Soft pan-flute music filled Launer Auditorium on a Saturday night in late February. A single black stool waited on stage.
This unpretentious prologue was the finale of a four-day marathon of storytelling performances, lectures and book signings throughout Columbia featuring author, storyteller and human rights activist Laura Simms and Simms' adoptive son and former child soldier Ishmael Beah.
Dr. Lisa Ford-Brown, Columbia College associate professor of speech, opened the last of this year’s Visiting Artists in Humanities programs by recapping how more than 140 students and faculty members attended a remarkable lunch with Simms’ “heart’s son’ Beah on campus that Thursday. She also noted the informal conversation held the night before at Launer, when GRAMMY-nominated local storyteller Milbre Burch interviewed Simms about her creative approach to peacemaking and reconciliation.
Ford-Brown said that stories are more than a pathway to healing; “They give us agency to change our lives and the lives of others.” Burch then thanked Ford-Brown and Columbia College for helping finance the four-day residency, then introduced Simms. Simms looked every inch the storyteller in a long, shimmering jacket of gold, green and violet and purple suede boots, weaving stories of distant lands and people whose lives she had impacted.
“War is not fascinating”
Two days before, one of those people, a tall, utterly normal-looking 27-year-old man in Adidas sneakers, blue jeans, a white checked shirt and a warm-looking corduroy jacket bounded onto the stage in Dulany Banquet Room.
“How is everyone?” Ishmael Beah greeted a capacity crowd of Columbia College students, faculty and staff in the Dulany Banquet Room luncheon. Beah is best known for his 2007 best-selling memoir, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. He says people pass him on the street today and cannot even imagine he was of “a lost generation of child soldiers with tremendous fear, exposed to so much violence they never recover.”
But he did recover, through a long rehabilitation and through telling his story. He said he is living evidence of “the remarkable strength of the human capacity to heal,” even after his mother, father and two brothers were brutally killed in his homeland of Sierra Leone. His new family became the army that had brainwashed, addicted him to drugs and forced him to murder at an age when American kids are addicted to Wii, Facebook and Star Wars.
Beah also said his publishers wanted him to write about war and battle, but he quickly decided that was only part of his story. The larger, more important part, he said, was about how he recovered his humanity.
“I wanted to put a human face on the experience,” he said. “This could be your son, your brother, all capable of both losing their humanity and regaining it.”
The process of regaining his humanity began when he was rescued (very much against his will) by the UN and continued when he met Simms in 1996 at the U.N.’s International Children’s Parliament, where she was working with child delegates. Three years later, she sent money to help him escape Sierra Leone, helped him immigrate, get sponsors and get into high school in New York.
Beah read excerpts of his book, some horrific, one quite poignant about his bucolic pre-war childhood. He also showed anger and frustration over the West’s seeming inability to see Africa as it is today and the media’s depiction of the Sierra Leone war in such films as Blood Diamond. He said that war is not like a Hollywood movie: “There is no soundtrack. It is not fascinating. It is devastating to the human spirit.”
During the question-and-answer period, one woman marveled: “How do you maintain such a wonderful sense of humor?”
His ghoulish experiences have made him appreciate just being alive, he said. “I’ve come to appreciate the simple things” like waking up in the morning and seeing sunshine. “I try to live each moment of my life as best I can.”
He told a final story to punctuate his answer before greeting admiring students individually and signing books, of being in a battle when most of the guns he and his group had were old and wouldn’t fire. “We thought that was very funny. I tell it to people, and they don‘t think it’s funny, but we did. It kept us human.”
All my Romanian lions
In Launer Auditorium on Saturday, Beah’s benefactor Simms combined a deliberate, clear delivery with dramatic change-ups of mood and volume to captivate an enthralled audience, many who surely had heard these stories before, but still sat fascinated. Many of her stories ended subtly, their impact - whether humorous or tear-provoking - soaking into the room, eliciting laughter, nods, sighs.
But no applause: silence reigned between tales.
Simms built gradually to the centerpiece of the evening, the Caftan El Hub or The Robe of Love, based on a Moroccan fairytale and the title story of her 2002 book. It’s a long, involved, magical story of a young woman’s search for her true heart’s desire - so long a story, in fact, that Simms interrupted herself with, “She walked so long in the desert…that I’m going to tell you another story.”
This was a modern one about the lessons of two sealskin coats which for our purposes is, of course, another story. Then she deftly brought her audience back to the girl in the desert and finished the tale of her journey, finally provoking applause and cheers.
Before closing and signing books at the side of the stage, Simms told one last story about her finding and befriending abused lions in a Romanian zoo. Like that of Beah, this story too had a happy ending as surviving lions were or will be found new homes.
“All of my lions will be out of their hell,” she said.
Simms and her young campers made a miserable caged lioness and her cubs happier with just pitchforks of hay and grass, her human listeners with stories. Her parting words:
“It is so easy to make someone happy.”
Beah and Simms are living proof.