Mariatu Kamara – ADESTE Laureate 2009

By Josephina Lee Mascioli-Mansell


Once upon a time, it was not the Land of Oz.  It was neither Cinderella losing her slipper nor Mary with her little lamb, nor Jill walking up the hill to fetch a pail of water.  And if she were Alice in Wonderland – her wonders would have been etched not in the fantasy of this wondrous tale – but in how she would survive the horror of savage brutality – if captured and brought to terms by boy soldiers her own age!

My interview evokes the unthinkable in today’s world of corruption and abuse.  It reminds of the times when we’ve sat in movie theatres, hands clenched, ready to cover our eyes quickly: because of not wanting to see the next scene.

Mariatu Kamara, ADESTE’S 2009 Unsung Hero, was a girl child caught in one of Africa’s civil wars.  Hers is the story of a 12-year-old fleeing with her cousins from Magborou, her Sierra Leone village of 200 people, all cramped into living within eight huts and where six years earlier she’d begun working on the communal farm.

While headed toward villages in the direction of the border, thus enabling them to escape – Mariatu and her aunt Maria and cousin Adamasay walked into an ambush.  Being murdered before her eyes was a man from a neighboring village who had raped her weeks earlier and with whose child she was now pregnant.  Her recurring dream of burning palm oil, signifying spilled blood, that she’d had just the night before, along with her aunt Maria Kamara’s advice: “Answer ‘yes’ when asked if you liked what you saw after witnessing the murder of villagers you know”, were becoming a never-ending replay in her mind!

 

Mariatu was held captive for several hours.  She was raped and then: “with the swinging flare of the machete knife, came the cutting off of both my hands.  It took the boy two attempts to cut off my right hand.  The first swipe didn’t get through the bone, which I saw sticking out in all different shapes and sizes.  He brought the machete down again in a different spot, higher up on my arm.  This time, my hand flew from the rock onto the ground.  ‘Go see the president,’ the child soldier told me.  ‘Tell him to give you new hands.’

“It was a kind man who found me, offering me a mango that he held to my mouth.  My instincts said ‘be brave.’  It was important to me to feel like a whole person.  So I insisted on taking the fruit and holding it in the clotting stumps I’d wrapped in a sheet.

“I was 12 years old and shortly thereafter, a little son was born.  He died 10 months later leaving me pulverized with guilt, convinced I’d killed him because of not loving him enough.”

Mariatu tells of her journey to the capital, Freetown, her medical care and pregnancy and her next few years living in a refugee camp, begging on the streets each day.  The rebels’ signature is mutilation and it is estimated that thousands of civilians have had arms, legs, lips, ears amputated with machetes and axes.

The story of Mariatu Kamara brings to light the intelligence and beauty of a very brave young lady who found the strength to reach beyond and then to intervene and shield other villagers in her homeland of Sierra Leone.

My interview begins at a university in Toronto, Canada, where, at the age of 22, Mariatu has found her new home.

The incredible beauty and sweetness of Mariatu’s face magnifies the absolute wonder of her spirit’s ability to creatively transform multiple lived atrocities into multiple benefits for others.

                                                  Susan Schellenberg – Artist, Author

                                                  Toronto, Canada

 

Mariatu is a personal embodiment of not just struggles, but liberation personifying a hope shouldered on life’s worthiness of the sheer power of ‘I can’.

 

                                          David C. Wesonga – ADESTE 2008 Gold Medal Recipient

                                         Nairobi, Kenya

 

JO LEE:  Mariatu, you are one phenomenal human being!  Phenomenal!!  Where does your strength come from?  Where does your wisdom come from?  Have you ever analyzed those parts of your immediate gene pool?  Or maybe, the heavens sent you to earth as an earthling with a direct link to God, the universe, a higher power?

MARIATU KAMARA:  Yes, Jo Lee, actually at times I do think about this!  And my determination is driven by seven words: to live beyond what happened to me.

JL:  As we began this year, Mariatu, our 19-member International Voting committee named you the 2009 Recipient of The Prestigious ADESTE Gold Medal, a medal of honor bestowed in the category of Humanities for a very brave Unsung Hero!

Everyone was stunned by your story!  From the ADESTE Board of Directors and the Governors, from the Selection and International Voting Committees, from YES! International, a sister charity of ADESTE and from all at JO LEE Magazine: everyone was stunned.  From each of us: CONGRATULATIONS for having the will to dream bigger and beyond!

You know, every nomination is special.  My gosh, how exciting just to be nominated!  But you know, every so often, when the nominations arrive and arrive from so many places around the world, members of the ADESTE Committee find themselves hugging the story of a particular candidate.  And you, Mariatu, were really hugged.  We’re so proud of you!

MK:  I feel so special to have been chosen!  Jo Lee, I want to thank those who cast a vote for me and to assure them: I will always make them proud.  The ADESTE Gold Medal of Honor – is an honor – I will spread my love as I help women and children through the foundation I’m now establishing.

JL:  I’m absolutely fascinated with your ability to do everything: with no hands!  You certainly challenge the interpretation of Specially Challenged?  Can you explain this to me?  Of course, it would be a different feel with a prosthesis.  But do you feel you’d accomplish that much more with hands or, is the divide equal yet different?

MK: It would be a greater divide IF I were fortunate enough to afford the most recent, high tech prosthesis created today.  It’s a challenge and very difficult at times to do things especially when I like to do things really fast and I can’t.  Well, it gets me frustrated and makes me want to lose hope.  But it’s also empowering because I do everything for myself without my hands and without asking for too much support.

JL:  Amazing!  And I so love the way you use the word: hands.  Good for you because they ARE your hands and again, phenomenal – you are!  Mastering the tips of your hands {stubs} to affect everything you do.  Computer, cell phone, your makeup, your life!!

Mariatu, your birthplace of Sierra Leone is a small country, about the size of Scotland but with four million people.  You and your extended family lived in a community of 200 people with only eight huts with all the children working on the communal farm beginning almost at kindergarten age.  What do you recall of those early days with your family?

MK:  They were very wonderful, happy days for me, beyond description.  How do I describe wonderful?  We had nothing, but yet everything because of time spent together all the time, with everyone.  Cook, eat, and stay with family.  We had no water, no electricity, no beds no doctors, no anything: but a friendly hut.  There were no schools close to our village and if there had been, there would have been no money to attend.

We’d rise in the morning and go off to the river farm village to work the fields.  At the end of the day when we returned to our home, {one of eight huts}, we’d go to the river with friends and play.  We’d sing.  Sleep, farm, eat, sing.

As you know, from being in Africa, Jo Lee, there are no shops in the villages.  Just huts where we could buy soap, salt, seasoning.  This is all we ever had to buy!   We’d find our meat in the bush, grow our chickens, fish our fish: and eat.  When we gathered enough money for a new shirt or dress we’d go to another village to buy the material and then to another village where there were free sewing machines to use.

Being Muslim, we’d pray five daily prayers at the Mosque, at home, in the fields, and we would celebrate Ramadan.

JL:  What is unbelievable to me – is that always I’ve found people throughout Africa to be so filled with effervescence and manners!  A gift instilled within wonderful people!

And then, in 1999, civil war broke out and you were there.  Things began to change horrifically.  Tell me more of your story and how you planned with Adamasay, your cousin and your aunt Maria, to escape.  You were so young and yet you’d experienced so much of life.  Were they all this young too?  Can you remember how you felt and what went through your mind?  You must have been so frightened.  Tell me…

MK:  It wasn’t pleasant.  My reality began to shift when I was 11 with the sudden threat of attacks by the government-opposed Revolutionary United Front {RUF}.  It was an uneasy time.  Then, the actual attack came without warning except for a dream I’d had the night before of burning palm oil, signifying spilled blood.

So, my aunt Maria and cousin Adamasay and I came up with a plan we discussed with our family.  The three of us would leave for Freetown where we’d be safe from harm.  But …

JL:  What happened on that terrible day when your life changed forever?

 

MK:  We set out for the next village en route to Freetown, where we stayed for two days.  The next day we went to get some food and when heading back to the nearby village we’d left a little earlier – we walked into an ambush.  The rebels had attacked the village and then: captured us.  They tied our hands behind our backs and took us to a house where, for the rest of the day, we were forced to sit down and watch while they were torturing members of the village and killing all the people captured.

There was shouting and screaming all day.  The rebels wanted food.  They shot many men.  They forced the women and the old people into the huts, and then burned them down.

After burning down the entire village – they handed me over to some boys who took me to a corner where there was ‘the rock’ and … cut off my hands.

No water came from my eyes {I did not cry} when they cut my hands.

JL:  This is truly shocking.  Where did your strength come from for I believe it gets even worse when a man from your village raped you before the young boys cut off your hands?

MK:  Yes, I knew that man was going to use me when he pulled off my wrap and pushed me on to the ground.  Then, when the child soldier cut off my hands at ‘the rock’: “Go see the president,” he told me.  “Tell him to give you new hands.”

JL: Mariatu, how did you get from the village to the help you so desperately needed?

MK:   When they were through with me, there was no one left in my village.  I walked miles to Port Loko.  It was on my journey from degradation and humiliation to an unknown future, that a man offered me a mango.  He held it to my mouth, but I insisted on taking it, holding it in the clotting stumps I had wrapped in a cloth.

Some Ecomog soldiers felt sympathy for me and they brought me to Freetown {55 kilometers away}.  Eventually, I was reunited with my family when they arrived at Murray Town Amputee Camp in the west end of Freetown.  My cousin, Adamasay, was found by our uncle who brought her to the hospital where I was.  The medics removed her dangling right hand and bandaged her stumps.

 Our parents, Mariatu and Ali, and my eldest sister, 17-year-old Kadiatu, arrived too, unharmed.  But our elder brother, Santigie, has disappeared entirely.

JL:  Having already been brutalized even before the savage attack by murderous mercenaries, were you aware of their methods, of what they called warfare?

 MK:  I didn’t know what I know now.  I had heard stories about the almost unbelievable atrocities they had committed – raping girls, cutting their limbs, drugging them, handing them guns to kill their parents.  The rebels’ signature was mutilation and they say that during the 10-year insurrection, some 50,000 were left dead and half a million homeless.

JL:  I read that the hospital in Freetown specializes in the treatment of mutilated limbs.

 

MK:  I’m not sure.  I know they all were very knowledgeable.  There were few doctors, a lot of nurses and assistants.

JL:  How long did you and your family continue to live in the camp and how did you all manage to feed yourselves?  How did you survive?

 MK:  We lived in the camp for almost three years.  And every day, for three years, my cousins and I had to beg on the streets of Freetown to feed us and to survive.

Then, a journalist came to the area, interviewing many.  Somehow, he happened upon me and my picture and story got into a newspaper that was seen by a white couple living outside of Toronto, Canada.  They took it upon themselves to sponsor and bring me to live with them and the story from this point on is why I’m safe and beholden and here!!

JL:  Where is your family, today?  I send each one of them LOVE!!

 MK: All of them are still in Sierra Leone.  Some of them are in the village and my cousins are still somewhere around the city because they don’t have any proper homes to live in.  And they are still continuing to beg on the street for their survival because no one is taking care of them.

JL:  Some people are greater than great!

Mariatu, when you finally reached Toronto, at the age of 16, you could speak no English and you had no schooling at all.  Today, at 22 you’re in second year college and your English is superb.  This had to have been a tremendous discipline for you?

MK:  Faith, belief, hope Jo Lee!

When I began school here at the age of 16 – it was like a hell for me – it was very difficult. Really, really hard, Jo Lee.  I had to learn everything from scratch.  I had to be wise, use common sense with determination.

JL:  Your Canadian world has certainly become your Cinderella fairytale with the glass slipper.  My, Mariatu, you’ve published a book, The Bite of the Mango, predicted to be a huge hit among your target high school audiences {and I bet I know where that great title came from}, you’re a UNICEF Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict, you’ll appear in an upcoming documentary about child war victims that was filmed in Sierra Leone last February where you toured health and educational facilities, you’ve started your own foundation, The Mariatu Foundation, and you’re in second year college studying counseling and advocacy for women and children who have experienced violence.

 How does all of this make you feel?

MK:  Not special, Jo Lee, but like someone God chose to make a difference.  Something that I haven’t discovered as yet…

JL:  And unlike others – you’re doing it all with what I would call your own creative style.

 

Mariatu, tell me about your foundation.

 MK:  Jo Lee, I know this is one of the areas in which God has chosen me to shepherd.  The Foundation is still in the making but it shouldn’t stop people from donating.

The Mariatu Foundation’s dream is to build a 300 to 400-room free home for assaulted women and their children and young amputees who don’t have anyone to care for them.  The home will teach basic skills, teach everyone their ABCs and have therapy {emotional and physical} for those in need.  It will be a place where my very close family can live because they will help run the home and then: I can visit.  Oh yeah, this is my dream always – a big house to help many.  A big dream  – that I know will come true.

JL:  You are a beautiful young lady!  With so much talent, Mariatu, do you dream of having two hands?  I see where University Hospital in Heidelberg has tested the new prosthetic hand with a grip function almost like a natural hand: each finger moves separately.  This must excite you!

 MK:  Oh it does excite me!  Thank you and I’ll definitely look into this because actually, I thought initially – I might have my hands back – but I didn’t want hands that did nothing and so, I’ve let the feeling slip.

In the meantime – sometimes I do find it difficult but, you know, the people I meet, they’re just so wonderful.  They don’t even think I have a problem.  They just take me as a normal person.

My focus is to move forward – finish school, get a good job and then help make concrete changes in Sierra Leone through The Mariatu Foundation.

I have food around me, clothes everywhere.  I don’t think that, “Tomorrow I have to go to town and start begging,” but those left behind still have to go that route.

Coming from a place of war where I had nothing, now I’m in a country where everywhere I turn there’s opportunity that will make my life and other’s lives better.  Here, we can help other people around the world and this fills me with wonder and gratitude. It brings tears to my eyes.

JL: For the past several years, the UN has listed Sierra Leone as the world’s “least livable” country, based on its poverty and the poor quality of life endured.

 Under the terms of the current peace deal, Sierra Leone will keep the democratically elected Ahmed Tejan Kabbah on as president, in a forced cohabitation with rebel leader Foday Sankoh’s RUF.  Sankoh has obtained an assurance of amnesty for rebel war crimes, and the cancellation of his own death sentence.  It sounds like you and your aunt and cousin and the thousands whose lives have been devastated by the conflict are being asked to forgive the people responsible for so much carnage.  Can you forgive the boy soldiers who did this to you?

MK:  I just think it’s time to let go:  to forgive them. They are also our brothers. They suffered, too.

JL:  So, what do you say we now tell the world where they can find your book The Bite Of The Mango – quite the incredible read!  To educators, medical minds, social workers, recreational directors, creative groups – please, urge your peers to buy/use The Bite Of The Mango as a powerful tool for embracing strength and ‘forcing yourself’ {as Harrison Ford would say} to enhance what it is we are blessed to have at this moment, today!

 MK: Jo Lee, my book is published in Canada by Annick Press and can be purchased online through www.amazon.com.  And I will also continue to update online information about The Mariatu Foundation at www.mariatufoundation.com that I invite everyone to visit.

JL:  Thank you, beautiful you, for your spirit, your wisdom and for coming into a very treasured place in my life and in ADESTE’S heart ~

MK:  Thank you, Jo Lee, for this wonderful interview.  I can’t thank you enough!  I’m really grateful for being the 2009 Recipient of The ADESTE Gold Medal – and I will never forget it. This has been my most exciting moment in life and I will cherish always: ADESTE.

One Response to “Mariatu Kamara – ADESTE Laureate 2009”

  1. Hetty | 12.24.11 at 4:39 PM said…

    It’s good to get a fresh way of looking at it.

 

 


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