
an inspiration—they have managed to take this hell and transform it into
medicine. I feel I am so lucky to be exposed to this.
We sometimes try to hide from ourselves and from children the truth of death,
the consequences of things, and the obstacles that come up in life, but we are
willing to promote wars. These kids know something so intrinsic about the preciousness
of living and the truth of how easy it is to be drawn into suffering and violence
and how hard it is to get out of it. They have something to teach us, to liberate
us, actually. I find it immensely interesting that right now we are all interested
in this. It’s not unrelated to the environment and it’s not unrelated
to social issues. It is at the core. We have taken our children and put them
as fodder on the front lines. What does that mean? That we are willing to eliminate
that which is a potential for the future for diamonds or a story that one government
tells about somebody else.
Ishmael, you recently returned to Sierra Leone for the documentary Bling. What
impact did this trip have on you?
IB: [One of the things that struck me] was how there are a tremendous number
of young people recovering from the war with not a lot of options. The government
is not doing much to help, and the political corruption that caused the war is
still there today. I’m starting a non-profit foundation to raise money
to give opportunities for those children [so they] have the option to move on
with their lives.
For more information about Laura and Ishmael visit www.laurasimms.com and www.alongwaygone.com.
The Ishmael Beah Foundation (www.beahfound.org) will be launched this year.
© STEALTH TECHNOLOGIES INC.