Ishmael's story begins when he is ten years old, two years before the civil war comes to his village. He describes the idea of war as entirely abstract to his young mind and insists that he and his fellow villagers didn't have the capacity to understand what the refugees coming through his village had experienced. It was too terrible and unimaginable.
Ishmael, Junior, Talloi, and Mohamed have been singing and dancing to rap music since they formed a group when Ishmael was eight years old. They learned of rap during a visit to Mobimbi, where their fathers and other foreigners worked for an American company. They were transfixed by the music and returned as often as possible to watch rap on the big television. What shocked Ishmael so much about rap was that black men could speak English so well and so quickly to the beat. The rap music has defined how Ishmael and his group dress and use slang.
In January of 1993, Ishmael, Junior, and Talloi set off from their village of Mogbwemo on a trip to the town of Mattru Jong to participate in a friend's talent show. They visit the town of Kabati, Ishmael and Junior's grandmother's village, along the way. There, Mamie Kpana, as the grandmother is known, questions them about their schooling. When they reach Mattru Jong they meet up with their friends, Gibrilla, Kaloko, and Khalilou.
The boys stay at Khalilou's house and are surprised when he returns home from school early the next day to report that rebels have attacked Mogbwemo. Khalilou tells them that the rebels will be coming to Mattru Jong next. Villagers begin arriving from the mining area in Ishmael's home village, but no one knows anything about the safety of Ishmael and Junior's family. The villagers say that the attack was too sudden and that, in the chaos, everyone ran in different directions to save their own lives. Ishmael, Junior, and Talloi decide they must return to their village and find their families.
As the boys begin retracing their steps, they encounter remnants of the attack: crowds of people running; women hiding in bushes screaming their children's names; children, naked and lost, following packs of stray dogs. Ishmael describes cars packed with dead people covered in blood and the terror on everyone's faces as he passes.
They realize that a journey back to the village is impossible. They return to Mattru Jong and spend their days waiting at the wharf for word from their families. Ishmael has nightmares of the attack he didn't see but the horrors he imagines.
Comparison and contrast are used to show Ishmael's concept of war before his village was attacked versus his confusion and terror when he has to deal with the reality of the civil war. The refugees that came to his village were hungry and exhausted, but it was their plagued minds that seemed most damaged. Ishmael writes that even if he and his friends had been told the truth of what war would look like when it came to them, they would have refused to believe it. They simply didn't have the intellectual tools to imagine the horrors. This comparison and contrast is effective because it establishes the child Ishmael was before in order to later contrast with the soldier Ishmael would become.
Ishmael's village had been an isolated and peaceful place, and he remembers his pre-war childhood fondly. His loss of innocence is profound and violent. He recalls his grandmother's kindness and advice before the war. He's comforted still by her words.
Rap music represents Ishmael's way into the modern world. He and his friends are mesmerized by its power and wholeheartedly adopt the rap musicians' ways of speaking, dress, and behavior. Rap becomes a way for them to express themselves through writing their own lyrics. They carry notebooks of songs and cassette tapes of their favorite groups so that they can always work together on their music.
Flashback is used throughout Chapter 1 to reveal Ishmael's life before the rebels attacked his village. One flashback reveals that Ishmael's father is absent from his life and unable to afford to send him and his older brother to school. His mother defends their father's efforts but says he seems to ruin things by attracting the wrong kind of stepmothers. Ishmael and Junior's younger brother, Ibrahim, misses their father, too, but he is fortunate to attend school. After he hears of the attack on Mogbwemo, Ishmael conjures terrible images of what might have happened to his mother, father, and younger brother.