Monday, October 29, 2007

A tiny part of a much larger story

Distinguished Speaker Ishmael Beah speaks to audience concerning war and the value of education

Author and former child soldier Ishmael Beah visited Alumni Arena on Wednesday night to speak to UB students and community members as part of this year's Distinguished Speaker Series.

Composed and dignified, the speaker met with members of the press before the presentation. He commented that he never expected to experience such a level of notoriety.

"I don't take myself as seriously as some people take me," he said to the press. "It is quite a strange feeling."

Still, a sold-out crowd composed of many students and faculty listened earnestly to Beah's speech about his experiences as a child soldier and his activism in humanitarian issues, which was supplemented by readings from his book, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. The book was featured as part of this academic year's UB Reads program.

"He's just humble," said freshman undecided major Megan Hoak, who read Memoirs as part of her participation in the UB Reads program. "I think he's heroic."

After an introduction by UB faculty and the presentation of a hymn by a capella vocalist group The Echo, Beah solemnly took the stage.

He began by explaining to the audience how he came to the United States in 1998 after having fought as a child soldier in the Republic of Sierra Leone for almost three years.

The United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) rescued Beah from the conflict when he was only 15 years old, he said. He eventually traveled to New York to attend the United Nations International School, then went on to earn a degree in political science from Oberlin College in Ohio.

He proceeded to comment that through his studies, he came to observe the media's portrayal of his home country as primitive and warlike.

"The violence was sensationalized," he said.

He argued that the homeland he remembers is a peaceful, civilized place.

"There was a strong sense of community...I learned about Shakespeare in school."

Beah told the audience that the misconceptions of Sierra Leone contributed to his motivation to write his book, and that he also aimed to educate people about child soldiers.

"This is not an African problem; it is worldwide," he said. "This is a tiny part of a much larger story."

The remainder of his presentation featured the reading of passages from Memoirs. The first passage, describing how he gradually "saw the landscape starting to change" toward violence, set the tone for the other readings. The speaker's voice grew more distant and aloof as he continued to read his personal accounts of the horrors of war that he experienced in his home country.

He read a section in which he saw a bloody woman carrying a dead child on her back one day as the conflicts escalated. She had survived bullet fire because of the child.

"Luckily for her, the bullets did not go all the way through the woman's body," Beah read dispassionately.

His next passage, recounting the recovery process, was particularly chilling.

He described a memory in which he carried a linen-wrapped corpse in a wheelbarrow while looking for a proper place in a cemetery to bury the body.

"I took the shroud off and the face was my own," he said, explaining that this passage described a dream he'd had.

Finally, Beah expressed his appreciation for the education he received in high school and at Oberlin College.

When he first received his schoolbooks at the International School, he recalls asking, "Are you sure these are mine, that I can take them home?"

He said that he watched his peers leave their books in their lockers, ignored. He believes that students are lucky to have an education at all.

"It was empowerment for me. It opened up my world," he said.

He went on to add that the only difference between himself and any other rehabilitated child soldier is that he was fortunate enough to receive a quality education.

"I am not special," he said. "I hope that you think of education as a process of self discovery."

Beah's last comments for the evening were on the role of individuals interested in global humanitarianism.

"I do not wish to belittle any person's suffering. This is when we begin to have problems," he said.

During the question-and-answer session that followed the presentation, a graduate student from Sudan asked the speaker what efforts he was making to improve conditions during the crisis in Darfur.

"I have not spoken much about that," Beah said. "But I'm very concerned about the issue."

He received applause after adding, "When these people are suffering, they are my brothers no matter how far away they are."

Many students like Brandi Olsen, a senior at Mount Mercy High School in South Buffalo, were pleased by the event.

"I think he's really admirable," she said. "I really enjoyed it."

Beah commented more than once during the Speaker Series event on the effort it takes to reclaim the innocence and human element one loses to war.

"I think it is possible to get your humanity back, but... it is not easy," he said. "You have to learn how to live again."

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