In our MECCA M-Powered interview series, fearless people from around the globe share their incredible stories – from overcoming adversity to following their passions and inspiring a future generation of changemakers.
Content warning: the following interview contains traumatic themes that may be confronting for some readers.
If you’ve ever wondered how practising gratitude can change your life, author, speaker, mother and former refugee Aminata Conteh-Biger is a case in point. Behind her warm smile, there’s a story full of heartbreak – but also inspiration, courage and love, which she has turned into her memoir Rising Heart.
At the age of 18, Conteh-Biger was kidnapped from her home in Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, by soldiers from the Revolutionary United Front – the rebel forces in the country’s devastating 11-year civil war, which had claimed 50,000 lives by the time it ended in 2002. Eventually released, Conteh-Biger became one of the first Sierra Leonean refugees to be settled in Australia, making her home in Sydney.
Despite the traumatic experience, Conteh-Biger responded in a remarkable way – with forgiveness: “I choose to forgive because I wanted to be free from the people that have done what they’ve done to me. And I choose to forgive because I want to dance with life,” she tells us.
In 2014, following a near-death experience a couple of years earlier while giving birth to her first child, daughter Serafina, Conteh-Biger founded the Aminata Maternal Foundation. Her experience had turned her attention back to Sierra Leone, where the maternal mortality rate is the highest in the world. Women there are 200 times more likely to die as a result of pregnancy and childbirth than they are in Australia; estimates put the figures as high as one in 17.
Here, we find out more about Conteh-Biger’s incredible path to creating her foundation, as well as why she doesn’t take a single day for granted.
Tell us about your childhood…
On January 6 1999, you were captured by rebel soldiers during Sierra Leone's civil war…
AC-B: “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. 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. There were so many people, I think over a thousand. 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 can’t do anything about it. After a while, you start to smell burning flesh. It’s always difficult as I talk about this – I’m back in that space right now. It was a nightmare.”
Could you tell us about the moment you were captured?
You were finally freed as part of a negotiated prisoner exchange where child prisoners were released in return for food and medicine. How did you feel when you were freed?
AC-B: “I call my release a pure miracle. I’ve looked at my life as a miracle since then. There were 17 of us in a big army truck and as we entered Freetown, people were standing in the street – thousands of people – hoping that one of the 17 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. He didn’t sleep for three days – the whole time I spent with him. I could hear my dad crying every night. Even though we were home, it was just not the same.”
How have your experiences when you were 18 change your perspective on life and how you live each day?
AC-B: “I know each day is a blessing. It’s a miracle. The things that I have practised most of my life is the power of forgiveness. I choose to forgive because I wanted to be free from the people that have done what they’ve done to me. And I choose to forgive because I want to dance with life. I love life.
“I know how much I fought to survive when I was kidnapped, every single minute. I also know life happens; there are tough times and I’m not in denial of that. When they come, I embrace it. I practise gratitude every single day.”