Child soldier's visit spotlights power of storytelling

Monday, February 16, 2009 | 5:49 p.m. CST; updated 8:03 p.m. CST, Monday, February 16, 2009

COLUMBIA — Storyteller Laura Simms adopted Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier from Sierra Leone, Africa, after they met at a UN conference on children affected by war more than a decade ago. Beah, now a best-selling author, and his mother will bring their story to Columbia as a part of the program "Telling Stories, Changing Lives" this week.

Beah's story is "about how art affects life and how finding his voice helped him reclaim some of what was taken from him. That's remarkable for anyone," said Milbre Burch, Columbia storyteller and founder of Kind Crone Productions, which launched the effort to bring Beah to the community.

The aim of "Telling Stories, Changing Lives" is to show how storytelling can be used as a vehicle for healing those who have experienced the traumas of war and violence. Beah and Simms will discuss their experiences and how telling stories helped Beah heal from the horrors he lived through.

"We have children in this city who grow up experiencing violence that comes into their lives without their asking," Burch said. "They need to hear the story of a boy who lost everything, came through hell and found a way to come out intact on the other side."

Beah, 28, wrote "A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier," about his journey from his bleak life as a child soldier with the Sierra Leone government army, taking drugs, watching "Rambo" movies and performing his duties in the killing fields. Beah was eventually released and rehabilitated at a UNICEF center.

"The struggles of any human in a wartime situation are important to share," said Kim Coke, director of student development at Columbia College, the lead institution on the grant that is bringing Beah and Simms to Columbia. More than a dozen groups are supporting the visit.