Two African writers shared their stories in front of a sold-out audience as a part of the Aspen Writer’s Foundation story swap on Thursday at the Wheeler Opera House.
The writers, Louis Gakumba and Ishmael Beah, have a lot in common. Both were victims of political upheaval and civil war in colonialized African countries. Gakumba survived the genocide in Rwanda while Beah was recruited to fight as a child soldier in Sierra Leone when he was 13 years old.
Each overcame their situations differently — Beah was removed by UNICEF when he was 16 years old and Gakumba survived the genocide. They both ended up attending universities and becoming established writers. Gakumba is currently working on a book while Beah has written an award-winning memoir titled “A Long Way Gone.”
Despite their similarities, the stories exchanged with each other were markedly different.
Gakumba interpreted the story of Beah, who was born in 1980. As a child, he imagined bullets shooting the moon before realizing the stray bullets were real, and had killed his friends and family members.
“Suddenly the breeze comes, the sky deepened and the stars disappear,” said Gakumba. “There were gunshots to the moon, and it collapsed from the belly of the heavens.”
Beah’s story of Gakumba, who was born in 1982, depicted a child struggling to understand his situation as he and his family were forced to leave their community and go into hiding.
“Things had changed in a way we could not comprehend,” said Beah.
After the stories were swapped, Beah and Gakumba discussed what the process of storytelling was like for them.
From a cultural perspective, the process is about honoring tradition, said Beah.
“We come from a place where parents and adults tell stories,” he said. “We didn’t have books or documentaries. Everything we knew was through stories.”
Oral history aside, the act of sharing a story brings empathy — by retelling it, the storyteller internalizes the information, he added.
“You try to see yourself through someone else’s shoes,” he said. “You feel the fear, you feel the sweat of your forehead. It makes the story real.”
The event kicked off the Aspen High School’s benefit for studentsrebuild.org, a national effort to raise money to build stronger and permanent schools in Haiti.
Aspen High School students were accepting donations at the event and the money raised that night was matched dollar for dollar by the Bezos Family Foundation.
The students will continue to raise money up until April when 10 of them will go to Haiti to participate in their own story swap with Haitian students.
The swap was intended to serve as a call to action for audience members to donate to the cause.
In closing, Gakumba ended the swap with an idiom that his culture had passed onto him: “Until lions can tell their story, the story of the hunt will always glorify the hunter.”