Aminata Conteh-Biger is an author, inspirational speaker, performer, mother, wife and former refugee turned Founder and CEO of the Aminata Maternal Foundation.
Tell us about your childhood…
My parents separated when I was three and I grew up with my Father and with three other siblings. Education was very important. He believed that through education, we can achieve whatever we want to achieve. He put us in one of the best boarding schools. I never heard my Dad say that he loved me, but I have never doubted how loved we were and how he protected us.
On the 6th January, 1999, when you were 18 years old, soldiers from the Revolutionary United Front swept into Freetown, the West African countries capital, part of the brutal rebel force responsible for an 11 year civil war that would end up claiming more than 50,000 lives by the time it ended in 2002. On this day, you were captured by rebel soldiers during Sierra Leone's civil war. Take us back to the events of this day…
I remember this day so clearly. We went to bed and it was a normal school day. We just heard a voice screaming and we started seeing smoke from the window side. We knew straight away finally after 10 years or so, the rebels had come to the capital city, Freetown, where I grew up. It was almost like when you’re in a desert or in an animal safari and you hear all the lions or elephants running towards you. People started banging on our gate because our house was so big and over 1,000 people were hiding in our house. We locked the gate. From inside, we could see the horror of what was happening. Houses and people were being burned… you could see the horror, but you couldn’t do anything about it. After a while, you start to smell burning flesh. It’s always difficult to talk about this – I’m back in that space right now. It was a nightmare.
Tell us about the moment you were captured?
I was holding my father’s hand and it was shaking because he had Parkinson’s Disease. The rebels asked everybody in my house to come out. We were standing in a small field, and I just saw one of the rebels look at me. I just knew he was coming for me. I also knew that if he comes for me, my Dad will fight, so the moment he walked towards me, as soon as he said to me, “You come here”, I let go of my Father’s hand. I didn’t look back because I knew how protective my Dad was of his girls. I didn’t want to see his face. I just walked towards this rebel, who took me away. My Dad was never the same person again, ever.
In your memoir, Rising Heart, when you talk about rape, you explore how shame is what isolates victims and prevents them from speaking out. How have you dealt with this shame over the years?
Even when people didn’t know I’d been raped, I felt like they would know by looking at me because I knew something had been taken away from me. The shame takes your self-confidence away. In the book, I talk about how I thought not sleeping with a man for years would make me a virgin again. I wanted to be pure again. Then you have the guilt too – you think you’ve done something for that to happen to you. It took years for me to start dating because I just didn’t want any attention. Also, if I dated you and you found out that I’ve been raped, does that diminish the value that a man has for me? For somebody coming from African heritage, we don’t really know anything about body trauma.
You were finally freed as part of a negotiated prisoner exchange where rebel held child prisoners were released in return for food and medicine. Tell us about the day you were released…
I call my release a pure miracle. I’ve looked at my life as a miracle since then. We were in a big army truck and as we entered the capital city, Freetown, people were standing in the street, thousands of people, hoping that one of the 17 people would be their child or a loved one. You could see the desperation. I remember opening the gate and my Dad was standing there. I could see the joy in his eyes, but he knew something had been taken away and he started to cry quietly, but then he started screaming. You could see him shaking and not breathing. At night, I could hear my Dad crying - he didn’t sleep. Even though we were home, it was just not the same.
In 2012, the year that your daughter was born, you had a near-death experience that inspired you to embark on a new mission - The Aminata Maternal Foundation - to help provide support for maternal health in Sierra Leone, where mothers are 200 times more likely to die having a baby than in Australia…
I had seven doctors in the room. Now you have to imagine in Sierra Leone, it’s a country of seven million people, and there are only six obstetricians in Sierra Leone. I had seven doctors to save my life and to save my baby’s life. The doctors knew that I was going to die if nothing happened. If I was in Sierra Leone, she would have died, but because I’m in Australia, that didn’t happen. I had people who fought for me to survive. I came home and I start researching about maternal health. I started seeing the horror my country where one in eight women dies through childbirth. For me, I’ve experienced something that is preventable. They can prevent it. I just had this light in me that I needed to do something and be part of something. For me, it was a ‘why’?. Why should a mother and a child die in Sierra Leone just by coming into this world?
How have your experiences when you were 18 changed your perspective on life, and how you live each day?
I live each day. I know each day is a blessing. It’s a miracle. Every day for me, I practise forgiveness. I choose to forgive because I wanted to be free from the people who kidnapped me. I choose to forgive because I want to dance with life. I love life. I know how much I fought to survive every single minute when I was kidnapped. I do not want to waste my life. I also know that there are tough times and I’m not in denial of that. When they come, I embrace it. I practice gratitude every single day.