Yesterday I attended the Montreal book launch of Ishmael Beah’s new novel, “A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier,” which is holding strong at number one on the New York Times bestseller list. The talk at McGill University, included an introduction by Senator Romeo Dallaire, who gave a power point presentation about child soldiers all over the world (the UN estimates there are between 250,000 and 300,000) and the need to put pressure on countries like the security council five (USA, Great Britain, France, Russia, China) to stop the production and dissemination of light weight arms, the key to making children effective instruments of warfare. Beah followed with first-hand accounts of being forced into warfare in Sierra Leone at the age of 12 for two years, his time as a sleep-deprived, drug laden child killer, his rehabilitation, and his focus on activating change in his home country and around the world.
Beah also spoke of “old school hip hop” and how that art of storytelling and meaningful music helped him survive his experience. Beah told the packed room that since the war has ended, that there has been a “music explosion” in Sierra Leone. He listed off a whack of groups currently tackling issues like corruption, healing and war through music. Here are just a few groups to check out on Beah’s recommendation: Baw Waw Society, Eemmerson, Jimmy B, and the Jungle Leaders. The BBC has also produced an audio documentary, “The Beautiful Struggle” that looks at politics and music in postwar Sierra Leone…
At the end of the event during Q & A, perhaps the most interesting comments and reactions occurred. Near the very end an extremely nervous man approached the audience mic and added to the ongoing conversation of the value of human life (Dallaire had said that the UN pulled out of Rwanda as the genocide began because ten white soldiers were killed, suggesting their lives were of more value to Western nations than the 800,000 Rwandans who would later be slaughtered in a period of 100 days). This particular gentleman wondered aloud if “human value” was really about “what we’re worth” connected to material possessions and the affluence of the West. He then quietly suggested that what if people in the West were to actually try giving up some things, like their ipods, maybe the balance would shift. Much to my disgust, the crowd turned on him and a collective groan was heard from this privileged audience at the suggestion of material sacrifice. Dallaire then responded cheekily to the man by saying that we didn’t need to give things up in the West, we just needed to make sure that whatever we spent on ourselves was equally spent on helping developing nations overcome poverty, disease and war. Dallaire then blamed the media in the West for not staying more focused on these issues and rhetorically asked why the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) was being increasingly corporatized and forced to “put out the crap” the corporate media does.
What was striking about this exchange at the end of this excellent event was the West’s complete inability to deal with the connections between our over-consumption (after all Mr. Dallaire, we would need four planets if everyone lived the way the average Canadian lived) and the struggles of the so-called developing world. It is easy to blame the media, but when an affluent crowd in the West balks at the idea of “giving some things up” we are trapped in a vicious cycle of denial: as long as the West remains obsessed with material fulfillment and consumption, we will not give our media reasons to cover issues that feed into our own insular world, articulated at the extreme by reportage on celebrity culture. At least for now the media is focused on a courageous and talented young artist like Ishmael Beah and the issues he is bringing forward. If the West can pry itself away from its toys (like our iPods) for a sustained period, then maybe the balance will shift.
To watch videos, listen to Beah read, and find out about his story, the book and the foundation he is creating, visit his site.