Aminata Conteh-Biger is one of the most joyful people you will ever meet. Which is why she’s the ultimate Versify woman. Smart, joyful and bold. If you’ve ever wondered how practising gratitude can change your life, she’s case in point that it’s truly transformative. Yet, behind the warm smile, there’s a story full of heartbreak, but also inspiration, courage and love which she turned into a memoir entitled Rising Heart, and also a charity, the Aminata Maternal Foundation, which was established to improve maternal mortality outcomes for women and babies in Sierra Leone. We couldn’t think of a more inspiring woman to spotlight to celebrate Mother’s Day at Versify.
Aminata wears the Mara dress and Georgie blazer & pant in coco
L: Aminata wears our Georgie blazer & Georgie pant in artichoke. R: Kerri stripe dress
Aminata wears the Mara spot dress
IN CONVERSATION WITH AMINATA CONTEH-BIGER
Tell us a bit about 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 could achieve whatever we wanted to achieve. He put us in one of the best boarding schools. I never heard my dad say that he loves 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. And on this day, you were captured by rebel soldiers during Sierra Leone's civil war. Take me 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. We locked the gate. From inside, we could see the horror of what was happening.
Tell me 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 hands. I didn’t look back because I knew how protective my dad was of his girls. And I didn’t want to see his face. So, I just walked towards this person, who took me away. My dad was never the same person again, ever.
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 me 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’re 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. He didn’t sleep the whole time I spent with him for three days. I could hear my dad crying every night, 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 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, to save my baby’s life. The doctors knew that I was going to die if nothing happened. I was in Sierra Leone, she would have died, because I’m in Australia, that didn’t happen. I had people that fought for me to survive. I came home and I start researching about maternal health. I just start seeing the horror of videos in my country Sierra Leone where one in eight women dies through childbirth. And 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 change 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. So, every day for me, the things that I have practised most of all my life and with my story is the power of forgiveness. I choose to forgive because I wanted to be free from the people that have done what they’ve did to 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 time when I was kidnapped, every single minute. Coming here or being here, even if it was not Australia, I did not want to waste it. But I also know life happens. There are tough times and I’m not in denial of that. When they come, I embrace it. I practice gratitude every single day.
Photography: Sophie Thompson
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Aminata wears our Kerri stripe dress