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

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Some evenings, now that he has returned home, Ishmael will tell his family stories about his experiences in New York City. Afterwards, his uncle would respond by saying that it seemed like a strange trip. To Ishmael, it seems like something that had happened in his mind. Soon, he and Mohamed begin school again at St. Edward’s Secondary School. Ishmael is excited, because he has forgotten what it is like to be a student, to sit in class, to take notes, do homework, make friends and even provoke other students. He is eager to return, but is downcast when all the other students sit apart from them. They want to avoid Ishmael, because he had been a boy soldier. Their lives are tainted by their experiences, but Ishmael is confident that nothing could get any worse than it has been and that makes him smile.

Then, on May 25, 1997, the war comes to Freetown. Gunshots erupt from around the State House and the House of Parliament, and they can see soldiers and army trucks everywhere. Ishmael and Mohamed look at each other as if to say, “Not again.” Then, they set the prisoners free from the central prisons and these criminals immediately set to find the lawyers and judges who had put them there. They tortured and killed them and their families. Someone comes on the radio and announces that his name is Johnny Paul Koroma and he is the new president of Sierra Leone. Somehow, the army has overthrown a democratically elected president. Later, they learn that the RUF (the rebels) have collaborated with the military to oust the civilian government. The whole country has now crumbled into lawlessness. Ishmael knows that he can’t return to his previous life, because he doesn’t think that now he can make it out alive.

The “Sobels” (soldiers/rebels) begin looting the money in banks, halting, searching, and stealing from people on the streets, and occupying the secondary schools and campuses. Day by day, it becomes top dangerous to be out in the open and maybe take a stray bullet. Unfortunately, the Sobels also loot all the available food and so, going out in search of food becomes necessary. Ishmael has heard of a secret market where unavailable food items are being sold to civilians. So he and Mohamed head for this market and soon have many items they desperately need. Unfortunately, as they are about to leave, a Land Rover roars up and with a megaphone, a soldier orders them to put down their bags of goods and lie down on the ground with their hands on their heads. One woman tries to run and is shot in the head. This causes a general panic, and people begin running everywhere. Ishmael and Mohamed crouch and run, keeping their goods with them. They find their way to the main road and begin the final walk home. Just as they come to the Cotton Tree, the peace symbol of Sierra Leone, a group of armed men begins firing into the crowd and lobbing tear gas. The two boys manage to break free of this pandemonium and run again. Ishmael has become furious, but knows he must keep his head or perhaps die. They run for the nearest gutter and jump in. The soldiers are mowing down the crowd, and so the two boys, along with other people, must stay hidden in the gutter until night falls, when it is safer to walk through the streets. They lay there for six hours. Ishmael realizes that the other people in the gutter are much more frightened than he is, because he is the one who has already experienced these horrors. Night finally comes and the two boys sneak away and find their way home. His uncle is sitting on the verandah and welcomes them home with tears in his eyes.

The gunshots continue for the next five months. People mostly eat soaked raw rice with sugar or plain gari with salt, and listen to the radio, hoping to hear some good news. However, life doesn’t always work the way we want, and when a neighbor speaks out against the civilian deaths, he and his entire family are massacred. This makes people so afraid that they can’t leave their houses. It is only with time and the need to eat that people return to their daily business. Ishmael thinks that “they had run so far away from the war, only to be caught back in it. There is nowhere to go from here.” He thinks of Laura Simms who he has lost contact with for five months. He tries to call her and is unsuccessful. It is a sign that he is becoming more desperate to escape the lost cause of Sierra Leone.

Then, Ishmael’s uncle becomes sick. He develops a fever, and even though they bring him medicine, he grows worse. Unfortunately, there are no doctors or nurses to ask for help, because they have either fled the city or have gone into hiding. One night, while Ishmael is wiping his forehead, his uncle falls off the bed. Ishmael gets him back in bed and looks into his eyes. He can see that the man has given up hope. He tries to utter something, but falls dead. His aunt is inconsolable and tears run uncontrolled down Ishmael’s face. “He is always losing everything that means something to him.” His uncle is buried the next morning. His aunt collapses and cannot go the burial. Ishmael sits on the ground next to the grave and talks to his uncle until the curfew arrives, and he runs for home.

Ishmael finally gets through to Laura Simms, and he has a very important request to make of her. He asks that if he makes his way to New York, could he stay with her. She tells him that he absolutely has a home with her. He promises that he will call her when he reaches the capital of Guinea, Conakry, because that is the only way out of Sierra Leone – travel through a country that is at peace. So Ishmael leaves on October 31, 1997. He says goodbye to Mohamed on the verandah, thinking how this moment is becoming all too familiar – saying good bye to those he loves. Mohamed promises to tell the rest of the family, and Ishmael sets off on his last journey out of danger.

Ishmael first makes it to the old bus station by walking near the gutters in case of gunfire. The bus arrives after a long time and travels the back road out of the city. Then, they are let off at an old bridge from which they must walk all day to another bus junction. Once at the next station, the passengers wait all night, fearful, because they know they haven’t completely escaped the madness. Ishmael thinks, “When will I stop running from this war? Why does everyone keep dying except me?” Finally, the second bus arrives, but in the bushes are soldiers that stop it and check everyone. Fortunately, they allow all the passengers to board, and the bus continues on. After that, every time they approach a roadblock, Ishmael prays that there will be spiritual aid to help them through. They reach the destination for this bus, Kambia, at four in the afternoon. Immigration officers force them all to pay for the right to cross the border, but finally they are in Guinea. It is over fifty miles from there to Conakry, and Ishmael walks fast to the next bus that will take him there.

First, he has to cross a Guinean checkpoint before he can board the bus. He avoids eye contact with all the soldiers for fear they will recognize him as a former soldier. He presents his documents to a fat soldier smoking a cigar who forces him to pay to get his passport back. He finally is able to board the bus, but must stand all the way to the capital. They go through fifteen checkpoints and the soldiers are unmerciful. If you couldn’t pay their price, you were liked off the bus. An old man takes Ishmael under his wing and the soldiers assume they are father and son. As a result, the man pays the fees, and it is his documents that are checked. He does so willingly, because he says he has plenty of money. One of the soldiers takes Ishmael’s favorite belt, and at a later checkpoint, when he is ordered to raise his arms, his pants fall down. Most laugh at his predicament, but one soldier takes off one of his own shoelaces and ties it around Ishmael’s waist to hold up his pants. Then, Ishmael comes to a point where he only has one hundred leones left, and the cost of the entry fee into the capital is three hundred leones. Fortunately, while he is standing in line at the entry to the city, a man in front of him drops one of his bags. So, Ishmael picks it up and nonchalantly walks out of the entry point. He has entered the country illegally, and he knows it could cost him later. However, for now, he has reached the city where he can call Laura. He finds out that he can find shelter at the Sierra Leonean Embassy. They let him in on the basis of his passport, and he finds a corner in the compound to sleep for the night. Beside him sits a mother whispering a story to her children and Ishmael falls asleep with the memory of the stories his own mother had told him as a child.

One of the stories he has heard as a child is one that sums up the contradictions of war and he ends this story by presenting it to the reader: A hunter goes into the bush to kill a monkey. He finds one lounging in an unconcerned manner in a tree and raises his rifle and aims at the animal. The monkey then begins to speak, telling the hunter that if he shoots him, the hunter’s mother will die, and if he doesn’t shoot him, his father will die. The storyteller then asks, “What would you do if you were the hunter?” It is a Catch-22 for any child who is asked the question. Who would you choose? There is no right answer, but Ishmael, in spite of his love for his mother, had decided at the age of seven when he first heard the story, that he would shoot the monkey so that he would no longer have a chance to put other hunters in the same predicament.

Ishmael’s story ends here. The reader knows that Ishmael made it to New York and began a new life there. He finished high school and graduated from Oberlin College. He now works for various groups who deal with the issue of children affected by war. He has finally escaped war and found peace.


Ishmael finally realizes that he cannot stay in Sierra Leone, so his long, arduous journey out of his country and into Guinea becomes a metaphorical journey out of death and into life.

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