Please be aware that this discussion guide may contain spoilers!
About this guide
The questions and discussion topics that follow are designed to enhance your reading
of Ishmael Beahs A Long Way Gone. We hope they will enrich your experience
as you explore his inspiring, infinitely valuable story.
An estimated 300,000 child soldiers now fight in the more than fifty violent conflicts
raging around the globe. Far removed from the world of pundits and journalists,
policymakers and diplomats, a thirteen-year-old boy named Ishmael Beah became
one of these young warriors in Sierra Leone. Now in his mid-twenties, he courageously
tells of the horrific road that led him to wield an AK-47 and, fueled by trauma
and drugs, commit terrible acts. A Long Way Gone brings a rare voice of frontline
realism to a widely publicized (and widely misunderstood) human-rights crisis.
In poignantly clear and dauntless storytelling, Ishmael describes how he fled brutal
rebel soldiers, traveling miles from home on foot and gradually being reduced to a
life of raw survival instincts. Yet, unlike so many of his peers, Ishmael lived to
reclaim his true self, emerging from Sierra Leone as the gentle, hopeful young man
he was at heart. His memoir is at once crucial testimony for understanding the
tragedy of contemporary war zones, and a testament to the power of peacemakers.
How familiar were you with the civil wars of Sierra Leone prior to reading A
Long Way Gone? How has Ishmaels story changed your perception of this history,
and of current wars in general?
Chapter seven begins with the story of the imams death, followed by Ishmaels
recollections of his father and an elder blessing their home when they first moved to
Mogbwemo. How do the concepts of faith and hope shift throughout this memoir?
What sustains Ishmael emotionally and spiritually?
Chapter eight closes with the image of villagers running fearfully from Ishmael
and his friends, believing that the seven boys are rebels. How do they overcome
these negative assumptions in communities that have begun to associate the boys
appearance with evil? What lessons could world leaders learn from them about
overcoming distrust, and the importance of judging others individually rather than
What did Ishmaels parents teach him about being a man? How did he define
manhood once he began his long walk west? What general life lessons were his parents
able to teach him that sustained him during his brutal passage from boyhood,
and that he carries with him to this day?
Discuss the role of American hip-hop culture in creating a soundtrack for
Ishmaels life. Why are rappers so appealing to him?
The boys discovery of the Atlantic Ocean and their encounter with a cheerful
fisherman who heals and feeds them is followed by the tragedy of Saidus death
after a bird falls ominously from the sky. Discuss Ishmaels relationship with the
natural world. In what way is he guided by the constancy of the earth and sky?
When Ishmael arrives at the fortified village of Yele in chapter twelve, what do
you discover about the way he began his military career? Was his service, and that
of his equally young friends, necessary? What made his conscription different from
that of drafted American soldiers serving in previous wars?
Ishmael tells us that some of the boys who had been rehabilitated with him later
became soldiers again. What factors ensured that he could remain a civilian?
Storytelling is a powerful force in Ishmaels life, even providing a connection to
his future mother, Laura Simms. What traits make Ishmael a memorable and
unique storyteller? How does his perspective compare to the perspectives of
filmmakers, reporters, or other authors who have recently tried to portray Africas
Ishmael describes his use of Krio and many tribal languages to communicate, as
well as his ability to quote Shakespeares Elizabethan English. What communities
and empires are represented in his many speech styles? In which villages, from
the relatively new UN to the centuries-old Mende and Temne settlements, does the
greatest wisdom lie?
How does Ishmaels concept of family change throughout the memoir, from his
early life in Mattru Jong, to the uncle with whom he is reunited, to his American
family with Laura?
It takes many weeks before Ishmael feels comfortable with the relief workers
refrain that these events are not his fault. What destructive beliefs had he become
addicted to? What states of deprivation and euphoria had his body become addicted
What universal truths does Ishmael teach us about surviving loss and hunger,
and overcoming isolation?
Ishmaels dramatic escape during the later waves of revolution concludes with
the riddle of the monkey. Is his dream of obliterating the monkeyand its violent
endgamescloser to being fulfilled in these early years of the twenty-first century?
What would it take for all of humanity to adopt Ishmaels rejection of vengeance?
Ishmael gives credit to relief workers such as Esther, in conjunction with organizations
such as UNICEF, for rescuing him. He has dedicated his life to their
cause, studying political science and speaking before a broad variety of groups,
ranging from the Council on Foreign Relations to the Center for Emerging Threats
and Opportunities at the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory. What steps has he
inspired you to take to help end the use of child soldiers? How can each of us join
After reading the chronology of Sierra Leones history, what reasons can you
propose for the coups in Ishmaels homeland? Did the arrival of Portuguese slave
traders, or the later colonization by the British, contribute to Sierra Leones twentieth century
woes? What did you discover about the motivations of the army soldiers
versus those of the rebels? In your opinion, what made the leaders of the RUF so
ruthless for so long?
Unless otherwise stated, this discussion guide is reprinted with the permission of Farrar, Straus & Giroux.
Any page references refer to a USA edition of the book, usually the trade paperback version, and may vary in other editions.
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