Did some reading on the beach this week. It wasn't the usual espionage adventure novel I often pick up. And it wasn't a marketing book. Instead, I picked up a new book called A Long Way Gone, a real-life recollection by 27-year old Ishmael Beah. It added a new perspective for me.
Ishmael, who graduated from Oberlin College in 2004, now lives in New York City. But the story of his life from age 12 to about 18 or 19 is riveting. Ishmael, a native of Sierra Leone, was caught in that nation's civil war, when he fled approaching rebels who were overrunning towns and inflicting horrendous torture, rape and murder on virtually anyone in their path -- men, women and children.
After a year on the run, where he was shown incredible kindness and generosity by strangers and also saw unspeakable horrors inflicted on innocent people, Ishmael was captured by the government army. A gentle and kind person by nature, he was turned into a boy soldier -- a heartless killer.
When he was 16, he was fortunate to be found by UNICEF and was removed from the fighting. He went through rehabilitation that helped him heal by learning to forgive himself and gradually regain his humanity.
At 18 he came to the United States, where he finished school and went on to college. He has been a vocal member of the Human Rights Watch Children's Rights Advisory Committee, and he's spoken before the Council on Foreign Relations and the United Nations.
Most of my posts on this blog deal with marketing, communications and consumption -- business.
But as I read this book, it hit me how many people around the world, including 12-year olds -- children who should be out playing and learning and enjoying the wonders of life -- find themselves struggling just to make it through each day, not knowing where their next meal will come from or if they can trust the person next to them. Torn from their families, they are truly alone in the world.
And here I sit, writing about important things like how many people are watching ads on TV or reading the newspaper.
A Long Way Gone puts life into perspective. It's not your typical light summer reading fare, that's for sure. But it will make you think. And it will make you thankful you live in a civilized world where you're not wondering about your next meal or where you will sleep for the night or worse.
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. 2007. $22 US.
What can you and I do?
Ishmael seems to have come through his ordeal fairly intact. He completed college and seems to live a normal, productive life. But there are about a billion people -- one-sixth of the world's population -- who suffer from post-trauma stress as a result of horrors like those Ishmael witnessed and perpetrated. They're in some 40 nations on four continents, and after the Red Cross and UN have helped with immediate medical and housing needs, most are on their own. Most suffer debilitating depression that leads to substance abuse, spousal abuse, suicide. They can't hold jobs, so they are unable to provide for their families. And they contribute to conditions that are ripe for recruitment of new terrorists.
A group I did some work with last year is addressing this issue, albeit in a small way. But it's a start. The Peter C. Alderman Foundation, formed by the parents of a young man who died in the World Trade Center attacks, funds mental health clinics in Cambodia, Rwanda and Uganda, with more to come. They also provide training for healthcare workers in post-conflict nations, so they can return home and train others in modern mental health care. The Alderman family underwrites all administrative expenses, so any donations go 100% to programming. For info, click here.