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Magic words

Child soldier and author's MU events explore the role of storytelling in healing

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  • Story by Karen Pojmann
  • Photos by John Madere and Gina Bramucci
  • Published: Feb. 17, 2009
Ishmael Beah

Ishmael Beah, author of the bestselling book A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, visits MU this week with storyteller Laura Simms. Photo by John Madere

The day in 1993 when his fellow villagers were slaughtered, 12-year-old Ishmael Beah was away from home, performing with a hip-hop group in a nearby village. Discovering the massacre, a part of Sierra Leone’s nine-year civil war, Beah and other child survivors fled the violence, traveling in search of food and safety.

By age 13, the orphaned Beah had been recruited into the nation’s army, given drugs and weapons, and forced to kill his countrymen until, three years later, UNICEF workers relocated him to a rehabilitation camp. Later Beah was adopted by American professional storyteller Laura Simms and, in 1998, brought to the United States, where he graduated from the U.N. International School and Oberlin College before penning a memoir, A Long Way Gone, that became an international best-seller.

This week Beah and Simms visit Columbia, Mo., to take part in a four-day series of events organized by Kind Crone Productions, the company of Grammy-nominated storyteller and MU Theatre Department graduate student Milbre Burch. Along with numerous community appearances and workshops, the pair’s packed schedule includes two days at MU filled with private readings and classroom visits as well as a Wednesday-night public lecture and a Thursday-night reception and panel discussion.

The “Telling Stories, Changing Lives” residency explores the role verbal expression – particularly embracing one’s own narrative – can play in helping people who have been traumatized.

“Storytelling is something human beings are wired for,” says Burch, a long-time friend of Simms. “Being able to tell your story is a very basic way of processing what has happened to you … to gain both some acknowledgement of it and some distance from it and make some decisions about whether that’s going to be your entire story.”

Finding the words

Red Woman - Kitgum - Uganda

“Red Woman - Kitgum - Uganda,” by MU Journalism School alumna Gina Bramucci, is part of the exhibition “Global Journalist: The Face of Refuge in Darfur, Central African Republic and Uganda,” on display in the Lee Hills Hall Rotunda through March 7.

Though best known as a storyteller and children’s-book author, Simms has made a mark internationally for what Burch calls “compassionate action” projects, including story-based work with gypsy women and children in Romania, UN facilitation with groups of children affected by war, and theater-troupe projects with Sierra Leoneans whose limbs were amputated by rebels.

Thursday’s panel discussion, "Narrative as a Pathway to Reconciliation," highlights MU community members doing similar work with people devastated by violence. Moderated by MU School of Journalism graduate Gina Bramucci, whose refugee-camp photography work is on display in Lee Hills Hall through March 7, the panel features three local humanitarians working to heal war wounds.

  • Arshad Husain, an MU professor of child psychology and child health, is the founder and director of the MU International Center for Psychosocial Trauma, through which mental-health professionals visit war-torn countries to conduct training and research in child and adolescent trauma psychiatry.
  • Ibtisam Barakat, an MU School of Journalism graduate, wrote the memoir Tasting the Sky, about surviving war and military occupation as a child in Palestine. She now conducts Write Your Life personal-essay workshops and takes part in youth peace symposia worldwide.
  • a Gallimore, a professor of francophone studies in the MU Department of Romance Languages, lost her mother and four siblings during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Ten years later, after conducting academic research in her home country, she founded Step Up! The non-profit organization provides counseling and psychosocial support, as well as financial support, for Rwandan survivors of gender-based violence and also brings high-impact guest speakers, such as Ambassador Joyce Leader, to campus.

Traditional stories

Sometimes coming to terms with a personal story begins with embracing more universal tales, Burch says, citing research indicating that metaphor processing occurs in the same part of the brain where actual experience is stored.

“Listening to traditional stories provides a chance to psychically try on experiences,” she says. “There’s a mirroring going on between being able to tell your personal story and being able to connect with traditional tales that tell the culture of your heritage.”

When Beah first went to live with Simms, he was plagued by nightmares, and to comfort him, Simms told him traditional West African stories. He began to recognize them and remember his pre-war childhood.

African storytelling traditions also play a role in Gallimore’s work. While doing linguistic research on how women testify about rape — in conversations and interviews as well as in court — Gallimore discovered that story “ownership” could be ambiguous.

“Some of the women are talking about their own stories. Some prefer to use fiction to talk about their stories. Some of them appropriate other women’s stories,” Gallimore says. Because women who talk about rape are stigmatized in Rwandan culture, women in leadership roles sometimes serve as spokespeople, telling others’ stories to make sure those voices are heard — but telling them in the first person.

“In the oral tradition, this is normal,” Gallimore says. “There’s no copyright.”

Receptive audiences

Since women have begun speaking out in Rwanda, the country’s government has passed gender-based violence (GBV) legislation for the first time. It also has become the first country in the world in which women outnumber men in the parliament. Nearly 15 years after the genocide, people are listening.

Burch says she hopes Beah’s stories have a lasting effect in Columbia. Part of his four-day residency includes visits to local elementary and secondary schools as well as workshops with area youth — some focused on the rap and hip-hop music that Beah says helped him rediscover his humanity after the war.

“We want the teenagers to have the opportunity to hear about someone coming back to reclaim his own life,” Burch says. “We want them to be able to celebrate with him the importance of music as a way of communicating.”

For the MU community, she says, the events offer a rare educational experience: “This is an opportunity for us to hear from an eloquent survivor who has done more than survive.”

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Last updated: Feb. 22, 2012