A Long Way Gone: Novel Summary: Chapter 16 - Chapter 21

Average Overall Rating: 4
Total Votes: 2765

Chapter 16 - Chapter 21

Chapter 16

At Benin Home, the boys are violent and unruly. They crave cocaine and marijuana. They fight amongst themselves for hours, breaking furniture and tossing mattresses into the yard. When the mattresses become wet and unusable, they attack Poppay, the man in charge of storage. They beat  him so badly he is taken to the hospital. He returns several days later and expresses no ill will toward the boys. He says it was not their fault that they behaved like that.

Ishmael continues to have withdrawal symptoms from the drugs. His hands shake and his migraines return. One day the boys decide to break the windows of the classroom, and Ishmael badly cuts his hand. He has to be taken to the hospital where he is treated by a nurse.

The next day he faints from a migraine and is again taken to the hospital, where he remains for several days.

The narrative then flashes back to when he was a junior lieutenant in charge of a small unit. On a scouting expedition, they come upon a rebel-held village and attack it. Alhaji, who fancies himself a Rambo-type figure,  goes first and kills some guards. Then gunfire opens up on both sides. Ishmael and his squad kills everyone in the village.

Ishmael returns to the home. The boys have been there for over a month and they are starting to get over the withdrawal symptoms of doing without drugs.  But they are still deeply disturbed by what they have been through. Memories of the war keep surfacing; they burn their school materials. Later, Mambu goes to the market and sells these materials, which are always replaced by the school after they have been destroyed. Mambu shares the proceeds with the other boys.

Ishmael, Alhaji, and Mambu take the bus into the city to spend their money. When they get there they are enthralled by all the tall buildings, cars, markets, and noise. The walk around the city center. When they get back they tell all the other boys about how exciting the city is. After that the staff arrange weekend trips to the city to stop the boys going there on their own.

The boys begin going to their classes, but they pay no attention, preferring to fight and talk. At night they are awakened by nightmares. Ishmael recalls a horrifying incident in the war. He and his comrades had captured a rebel village. They take some rebels prisoner and make them dig their own graves. Then they bury them alive.

Analysis, chapters 15-16

These two chapters reveal in full measure the damage done to Ishmael and the other boys by their experiences during the war. They have lost all veneer of civilized behavior.  The only discipline they knew how to accept was that imposed by the army and the need to survive. Now that has gone they revert to a form of savagery. They are impossible to teach or control. They are all addicted to drugs, and the sudden withdrawal of those drugs leads to violent symptoms of withdrawal. It takes up to two months for those symptoms to die down.

The fight between the boys that leads to six deaths is telling because as the boys argue before the fight breaks out, it becomes clear that there may be no clear-cut divisions between right or wrong in this civil war. Ishmael’s family, as we know, was killed by rebels, but in this incident at the Home, a rebel boy says, “the army [the government forces] is the enemy. We fought for freedom, and the army  killed my family and destroyed my village” (p. 134). It seems that atrocities were committed on both sides; everyone  has a legitimate grievance.

It is noticeable in these chapters how kindly the boys are treated by the adults who are now in charge of them. There is complete acknowledgment that the boys are not responsible for what happened to them or how they responded to it. But what needs to happen now is for Ishmael to be rehabilitated, to regain control of his life and rejoin the civilized world, even though he will be haunted by his experiences for a very long time.  His rehabilitation will begin in earnest in the next chapter.

Chapter 17

At the hospital, Ishmael is befriended by a nurse named Esther. At first, Ishmael, who has come to distrust all adults, has a hard time trusting her.  One day she gives him a present—a Walkman with a cassette of rap music. As she examines him she notices scars on his legs from bullet wounds, and he reluctantly tells her the story of how he got them.

He tells of how he and his comrades attacked a village. Just outside the village they were ambushed by rebels and lost five men. The fighting went on for a long time and eventually they took control of the village. Ishmael was shot three times in the foot. Two bullets went in and out but one remained in his foot. The next day he was in terrible pain and was carried back to their former base by other soldiers. There, without anesthetic, bullet was removed. Three days later he was carried back to the newly captured base, where he remained for three weeks., recovering from his wound. After that he took part in another skirmish, which resulted in six men being taken prisoner. Ishmael shot each one in the foot and left them in pain for a day before killing them.

Esther tells Ishmael that is was not his fault, but this merely irritates him. He continues to suffer from migraines and nightmares. With Esther, Alhaji, and two men from an organization called Children Associated with the War, he is taken to a hospital in Freetown for another reexamination. After that, they spend some time in the city, where Esther buys Alhaji a soccer jersey and one of the men, named Leslie, buys Ishmael a Bob Marley cassette.

As the days go by, Ishmael comes to accept Esther’s friendship. He sings rap songs to her that he has memorized.  He has another nightmare, full of killing and blood, in which his family appears, unharmed. It is the first time he has dreamed of his family. He tells Esther of the dream, and he starts to believe for the first time that what she says—that it is not his fault—is in fact true. It lessens the guilt he feels.


Chapter 18

Ishmael enjoys the companionship of Esther and has become fond of her, although he does not like to show it. At a talent show at the home, Ishmael performs a monologue from Shakespeare’s play, Julius Caesar and performs a short play he has written about a boy soldier.  Visitors from the United Nations and UNICEF are impressed, and Ishmael is asked to become a spokesman for the center. He travels to Freetown where he addresses groups about the need to stop the recruitment of children as soldiers. He says such boy soldiers can be rehabilitated.

Ishmael has been at the Benin Home for six months when his childhood friend Mohamed arrives. They are happy to see each other and recall their childhood days.

Leslie manages to locate Ishmael’s uncle and brings him to see Ishmael. His uncle says he will visit at weekends and eventually Ishmael will be able to come and live with him and his family. When his uncle visits, the two of them go for walks and get to know each other. The uncle is a kind man, and Ishmael talks to him about his memories of his family.

One weekend Ishmael’s uncle takes him to meet his family, who live in the western part of Freetown. There are four children: Allie, Matilda, Kona, and Sombo.  He is immediately accepted into the family. Ishmael is happy that he has discovered a family that he never knew existed.

Analysis, chapters 17-18

These chapters who Ishmael’s slow rehabilitation. He learns once more about how to feel affection for others and to live a normal life. He comes to accept that what happened was not his fault; he had no choice. Gradually he learns how to trust other people again. There are two vehicles for this transformation: Esther, who becomes like a surrogate sister to him, and his uncle, who takes him into his family. As Ishmael learns how to talk once more about the good times he had before the war, he reconnects with the boy he was before the nightmare of the war began. This makes him happy, but he is still wary, not wanting to reveal his emotions to anyone.

These chapters also show in passing the extent to which official efforts were made at the time to take child soldiers out of the war and rehabilitate them in places like Benin Home. Many organizations were involved, including the European Commission, UNICEF, the United Nations, and several NGOs (nongovernmental organizations).  It is noticeable also how quickly Ishmael makes a favorable impression and is appointed spokesman for the center. He is obviously highly intelligent and articulate.


Chapter 19

Ishmael is still deeply troubled. He wonders why he has survived the war, when everyone else in his family has been killed. After an emotional farewell to his friends at the Home, he goes to live with his uncle, where he shares a room with his older cousin Allie. Allie gives him nice shoes and a stylish shirt so they can both go dancing at a local pub. At one point Ishmael is reminded of a time when he had participated in an attack on a town during a school dance, and he is troubled by the memory.  But he and Allie stay and dance all night. After that Ishmael dates a girl he met at the dance for a few weeks. But she wants to know about his background and he does not want to tell her, so the relationship ends.

Leslie from the Home comes to see him and tells him that he has been asked to go for an interview. The interview is to select two children to go to the United Nations in New York to speak about what can be done to help children in Sierra Leone. Ishmael goes to the interview  and tells the man who interviews him that he is a suitable candidate because he knows from experience what the war has done to children.

Ishmael is selected to go to the UN. Mr. Kamera from the Children Associated with the War organization takes him to get a passport. He also goes to the American Embassy to get a visa. He says goodbye to his new family and prepares to make the trip to the United States.

Chapter 20

With Dr. Tamba from Children Associated with the War, and another boy called Bah, Ishmael arrives in New York City. It is nearly winter (November 1996) but Ishmael is not dressed for it. He has never been so cold.  It is snowing and he has never seen snow before. They stay at a YMCA hotel, where Ishmael watches television for the first time in his life.

The following morning at breakfast he meets fifty-seven children from twenty-three different countries who are there for the United Nations First International Children’s Parliament. That morning, at the first session, Ishmael meets Laura Simms, a white American woman who describes herself as a storyteller. She offers workshops to help the children learn how to tell their stories more effectively. Noticing that Ishmael and Bah still look cold, she brings them winter jackets in the evening.

During the conference all the participants discuss how to solve the problems children face in war-torn countries. In the evenings, Ishmael and his new friend Madoka from Malawi go to Times Square and marvel at the lights and bustle of the place.

On the last day of the conference Ishmael is one of the children who speak at the UN Economic and Social Council. He tells of his experience as a soldier and of his rehabilitation.  That night all the children go to Laura’s house in the East Village, New York City. He is sad when the time comes to return to Sierra Leone. Although he does not know it at the time, Laura will soon become his adopted mother.

Chapter 21

Ishmael and Mohamed start school again. He is now sixteen years old. One morning in March 1997 he wakes up to the sound of gunfire. He sees soldiers and army trucks as he looks down on the city from the verandah of his house. Prisoners are freed from the prison and go on a killing rampage. As the day wears on Ishmael hears on the radio that the civilian government has been overthrown by a collaboration between the RUF (the rebels) and the army. The capital city falls into a state of lawlessness.

Food soon becomes scarce and Ishmael and Mohamed go to a secret market to buy supplies.  Armed men arrive and shoot into the crowd. A woman is killed. The two boys manage to make their escape, and also avoid being hit when a soldier in a helicopter opens fire on a crowd of protestors.  They hide in a gutter for six hours and then make their way home at night, under cover of darkness.

The strife in the city continues for five months. The entire family of one of Ishmael’s neighbors is killed by soldiers because the man had been listening to a pirate radio station that accused the government of atrocities.

Ishmael’s uncle becomes sick. No doctor will risk coming to see him because of all the violence, and he dies. He is buried in the local cemetery the next day. Ishmael is grief-stricken.

Believing that if he stays longer in Freetown he will again be recruited by the army, Ishmael calls Laura in New York and asks if he could stay with her if he is able to get to New York City. She says yes.

He leaves Freetown at the end of October 1997.  He walks to the bus station before sunrise and takes the bus out of the city. He is set off at a bridge and walks all day to a junction where he waits all night with a group of about thirty other people, all of whom are desperate to get out of the violence of the city.  The bus arrives in the morning. During the journey the bus is stopped many times by soldiers at roadblocks. At four o’clock in the afternoon it arrives at the border town of Kambia.  Ishmael’s passport is stamped and he crosses the border into Guinea.

As he waits for a bus to the capital city, Conakry, he has to pass through a checkpoint manned by soldiers. He has to give them money before they will let him through. He takes the fifty-mile journey to Conakry, passing through many army checkpoints. He manages to avoid getting his passport stamped because he knows the soldiers will ask him for more money than he can spare. He thus enters the country illegally. When he arrives in Conakry he takes a taxi to the Sierra Leone embassy. There are more than fifty people in the compound, lying on mats. Ishmael is relieved to have escaped Sierra Leone. He observes a mother telling stories to her children, and remembers a story he heard as a boy about a hunter who is about to shoot a monkey when the monkey says that if the hunter kills him, his (the hunter’s) mother will die, but if he does not,  his father will die. Ishmael decided at the age of seven that the only solution to this conundrum would be to shoot the monkey so it would no longer be able to put others in such an impossible situation.

Analysis, Chapters 19-21

In chapter 19, although Ishmael has been rescued and now lives in a safe place, he is not yet entirely secure, because he still has to find a permanent home. He is luckier than many. His friend, Mambu, for example, has no family, and no foster family is found for him, and as a result he finds himself back in the war as a soldier.

Ishmael has now been incorporated into another family, and although his nightmares and bad memories sometimes recur, he lives a more normal life. But the price is that he does not tell others about his background. He is still set apart by the horrors he has been through. This is shown several times—for example, when he goes to the interview for the UN trip, he is convinced that he is far better qualified than the other boys because he has seen war directly. At the passport office he becomes impatient when asked for his birth certificate and tries to explain to the official that no one had a chance to assemble important documents before the war came suddenly and forced people out of their homes. He feels the same about the questions asked him by the woman at the American Embassy before she issues him a visa to visit the United States. No one can really understand his situation who has not been through it themselves.

Gradually, Ishmael’s horizons expand and he experiences the culture shock of his first visit to the United States. Up to that point his image of what New York is like comes to him from rap music, and he thinks the city is much more violent than in fact it turns out to be. However, the weather is cold and the food unfamiliar. He  notices other differences too, such as the fact that unlike on public transportation at home in Sierra Leone, people do not talk to each other on the subway.

The story ends with yet another escape by Ishmael, this time via a perilous bus journey to Guinea. This time he has escaped war for good. Beah immigrated to the United States in 1997, where he was adopted by Laura Simms.


Quotes: Search by Author