by Laura Simms.
A strong disease needs a strong medicine. – Mende proverb, Sierra Leone
For 10 years, an unimaginable atrocity of civil war took place in Sierra Leone, a West African country, previously known for its hospitality, natural beauty and kind people. Hearing about what occurred there from the lips of children forced to kill or be killed, those whose arms and legs were cut with blunt machetes, or those designated as “bush wives”, or grown men, changed my life. While coming to know the resilience, gentleness, and generosity of these children made a greater impact.
In November 1996, I as one of five facilitators in New York City for a UNICEF/Norwegian People’s Aid Project called Children’s Voices. Fifty-seven young people from 23 third-world countries, chosen by other children in their homelands, were there to speak on behalf of Children’s Rights on the last and tenth day of a conference held in the EcoSec Room of the United Nations. The first young people I met here were Ishmael Beah and Alusine Bah from Sierra Leone. They were seated outside the conference room in flimsy t-shirts and cotton pants while an early winter snowstorm whitened Manhattan streets. They looked young, innocent and chilled to the bone. They smiled shyly and radiated an equanimity that warmed my heart. I took a taxi home, grabbed sweaters and extra winter coats, and returned to clothe them.
Later that afternoon, each of the children told their stories. Alusine and Ishmael stood together, weeping with faces contorted, to reveal a misery and violence that was hard to reconcile with the sweetness of their voices. I had no place in my own experience to contain the harshness of what they had lived through. Their tragedies along with those of the others, incanted hour after hour, brought up memories of the Holocaust and of what I had only seen in films and newscasts. For each child, it was a small miracle to be together and to be heard. Some of them had risked their lives to come there. The way they shared their narratives was a lesson in itself. A quality of ‘joy to be alive’ framed the tellings, and the tellings seemed to be generous, without self-reference, although they were so deeply personal. They were giving voice for all the children who are forced into unasked for chaos, poverty and violence.
I was hired to spend two hours a day at the conference. However, the choice-less decision to bear witness daily inspired my every morning’s walk to UNICEF and my every late-night bus ride home. My constant thought was, “What if someone had flown me out of the Holocaust 50 years before to speak about my trauma and then flew me back?”
Several years later, when I had brought Ishmael out of Sierra Leone to New York, I learned that he was astonished that day when I introduced myself as a storyteller. He shared with me on one of our first mornings as mother and son, that while visiting his grandmother during the harvest season in Mattru Jong, he sat every evening in a circle with villagers and listened to stories. He could never forget the feeling, although he sadly said he could barely remember the tales. Ishmael explained how important it was for each child to be able to retell the story correctly. The result of this, he began to recognize, was strengthening heightened awareness and listening skills, as well as making everyone a part of a long history still unfolding.
So I asked Ishmael for any story he remembered. This is the fragment he told to me. (Later Ishmael recalled the entire story and the storyteller named Lele Gombe, “who knew how to make a story come alive so it was not forgotten.” The more he healed, the more he recalled.)
“There was one story. Yes, I wish I could remember it. It is about a man who washed himself every morning. He took out each organ, cleaned it and replaced it. One day he took out his heart but forgot to put it back in his body. He was a nice man. But when he went out that day he insulted everyone he met. He ignored old people and those in need. He had so many arguments that everyone asked him what was the problem. Then he remembered that he had not put back his heart. He went home. It was still on the table. He put his heart back in his body. He went out and said he was sorry to everyone.”
In an essay called “Sudden Story,” published in the Storytelling Magazine, I wrote about the taxi ride with Alusine back to JFK airport at the end of the UN Conference. He was terrified of going back to Freetown, terrified for his life. While in the taxi he could not stop crying and asked me to tell him a story. I shared with him a tale that Ben Haggarty had once told to me in a car while we traveled north of London to a festival. It was a story about a poor boy who saw a magician with a magic finger that could turn things to gold. The magician offered the boy many things, each larger and more valuable. Each time the boy refused the gifts offered and asked for more. Finally, the magician inquired, ‘What do you want?’ The boy answered, “I want a magic finger.”
The woman from Norwegian People’s Aid who accompanied me was somewhat irritated and asked, “Why did you tell that story?, Honestly, at the time I had no conscious idea. But, Alusine replied softly, “Because it is what I want.” The demand of that moment had brought up a tale that he heard in its essence and it made me closer to him, realizing he could not only survive, but live.
These boys, who had lived through the devastating chaos and inhumanity of war, had grown up listening to stories. They each had the innate capacity to speak from their hearts and to discern the heart of a tale.
At the end of 2007, Ishmael and I traveled to Montreal where Alusine now lives and goes to college. They were both receiving Canadian Peace Awards. For the first time since that first day in 1996, Alusine, encouraged by my son’s book A Long Way Gone, told his story publicly. Before that he had a list of events that he recited, but never a story that he shared. At the Montreal YMCA, there was not a dry eye in the room. His voice was strong because he told his tale without shame, with feeling, and vivid details. He told his life story, just as Ishmael has, from the point of view of the one who has experienced the trauma and come through it with sanity and dignity intact. It was the time for his own medicine to be stimulated. It was the moment he could reveal the story beyond the litany. He spoke as someone who is scarred with unbearable memory, but does not drown in the misery. I was relieved to know that he was being asked to speak not to sensationalize for others or feel sorry for himself. Since that first meeting 12 years ago, both of these young men have taught me the true role of the storyteller, the genuine listener/healer, and the power of story.
In 1996, unable to keep them in New York, I promised to help both boys if I could. Then in 1998, after Ishmael endured a long frustrating journey through three African countries where his visa was denied, I managed to speak to the then-ambassador of one of those countries. By drawing on my storytelling skills and speaking from my heart, I managed to penetrate his diplomatic mindset. At the end of my tale I asked him, “What if this is the next Martin Luther King or the next Nelson Mandela and you did not sign the visa.” He signed the visa and said, “I am not sure why I am doing this. I could lose my job. Let me know what happens.” Ishmael arrived in New York City soon after. It was another four years before Alusine traveled to Canada.
I hardly remembered how Ishmael looked as I waited for him at the airport. Nearly two years had passed. The conference haunted me with the ephemeral vividness of a dream. The day before he boarded his flight to the U.S., I told him that he could travel with me all summer and rest, but when it was time for him to begin school in the fall,I would find a “real” family for him. There was a silence that could have cut diamonds. He responded, “I thought you were going to be my mother.” The thought entered in my mind stream, “What kind of a human being are you?” In an instant, I felt every cell in my body adjust with an inexplicable sensation of binding decision. “You are right,” I said, “I am your mother.” That was that, as fast and decisive as an event in a fairytale, and as true as the best of stories.
The first night Ishmael slept in his own room. “Where do you sleep?” he asked. I showed him my room and explained how in the U.S. we all sleep in separate rooms and beds. With Ishmael having grown up in a village and after years in a war, everything we encountered together was new territory for both of us. I awkwardly tucked him in and said goodnight. My own being in my own story was demanding that I have no preconceptions, however my story of being a mother to an adolescent boy from Africa was awkward.
He shyly called to me as I started to leave the bedroom, “I imagined you would tell me a story.”
I went back. I sat on the bed and placed my hand on his forehead. He said, “It is so long since I felt a mother’s touch.”
For all the years of storytelling on stages, confident and easily deciding what story to tell, when and to whom, I drew a blank. Then, out of the blue, a story came to mind. Although I reflected that it was not exactly a bedtime tale for a new son, I told it.
It was one of the first stories I ever told. I recorded it with music by Steve Gorn, musician, with a chant I invented based on what I thought were the sounds. The story came from a book that I had found in a school years before. Published by the Board of Education in the 1930s, the book compiled African folk tales with no countries, no tribes or sources. I read it, loved it, and told it, unaware of protocols and copyrights at the time. When I went back to the school a year later and searched for the book it was gone, along with all the old precious folktale books published in the years before 1940.
The tale I told that night was about two brothers who loved to walk. They traveled all the way to a distant village and were told by the chief that they could eat and sleep in the village, but if they snored in the village they would lose their heads. Of course they ate and fell asleep, and one of the brothers began to snore. I was hardly into the story when Ishmael began to sing. I stopped speaking to listen.
“I know this story,” he said in amazement. “It is a Mende Tale. [Ishmae’s family tribe is Mende.] I heard it when I was growing up. This is the song.” He continued to sing and then I finished the story about how the two brothers saved their lives with the song.
Ishmael and I began walking and talking daily and, while doing so, shared stories about our lives. How else would we come to know one another across the gap of cultures, lived events, tragedies, and strangeness of our new relationship? During one of those walks, Ishmael told me how singing a rap song had saved his life.
I reminded him of the songs he sang at the UN that a friend and I recorded, and how, through those hours of recordings, I came to know and trust him by the sound of his voice. That is how he came to the UN. Song, Story. Sharing something far bigger than himself. The words were of wars. The voice was from the heart.
That summer we did travel together. To Ishmael’s amazement, we went to storytelling festivals. I had no idea of the healing nature of that journey. I avoided asking about his life during the war and began to ask about his childhood before. He rented bikes wherever we went. He bicycled knowing he was safe. We ate new foods and laughed a lot.
In dealing with trauma, conventional thought tells us that sharing one’s traumatizing experiences begins to bring someone home to his or her capacity to survive. What we discovered was that by not focusing on that story during those first years, we strengthened Ishmael’s inner narrative of a place and a time before the trauma. We focused on his building a life as a normal person with friends and school and a home. Then, later, when his inner joy was rediscovered and intact, he began to revisit the painful story. This process protected him from re-traumatizing himself or deluding himself with the idea that just telling it a few times and shedding tears would provide him the sanity to live with the deep memory he had of a time unspeakably imprinted in his mind and heart forever.
As time passed, we both began to understand the immense power of having grown up with cultural oral tales shared over and over, never printed or edited, but spoken and discussed, learned, reflected on. These living tales offered templates for inner meaning and morality. The idea of punishment and reward as the inspiration for listening and participating in community was frail compared to the untarnished inner responsibility and com-passion engendered through the stories and the telling situation that was unforgettable. The listener/teller became the owner of that which could turn everything to gold.
This article appeared in the Diving in the Moon Journal, Issue 5, Summer 2208.
An award winning storyteller, recording artist, teacher, writer and humanitarian, Laura Simms is committed to excellence in performance and compassionate action in the world. Based in New York City, she performs for adults and families worldwide. Her work varies from serving as an artist-in-residence for Lincoln Center’s Aesthetic Arts Institute, creating original dance dramas based on fairytales, to consulting for Human Rights Galleries and Consumer Products. She has co- designed a playground, designed and developed intergenerational storytelling projects for healing around the world, and works with conflict resolution, peacemaking and creativity and resilience processes. Laura is a fellow at the Arthur Mauro Peace and Justice Center at the University of Manitoba, faculty for the Next Generation Project at the Murie Center for the Environment, and directs the Storytelling Residency and the Storymentor Long Distance Learning Project. She is cofounder of the World Storytelling Institute, India and New York City. www.laurasimms.com