Rising Heart by Aminata Conteh-Biger

Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Aminata.

Rising Heart is Aminata’s memoir (co-written with Juliet Rieden, published by Macmillan Australia).

Aminata grew up in Sierra Leone, West Africa, and experienced the horrors of war, kidnapping and rape during the country’s 11-year civil war. She was brought to Australia as a refugee because her safety was at risk. But coming as a refugee to a new country is not the end of the story, particularly when dealing with trauma, as well as trying to understand a new culture.

Aminata is a gracious, appreciative woman. She has established the Aminata Maternal Foundation to help the women of Sierra Leone, which has the highest infant mortality rate in the world and where 1 in 8 women die in childbirth.

Thank you for speaking to PaperbarkWords, Aminata.

Australians generally know little about Sierra Leone. What three things do you think Australians should know about Sierra Leone?

Firstly, the history and background in slavery, to give an understanding of why Sierra Leone is the poorest country in the world. People look at Sierra Leone and just think ‘oh, it’s such a poor country’ but no one wonders why or how it got that way.

Secondly, just how beautiful it is. It is a country surrounded by mountains, beautiful beaches and the tropical feel of it, is just incredible. People need to know these things.

The other thing I’ve come to realise is just how resilient the people are, even without having the humanitarian support the country needs.

How did your family, particularly your father’s ethos, influence you?

My father is a big influence in my life, because of the values he gave me, or what I call “the recipe of life”. These values dictate how I treat people, and make me treat people the way I want to be treated.

My father believed in equality, especially in education for girls. It was very important to him, that we (my sisters and I) could live our life the way we wanted to, and getting an education was a big part of that.

And, the one thing I carry with me all the time is kindness. I believe when you “have”, you have a responsibility. It doesn’t matter what it is you have, even if it’s only time, it is important to share it with others who need it.

So this idea of “serving”, or being a server, and it is the core now of what I do now with the Foundation.

My dad served people, when I was little I thought that was his job, being a server.  I would see people stand in the doorway or wait at our gate and he would give them food. So I saw that, and I wanted to be like that.

Aminata Conteh-Biger (photo Jeremy Simons)

You had horrific experiences during the war. How do you feel when people tell you that they understand what you have been through?

When people say that, I don’t think it comes from a place of empathy. Empathy and sympathy are very different. I don’t like measuring, or comparing, my story with anyone else’s. You know, if someone is crying about a boy or whatever it may be, I feel for them as it’s painful for them, it is their pain.

When people say they understand, I feel just sometimes they should probably say nothing. In any situation, just a hug and a ‘thank you for sharing your story’ can be better.

What was difficult about first living in Australia?

Living without my father was the hardest thing for me.

Living in a country where I didn’t understand the people, and the people didn’t understand me was difficult at first. I felt there was not a willingness to understand me, which is a struggle all immigrants and refugees face, and that made it very hard to navigate this new environment.

How do you find a balance between gratitude at living in Australia and the difficulties you still face?

I find gratitude in knowing my strength, and knowing what I am now capable of doing. In any difficult situation, I almost have to view it as a challenge and embrace the opportunity to learn from that experience, whether it’s good or bad. We are all learning every single day, so that’s how I face it – I go in with the openness of learning.

How could Australian people have better helped you when you first arrived here and how could we continue to help you and other refugees?

Really, just by listening.  Most of the time when people are “listening” to you, they are already focused on what their response to you will be.

But to just listen and hear what the person is saying – you don’t need to offer to help or have some kind of answer, but just hear what they have to say. Often when people imagine a refugee, all they can see is what they look like, or where they’re from. But if you take the time to listen to them as well, you see the whole person – not just how different they are to you. 

If you have a friend who is going through a divorce, or an illness like cancer, you would take the time to listen to them, but you wouldn’t offer to fix their cancer for them, so I see it kind of the same. 

How has your Christian faith helped you?

My faith is the core of who I am, it is my guideline to life. It is the centre point of where I sit; between gratitude and empathy.

I define my faith as a relationship, it is a personal relationship between God and myself. It reminds me to treat others as I want to be treated and this is how I carry my faith through into action. My faith is what I run to when I need wisdom or guidance and it is the manual for how I live.

What do you hope for the Aminata Maternal Foundation?

My hope for the Foundation is that every single person in this world to understand the cause, and the reasons for what we do, but also the solutions. I want people to have a true, deep understanding that anyone can contribute.

For example, during isolation, the Foundation has been hosting weekly Yoga classes via Zoom and the money raised will go a long way to help. So, remember, just one yoga class or whatever it might be, is valuable and much appreciated. I want the Aminata Maternal Foundation to make a HUGE difference to the lives of women and babies.

What is the significance of your book’s title, Rising Heart?

I wanted to make sure that the book’s title resonated with everyone – men, women, any age or background. Everything that lives and grows – plants, people, animals, they rise. When we are down, we recover and rise up again.

And the heart is, of course, in all of us. As one human family, the heart is what we all have.

I chose the title and not long after, re-read one of my favourites Maya Angelou and her wonderful poem Still I Rise and I knew I had made the right choice.

All the very best with Rising Heart and your work with the AMF, Aminata. It has been a privilege to read your story.

Rising Heart is published in October 2020. Please visit www.risingheart.com.au to pre order.

For more information on the Aminata Maternal Foundation, see

http://www.aminatamaternalfoundation.org

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