Aminata Conteh-Biger’s childhood in Sierra Leone was picture-postcard perfect.
Growing up in a sprawling family home sandwiched between the sea and teak and mahogany forests, surrounded by doting servants and siblings, indulged by a strict but loving father, a safe harbour was all she had ever known.
Then on January 6, 1999, age 18, her whole world imploded.
Soldiers from the Revolutionary United Front swept into Freetown, the West African country’s 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.
The truth belongs to me, it’s my story, and it was very important for me for my children to hear my story in my voice.
In the space of a few horrific hours, Conteh-Biger witnessed mass amputations via machetes, families being shot or burnt alive, and her neighbourhood razed before being beaten, abducted and gang-raped at gunpoint. On the run for several months with her captors, she was brutalised daily as a sex slave and held as a human shield under heavy bombing before she was dramatically set free in a televised prisoner exchange watched by the whole country during a brief ceasefire.
Her book Rising Heart is a moving account of her captivity, release and rollercoaster of incarnations after coming to Australia as a refugee in 2000: Western Sydney schoolgirl, young model and fashion retail worker, then UNHCR volunteer and ambassador, speaker at Parliament House, actor in the global hit The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe, mother of two, and now author and activist for maternal health in Africa.
It took a long time to find her voice, Conteh-Biger says, and fear of not being understood was the key reason why. It takes deep courage to speak the truth and break the cultural taboos around rape, particularly as a weapon of war. As she writes in Rising Heart, shame is what isolates victims and prevents them speaking out.
“I used to tell my story at those UNHCR talks, but I never used the word rape,” she says.
“I used to tell my story at those UNHCR talks, but I never used the word rape,” she says. “I only ever said I was kidnapped. I held onto my full truth. Being in the West, sometimes you feel this [pressure] to polish your story. I sensed very early on in Australia that they want an inspiring refugee story, to hear your journey but not the true journey. If it’s a bad experience, they don’t want you to tell it.”
In turning down a comfortable, safe life in Africa after the war for a new start in Australia, however, she was saying no to silence and censorship, she says.
“I didn’t want to act like [the rape] didn’t exist. This [silencing] happens in every culture, not just in Africa. When you have been raped, you have a shame that you carry through your life - you’re not fully a person, a human being anymore, you carry that shame alone.”
“But for me, I had my own way. I thought, the truth belongs to me, it’s my story, and it was very important for me for my children to hear my story in my voice.”
Conteh-Biger’s late grandfather, who died from blood loss after injuries inflicted by rebels during the war, used to call her Bahteh Guineh, or “powerful woman” in the Susu language.
Sierra Leone also has the highest infant mortality health rate in the world. I felt I had finally found my calling, to help the women in my country.
This fierce inner strength and resilience, honed by her family’s brutal experiences and her own captivity, has driven her advocacy for victims of sexual violence, first as an UNHCR guest speaker in 2009, sharing the stage with then Governor-General Quentin Bryce, and then as one of four African refugee women cast in director Ros Horin’s critically acclaimed play The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe, which toured to London’s Southbank Centre where Conteh-Biger told her story to an emotional audience that included her mother and sisters.
With Horin, she says, she felt a strange ease; right from the start, she felt she could finally speak her full truth and be who she saw herself as - not a victim but “a woman who runs with the wolves.”
In 2012, a near-death experience while giving birth to daughter Sarafina was the catalyst for a new mission: 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.
“Sierra Leone also has the highest infant mortality health rate in the world. I felt I had finally found my calling, to help the women in my country.”
“So often, people talk about the problems of Africa but no one talk solutions. Africa is put in the too-hard basket."
In 2014, she set up the Aminata Maternal Foundation, which provides support for a range of free maternal health and education services from pregnancy to fistula surgery to jobs training and accommodation for teen mums in a partnership with the privately-run Aberdeen Women’s Centre in Sierra Leone.
She has a big vision – to eventually buy her father’s former hotel, once used to house refugees during the war, and turn it into a new hospital. It’s a part of her mission to highlight the possibility of change across Africa.
“So often, people talk about the problems of Africa but no one talk solutions. Africa is put in the too-hard basket.
“But we want to show this is how we can make change – not just by handing over money, and putting Western people to run our hospitals, but training our own people, especially women, because we all know when we educate and support women, it benefits the whole community.”
Sharon Verghis is a freelance writer.
Aminata Conteh-Biger’s memoir Rising Heart is out in September from Pan Macmillan.