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The Weekly

The courageous story of AMF Walking Challenge founder Animata Conteh-Biger: “Motherhood should mark a beginning, not the end”

Find out how you can be part of Aminata’s bid to save mothers and babies in Sierra Leone and how she used her trauma as a force for good.

By Juliet Rieden
This article contains discussion of sexual assault, suicidal ideation and wartime violence. If you or someone you know has been affected by any of these issues, help is always available. Call 1800 RESPECT on 1800 737 732 or Lifeline on 13 11 14.
It's close to midnight in Freetown, Sierra Leone. Faint strains of street music provide a rhythmic backdrop to the howling and screaming coming from the maternity ward, and Aminata Conteh-Biger can barely contain her excitement.
This is the part of her work Aminata loves best of all, watching babies take their first breath in the safety of the hospital her Foundation helps to fund.
"They're popping out like popcorn," chuckles the midwife as, amid a flurry of nurses and doctors, Aminata flits between beds chatting to exhausted mothers, cooing over newborns and marvelling at this miracle of life in what has become one of the most dangerous places to give birth in the world.
The Aberdeen Women's Centre is the second busiest maternity hospital in the country, with 3000 babies delivered each year. It offers free medical services to the city's poorest women and girls, including a children's clinic treating more than 20,000 annually, the 'Dream Team' program for teenage mothers and the only comprehensive fistula repair service in the country.
No wonder, then, that this cluster of buildings in a secure gated compound with basic but efficient wards, operating theatres and clinics, is a source of pride for Aminata.
"There is an urgent need for expansion, so we can service the vast numbers of expectant mothers who flood through our doors," she explains.
"Many of the mums are teenagers – one was as young as 12 – and they come from the slums, the streets or the country villages where there are no maternal health services at all."
"There is an urgent need for expansion, so we can service the vast numbers of expectant mothers who flood through our doors," Animata speaking about the Aberdeen Women's Centre. (Photo: Jeremy Simons)
I have travelled with Aminata from her home in Sydney to Sierra Leone, where she was born and raised.
We are here to retrace her past and connect with her present, and watching this inspirational mother of two's passion for her people, especially on this evening of wonder with more than eight new babies feeling the sultry African heat for the first time, is pretty emotional.
For it was not too far away from this hospital in the suburb of Kissy some 20 years ago that Aminata, then an 18-year-old schoolgirl, was kidnapped by rebel soldiers, literally snatched from her father's hands and plunged into an ordeal she has been struggling to come to terms with ever since.
For months, like so many young girls in Sierra Leone's brutal 11-year civil war, Aminata was trapped in captivity, raped and beaten, fearing every day would be her last and sometimes wishing it was. Her eventual escape was miraculous, and Aminata's journey to finding a safe haven here in Australia is the subject of her courageous memoir Rising Heart.
In this book (which I helped Aminata write and is the reason we are here in Freetown together), she reveals for the first time the full details of what happened as she fell victim to rebel Daramy's dark obsession and how, in spite of everything she has gone through, she has managed to turn her pain into a force for good.
Animata's book - Rising Heart (Supplied)
Aminata's inspiration is her beloved late father Yayah Kelfala Conteh, who instilled in her values of respect, decency and a responsibility to give back.
Known as Pa Conteh, Yayah was a businessman importing and exporting goods around Africa and overseas. Sierra Leone was a jewel in Africa's crown back then, with a thriving economy and education system. Yayah owned property in the UK as well as Sierra Leone and was revered in the Kissy community.
He would distribute food to the poor and was always helping others, says Aminata.
"He would pay school fees for the children of other families. He used to say, 'What's the point of having money if you can't share it?'"
These were lessons that struck deep with Aminata. "When I was young, I thought my dad's job was to make money and then give it away to people, and I thought that when I grew up that would be my job too … I believed that my destiny was to be of service to others."
Pa Conteh's pride and joy was the big new yellow house he had built with materials shipped from Europe. He was a stickler for impeccable manners and personal discipline, and was extremely protective of his children, especially the girls.
"Papa wanted us girls to feel equal to his sons. In a lot of cultures, the boys are brought up from a young age to know they are leaders. It wasn't like that in our house, though. If anything, Papa paid us girls more attention so as to break that barrier. He believed that education was crucial, so we could choose what we did with our lives and wouldn't have to rely on a husband."
Pa Conteh ensured his family wanted for nothing and they lived a comfortable, sheltered life, educated in private schools, driven around by a chauffeur, kept mostly inside the house compound out of harm's way.
When Aminata was very young, her parents divorced and her mum went back to live with her family in Guinea. So Aminata's bond with her father became especially close as she was raised with her half-siblings.
Animata's Parents (Supplied)
When civil war started in Sierra Leone the Contehs knew terrible things were happening, but "for a long time it didn't feel as if we were in danger", says Aminata.
Together with her half-sister Tigidankay, Aminata was at boarding school in Moyamba in the countryside and their father was still doing business overseas. But as the rebel soldiers gained strongholds, massacring anyone in their way, the family returned to the safety of the yellow house, which had bars on its verandas and bullet-proof windows.
Then in January 1999, everything changed. The Revolutionary United Front (RUF) was vicious, lawless and sadistic.
"Hundreds of civilians had their limbs hacked off by the rebels in what became their signature act of brutality, and thousands of girls and women were raped," explains Aminata. "Virgins were specifically targeted, and many were abducted by the rebels and used as human shields."
Now the RUF had reached Freetown.
"We were sleeping when the rebels came. From my room in the yellow house I could hear the noise creeping closer, a distant murmur in the background at first, and then a messy, ugly roar. I could hear the rebel boys shouting and bombs and rapid pops of gunfire going off … At first all I could see was smoke, and then I realised houses were burning in our street – and not just houses," recalls Aminata in her book.
"Over the next few days the air was filled with a smell I will never forget. It was the stench of burning meat with something else, something strong and acrid, like bad eggs. As I peeked out of the window I saw people running, their bodies on fire, their flesh literally in flames, and then I heard the screams as the rebels locked people in their houses and threw in fire bombs. These people, our neighbours, were burned alive inside. It was horrible."
The Contehs hunkered down in their house, and over the next few days let in hundreds of others who were hiding from the rebels.
They kept silent lying on the floors, and it felt like a miracle when the rebels passed by, but the miracle was short-lived. When later the rebels threatened to set fire to the yellow house, everyone started to run. Many were shot as they fled.
"But there was no escaping; there were too many rebels," says Aminata. "They rounded us up at gunpoint and herded us onto the open land next to our house."
Aminata was holding her father's trembling hand tight, her head down hoping she wouldn't be noticed. At school her friends had said because she was so beautiful, she would be the first to be picked if ever the rebels came, and that chilling prediction came true.
"For a long time it didn't feel as if we were in danger." Animata on the beginning of the civil war in Sierra Leone. (Photo: Supplied)
"As soon as I locked eyes with Daramy, I knew he was going to take me," she says. "He stared straight at me and said, 'You! Come here!' He looked bewitched; the flame of his horrendous obsession with me had been lit."
As if in a trance, Aminata let go of her father's hand.
"I had heard stories about girls being raped by the rebels in front of their fathers. In some cases, they had forced the dad to rape his daughter and, if he refused, they would make the daughter kill him. This was all rushing around my head. I knew if they tried this with Papa it would literally stop his heart."
In that moment Aminata saved her father's life, but sacrificed her own. Daramy and his fellow rebels took their girls and other children who they groomed to become soldiers up into the hills and over the coming months Aminata was held captive and repeatedly raped.
Many times she wanted to die, and when Aminata finally escaped as part of a remarkable exchange for food and supplies with the government forces, the immense courage that had kept her alive was running on empty. All she wanted to do was see her father again, but when they were reunited Papa was utterly broken.
Father and daughter had a few tender days together before Aminata was compelled to flee her homeland in case Daramy, who to this day has never been caught and prosecuted, came after her.
She fled to Guinea, where she was reunited with her mother Eleas, who didn't even know Aminata had been kidnapped. The family had kept it from Eleas, praying every day that Aminata would escape alive.
While the story of her kidnap and escape has featured in an SBS documentary and a stage play – both of which Eleas, who now lives in London, has seen – this book is the first time Aminata has revealed the details of her captivity to her family.
There's no question that Aminata suffers from deep-seated post-traumatic stress – how could she not? But while going back to those dark days was incredibly painful, she says it was ultimately cathartic.
"I think your loved ones need to know what happened. I know for sure that my family are extremely proud and I am lucky that I don't feel that taboo. There is a shame attached to rape, but there has been a great deal of preparation to where I am at today. I've been able to heal and I feel as if I sit in a place of freedom."
In addition to telling her family, Aminata feels a responsibility to speak out.
"I want to share my story on behalf of all the women in Sierra Leone who went through what I went through," she tells me. "Our voice has not been heard. I want to shine a light and raise awareness of rape that is used as a weapon of war and for it to come from a voice of somebody who has actually experienced it."

From Guinea, Aminata applied for asylum outside Africa. She didn't feel safe. Many other refugees pursued programs in the US or UK, but eventually Aminata applied to Australia's brand-new scheme.
"I didn't know where Australia was or anything about it except that there were hardly any people from Sierra Leone there, since the resettlement program was so new. And that appealed to me a lot," she says.
Aminata's release had featured on TV and radio, and she was known among Sierra Leoneans as the girl who escaped kidnap. But she couldn't speak about her experiences and didn't want to be recognised.
In Australia, she hoped to make a new life free from judgement.
"When I finally made it to Australia I discovered that Australians had no clue Sierra Leone even existed or any concept of the war, which was perfect for me," she says.
Aminata arrived with her sister Tigidankay and went to school to complete her education. But even though no one knew about her past, she found life incredibly difficult for a long while as she struggled to adapt to a new country with strange customs, and for the first time in her life faced racism.
"Before I came to Australia, I didn't even know I was black; in Sierra Leone we didn't recognise colour like that," Aminata explains.
"I didn't even picture myself as being black. I was just a human being. The fact that the colour of my skin seemed to mean so much was strange for me."
Animata in the AWC Maternity ward (Photo: Supplied)
Over the past two decades Aminata has battled institutionalised racism.
She faced it at school, in the streets, at work and even with her friends and business associates. It is still a daily lived experience, even though she has made "beautiful friends" and forged a strong support network.
"Every day tiny moments of racism hit me," she tells me. "One thing white people don't recognise is that as a woman of colour, you've got to be strong always and you've got to be gracious, because if you're not then you're seen as an angry black woman. You've also got to forgive all the time. You cannot even acknowledge your own hurt, because expressing it makes somebody else uncomfortable."
When I first met Aminata I was astonished by her ability to forgive, and it is a credo that has powered her life.
"The practice of forgiveness has set me free," she explains. "I remember after I was released from months of torture, I knew my path to liberation could only come through forgiveness. My first thought, as I walked away from the rebels towards the government soldiers in that surreal exchange, was that I had been given a second chance. A shaft of light was shining on me and I knew I must follow that light and use it wisely."
"The practice of forgiveness has set me free," Animata on how forgiveness has empowered her. (Photo: Jeremy Simons)
In Australia, Aminata found that light.
She worked as a model and in fashion retail, and soon was volunteering with UNHCR (the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees)
for Australia as an ambassador and talking on stage with former governor-general Dame Quentin Bryce.
Then in February 2007, Aminata met her husband Antoine Biger, a Frenchman on a working holiday in Australia. He was smitten and set about wooing her – which is a long and romantic tale! Together Antoine and Aminata have made their home in Sydney and have a daughter and son – Sarafina, eight, and Matisse, six.
It was while giving birth to Sarafina in 2012 that Aminata discovered what she sees as her "calling". Sarafina's birth was a shock, with both mother and baby in potentially fatal distress.
"I was fortunate to be surrounded by seven highly trained doctors, all dedicated to saving the lives of me and my child," recalls Aminata.
And as she marvelled at her treatment, she had a light-bulb moment.
"If I had found myself in a similar situation in Africa, my daughter and I would have died," she says. "In Sierra Leone, one in eight mothers dies during pregnancy or in childbirth, and 11,000 newborns die each year."
Animata and her family. (Photo: Jeremy Simons)
Aminata says it was as if a switch had clicked in her head, and the outcome was the Aminata Maternal Foundation, which had its inaugural meeting in 2016.
The Foundation is a registered Australian not-for-profit organisation that empowers women and girls in Sierra Leone, focusing on maternal health with an overall aim to combat infant and maternal mortality rates. "This is my true calling," says Aminata, who spends all her time fundraising for the charity.
Back in Freetown, Aminata takes me to the shell of a huge hotel her father built.
This was Pa Conteh's dream, but when war came he allowed families fleeing the rebels to live there. After her father died in 2003, the hotel was sold and today it's derelict.
Aminata wants to buy it back. She has a plan.
"When I look at that place where so many families took refuge during the war, I see instead a hospital, a place of healing with Western standards for all the women and babies of Sierra Leone. This is my dream."
The Animata Maternal Foundation (AMF) has announced their annual major fundraiser, the #AMFWalkingChallenge2021.
Now in its 3rd year, this event provides much-needed financial support to the women and babies of Sierra Leone. Currently, Sierra Leone is the most dangerous place in the world to give birth, where the lifetime risk of maternal death is 1 in 17.
Aminata Maternal Foundation's ethos is that "motherhood should mark a beginning, and not the end". It is for this reason the foundation encourages Australians to take part in their annual fundraiser. Last year, the AMF Walking Challenge raised $63,000AUD - enough to pay for an incredible 126 caesarean operations.
For three weeks, over the 1st - 22nd of November, maternal health champions will walk 125km, or roughly 6km per day.
You can sign up yourself or take up the challenge with a friend, your family or colleagues. Simply sign up here, ask as many people to sponsor you as possible and get walking!

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