I have sat here for ages wondering where to begin Aminata’s story, the house manager of AMF’s Accommodation and Training Hostel. I want to do her story justice. Given the odds she has overcome, but particularly given that ‘something’ about her, doing her justice will be hard, impossible maybe. She’s at peace. The peace of someone who has made it over the finish line after years of training for a marathon. Now with the steely determination of a winner, she is going to train others to run their race. Part fairy godmother, part RBG/ Malala/Oprah/ Michelle Obama... insert your hero.
So I’ll begin with some photos:
Aminata grew up in one of Freetown’s many slums - slums described by the World Bank as a blight on humanity and widely regarded as the worst places in the world to live. At 31, Aminata has reached life expectancy for Freetown’s slum residents. But that will not be her fate.
She was a top student. She had to fight hard to be allowed to go to school but with good grades, her father allowed it. Technically 2019 marks the first year of compulsory primary school here - one of the last countries in the world where education has not been compulsory. The rush to enrol overwhelmed schools bursting them beyond capacity. They had to close to new enrolments and it’s estimated 20% of students missed out. But for Aminata and her family, sending her to school was optional.
Polygamy is common in Sierra Leone and Aminata’s father had many wives. When Amii was 15, her mother died and she had to take over the mothering role. School was out of the question. Now that she was a ‘mother’ she needed to be married. Feeding her would become someone else’s responsibility. A ‘suitable’ 40 something husband was found.
By 16 she was married, middle-aged by
local standards, pregnant, malnourished and living in grinding poverty in the most disadvantaged place on earth, little education and no prospect of escape... except for her spark.
Contrast the Aminata in the photo above - the Aminata we met. At 31 she’s fluent in Mandarin, has 2 university degrees, including a Masters in Hospitality and Tourism from a Beijing University, she’s financially independent and unlike an estimated 65% of graduates here she has a well paying full-time job which she loves. How?
It’s a long story, but the bit I love, the bit most illustrative of her determination, is the story of her scholarship to Beijing, the only international scholarship on offer that year.
To gloss over 7 years of the story- she had her baby, fought tooth and nail against her husband’s wishes to return to school (eventually the recalcitrant would be student was sent back to her family), left school top of her class and earned her place in a local university, where she studied home economics, again top student.
Now in her mid-twenties, Aminata saw a poster advertising one scholarship to study a masters degree in Beijing. She said she knew she had every qualification and would make a fine candidate. Got through to the final interviews, and then the last 2 candidates and was confident she had it in the bag. She knew the other candidate and was surprised he was even there.
When Aminata learnt she had not been selected, she marched straight to the Ministry of Education, armed with her university results and demanded to see the Minister. ‘Do you have an appointment?’ ‘No, and I don’t need one, I have my results!’. ‘You need an appointment.’ ‘No I’ll wait till he’ll see me.’ And so Aminata took up her position outside the Minister of Education’s office. She sat for days...
Eventually, someone she knew- her old uni lecturer turned up to see the Minister, and he had an appointment. He had always been impressed by Amii so put in a good word for her and the Minister agreed to see her. Turns out he thought she had been the winning student (someone knew someone with the other candidate and he had been slipped in over her), so off to Beijing she went for 3 years.
While I was so surprised by the unlikeliness of her story, why should I be? Do I really think that any young women wouldn’t want to fight, to do anything possible to improve her situation? And now she wants to teach other young women from the poorest families in Sierra Leone new skills, to have confidence, to work hard, be independent and to contribute back to society. Together with Aberdeen Women’s Centre and The Aminata Maternal Foundation, Aminata is running the pilot programme in our Training and Accommodation Hostel, and from what we have seen she is achieving everything she has set out to do - no surprises there though.
I wanted to tell Aminata’s story to illustrate the talent that we see everywhere here, so that our team and supporters can have every confidence that the work we are all doing, as volunteers, as donors, as knitters or service providers are achieving something very real in Sierra Leone. There’s such a long way to go, but we have taken the first steps. AMF is making a difference to lives in this beautiful country.