In yesterday’s post, I quoted a passage from Admiral William McRaven’s recent commencement address on Life Lessons from Navy SEAL training. I can’t get over this speech. One of his lessons – like today’s book – speaks of hope. In the ninth week of SEAL training, Hell Week, the training class heads down to the mud flats, where they have to spend fifteen hours (including all night) “trying to survive the freezing-cold mud, the howling wind, and the incessant pressure from the instructors to quit.” The men have to enter that section of the flats where they are entirely engulfed in mud, with only their heads above ground. The instructors push five men to give up; if five quit, all the rest can get out. Some reach the point of being ready to volunteer. But then, one man begins to sing:
The song was terribly out of tune, but sung with great enthusiasm. One voice became two, and two became three, and before long everyone in the class was singing.
We knew that if one man could rise above the misery then others could as well. The instructors threatened us with more time in the mud if we kept up the singing – but the singing persisted. And somehow the mud seemed a little warmer, the wind a little tamer and the dawn not so far away.
If I have learned anything in my time traveling the world, it is the power of hope.
Radiance of Tomorrow is a sometimes chilling meditation on hope and despair, in an English I’ve never quite heard before. Beah explains in his Author’s Note that he grew up in Sierra Leone, where there are about fifteen languages and three dialects spoken. Beah knows seven of them. His mother tongue, Mende, is “very expressive, very figurative, and when I write, I always struggle to find the English equivalent of things that I really want to say in Mende. For example, in Mende, you wouldn’t say ‘night came suddenly’; you would say ‘the sky rolled over and changed its sides.’ Even single words are this way – the word for ‘ball’ in Mende translates to a ‘nest of air’ or a ‘vessel that carries air’.” Throughout this novel, Beah stretches English in ways new and marvelous to me. He also stretches the meaning of the word hope.
Radiance of Tomorrow begins with an old man and old woman finding their way back home. Seven years before, most of the inhabitants of their village were slaughtered in the violence of an (unnamed) war; some managed to escape and have been in refugee camps or otherwise unsettled since then. Mama Kadie and Pa Koiwe say very little when they first meet again:
Some things were better left unspoken as long as handshakes and embraces could manage their emotions – until the voice could find the strength to leave the mouth and bring out what was in the guarded mantle of memory.
Over the course of the novel, more inhabitants find their way back, and they begin to rebuild. They resume some of the old ways, including occasional evenings of music and storytelling. On the first of such nights:
…[C]uriosity engulfed the face of the sky, its stars and moon, and they turned their eyes to Imperi to see the unimpeded spirits that had returned home despite all difficulties… The sky turned its face to different parts of the town that night and ended with Mama Kadie, Pa Moiwa, Pa Kainesi, and the rest… After many years of only partially allowing the heart to drum life through their veins, people gradually heard the full drumming of what life used to be.
New hope mingles with new despair when a large mining corporation sets up operations adjacent to the village, with devastating effects on the inhabitants and finally the village itself. One of the protagonists, Bockarie, and his family leave what remains of the village for the city, to seek opportunity or at least survival there. Many others seek the same. Bockarie sits in a cheap cafe and orders a mango juice, the least expensive thing on the menu, observing the man across the street from the cafe:
The veins on the young man’s forehead and the look in his eyes show that he has lost faith in the possibility of something good today, so he sits on the ground, leans his head on the 4×4 car, and allows his heart to breathe, as his spirit has been holding its breath all day.
The young man sits on the ground in a crowded city where he has come to look for hope. So many like him are searching for hope that it has become afraid here and is on the run. Whenever it shows itself – hope, that is – hands from the crowded streets reach for it with such violent urgency because of the fear that they may never see it again. They do so without knowing that their desperation frightens hope away. Hope also doesn’t know that it is its scarcity that causes the crowd to urge at it, shredding its robe. And as it struggles to escape, the fabric scraps land in the hands of some but last only for hours, a day, days, a week, weeks, depending on how much fabric each hand is able to catch.
The city is unkind to Bockarie and his family in various ways, but it does not kill them. In the end, hope is not elusive. Hope is the great legacy of their elders – their village – their people. As Mama Kadie tells those at the very last gathering of the village:
“What must we do, my friends?” All the faces in the crowd became serious. “We must live in the radiance of tomorrow, as our ancestors have suggested in their tales. For what is yet to come tomorrow has possibilities, and we must think of it, the simplest glimpse of that possibility of goodness. That will be our strength. That has always been our strength. This is all I wanted to say.”
Ishmael Beah knows a thing or two about despair, and hope, and tomorrows. You can read more about his experiences in his New York Times bestselling book, A Long Way Gone: Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. The book is now in print in forty languages, carrying in all those languages its message of hope.