I read the book a long way gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. You may have seen it in Starbucks as they’ve been promoting it heavily for the past month. It’s a pretty quick read at about 200 pages, it holds your attention, and really packs a big punch. The memoir of Beah, a boy soldier in the Sierra Leone civil war, is deeply powerful stuff.
Related, I saw Blood Diamond this weekend. It’s about the (illegal) diamond trade in Sierra Leone and does a great job of bringing to life the “blood” in “blood diamonds”. (Also just a really well-done movie.)
Back to the book. I was struck by how successful it was at making something so foreign so immediately real. One day he’s living what feels like a perfectly normal life that you or I could relate to, and then the next day living in a state of total chaos that I could barely process. The narrator, barely a teenager, is forced to fend for himself and does terrible things in order to survive. The book gives you a brief but jarring and resonant glimpse into life as a boy soldier (~250,000 still in such a condition). The movie touches on the boy soldier perspective, but fits it within the macro situation. Together, the book and movie, are a really powerful 1-2 punch.
I had heard about the civil wars in Africa, but like most Americans…that’s it. I heard them in passing on the nightly news or in the context of fundraising. The book made the suffering real, by giving it a human face. We can easily shut out things when they’re dehumanized and sterile. Since most of us will never visit Africa, let alone witness the cost of these wars, we need movies, books, and other mediums to open our eyes and hearts. It makes me wonder how this will all evolve. As camcorders find their way around the world, how soon before most civil conflict, terrorist acts, etc are captured on video and shared on YouTube? Why wait for a book or a Hollywood blockbuster when we can see video distributed in near-real time (how chilling was it to see and hear the V-Tech cell phone footage this morning?). Will talented editors be able to quickly splice this footage together and package them in a format that can move the mind heart to bring out compassion that rivals a Starbucks bestseller or a Dicaprio blockbuster?
Is that reason enough to be optimistic? While this continues to evolve, I urge to read a long way gone, and if you’re into movies, rent Blood Diamond. And, hey, if watching Blood Diamond convinces you that you don’t really need that diamond ring after all, I’ll even pay your rental fee.
3/30/13 – I still hate diamonds.