Study Guide: A Long Way Gone by Ishmael Beah: Book Summary

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Ishmael has not been to the hospital since he had walked out a few months before. But one afternoon, during a table tennis match, he feels a tap on his shoulder. It is the nurse from the hospital. She gives him a cold Coca-Cola and invites him to come see her anytime he wants. After she leaves, Alhaji teases Ishmael that the nurse likes him. Anyway, Ishmael decides to go to the hospital. There is a chart on the wall with the names of all the boys and checkmarks to show when they have come to the hospital for scheduled appointments. There are no checkmarks by Ishmael’s name. He finally tells her his name when she asks, and she tells him she is Esther. He asks her if she really wants to be friends with him, and surprisingly, she says maybe not. He bitterly notes to himself that it is better she feels this way, because he has come to believe that people befriend others only to exploit them. Ironically, however, her explanation for saying she’s not sure about befriending him is based on whether she will be able to trust him. She softens this by telling him he has a great smile and should use it more often.

A few days later, Esther throws a package at Ishmael. It is a Walkman and a rap cassette, and he is amazed that she knows he likes rap music. She makes him sit down for a medical exam while he listens to the cassette. She sees the huge scars on his legs from bullet wounds and asks him to tell her where he got them. He then begins to unfold the story. During the dry season, the soldiers had decided to attack another village where there were more rebels than them. So they returned to base, and it was decided that they would capture the village and make it their new base. They traveled there quickly and set up an ambush, but then they realized that the village was empty. Suspiciously, they continued to watch, and eventually, five gunmen returned. Just then, shots were fired behind them, and they realized they were being ambushed themselves. They exchanged fire all night until morning when they were forced to retreat into the village. Ishmael’s squad scattered from one end of the village to the other and hid behind houses while they shot attackers out of the trees. They knew, however, that they needed to get into the forest for protection, and they fired at the center of the rebel lines until they had created an opening and hid in the forest. They were soon joined by the lieutenant who motivated them to continue the fight so they wouldn’t have to keep looking for a new base.

They had all received many bullet wounds, but they fought with new vigor and eventually overpowered the rebels. They returned to the village, and Ishmael began filling his backpack with ammunition. Just then, the gunfire began to rain down on them again. Ishmael was hit three times on his left foot. The sergeant doctor dragged him into a hut and tried to remove the bullets. Ishmael fainted from the pain even though he was quite drugged up. The next day, the doctor said that Ishmael would die from the pain if he didn’t get him back to the base for proper treatment. When he heard this, Ishmael determined that he would come back and fight hard to do anything for his squad. And so the journey began. It was so uncomfortable for him that it seemed like it lasted a month. Finally, they arrived at the base, and the doctor went to work on him while he was given cocaine every time he demanded it. He spent the next three days smoking marijuana, eating, and snorting cocaine.

At the new base, Ishmael had to stay put for three weeks, and he appointed Alhaji to be in charge of his squad. At the end of this time, he joined his squad and captured six rebels. When the lieutenant told him they were the ones who had shot him in the foot, Ishmael lined them up and shot them in their feet. He left them to suffer for a day and then shot each one in the head. Their somber eyes as they realized they were going to die just irritated him.

After he tells Esther the story, she has tears in her eyes and doesn’t know whether to rub his head or hug him. She repeats the mantra that everyone in the rehabilitation center uses, “It’s not your fault.” However, Ishmael hates the phrase. She tells him he must leave the Walkman in the medical center, and when he wants to listen, he can come back every day when she’s there. He angrily throws it at her and walks away.

That night, as he sits on the verandah, he tries to remember events of his childhood, but all he can think of is the first time he slit a man’s throat. He has a severe migraine that night, but won’t allow himself to fall asleep for fear his nightmares will return. Eventually, Esther gets Ishmael to tell her some of his dreams, but he won’t allow her to tell him what they mean.

One day, Esther comes for him with two other men and a UNICEF truck. They are going to the hospital for an examination, and after that, they are going to give him a tour of the city. The field-worker who comes along is named Leslie, and he sits in front with the driver. Esther sits in the back with Alhaji, and every so often tickles the two of them or puts her arms around them. Ishmael, however, resists this affection. Once they arrive at the hospital, the doctor examines Ishmael carefully, touching every part of his body where he had been wounded. Then, they go to the market place where Leslie buys Ishmael a Bob Marley cassette, and Esther buys Alhaji a soccer jersey. Again, Esther takes the Bob Marley tape and tells him to come to the medical center to listen to it.

The next day, Ishmael goes to the center to listen to the tape. Esther tells him his examination results are in, and the doctor has said that nothing is seriously wrong. He just has to take certain medicines, and in a few months, he will have another checkup. She gives him the cassette and a small notebook and pen so he can write down lyrics as he thinks of them. He is amazed that she knows this about him, but soon remembers the questionnaires that they had filled out when they went to school. Ishmael then begins to look forward to Esther’s arrival at the center each day where he sings his lyrics for her. Even Leslie comes over and talks about his lyrics and the history of Rastafarianism.

One night, after he falls asleep after reading over his lyrics, he has a different kind of nightmare. This time, it begins with him and his brother, Junior, swimming at Mattru Jong and diving for oysters. They race home with the oysters, but there is no one there. When he turns to ask Junior what’s going on, Junior has disappeared as well. Then, he is suddenly encircled by faceless people who begin to shoot, stab, and slice each other’s throats. He begins to cry as blood fills the room. Then, he goes outside and finds all of his family standing there. They don’t seem to notice that he is covered with blood. The rain comes and when the family goes inside, he stays in the rain to wash off the blood. This time, when he turns around, the house is gone as well. In the middle of this dream, he falls off his bed, and when he awakens, he is confused as to what is real, and what is not.

The next day, he visits Esther, and she can tell that something is wrong. She convinces him to tell her his dream, and her reply is that, once again, it’s not his fault. This time “even though he has heard that phrase from every staff member – and frankly he has always hated it – he begins this day to believe it.” It doesn’t make him immune from the guilt he feels over what he has done, but it lightens his burdensome memories and gives him the strength to think about all that has happened. Esther doesn’t judge him and welcomes him with inviting eyes that say he’s still a child.

One day, Esther takes Ishmael to her house for dinner, and after they eat, they go outside and look at the moon. He tells her how, when he was young, he would look for shapes in the moon. Once again, he looks at it and feels like it is following him. His grandmother had once said, “In the sky, there are always answers and explanations for everything: every pain, every suffering, every joy, and confusion.” That night, Ishmael wants the sky to talk to him.


This chapter is an explanation of how, gradually, Ishmael is finding himself again with the help of such concerned people as Esther. His psychological re-adjustment to life is slow but sure and when he begins to remember the moon again, it is a sign that he is beginning to heal.

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